There is something missing in our definition, vision, of a human being:
the need to make.
We are creatures who need to make.
Because existence is willy-nilly thrust into our hands, our fate is to
make something—if nothing else, the shape cut by the arc of our lives.
—Frank Bidart, Advice to the Players
We're not supposed to love a factory. When we think of factories, we tend to think of unmanned spaces, noisy with the clanging of machines. A factory is a chilly place, and something factory-made is the inverse of a hand made object.
So it's with surprise that I report my love for a blueberry factory.
Outside of Hammonton, New Jersey, I was lured from my country drive by the sign at Oakcrest Farms: Fresh Blueberries, Retail and Wholesale, Enter Here. And I did enter there, pulling into their large gravel parking lot nested between two cinderblock buildings lined with loading docks.
Bucolic, U-Pick blueberries these were not. The farm was vast and industrial, with tight rows of blueberry bushes stretching to the horizon.
Feeling like a trespasser, I let myself inside the nearest building, where quiet, focused work was in progress. About seven or eight people stood around a softly whirring system of belts and machines and ramps. At one end of the circular system, a man tipped large plastic bins of berries into a hopper, which fed a wide white conveyor belt flanked by several women.
The belt looked familiar. I am an admitted "how things are made" enthusiast, and several years ago, I went to a winery during grape harvest to help sort grapes. Before grapes are crushed and turned into wine, they must be separated from unripe fruit, stems, sometimes even bees, any material other than grapes, nicknamed MOG. The fruit is loaded onto a slow-moving white conveyor belt, called a sorting table, so workers can clearly see the detritus and remove it. And so it looked at the blueberry facility, with several women standing on either side of the long white conveyor belt, watching intently as blueberries rolled by, looking, I believe, for MOB.
The berries were then lifted by a ramp and into a second hopper, emptied by a paddlewheel of pint-sized scoops which gently delivered the berries into pint-sized plastic containers. Then down a belt they continued, past two sliding levers that, two-by-two, eased the pint lids down until they closed with a gentle snap. Snap, pause, snap, pause, snap.
At the opposite end of the belts, two men briskly slid the pint containers onto cardboard flats, then stacked full flats onto a pallet. A few feet away, a finished pallet, about eight feet high, turned on an axis while a sheet of plastic film wrapped it tightly. The towering pallet, holding hundreds of pounds of blueberries, looked like any industrial commodity ready to be loaded by forklift onto a tractor trailer.
A woman disengaged from the lid snapping machine and approached me. Yes? I was suddenly dumbfounded. You sell blueberries? I asked, a question which seemed, in this blueberry-filled room, kind of ridiculous. But she smiled and said yes and told me pints were a dollar fifty, and flats of twelve were thirteen dollars. I gave her three dollars and she walked away, pulled two pints fresh from the lid snapper, gave them to me, and went back to work.
Though the operation was efficient and clean and seemed not to spill a single stray berry, working with blueberries does leave its mark: with her vinyl gloves removed, the woman was blue from her forearms to her wrists.
Back in the parking lot I immediately dug into my purchase. The pints were stamped with a grocery-ready sticker: Oakcrest Farms Blueberries. Bleuets. Hammonton, NJ. Rinse Before Use. I dumped some bottled water over the berries and took a handful. They were firm and plump and good.
Or, I should say, the blueberries were as good as blueberries tend to be. They were not particularly special beyond that. They tasted, to me, like grocery store blueberries. And for a reason: surely that's what they were about to become. Bound for Shop-Rite and Safeway and Giant Foods, these berries didn't taste any different at the source than they would at the store.
When I returned home to Brooklyn, and stopped in the organic produce store on my block, blueberries there gave me an unexpected thrill. The sticker read, Hammonton, NJ. Not from Oakcrest, but from Jason Farms, an organic producer nearby. I think I saw their farm along the same road as Oakcrest.
And then at the overpriced, foul-smelling grocery store I visit only when all other options are closed, I encountered the same thrill. Burlington Farms. Hammonton, NJ.
On a grand scale, at least in July, I know where blueberries come from. A Google search confirms it. About a third of our nation's blueberries are grown just two hours south of New York City, in Hammonton, New Jersey.
It gives me a deep sense of order to be able to envision the fields in which these berries grew, the precise trailer bays where the berries were loaded, the back roads that led to the Verrazano bridge, then up and down the east coast, including my own Brooklyn neighborhood.
Though if I am honest, I have more personal reasons for loving that blueberry factory. Because I also work in a factory. A factory that makes food.
