The Big Cheese Gets Lost In the Fog


I wrote a long journal entry for today but I’m not posting it here because it’s too personal. I have to maintain some limits. I have my opinions related to these unfortunate times and there are things I need to write about that have to do with people and things that ought not to be made public. So, I’m exercising my authority and, yes, playing it safe, come what may. Call it an experiment in journalistic responsibility, I don’t know and frankly I don’t care. I’m still new at all this. I may indeed not be any good at any of it. We’ll see. I’m doing my best to do my best.

Meanwhile, the following vintage entry closes the chapter on the wild ride that was Humble Hogs as a food business. The irony of getting my name and some of my words in print at the same time goes without saying and it breaks my heart, again, to see how I failed. HH is now an indie publishing venture, of course, and heaven help me the idea of failing with it yet again haunts and harries and harasses me to no seeming end. So be it, such is the nature of getting lost and found and perhaps lost again on one’s great adventures.


Humboldt Hog

Friday, March 02, 2012. Another birthday. Insignificant except to mark time and point out how little of it is probably left. I almost hate the way a birthday invites the “pausing to reflect” problem. Reflect on what? Everything you have and haven’t done versus all that you planned on having and actually have done? I won’t bloviate about it. Forty-seven years old and the number doesn’t make a bit of sense to me – who actually “feels” their age? I don’t “feel” any different than I did at twenty-two.

I’m not where I want to be. But since I didn’t have a vog that was honest, it crashed and burned and I’m left drifting. I’m glad to be out to sea versus stuck on the shore but the wind has died and I’m in still water with no motor. In fact I feel like I got smacked around a little on the “clashing rocks.” I guess I should be thankful and appreciative that I’m not sunk. The food cart fiasco, and boy it was a major fucking fiasco, could have been worse, and it had some positive fall-out, if there is such a thing. I didn’t shipwreck, but I was forced to lose some ballast so to say to keep afloat. That’s the good thing about surviving a “storm” in life – the shit you’ve been hanging onto that you don’t really need hopefully gets blown and washed away. That’s what seems to keep happening to me. I certainly had no idea how much “baggage” I’d been carrying around. Climbing over the ridge – an analogy I used a lot back in TX – requires one to chuck the rocks out of the backpack and it feels like I’m again on the ridge looking for a way down into the valley. What’s frustrating is that I thought I’d gotten down off the ridge when we moved back to A2 and started the food cart. Cripes, enough of the lousy metaphors; now I know the following:

I fucked up my vog and I’m paying the price. The food cart was just another example of me hedging my biophycomythological bet. It was a hero journey indeed – a call that I answered – except the call was for somebody else; another wrong number. I talked myself into it and now it baffles me that I ever considered doing it. I had an agenda, like I always seem to, that wasn’t related to the job at hand. I always try to transform my jobs into something that they’re not – into something I really want instead – and likewise I tried to make mark’s carts into a springboard for something else. First, an experiment in the food service business, to see if that hat fit (though my intuition and heart told me it wouldn’t – look at my application for cripe’s sake). Second, very early on, I considered it an opportunity to get to something else, like some sort of restaurant apprentice “stage,” though I wasn’t at all sure what that “something else” was, except it probably resembled Campbell’s waiting void within.[1] And as things sometimes do, it worked, at least to some extent. I got that other opportunity. I saw h-cheese global sales as what I really wanted to do in the food biz. It still jazzes me to think about it, so I think it’s an honest vision. It’s just that it’s not a strategically sound vision of greatness, to borrow from Ari. Marketing h-cheese, a niche-market product if ever there was one, as my only product is simply not something that makes strategic sense business-wise. How much of it could I possibly ever have sold? In my own defense, thinking about outcomes isn’t what I was doing for once; I was simply following my heart, feeling my way through, through a situation that had lost its clarity, that had become a labyrinth.

