It wasn’t long after the concept of sustainability by Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714) was first introduced that I decided owning a restaurant would be fun.
Originally, the concept referred to forestry as it related to the production of board feet of standard cuts of lumber needed to meet the demands of developers creating something that would become known as the “suburbs” outside Berlin. In 1972, Ernst Basler gave a series of lectures at M.I.T. that broadened the scope of sustainability to a point that it became necessary to speak German. He published the lectures into a book. Strategy of Progress: Environmental Pollution, Habitat Scarcity and Future Research was not a New York Times bestseller, losing, as it were, to Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but it paved the way for others to examine Earth Day as something more that just an excuse to sit outside and get high.
Sustainability, like all things best not questioned, soon outgrew the mere planting of trees, and went on to have its very own Venn diagram. Environment, economy, and society each fit neatly into overlapping circles with sustainability dead set in the middle.
That, dear readers, is how best to explain both sustainability and Venn diagrams, the former being characterized as a normative concept that is mostly fuzzy. Al Gore is deeply involved and has promised to explain to me what I just wrote.
Those of us whose parents lived through the Great Depression and World War II, grew up not understanding sustainability but knowing that we could not get a tomato in December if we lived north of the Mason-Dixon line. Chicago is where I grew up and from what serves as my memory, I don’t recall getting to eat anything that hadn’t been grown within a few bus stops from my family’s front door.
There were exceptions, of course. I remember always having bananas and oranges—two foods I didn’t much care for as a child. Root vegetables were also always available, which explains why I was raised on a diet of sauerkraut (cabbage is not a root vegetable but can withstand early frosts), potatoes, onions and garlic. I’ve often wondered where we got our eggs. Actually, I’ve never wondered about that until about three minutes ago.
I had grand plans for featuring sustainable products at the restaurant we bought in 2003. Those plans were thwarted by the restaurant being located just a tad over the 45th parallel. Summertime was when we suffered an embarrassment of produce riches. I made friends with a local truck farmer and most summer mornings I could be found wandering among rows of fresh vegetables that would be served that evening.
I learned early on that I wanted to streamline my purchasing into as few outlets as possible. I also learned that almost every product I bought came from a fair distance away from my front door.
Although I had no real complaints about the two food services I employed, I just didn’t like the concept.
The first food show I attended was at the rather large convention center in Billings. I registered at the door and was handed a tote bag and a map of the center. (It appeared to me that to see everything the show had to offer I was in for a four-mile trek.) There wasn’t a food brand I’d ever heard of that wasn’t represented—each strategically placed next to a small, independent supplier.
At the outset, I was pleased to learn that I was eligible to win a year’s supply of Armageddon Fry Oil.
“What is it?” I asked, clutching a coupon with my lucky number.
“It’s what you use in your deep fryer.”
“I don’t have a deep fryer,” I explained.
With that, she took the coupon from my grip with the grace of a Bald Eagle snaring a trout from a river.
In all fairness, both of the major food services I used treated me well. When I told Geri that I wanted to add veal to my menu, she flipped out. This came from some report she had seen that showed the sometimes cruel methods used to raise the veal. I had my sales rep go on a search for veal that would meet my standards. It took a while, but I finally found a supplier in Pennsylvania whose calves were allowed to roam freely until they showed an interest in pasture lands. That’s when they became groceries.
Similarly, my pork products came from a co-op of farmers in Iowa. Their standards of production were high and the pork, marbled with enough fat to disallow it being called “the other white meat,” was consistently delicious.
A couple of years into this venture, Geri accompanied me to one of the food shows. Geri has never met a processed food she didn’t love, and she was in hog heaven wandering the aisles and tasting foods whose salt content was on par with the Salton Sea.
Leaving the arena with tote bags full of pens, notepads, and refrigerator magnets, she stopped and looked back for a panoramic view.
“If you have a microwave oven, a deep fryer, and three sinks,” she noted, “you could open a restaurant.”
Her observation was spot on.
“It’s just no restaurant I’d care to patronize.”
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
This was one of the restaurants most popular appetizers. I like to make it with golden beets, but red beets are just as good. Although there’s not much to do to create this dish, it does take a fair amount of time. Enjoy.
6 large beets, trimmed
3 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
3 Tbs. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup e-v olive oil
Roast beets in foil for 1-1/4 — 1-1/2 hours at 400° Let cool.
Over low heat, cook onions in butter, covered, for about 20 minutes.
Add salt, sugar, vinegar; cook, uncovered, for another 20 minutes.
Increase heat. Add wine and reduce. Puree.
Slice beets. Place puree on plates, beets on top. Drizzle with oil
and serve with shaved cheese.