Saturday, June 30, 2012

Clover Food Lab: A Fast-Food Experiment

While I was in college, I subsisted mostly on peanut butter toast. Sometimes I ate bacon, too, when I made it downstairs to the dining hall in time for breakfast. But that’s because Clover Food Lab didn’t open until the year I graduated, 2008.

It was founded by MIT graduate Ayr Muir, who wondered whether “fast food” always had to be greasy and mass-produced. He decided that no, it did not, and now there are Clover Food Lab food trucks and permanent locations all over Boston and Cambridge.

I noticed the Harvard Square location just before heading into nearby Finale for a four-course family dessert excursion, so I called my friend Adam and asked him to meet me at Clover Food Lab for dinner afterward. Like I always say whenever someone gives me a dessert: eat dessert first.

Adam loves Clover Food Lab, so he biked over in a severe thunderstorm to meet up with me. My sister and her friend Claudia joined us, too. We ended up stranded inside the restaurant while the storm passed, but that was fine with all of us, since it was a pretty fun place to be stranded.
At Clover Food Lab, they serve sandwiches, soups, and salads made from all local, mostly organic ingredients; fair-trade, locally roasted coffee; and they just got Allagash Belgian-style beer from Portland, Maine (distance: 111 miles) on tap at their Harvard Square location - for just $3!

The company slogan, “Everything Will Be Different Tomorrow,” is one of those awesome sayings that manage to be physically obvious and philosophically inspiring at the same time.

Their sandwich-style, screen menu supports that slogan: it can update itself at any minute, and then maybe that soy BLT you wanted won’t be available anymore (!).

Next to each menu item on the screen is listed the expected amount of time it will take to prepare it, from the moment the order is entered into the cashier’s iPhone until the moment it is delivered to your hot little hands.

That’s right – the moment it is entered into the cashier’s iPhone. Because the cashier wasn’t really a cashier, strictly speaking. Her name was Laurel, and after she entered our orders into her iPhone and swiped our credit cards (also with her iPhone), the orders were sent to the iPhones of the cooking staff right behind her. She didn’t give us a receipt – they’re basically paperless, except for rolls of recycled paper available for particularly artsy customers to draw on (or perhaps use as a place mat).
I ordered the chickpea and vegetable sandwich, which Laurel recommended as their most popular menu item. It was a huge sandwich for the price, tasted fresh, and looked quite colorful:

My sister just ordered a side of spicy green beans, since she was full of dessert and has a less ambitious stomach than I do:
Spicy asparagus
Claudia ordered their seasonal sandwich of roasted parsnips and spinach:

It took them about eight minutes to call her name – apparently, this was about three minutes too long (according to the preparation time listed on the sandwich-board menu screen), so they gave us free fries!

The French fries are sprinkled with the rosemary growing all around the restaurant. That’s about as local as you can get.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Two Towns Diverged in a Wood: The Great Farmers Market Schism of 2012

This morning I arrived in Massachusetts on the red-eye flight from Los Angeles, starving and exhausted. As I rode to my parents’ home in the town of Westwood, my mood improved drastically when I saw signs advertising the inaugural Westwood Farmers Market, which was to take place at the senior center this afternoon and every Tuesday afternoon henceforth.

The Westwood Farmers Market
I was thrilled to have timed my visit so perfectly. But little did I know, the circumstances surrounding this seemingly innocuous new farmers market were rife with tension.

The drama began over a hundred years ago when, in the late 19th century, two towns diverged in a wood. The people who lived in the woods in the northern part of a town called Dedham thought to themselves, “Hey, we live in the north wood. Let’s start our own town and call it Norwood.” Done.

Twenty-five years later, the people who lived in the woods in the western part of Dedham copied the new Norwoodians and thought to themselves, “Hey, we live in the west wood. Let’s start our own town and call it Westwood.”

Despite the appalling lack of creativity these people demonstrated in the town-naming process, they were successful: today, Dedham, Norwood, and Westwood coexist peacefully.

Until now. Norwood and Westwood have recently become entangled in what I have ridiculously decided to deem The Great Farmers Market Schism of 2012. Way back when the towns diverged in a wood, there were farmers markets all over the place. There wasn’t any other kind of market.

But now, farmers markets are kind of a big fancy deal, and since there are only a few months of the year during which it makes sense to even have a farmers market in Massachusetts, there is stiff competition for farm stands.

This year, Norwood decided to relocate its farmers market from the humble parking lot of a paint shop to the much more centrally located town square and gazebo. But that meant that all the farms that had been setting up shop there for years wouldn’t be able to park their vehicles close enough to transport their goods easily.