It begs the question, Why did I end up focusing on this product with a very narrow audience and customer base, knowing the odds were so against my success? Did I secretly desire to fail? Was I engaging in self-sabotage? No. When the h-cheese sold as well as it did from the food cart, I was surprised. As I’ve said, it was my second most popular product, at least as a hoagie. In the beginning, I considered it by far my biggest risk, and I really thought it might completely bomb, but it didn’t; arguably, it ended up defining the hh cart, becoming my signature product. The problem however is that most of my biz was based on curiosity versus commitment. Maybe that’s what zcob senses as a problem and is why they won’t try to sell it. I just don’t believe that the flavor was the issue that prevents them from taking a chance on it. Anyway, things are as they should be I suppose and if I look deeper and listen more closely to my heart, I’m hearing why I’m not where I want to be. The h-cheese takes me back to the pigs. The selling of the h-cheese isn’t really the point to me – it’s being close to the pigs, if only through what I was cooking. I don’t know why this is, and I’m struggling with it: Why are the pigs my guides? Despite after all this writing in a book called Day of Pigs I’m admitting here that I still don’t know why they’re my guides. I need to keep working on this – I need to keep sticking my finger in my own ribs, I need to meditate my way into and through this answer. Or maybe I should back off and just let it be…I don’t know.

I don’t ever want to come anywhere near owning anything like a restaurant ever again. Never fucking ever. What a spastic, draining, soul-crushing, unrewarding prison of a vocation. It turned out to be as unappealing as EHS. Of course there are those that pull it off and more power to them, though it’s my opinion that the last thing the world needs is another restaurant. I’m not going to go off on an Anthony Bourdain imitation here, but if it’s great food (with exceptional provenance) in a great space and service, then you can be assured it costs so fucking much that it’ll ruin the experience. If it’s anything you can afford on a regular basis, you can expect the food and the environment to be considerably less than memorable and I advise never looking into the kitchen. If it’s cheap food, then you’re guaranteed a digusting experience and don’t even look at the help too closely or you’ll gag; never mind the sanitation behind the kitchen doors, and where the provisions have come from is going to be completely beside the point. The exception that proves the rule would be, at least at this point in its history, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, which seems able to somehow serve memorable food in a fun environment that doesn’t empty your wallet, although it’s certainly not inexpensive, nor is it spectactularly memorable, and the service has become more or less shoddy.

I get the concept of paying the total cost of the food. I just can’t for the life of me figure out how to live within that type of business let alone make it a vocation. What a back-breaking, dismal grind it all is. Ironically, in the end, I think the thing I hate most about the food service biz is that I don’t get to eat what I cook. I can identify completely with why Ari doesn’t eat at the RH – he prefers to cook at home, like me. If you like to cook, my advice is don’t fucking think about working in a restaurant, let alone owning one. It’s just a completely different food experience. I need to experience the whole thing from start to finish – from contemplating what to make that day, to shopping for the ingredients, to doing all the prep, the cooking, the plating and then the eating. With people I like, not people I don’t even fucking know. I want to learn something, experiment a little sometimes, see how good I can make the meal turn out, and then enjoy the fucking food, not just schlep it out to somebody else again and again, ad infinitum. Oh, and then having to worry about keeping up with trends, or not, or whether whatever folks are buying today, they’ll be buying tomorrow; and what the other guy down the street is making, and is his shit getting more business than my shit. Ugh. What hell. That’s how you start trying to make food you don’t even want to eat. A small gathering of folks I care about, in an environment where it’s not all about the meal; where there’s music I like, space to move around, things to read, things to discuss, other things to do besides get the food out and clean up in time for the next round; a place to sit down for Christ’s sake instead of standing next to a pile of dishes at the ware-washing station wolfing down a handful of whatever’s stuck to the pots or pans, alone, late at night, after you’ve gone twelve hours without eating anything at all because you’ve been humping it to feed everybody fucking else. So you can do it again tomorrow. FOR NO FUCKING MONEY AT ALL! How do the so-called successful folks do it? Well, let me see now: from what I’ve learned, even at zcob, the whole plan as an owner is to be able to work your way out of doing any work yourself. You pay people a non-living wage and otherwise exploit the fuck out of them to do the shit that you, as owner, should be fucking doing.

