A Food Systems Innovation?
The sandwich featured in this image came with two more triangles, but they were delicious and I ate them before it occurred to me to take a picture.
This simple bologna sandwich from the newly opened wheat/flour/bread and coffee shop, Dry Storage, is made with Mortadella (read: Bologna), Dijonaise (read mayo and mustard), and Cornichon (read: pickles) pressed between slices of Pullman loaf (read: Wonderbread). They serve it with a few dilly beans. That’s lunch for me today, and I’m psyched.
But why, in this case, is this typically unhealthy, brown bag clichè also a food systems innovation? Dry Storage is tapping into something profound: They’re showing us that healthy, delicious, and sustainable food doesn’t have to be expensive, exotic, or pretentious.
Let’s break this bologna down:
Newsflash! Bread comes from wheat, wheat grows in soil, and soil is ALIVE. Did you know that there are more microbes in a healthy teaspoon of soil than there are people on Earth? Additionally, there’s enough biodiversity in that spoon to make the cantina from Star Wars look as homogenous as Congress in the 1960s (read: club for old white guys). That makes soil an incredibly complex ecosystem. Most farmers throughout history realized that nature’s ways were complex, mysterious, and due respect. Old-world farmers were only capable of making small experimental changes over long periods of time. This allowed them to see the subtleties in what gave them higher yield, better flavor, or superior nutrition without upsetting the balance (read: causing famine and death.)
The industrial innovations that enabled the “Green Revolution” of the 1950’s and 60’s quite suddenly awarded us an upper hand so powerful that it was blinding. Through artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and high-yield monocrop development, we were able to produce more food than the world could consume (but wait, people continue to starve… oh right, geopolitics.)
While certain efficiencies were achieved, the majority of wheat grown today no longer functions as part of a complex and balanced ecosystem. In the US, we grow 60 million acres of nearly identical wheat plants each year. This wheat is grown in soil long since stripped of its natural microbial diversity and poisoned by pesticides. Each year, crops require more fertilizer and more pesticides to make up for the depletion (read hermaphroditic frogs, dead fish, oh, and lots and lots of cancer.) Over the last few generations, we’ve gone to great lengths to re-engineer wheat against nature’s pesky re-balancing attempts at the expense of nutrition, flavor, and ecological sustainability.
So what’s the other option? Does better wheat (read: better food in general) mean exotic and elaborate specialty options for the highly privileged? It better not. Does it mean a regression to hunter/gatherer life? I mean, maybe kinda, but no. To innovate today means to keep the benefits of prior leaps while solving for their inventors’ devastating shortsightedness (read: subtle dig.)
This brings us back to my sandwich in hand:
The delicious, familiar, comforting whitebread I’m smacking right now contains whole wheat (not just the wimpy endosperm, but nutritious parts included!) cultivated on small, nearby farms – farms practicing techniques that actually build soil health over time. The wheat is cold-milled at the sandwich shop in small batches to protect the superior nutrition and flavor. So, while it’s not a kale salad, this bread is providing me with protein and valuable micronutrients not found in so-called “enriched” breads. Simultaneously, it’s also restoring soil health and supporting a new economy of small farms.
Operations like Dry Storage and their farming partners are innovating in other ways, too. They are establishing national networks to share resources and help them create market-viable products. For example, The Bread Lab at Washington State University is a collection of farmers, millers, and bakers (read: stick-it-to-the-Monsanto-man rebels) working side-by-side to invent consumer-pleasing recipes with alternative and superior wheats. Anson Mills, one of the largest collection of heirloom seeds in the world, grants both seeds and funds to bold farmers willing to take a risk on innovation. Dry Storage is part of a similar group called, The Noble Grain Alliance.
Enough about bread though, let’s turn our heads briefly to the meat of the issue.
Is there room to improve on the frightful and inhumane meat industry? The industry that produces unhealthy products and decimates 42 million acres of forest each year? Have we reached the pinnacle of human design potential with factory farms that produce concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide more responsible for global warming than all the cars in the world combined? (read more about that here.)
Here’s another take: It was a pasture-frolicking, grass/nuts/fruits/veggies/bug-devouring pig that ended up on this sandwich. Its more enjoyable, active lifestyle and diverse diet made for more flavorful meat. Additionally, this pig spent its life contributing to soil health in food-producing pastures (read: pooping), which, in its fertile capacity, is an efficiency hard achieved any other way. (I am slowly coming to terms with the proximity of the words, “pooping,” and “my sandwich” in this paragraph). The point is, we all should.
Ok, but can we all (read: 7.5 billion people) eat only such privileged animals? Well, maybe. Just not at the rate we’d currently like to. That’s where my sandwich, or perhaps my choice of sandwich, still needs improvement with regards to a full food systems revolution. Any world-saving innovation will likely coincide with a culinary and cultural shift.
In his book, “The Third Plate,” chef and farm-to-table visionary, Dan Barber, talks about a flipped-on-its-head food future in which vegetables, grains, or foraged plants are the stars of your meal, and small bits of delicious meat make it to the plate only as a side or garnish. Peasant cultures around the globe (read: the cultures that brought us the world’s most delicious cuisines) lived this way for millenia, and still do. When you raise your own chickens, you understand how asinine and unsustainable it would be to eat one at every meal, no matter how organic, non-GMO, or happy the animal.
So, while this bologna sandwich (read: only crumbs now) may not be the end-all-be-all answer to all our global problems, it seems like a thoughtful step in the right direction. While maintaining its simple, comfort-food appeal, it’s designed to make ecological, economic, and culinary waves (read: if only tiny ripples) in a system desperately in need of innovation.
At The Hopper, we are working hard to develop a menu of “Thoughtful Food,” worthy of the innovation we aim to inspire. How can we bring you dishes that are more delicious, better for our bodies, and better for our planet all at the same time? Can we blow minds with innovative flavors, cutting edge techniques, and creative presentations, and still offer a bologna sandwich on whitebread?