When I first tell people this, I can see them trying to reconcile it with my other persona: French Culinary Institute graduate, occasional instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute, regular cooking demonstrator at Union Square Greenmarket. You work in a factory? An organic factory, right? A small scale factory, a factory with a greater social purpose? No. I work in a food factory. A sauce factory. I make up recipes, and from those recipes, we make sauce.
In comparison to a Campbell's or Heinz factory, the factory where I work is tiny. But compared with everything I knew about food or cooking before I started, it is immense. They can produce 2,000 pounds of sauce, a literal ton of sauce, in a single kettle. They can make 8,000 pounds of sauce in less than an hour. The kettles are large enough that I could easily get inside one and not reach the top. Several friends could join me.
My initial tour through the sauce factory was almost dreamlike. A series of stairs and hallways leads from one kitchen to the next, and the factory can get hazy with steam. Production of marinara sauce was in full force when I first visited, and those huge kettles were filled to the brim with boiling, good-smelling tomatoes, onions and garlic.
As we entered the prep room, my eyes began to sting a little. Hundreds and hundreds of fresh onions were being sent through a dicer. A woman was steadily peeling leaves of basil from their stalks, exactly as you would for a home sauce, except that she was piling the leaves into a 30 gallon bucket.
When I described the basil bucket to a dear friend, she said, that woman probably hates basil. Maybe so. I don't mean to glorify factory work. The pay is low and the work can be repetitious. But not as much as I would have initially thought.
A lot of problem solving goes into making a factory run. The operations manager does most of this, planning the schedule and adjusting the equipment to accommodate products that vary from ratatouille to Alfredo sauce to mangosteen juice. The tasks vary widely, as well. Some days, the women who work on the line spend an entire day topping off sauce, manually filling jars to correct instances where the filling machine was imprecise. Other days, the same women start by packing plastic containers with dried spices then switch to weighing clams into jars, cup by cup.
My role at the factory, that of Research and Development Chef, is a virtual wellspring of curiosities, and odd questions raised and usually answered. The containers of starches and gums I find in the test kitchen beg the question, What is xanthan gum made of? I learn, from the gum salesman, that it's often made from seaweed, sometimes corn. What does xanthan taste like? Nothing, on its own, but it is difficult to get off of your teeth. How is modified corn starch modified? I still don't know. Apparently this is a guarded secret, which is why I try not to use it.
When I was a child, my brother and I used to mix household items to form goopy concoctions we called formulas. It doesn't escape me that this is the language of my factory work, too. The recipes that I make are recipes only at the beginning. Once they are adjusted to accommodate production-scale batches, they become formulas. The mad scientist aspect of this pleases me enormously. While the kids I grew up with were dreaming of lives as firemen and doctors and horse trainers, I wanted to be an inventor. And I'm sort of getting that wish.
When I was making my first large kettle, a tomato and bell pepper sauce, the vice president of the company, the QA manager, the operations manager, and a man nicknamed Kettle George were all there. George has been working at the kettles for fifteen years. He knows to heat the olive oil before adding the onions, to test the oil by throwing a few onions into it to see if they sizzle. George and I waited until the onions were translucent to add the garlic, and cooked the garlic for only a minute before the tomatoes and peppers went in. All this is nuanced, not simply robotic repetition. And it is cooking.
The vastness is daunting, and also beautiful. During production, a sea of red jars stretches out in front of me, each filled with something I've made, forming a bright red curl that spirals as far as I can see. Each jar is filled with food I helped cook, and personally tasted. To some I add a pinch more pepper or salt. Every batch I inspect for goodness and approve. The jars then gather on a conveyor belt and are conveyed out of my sight. Beyond my vision, jars slide through the labeling machine, are placed by hand into cardboard cases, are stacked onto pallets, loaded into tractor trailers, shipped to Shoprite, and Safeway, and Giant Foods. They are placed in shopping carts, in car trunks, in kitchen pantries, then opened into saucepans, brought to kitchen tables, or served straight from the stove, served for hundreds of thousands of dinners, plate by plate.
Robin Puskas lives in Brooklyn and works as a consulting chef who makes recipes and sometimes sauce. She holds a Grand Diploma in Culinary Arts from the French Culinary Institute and a Master of Fine Arts from Pennsylvania State University. She was awarded a Francis Wood fellowship for her poetry manuscript in progress, Vigilant Curve. She loves a poached duck egg an unreasonable amount.