The Age of Automated Food

I work hard to maintain a high level of engagement with my food.  Whenever possible, I want connection to the process of growing and preparing meals with my family.  I want our children to grow up knowing where their food was raised, how it was processed, and how it was transformed into a meal before them.  I want them to see a box of crackers as somewhat strange.  They should think the chicken we raised and processed on our own is normal.  

Someone I know is involved in streamlining manufacturing processes. He focuses on removing unnecessary processes and improving reliability of the necessary processes, always with the goal of high quality, predictable results at reduced cost.  This is fantastic stuff for things like the production of lightbulbs and cars, where reduced manufacturing costs can bring jobs back to the United States and potentially result in less pollution caused by manufacturing, plus other potential benefits.

During a recent conversation, this manufacturing expert said something that shocked me.  I commented on his favorite store-bought, dry, cellophane packaged chocolate chip cookie, saying that it’s probably nothing close to a real cookie and is probably made completely by machines.

And he said he loves them, and in fact he’d always prefer to eat machine made food over food made by a human.

I was stunned at this statement.  Even though I knew he was just throwing up a challenge to have a little fun, I tried to trip him up immediately.  “What about a salad?” I asked.  Surely a computer can squirt cookie dough onto a conveyor belt, but no machine can create a great salad from fresh ingredients, right?  I thought of a wonderful salad Amy made from 100% homegrown vegetables recently:

Salad grown at Ferrin Brook Farm

He explained that a machine could be programmed to identify quality ingredients and make a great salad following a recipe precisely.  Pretty straightforward, actually. Hmph.

I have been thinking about this now for weeks.  A salad made by an automated process.  It sounds so wrong, so… evil.  But what is the difference between a chef picking out a nice looking spinach leaf and a computer being programmed to identify all the key components that make a spinach leaf excellent?  Surely a computer could identify good and bad coloration, poor texture, optimal sizing, etc. And a computer can do it consistently, which is more than I can say of a potentially tired, stressed chef.

After much contemplation, I’ve decided that he’s not completely wrong.  There’s no reason a computerized machine or assembly line can’t recreate an amazing salad.  Or bake and frost the perfect wedding cake.  Or sear a grass-fed, organic steak to an optimal medium rare, and hey, cut it on a bias and arrange it beautifully on a pretty little plate. It just takes some engineering and fine tuning of machines.

By defining processes as perfectly as you can, you virtually eliminate mistakes.  And if you can set a computer up to do these processes over and over, you eliminate the need for human intervention. When you think about it, manufactured food seems to solve a lot of problems at once.  So much time can be saved for farmers and cooks.  Once the processes and machinery are fine tuned to perfection, costs will go way down.  And as far as the consumer is concerned, the results are reliably good.  What could possibly be wrong with this?

The problem with this manufacturing expert’s position is that he’s missing the greater point.  The goal is not to have consistent, quality food, or even reduced costs in food.  The goal is to be content.  To be fully happy.

Let’s imagine that factory cookie and the amount you can really engage with it.  I don’t doubt that the cookie will taste good.  It has been optimized and taste-tested, I’m sure, to bring an acceptable product to the market that will sell, again and again, to the customer looking for satisfaction.  But if you imagine eating the cookie, the level of engagement is limited to the check-out counter, the crinkly packaging, the dry crunch between your teeth. The aroma that rises and fades.  It lingers as an aftertaste and is gone.  It is ultimately brief, a matter of minutes, and thus you have more free time to focus on other goals, other ways to work toward happiness or practice other brief bursts of joy.  And what were you doing while the cookie was being made?  Perhaps you were earning money at a job you may or may not enjoy so you can buy minor satisfactions like that cookie.

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Now let’s engage with the creation and enjoyment of a cookie made with local ingredients. Let’s go as deep as we reasonably can.

Imagine visiting the organic wheat and oat fields of a local farmer.  You see the tall plants sway in the wind, you see the farmers working hard.  You ask to buy a bag of the whole wheat flour they milled right in their farmhouse kitchen and some of their rolled outs.  They aren’t like the wheat and oats you get at the grocery store.  They are heartier and flavorful, milled in a way that isn’t optimized for separating out the germ and chaff as effectively as a factory.  You get more fiber this way and taste something of the earth you truly stand upon.  There are no grains anywhere else quite like these grains.  They’ve has absorbed local nutrients of local soil.

wheat

You bring the wheat and oats home and ask your daughter if she wants to bake some cookies with you.  Of course she does.  She helps you collect the eggs from your hens.