It’s a very useful lesson I’ve learned by operating a food cart, which was just a mini restaurant. Knowing what you don’t want is just as important as knowing what you do want, except that I’m getting frustrated at my adventures always turning into fiascos. Yes, I appreciate the lessons and the knowledge and it’s got to be helping me get to where I want to go but hell, what a bloody fucking miserable pain in the ass it is to continually start over. To get up, brush myself off and begin again. To keep dying. Deep down, I know it’s a good thing. I know that this is just the way my life is – I’m a person that tries shit out and I’m committed to keep trying. But it’s not a life that does much for people that care about you. This constant state of incompleteness and struggle is a shitty thing to have to watch let alone be a part of. Angie has her own dreams – her own vision and right now we’re fucking stuck in this dumpy rental house, our TX house has again become a debilitating financial burden – nobody fucking wants it except us – I’ve got only a part-time job and I have a broken vog, which really has me jacked around because I still can’t figure out how I messed my vision of greatness up so badly. Was I in another biophycomythological fever? Was I yet again stuck behind a mask of my own making, in a bullshit, inauthentic persona? Was I kidding myself, lying to myself, betraying, yet again, my heart? Or is my heart betraying me because I’m still not listening? Being in Michigan stresses me out. There’s too much baggage from the past that I’m not prepared to cope with, at least not yet. I wish we didn’t come back here. I’m forced to deal with this stuff and I don’t want to. I get sick of having to barf up all the shitty parts of myself, stare at the mess, then clean it up. What a fucking drag. Enlightenment is ugly. Listen to me bitch for Christ’s sake; I don’t like myself right now.

What else have I learned? Like I’ve written in “Dark Energy,” I know I can’t go back the way I came. That’s a small comfort. I need to use that and keep chugging. Right now, I almost don’t want the z-deli job because jobs are so fucking distracting and demanding that it’s damn near impossible to get out of that work-a-day loop of hell once you’re in it. All that happens is you end up being disappointed in your job, your pay, the people you work with and life in general because working for the man sucks. That’s what worries me. I’ve learned that I need to be the boss. Actually, I already knew that because that’s what the marriage counselor in Texas told me. It’s the only way for me to remain jazzed about work. If I’m answering to somebody else, then I’m eventually disagreeing with them. I have a shitload of talents and ideas and if I can’t implement them because I’m too low on the totem pole – I don’t have authority – then I’m pissed and frustrated. Can I change my attitude to not be pissed and frustrated? I can try. But it’s not a talent of mine to be a compliant person, so through the titanic effort Campbell talks about I can try to change myself into a drone or “team player” which just delays the inevitable enantiodromia. I can’t feel like I’m shutting down my heart and that’s what working for somebody else always does to me. Could zcob be different? Could it be the exception that proves the rule in my life? Could it be the one place that a guy like me could work at and feel like it’s actually a vocation? I highly fucking doubt it and I’m not looking forward to being disappointed in one of the few things in my life that I like and respect. Is this all me bringing bad energy to the process? If I just envision how I want it to be will it work out? I need to overhaul my vog and get it closer to right. Yes, I’ll take the z-deli job because a) I need a job to help with our finances and b) I do have some hope that it could be a great thing for me to work at zcob. I’ve just learned the hard lesson that trying to realize your own vog while remaining embedded within someone else’s vog is a recipe for disappointment. You can’t ride on somebody else’s coat tails – you can’t live somebody else’s myth.

However, I need all the information I can get in order to keep progressing. I know I need to keep dying; to keep changing; to keep working on my biophycomythology. I still have the waiting void within me, and my heart must know the answer for my next step at least. I’ll keep following this z-deli thing until it vanishes or resolves itself in some way. Ari and zcob have not let me down yet.

Omens? Well, as I write this, the mail was dropped on my porch and it included, of course, the copy of Ari’s new book that I ordered. He wanted to give me a copy, which he did, signed, and a freebee is nice but like I told him, I wanted to pay for one – I felt it was part of our agreement as writers. Anyway, here it is:

Yesterday was a good book-omen day too. Jenny T., who was responsible for getting the book to production, emailed me to say she had a copy for me and wanted to know where she could find me. Since I’m not scheduled any more days at zmo this week she couldn’t drop it off there, and I thought it’d be easier for me to pick it up either at the Southside businesses or the deli. She left it at the deli for me and it gave me the opportunity to buy myself a b-day present – I took advantage of the zcob 30th anniversary 30%-Off-Thirty-Tins-of-Fish sale. As a temporary employee, I don’t get an employee discount card, so this sale was a chance to save some big bucks and stock my sardine “cellar” which is actually a pantry. I liked that idea that Ari wrote about – the storing of large quantities of sardines so that a) you always have some on hand, and b) you can actually age them, improving their flavor. Of course he’s talking about storing much more than thirty tins, but hell, it’s fun and I love them – Ari made a pilchard believer out of me. I bought twenty of the Portuguese Da Mor Ga Da in evoo and ten of the aged French Ginodec (which cost about twice as much). Angie and I have become attached to the Portuguese, which are big, shiny silver-scaled fish with a pleasing combination of robust oceanic fishiness and clean freshness versus the aged French, which are golden-hued, with darker meat and a corresponding earthier flavor. For the money, at this point in our sardine education and experience, I’m preferring those Portuguese, but that’s why I splurged on the ten French, so that I could put them both through their paces and see if I acquire more of an appreciation for the aged or not.

