States of Grace

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DOP1 (2010-11) VINTAGE POST:

Headcheese Vision

June 22, 2011. I just finished sending an email to Ari W. pitching, in the least-pitchy way I could, my headcheese terrine for sale through the z-deli. Ji Hye, our fellow carter and co-owner of Sans Street, who likes my headcheese and prefers it cold, mentioned the other day that the deli would likely sell something like it for $24/pound which helped me with pricing for the cart. Then I guess the concept must have stuck with me somehow – selling it through the z-deli – because as I was chopping away on my latest headcheese this morning, I envisioned selling it through zcob. It hadn’t occurred to me. But it makes sense – a heritage product, made with care by somebody they know. Me. Why not?

I told Ari that he knows I can take “no” for an answer, just like when I asked him, inappropriately, to read and comment on my book (I’m a dumb-ass but know better now never to ask a writer to waste his own writing time looking at my lousy shit). But the headcheese: Ji Hye says the z-deli is regularly doing “tastings” of new stuff they might be interested in selling (there must be a mighty long line of folks trying to get their stuff sold by zcob) and that she’d ask who it was at the deli who manages that process. Ji Hye is busy as hell and then I thought why the fuck not just ask Ari how to go about it? It’s not in my vog to sell h-cheese through the z-deli, but I think I’ll put it in there. If not z-deli, then some other cool retail outlet yet-to-be-determined. Anyway, it feels right to think about doing this. Like I told Ari, the process of making headcheese keeps me mindful of what hh is all about. I love the pigs and every time I see the heads, it makes me feel good. Not because they’ve died of course, but because I see them as they were, in the fields, and I feel responsible for taking care of them and respecting what they’ve given us. I feel like a caretaker for their legacy, from lives that are so short. They keep me grounded and humble.

Headcheesing away this morning then, I pondered how being a food producer who sells beyond the hh cart would be a great way to begin solving the challenge of what to do when cart season ends in November. I want to keep making and selling hh headcheese rather than just try to get a job working for somebody else, even zcob. I’ll still pursue that, but it jazzes my heart; gets my nadi turning and makes my heart feel good to pursue this avenue.

Biophycomythology just seems to keep chugging along when you’re in tune with your heart – it seems like an idea “appears” or comes to me just when I need it – no sooner and no later, much like Canfield wrote about. The ideas and successes don’t arrive with a flash and a bang, like lightning bolts. There aren’t big whopping financial windfalls, checks or wads of cash or world-changing concepts, they’re just small steps forward that make incredibly good sense to me. And so we move along. Guided. Through the forest adventurous. It’s great because I guess my biggest struggle in life has indeed been the not-knowing-what-to-do with my life – the where do I fit thing. I’ve covered it here in this book in enough painful detail already, but now to be walking to “work” in the morning, to my own biz, on my own clock, with my own ideas, and in tune with my six vocations, looking around at a great city like Ann Arbor humming along, just seems like such a relief. Rich, poor, somewhere in between; we all have a place and something to be doing that makes us feel alive and not dead or dying. Yes, financial sustainability matters, but it’s just a part of being who you are – sometimes I think just fighting onwards within my personal myth is going to get me where I need to be. Not a destination, but a journey, which sounds corny as hell, but it really is about the trip, the travel, and not the getting there.

As a bonus, I get to see how being who I am seems to help other folks be who they are. My brother has another Ann Arbor art gallery show at the end of this month. He’s been helping at the cart since the crazy start-up and now things have leveled off and slowed down and I can manage the $100-$200 per day on my own. So he can spend much-needed time getting some new pieces ready for the gallery show instead for me for peanuts. His confidence seemed to improve while slinging hh grub, working with the other cart-folks in the kitchen and in the food court, getting some sunshine, eating some good chow, decompressing at the bar, howling at the moon, etc. No surprise – who wouldn’t be better off with a little jazziness like that in their life? A purpose and a plan, however crack-pot and crazy, is better than a million days of wondering about the wherefores. This section is crap and should be deleted I think – I’m just blathering on about the obvious and being redundant.