According to the disgruntled Norwoodians at the Norwood farmers market today, Westwood jumped at the chance to steal away the farm stands from Norwood. But if you ask a Westwoodian frequenting the new farmers market, they’ll say the farmers responded to Norwood’s random and inconvenient relocation by coming over to the better side of the woods.

However you look at it, all the farmers who used to sell in Norwood now sell at Westwood’s new market, and Norwood had to scramble to find new farmers to fill the booths. Both markets are held on Tuesday afternoons, so they’re in direct competition for customers.

Exhausted as I was, I committed my afternoon to seeing for myself which farmers market was the better of the two. The Norwood market is certainly bigger, with eleven booths (including Foxboro Cheese Company, which almost won me over with samples of goat cheese).
The Norwood Farmers Market
But the Westwood market has gumption. I chatted with Jim Cellucci, who owns and operates Great Harvest Bread Co. in Newtonville, MA (distance from my parents’ house: 14.7 miles) with his wife, Cheryl. He told me how they grind their own flour each morning on site at their very own stone mill. My mom purchased a loaf of their honey wheat bread, and we enjoyed it with olallieberry jam at teatime.
Jim Cellucci at the Great Harvest Bread Co. stand
We also bought a dozen eggs from Copicut Farms in North Dartmouth, MA (distance from my parents’ house: 58.7 miles). Elizabeth Frary, who owns Copicut Farms with her husband, Vincent, was operating the stand with her little boy, Emmet. They raise pasture-fed chickens and turkeys, selling poultry and eggs at farmers markets and operating a farm store during limited afternoon hours. Emmet won me over by pointing to the picture of a chicken on their business card and telling me, “That’s my chicken!” Apparently, its name is Scarlett.

In conclusion, in case it’s not clear by now, dramatic farmers market battles are quite silly. The more opportunities for local farmers to sell their goods, the better, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll frequent both!

Two towns diverged in a wood, and I –
Cared too much, I think.
And that has made no difference whatsoever.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Don't Cry Over Raw Milk

One of my parents’ favorite stories to tell at family dinners involves raw milk. We were living in Germany when my siblings and I were quite young. On a road trip through a rural area of the country, we stopped for a meal at a tiny farm. My mom asked the proprietor if she could have some milk for my little brother, Brian, who was a baby at the time.

The proprietor disappeared for about a half hour, during which time my parents couldn’t help noticing a distinct moooooing coming from outside. Finally, the man returned with a bucket of warm milk, which my parents could only assume had been extracted within the past half hour from a cow’s udder.

And that’s how my baby brother got mad cow disease.

Just kidding! My parents weren’t on crack. But that story is always greeted by laughter, groans, and expressions of disgust. Why are we grossed out by milk that comes directly from a farm cow, without pasteurization or additives, but not by milk that has been pumped by huge machines from incredibly cramped, force-fed animals on factory farms?

It might be because “raw” milk can be contaminated with all kinds of things. But nowadays, dairies that produce raw milk in the United States are held to stringent testing standards. And because of the enzymes raw milk contains, it can be used as a tool to strengthen human immune systems.

So this week, I decided to try raw milk for myself. At the Saturday farmers market, I struck up a conversation with Nathan Glazebrook at the Organic Pastures farm stand. He told me that Organic Pastures, located near Fresno (distance from me: 232 miles), has been owned and operated by the McAfee family since 2000. They produce raw milk, butter, cream, cheese, as well as organic beef, raw almonds, and eggs.

Their cows graze in green pastures every day of the year and are never given antibiotics, hormones, or GMOs. They’re only fed things they would naturally choose to eat (so never soy or cotton seed). As a result of their lifestyle, the cows can live more than four times longer than their counterparts on factory farms.

My perception of these people as badass was slightly shaken by the McAfee family photo on the homepage of their website, which seems to be a recreation of something from Mitt Romney’s campaign brochure. But so what if they coordinate wholesome outfits and pose in a field surrounded by grazing cows and human-sized bottles of whole milk? I’d do the same thing if I had human-sized bottles of whole milk lying around.

Especially if it was from Organic Pastures. This stuff is delicious. I bought a quart of whole milk after trying a sample of it at the farm stand. It’s hard to describe how it tastes different from pasteurized milk from factory farms, but somehow it tastes fresher and smoother.

I was a bit nervous to try it because my stomach is pretty much always in a bad mood, and I thought that introducing raw milk might provoke a rebellion. But my stomach did not rebel – in fact, I didn’t experience any negative effects at all.

My budget can’t really support a raw milk habit, but I’ll definitely return to the Organic Pastures farm stand on special occasions. For instance, when my little brother Brian comes to visit, I’ll take him there to try to recreate that traumatizing raw milk childhood memory. Brian: you’re welcome.