Chopin Broccoli

Now, that is one good-looking piece of broccoli

Outside a tidy, brick building just north of San Diego quietly lays a marble slab which states, “Brassica Oleracea.” No one makes a fuss about the slab in specific or the building in general as the grounds are quietly organized with a steady but polite presence of medium-large trucks coming in and out of the grounds. Sensitive to the neighborhood which has grown around the company, the electric/gas hybrid trucks are equipped with special mufflers which emit a low pleasant rumble as they efficiently drop off or pick up fresh produce from the oldest building at Chopin Broccoli Company.

The original building was built when the surrounding area was isolated fields and for about ten years, the main building was the only permanent structure for twenty-five miles. Since then, six other key buildings were built in a respectful semi-circle around the first building, named Marathon. Each subsequent first-ring building also has a marble slab displaying their building name: including Triathlon, Legend, Decathlon, Arcadia , Patriot and Patron. Outside of that semi-circle are four other semi-circles, allowing aviators to see a pattern very similar to the structure of a floret. Each outer building cluster consists of three to five buildings, also complete with slabs displaying their names, also named after hybrids. From Bacchus to Zeus, the buildings housed all the company’s corporate infrastructure and related support groups. No matter what you did, if you worked for Chopin, you knew that broccoli ruled.

The Chopin Broccoli Company has been in business for over eighty years and has always been on the technological cutting edge of the business. One of the first companies to provide quick frozen broccoli from the fresh, clean, sound stalks and shoots of the broccoli plant, Chopin quickly vaulted years ahead of many of its regional rivals by being able to provide waste-free products to local supermarkets well before any competitor could react. Generations of west coast children were brought up on the bright green and blue packages, replete with musical notes, and these people knew the quality of the broccoli.  The jingles from their radio and television commercials had saturated their behavior and even though kids hated all other vegetables, they instinctively loved Chopin Broccoli thanks to some odd marketing osmosis which oozed from the animated singing broccoli stalks.

The quality of Chopin Broccoli can be easily traced to its founder: Russell Chopin. A Latvian immigrant, Russell came to America, literally penniless and kept heading west. He would always joke that he would have kept going if it was not for the Pacific Ocean. When he got to California , Russell took one of the plentiful jobs in the fields. Being young and strong with an ever-growing instinct of survival, he took the first job he could find; harvesting broccoli. He quickly became a field foreman and was known for his high productivity and loyalty amongst his fellow workers. Opportunity for hard-working men was everywhere but he stayed with the broccoli operation to learn but he never could give a reason why he stayed so long.

He learned very early in his vegetable career that vegetables, whether fresh or frozen, have to be sorted, trimmed, washed and sufficiently blanched to ensure adequate stability of color and flavor during normal marketing cycles. However, a fistful of broccoli is a bit more demanding than your standard vegetable. Russell knew that broccoli was very similar to fresh cut flowers, and had to be treated just like a dozen roses. Once broccoli was prepped for sale, the clock was on and there was not much time to make his money.

At the time of Russell Chopin, Southern California was still the Wild West for agriculture: San Diego , Los Angeles and points in between were freakishly fertile and the ability to generate impressive amounts of fruits and vegetables was an easy feat thanks to irrigation and the obviously fertile land. Seeing an exploding population and a great product, he knew he could succeed in broccoli so he saved his money, borrowed a lot more of it from both banks and the owner that gave him the opportunity to learn the business. He aggressively bought a lot of land and set to growing the crop that would make him rich. One reason he bought so much land, thus production, was that he knew that the West Coast was just the start of his vision; he wanted Chopin Broccoli to be on every table across the country.  It was an impressive vegetable with a great story to tell, especially to the East Coast. The trouble was that people in the East rarely, if ever saw broccoli because the week-long trip would turn the harvest into a soupy, green mess of rotted vegetation.