June 27, 2011. Monday off. Wondering what’s next. The vog helps. But it doesn’t define each day. Maybe it should. It’s supposed to function like a compass, but I still have to make decisions every five minutes on what the fuck to do to keep hh jazzy, viable, sustainable, or just plain open for business. I’ve got two pig heads left to do before my next huge order comes in. I should go in and get them started in the pot, then do the “cheese” tonight. Trying to stay jazzed about it. It seems weird that doing what you want can still leave you with questions. Like how long do you want to do it? What else should you be doing? Is this good enough? Are the rewards close enough to what you envisioned?

June 29, 2011. Howled at the moon again last night – Kev had finished his art install at The Gallery Project in A2, so he was feeling good and lately I’m drinking like a fucking fish for some reason – stress maybe – so off we went and blew too much money and I was hung over for the first time in quite awhile. Got in a shouting match with some assholes at Ashley’s – I didn’t want to go there and things were bullish from the moment we entered – some employee just wanted to fuck with us to the point where we left without getting a drink, thank thor, and this fucker just kept going off. I threatened to “fuck him up.” We dodged a bullet – too old and too much to lose to get into all that rowdy jail-time, lawyer fee bullshit. Jesus. What the hell? So Angie was pissed I stayed out and spent money and drank again. ‘Gotta dry out. So we’re on the wagon until who knows when. I’m gonna ruin my health or get my nose busted just ‘cause I’m trying to drink my way out of hh stress and joy.

So I yanked our tables and chairs out of the court. Some of the chairs we Kev’s. I’m done covering for Mark H’s lame attempts at setting up an inviting food court. He’s a fucking moron in terms of seating – why he can’t get it is beyond me, but when I’m right, I usually get in trouble, so I’ll just shut up and take my toys and go home. I’m not helping to carry the courtyard anymore – it’s not my problem and the stress I start feeling with this project – like I’m at work again – can be relieved somewhat by doing some little thing that makes me feel better; more in control. Like taking our chairs and tables the fuck out of there. Mark H, like so many “managers,” requires managing. He’s a another disappointment; another self-absorbed, clueless, ego-maniac who thinks he’s successful because he thinks he’s superior. No, he’s just lucky and also stupid enough to have been unable to work for anyone else either, just like me.

I just want to stay jazzed, cook and serve good food. If the customers come that’s great, if not, then hh is just another failed start-up and I can rack up another broken dream, busted vision and biophycomythological “fiasco.” One of these days I’m going to hit on the “bliss” portion. I can’t tell if hh is a “failure in the middle” perception problem right now or if indeed I’m fucking this thing up because I can’t figure the finances out. Maybe zcob info will help. Maybe it won’t fucking matter.

Ari’s second biz book is coming out soon. There’s a Camp bacon dinner at Roadhouse tomorrow. I need some good guide-time to stay jazzed about this leaky boat of a hero’s journey. Money might take us under, as with so many others. How fucking boring. To go out of business because the market for food is such that all the money is in the middle of the road; that if you don’t give ‘em their chicken strips and tacos you’re fucked, is a really shitty reality. If we were hockey players, we’d need to keep our feet moving at this point and keep putting the puck on net. I don’t know what else to do except what we’re doing.

Problem? I don’t particularly like food carts. Nor food courts. Which we’ve been fully aware of since we wrote the mark’s carts application. So why would I like the “funky” clunky vibe of the court I’m in? I think it needs more and more comfortable seating and a much more charming vibe. Kev calls it a concrete bunker and I agree; that’s what it feels like. And it desperately needs alcohol. It’s no surprise to me that the court and everybody in it is only marginally successful. It’s not the food as far as I’m concerned – it’s the environment. Everything has to appear in context. I can’t sell most of my food in a playground, school camp or parking lot environment, which is what this is. I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen. That I won’t be carting for much longer is obvious. At least at mark’s carts. I don’t like the space and there’s too much competition. I figured it would go one way or the other – either the number of carts would bring in so many people (yeah, right) that we’d all do our 50+ customers per day, or, as I’m learning, the handful of folks that do show up are torn between all the variety and either try to get smaller amounts from many carts, or just go with what they know.