Together you measure out the ingredients. You weigh the butter you bought from the family with a small dairy farm in the next town over.  You laughed with them at the farmers’ market about how their cows were enjoying the summer.

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You want to experiment by sweetening the cookie with maple sugar, which you made while the snow melted in March, boiling the sap from your trees for hours on end.  You scoop the maple sugar with a measuring cup and let your daughter pour into the bowl.  She loves doing that.  She also loves using the wooden spoon to mix the ingredients.  The mixing won’t be even, but it’s OK, nothing can go too wrong when you’re baking cookies.

Together you handle the dough, rolling it between your hands to make balls.  It is slightly sticky yet slippery, a tactile treat for the fingers.  Every ball of dough is different, and some of them are pressed flat by your daughter, who could not resist the chance to feel the dough squeezing out between her fingers.

Into the hot oven they go, and slowly the house fills with warmth and an aroma of sweetened butter and caramelization.

Take them out of the oven and transfer them to a cooling rack.  The aroma will never be stronger than it is right now. But you must wait, the smells encircling your skull making the wait more pleasant.

whole grain chocolate chip cookies by Ashera Fine Baking

After 5 minutes they are cooled down to gentle warmth and you pick the biggest cookie and break it in two.  You offer it to your eager daughter standing at your side and she takes a bite.  Then so do you.  It is complex, with crisp, crunchy textures on the outside and soft, chewy bite on the inside.  The flavor is sweet and earthy, with the lifeblood of the maple tree and the pastured cow’s butter carried atop the wholesome strength of the grains.  Your eggs hold it all together and you are happy.  You’ve been happy the entire time, actually, from when you set foot on the dirt driveway of the farm.  You’ve been fully engaged.

Which of these cookies would you rather be aligned with?  Which brings the most satisfaction and joy?

Even if we are more practical and can’t see the wheat fields, we can all take steps towards more engagement with our food, one step at a time, and our levels of satisfaction will undoubtedly increase.

The Strength in Engaging

Studies have shown again and again that it is not the hours worked, the difficulty of tasks, or even how much an employee gets paid that affects productivity and general contentment at a job.   It is how engaged the employee is with the work.  Only 20% of people with jobs say they enjoy their work.  How does that happen?

A lot of it has to do with engagement.  Even if the employee originally didn’t care at all about the company’s goals or the tasks for their position, a deep connection can develop when the company culture facilitates employee engagement.  This is why companies promote socialization, open door policies, flexible scheduling, and other freedoms in the modern workplace.  It facilitates engagement within the environment and coworkers, and with these the work begins to take on meaning.  And when people are engaged at work, they begin to transition from the 80% who don’t like their jobs into the 20% that do.

Another example of when engagement does wonders: education.  How much easier is it to learn about the details of something you’re actually interested in?  The reason I am able to learn so much about the blues and raising chickens is because I am actively engaged in the listening and eating.

Once you develop interest, engagement will follow. And once you feel connected, you can learn so much. And it feels great.

I never found it interesting to help my father work on the family car because I couldn’t engage with it–I couldn’t even drive.  But now I hear a funny sound in my car and I am eager to start researching in the manual and watching how-to videos on YouTube.  Even though I don’t like it when my car has a problem, I engage with the process of resolving it, and I actually enjoy it.


There can be many arguments in favor of and opposed to automated production processes.  But without parsing the details and nitpicking over the pros and cons, we need to consider the effects of automation on our engagement with the important things in life.  Maybe I don’t need to be fully engaged with the process of manufacturing the keyboard I’m typing on or the backpack I hike with.  But my food?  That which allows me to grow and learn and live?  I want to be engaged with my food, to know it from the soil to my teeth.  I need to be engaged with my food.  It is not a goal, it is a way of life.

And look around. It might seem like automation has a firm grasp on products in the supermarket. But it’s just a supermarket, afterall.  Food doesn’t come from brick and mortar establishments, not truly.  The farmer’s markets are so busy, bustling with happy faces.  People order pastured chickens straight from the farmers.  Maybe you even have a vegetable garden or a few potted herbs.

We’re swinging back, and the age of mechanized food is beginning to crumble.

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