Portuguese sardines.
Quantities of sardines!

Back to the book news. This is the one that Ari was just beginning to put together when I started corresponding with him from TX. GTGL1 was in the final stages of editing and would soon go to the printer, but for GTGL2 Ari was in the process of sending out essays for input and discussion to anyone who was interested. If you remember reading the part about me getting canned from JCI-BP, it was then that I was still stinging from the experience – my emotions regarding leadership were raw and I sort of purged my “insight” to Ari in an essay that frankly I think went a bit too far and revealed my vulnerability on the subject of work and life. But, just like Ari always does, he hung in there through the diatribe and listened to what I was really trying to communicate. He apparently heard the pain and frustration and maybe it was useful for his research for this particular book. I was speaking from experience; about something that I knew about first hand, albeit from a fucked up and bitter angle. Anyway, I enjoyed reading and commenting on all the essays over the next year or so and I’ve been looking forward to reading the whole thing as a book in my hands versus the electronic copy. I think I’ve written about all this already, so I’ll just say that Ari stuck with me and put me on pp.313-314 of the Notes from the Front Porch chapter, in the appreciations and even on the back cover, next to Mario Batali, just like he said he would:

Me getting a piece in GTGL II…
Me on the back blurbs, too!

As a really cool added bonus, Jenny T. included a piece of Homboldt Fog cheese in the deli bag for the book; she wrote “For a Humble Hog.” It took me until I got home to get the wordplay: Humboldt Fog for a Humble Hog. Amongst wordsmiths, this stuff is very much appreciated. As was the cheese, which I’ve only read about – I could never get myself to pull the trigger and buy some – I remember picking it up at Whole Foods in TX but not wanting to splurge, I remember it being pretty pricey. Anyway, I had forgotten about this cheese and it’s cool because I just took the z-deli’s “Cheese 101” class which was great – it reminded me how much I like great cheese and how that first zcob cheese class I took with Angie many years ago was such a great introduction to what kinds of cheese were out there. Sean from the deli did a great job teaching this one and as it happened the class was attended, maybe fatefully, by Jeff Ochs who is the hiring manager for the deli porter position I applied for. Also, Lisa R. and Guy W. from zmo were there. So my palette and cheese flavor descriptors had recently been through an enjoyable workout and the free Humboldt Fog was just a fantastically great surprise from Jenny – a very zcobby thing to do. Many zcobbers still have this completely endearing sensitivity to making your day better with surprising acts of generosity.

The piece of Humboldt Fog itself (a goat’s milk cheese) happened to be one of the best cheeses I’ve ever had – it looked to be at that perfect age where the outer portion had aged into almost liquid creaminess while leaving the center still firm. It looked great, smelled great (fresh hay and straw) and tasted fantastic (buttery, pleasing salt level, lemon juice, a hint of cashew and a peppery rind). You can clearly see the distinctive “line” of ash that runs through the center of the cheese and which also covers the rind. I think the elegant flavor lives up to its classy and dramatic appearance – thanks Jenny!

Humboldt Fog cheese courtesy of Ari

I should remind the reader that this is the same Jenny T. with whom I worked to decipher the mystery of the incorrect brownie recipe in GTGL1. That famous zcob baked good is something I was determine to correctly reproduce and I’m glad we worked that out, though it’s disappointing to think how many people must have struggled with the published version. Anyway, Jenny is now immersed in helping Ari with ZingPress and she’s discussed (during a recent Partner’s Group meeting) her interest in continuing to explore the publishing aspect of zcob but without the desire to start a zcob biz at this point. I wish her all the best with that cool career angle!

[1] Ibid.