Camp Bacon II

July 10, 2011. Sunday. We’ve got a day off after no days off since I can remember. It was an amazing week. Camp Bacon II resulted in the following smashing activities:

On Thursday evening we had a great dinner at RH featuring awesome bacon action plus good times listening to Ari and Andrea Reusling from Lantern restaurant.

On Friday, Ari, Molly and Andrea all showed up at the cart! It was about 2:30 so all my food was just about gone, and what I had was showing its age – the steam table is not a kind way to hold food – after several hours on the heat, everything starts to dry out or fall apart. This was a “watershed” moment in this whole hh adventure – that Molly Stevens would be standing at my cart and hanging out in the food court eating my food was a dream and vision come true. Amazing that envisioning this stuff makes it happen and, as freaked out and nervous as I was, the fact that I had envisioned something like this scenario might have helped me keep my shit together a little bit. I wish I hadn’t been working alone so that Angie and my brother could have chatted more effectively than me. When these hero’s of mine showed up, I suddenly got a rush of customers and ended up selling out of everything.

Ari wanted me to “feed him” and Molly and Andrea wanted some food, so I did my best. Without trying to apologize too much, I did tell Molly that I didn’t think my braise, inspired by her, was at its best, but I served that and a couple of pieces of the cinnamon/soy belly that I just griddled. Apparently, belly is now passé in the restaurant world, but I still serve it and even started roasting it this week to much acclaim. Molly doesn’t have a roasted belly in her new book and she and Andrea sort of told everyone that the belly has been overdone in the industry so they don’t do it. That’s the kind of “finger on the pulse of trends” stuff that I hate about the “industry.” I’m not interested in being “current” so much as authentic, as much as I can – it seems like chasing that hip vibe in the restaurant field is just a losing battle. That’s why I like the “heritage bistro” concept for the cart – I just want to serve old favorites with care and attention. I can’t imagine trying to be “cutting edge.”

Anyway, I know Molly is not that kind of chef either – she seems really connected to the honest and basic styles and flavors, but with an amazingly skillful ability to twist the flavor profiles into memorable dishes – and I can’t wait for her new book. In fact, since I told her that I was basically ripping her off by using her braises as inspiration for so many dishes from the cart, she suggested I sell the book from the cart. Awesome idea and I’d be happy to do that. We talked to her at Camp Bacon and before we left, she told me to email her so she could send me a contact for bulk book sales. Very cool. The fact that I got to connect with Molly and she came to the cart is truly one of the best moments of my life and it just helps me keep going – it helps to legitimize this crazy hh adventure, sustain the vibe and is a biophycomythological star in the sky – she’s truly a guide and her presence just can’t be undervalued. It’s stuff like that, dream-come-true stuff, coming face-to-face with your guides and getting support from them and getting more immersed in the personal legend because of it, that keeps you going. Great things can happen, and they seem to lead to more great things.

Before he left, Ari gave us tix to see Andre Williams at The Ark and it turned out to be a better show than I expected – the Goldstars are a very powerful, tight band, crunchy and not what I expected. Andre rocks hard – it was almost like a cross between The Who, UFO, The Stray Cats and maybe Buddy Guy. A little tongue-in-cheek, but also very punchy and soulful. John Langford tries hard and is engaged, but he’s not the best acoustic performer in my opinion – he’s witty and entertaining but brash and heavy-handed – he needs an electric guitar and the Mekons.

Saturday July 2 was the Camp Bacon main event at the Roadhouse. It started out well, the food was even better than last year and the vibe seemed good. However, the day seemed less organized, and with the swelling heat, the vibe seemed to fade. By lunchtime, the vibe was gone, the sweat was running down our necks, the presenters seemed uninspired except for the poetry guy who was apparently in a different world – he droned on too long, and since I’ve written poetry and still read it occasionally, I feel like I can criticize the readings as flat – he just wasn’t jazzing the audience. You can have too much poetry even for poets like myself.

Brian Polcyn turned out to be just exactly the ego-driven a-hole that we’d heard about, read about, and that I experienced when I sat in on a Schoolcraft College culinary program intro some years ago. I know now it must have been Polcyn who talked to us back then because I remember the shitty attitude and shockingly discouraging and dream-killing presentation he gave. He hates students from what I can tell and he in fact went off at Camp Bacon about how, while giving a lecture to his class which was full of kids “who were only there because they had to be” he got so frustrated that he walked into the walk-in (commercial refrigerator) and started giving his lecture to the boxes in there. When “they finally figured out where I went and asked what I was doing, I told them I was talking to the boxes because that’s what they all looked like.” What an ass. I read “Soul of a Chef” and got the vibe from that book that he was a Midwestern a-hole – I’m glad he didn’t get the Certified Master Chef designation after two tries. Dick. ‘Not sure how he got connected with ZCoB because he is not z-cobby at all.

Molly and Andrea tried to help salvage some of the day with good attitudes and a round of beers (they probably paid for them themselves knowing how tight Ari can be). It was fantastically intuitive timing to help refresh the wilting audience like that. Unfortunately however, they both ad-libbed their presentation, and then we suffered through Langford’s meaningless and meandering ad-libbing about something related to bacon – I can’t for the life of me remember what the fuck he was talking about. In the end, the day just faded into a disappointing dud of a finish. I’m not sure Allan Benton, who had to cancel at the last minute, would’ve saved the day, but it was clear from what Ari said and how the day went that some scheduling problems were at least partly to blame. Shit happens, and it just didn’t come off, but it’s always a risk to organize anything like that and you need some luck and I don’t think zcob or anybody else got any that day. A very rare stumble for the zcob, but I don’t know the facts, so just ranting about how it didn’t come off to my liking isn’t fair.

Sunday, July 3, was better. The Camp Bacon Street Fair, which Gauri T. had invited us to attend with the cart (!!) was another biophycomythological and vog watershed. It was part of our E-Team VOG that we’d attend Camp Bacon II, tell our story and help out in some way. While we weren’t a part of the main event, it turned out that the Sunday gig had the vibe we were looking for anyway and so we did help out and tell our story.

We got up early and hauled the cart to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in Kerrytown. It was sunny but much cooler and that helped make it a very busy day. Lots of people attended; we talked to what seemed like a zillion folks who were interested in hh and our food and either didn’t know anything about us, or in fact had seen or heard about us from Mark’s Carts. We sold out of mac & cheese and did a surprisingly brisk business in head cheese. I only had one faggot left at the end of the day and everyone just seemed totally jazzed by the cart and the food and the market. I loved seeing the 4-H pigs – they were so peaceful and steadied our busy day; it’s awesome to see live pigs – they make me feel good. It was a pain-in-the-ass to move our cart back and forth, but getting it on the road and into a new location seemed to really put some rocket sauce in the hh concept – we’re not tied to Mark’s Carts and I can envision doing good biz elsewhere as we see fit. It freed up our hh concept and opened up opportunities I think. I told Ari and Gauri that it was no small thing that they helped make part of our hh vog come true. No doubt about it, it was a fucking great day.

Niman Pride

Niman Ranch is a guide. From Paul Willis to the pigs and pork, I respect this company and the work they do. I’ve written about their animal welfare and quality protocols in my Animal Welfare User’s Guide. I recently had to turn down an offer from Jerry D., my Sherwood rep, to accept some non-Niman pig heads for $0.50/lb. compared to Niman’s $1.30/pound. Apparently another Sherwood customer left them with some huge quantity of heads from a pork producer that I won’t name here but that I could find no info on from the web. I told Jerry that unless I can visit a farm, see the pigs, and visit the slaughterhouse they’re using I can’t help him mix in those heads with my Niman heads. No way. I said if it was just about any other request or favor, I’d do it, but I’m proud to source Niman pork and I can’t compromise. It’s not about the price. I always need to feel good about the pigs I’m using.

I like to think that commitment to quality led to what turned out to be another great day, biophycomythologically at least, on Thursday July 7th because Kay Cornelius, a sales rep from Niman, visited my cart. She came in from the Denver area, and I figured it wasn’t just for hh – she was scheduled to talk to Ari later that day – but it was cool because Jerry D. at Sherwood, (my sales guy who distributes Niman in Detroit) had called to tell me someone from Niman would be coming, but I didn’t really know if it was Thursday or Friday (he told me both days) so I was hanging out at the bar right after blowing out of the kitchen – I’d had another good day of sell-out sales. I had left the cart open and the menu board up, it was a nice sunny afternoon, just in case Niman stopped by and they did! I like associating with my cool sources, I was very jazzed and not completely buzzed yet (only half a pint down when I had to walk back to the court from ABC. I was hanging out with Kev and Josh, so I felt like a player for awhile, getting cool phone calls, going back to talk with Kay, get some cool hats, a bumper sticker for the cart, a product list showing all the cool cuts, some literature, a catalog for more gear and another Niman Ranch cookbook. Most sales calls can irritate you, but this was cool – it’s not like Niman beats your door down – I like the way they seem to be a little under the radar, like JCI used to be. Like I want hh to remain. Being ubiquitous sucks. I’ve probably written already about maintaining some mystery to hh. I think it’s important to manage our “brand” carefully and not sling it around indiscriminately. Listen to my bullshit: as if I have anything to worry about regarding over-exposure.

I’m seeing a few different ways to manage the image and branding. It is about creating meaning (or whatever value-based biophycomythologically-connected idea or word you want to use) versus splattering your biz all over the earth as quickly and as completely as possible while trying to pile up cash. The heart-felt vibe just seems to go out of things so quickly if you don’t stay vigilant. I think it’s just the total immersion, balls-out hard work and punishing commitment to a start-up that kind of burns you out on your idea and concept before you even get started. I can see it happening to other carters – they can’t hardly put up with making the food or talking to a customer, or they get mechanical about it, not putting their heart into it, just pushing product. I’m not always on my game either, but I think I’m keeping the mojo – I always wondered why a biz owner would not respect or seem to even dislike his or her own business. Now I can see where that attitude might come from, but I see that it’s just another aspect of business ownership that separates those for whom it’s biophycomythologically “right” and those for whom it’s “wrong.” I have even more respect for guys like Ari who’ve maintained the mojo for almost thirty years, and I hope by sticking with hh I can thrive too.

Thriving. I wish. Writing about these latest hh developments – the ones that jazz me – feels good, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into sustainable business of course, and maybe I’m not focusing on the money enough. All I can say is that I’m just feeling my way through this adventure and trying to side-step my tendency to start thinking about hh like I’ve thought about all my other “jobs,” which is to say like a job. This is my business and I seem to have a better life within it when I follow my guts and heart versus trying to please people. Cripes, we’ve only been going for about two and a half months and sometimes it seems that folks want this thing to look like ZCoB already and if it’s not, then they consider us fucked. I feel that way sometimes too of course, but I’m the one with my ass in the wind, so maybe I feel a bit more justified. This is not easy. I can see how the analogy to a “razor’s edge” came about regarding the path to enlightenment or transcendence or self-actualization or destiny or personal myth, whatever. The opportunity to “fall off” the path you’re creating seems ever-present; you have to move carefully and sometimes only on faith. All of which can disintegrate after one bad sales day, or a bad cooking day or a money problem, whatever. It’s very tenuous. But the progress is real – it feels real if I take the time to contemplate where I’m at, where hh is at, what opportunities have appeared, the accomplishments so far, how far we’ve come, even if it seems like we should be farther along or have even gone backwards sometimes.

I hate that falling backwards feeling, like life was better before we started all this hh stuff and left TX and came back to A2 and started hh and whatever. No AC in this dumpy house. Ants in this dumpy house. Shabbiness and less money and sore joints and tired minds. But then it feels like this “ought” to be, hard as it is. There are good days, GREAT days, like I’ve described. It is slowly getting easier to work hh and see where it might go.

The cart photo shows the cart on a sunny morning and sporting the new Niman bumper sticker in the corner. You can barely see it, but it’s there.