And to get this stuff across the country, he needed to determine a way to keep them cold without the yet–to-be discovered technique of transported refrigeration. In 1922, Russell knew that there was no available way to freeze broccoli quickly because the freezing process was only still theoretical and subjected to many steps in an unknown process; using significant equipment with compliance to conditions yet to be written down. Russell knew this freezing operation had to be carried out in a way that the range of temperature of maximum crystallization was achieved and passed quickly. Through further trial and error, Russell learned that the process was not completely stable but had to be figured out soon before any real plans could be made. He knew the product temperature had to reach zero degrees Fahrenheit at the piece’s thermal center after thermal stabilization and once that happened, things would be able to be moved long distances. The product had to be maintained at a low temperature to maintain the quality during the long transportation, storage and distribution steps leading up to time of final sale. Unfortunately, in 1922, the problem was easy to understand but the formal solution was about ten years away.

Russell knew that he couldn’t achieve his goal of placing broccoli on the nation’s tables if he didn’t have a way to get them safely out of the southwest. Until the technology became apparent, he relied on fast moving trucks augmented with ice blocks and some creativity. Russell experimented with other techniques: having the trucks haul in the early morning to avoid the day’s heat, pulling out the entire plant and cutting it on the way, placing young men in the back sprinkling ice water on the bushels of freshly cut broccoli and strategically placing ice chips within the produce to keep it cool. For the most part, these ideas gave Russell and his little company some slight advantages and slightly larger distribution within his market but the natural expansion to larger markets was still cost prohibitive. He knew the smart play was to truly understand the freezing of such a strong but fragile vegetable because just selling fresh broccoli was obviously a loser’s play. He could be one of dozens of broccoli producers in southern California and hardly make a dime or he could strike out to all points east and become the true winner.

What separates broccoli from the other vegetables is that there are many iterations of the vegetable that the uninitiated fail to grasp. Similar to asparagus, broccoli has spears with consist of the head and adjoining portion of the stem, with or without small tender attached leaves, with an average length of about 10 centimeters, or about 4 inches. The spears may be split longitudinally (called “cut spears”) within each spear not more than 20 percent by count fall outside the designated length (similar to an aspect ratio in tire sizes). Also, the most preferred portion of broccoli is the floret: the head and adjoining portion of the stem with or without the attached leaves but with sufficient attached stem to maintain a compact head. The florets may be split longitudinally, with similar definitional standards as the spear to allow more pieces to possess a part of the preferred floret. Technically, one can eat the entire broccoli stalk but people have preferred the floret top and have traditional viewed the stalk as a lesser tasting stump of the plant. Finally, like spinach, cauliflower, kale and collard greens, broccoli can be sold as a chopped product. In the chopped state, Broccoli is finely cut into smallish pieces with both leaf and head material percent restrictions but it is the viewed as most dross: adequate, slightly recognizable and just barely edible.

Any neophyte thinks they know broccoli but until you work with this green gold, you are sadly mistaken. There are many quality factors to view, including uniform color, odor, degrees of cleanliness, freedom from poorly trimmed units and practically free from woody units. Russell knew of all the potential traps of broccoli and spent a majority of his adult life discussing the best way to fix the problems before they caused damage to the crop. A trained eye and a sensitive nose can immediately size up a load of broccoli. If the load’s condensation and run-off from the initial wash is murky, there is an outstanding chance that the grower loaded the inside cavity with bruised or brown product. And if the farmer knows that the load is going to be sent to the chopping stations immediately, a lack of inspection gives the grower a perfect crime to dump low quality product which likely cannot be traced back to any individual sample lot. The crap goes into a chopper and gets all mixed together with no guilty source of the contaminant. Most farmers are told that their harvest is going to stand alone so the only game still played is with weight (wetting the broccoli to increase its weight) versus sneaking in crappy broccoli and those days are numbered as well.

Russell’s first son, Antonio, was thrust into the broccoli business with no discussion or input by anyone. When he was five, he was comfortable throughout the entire plant and was an unofficial quality inspector before he could ride a bike. He knew the entire process: from the trucks coming in the front door with loads of just-picked broccoli to the back door when the final product was flying out to the local supermarkets. When Anthony was about eight, a standard truckload was placed in the main hopper for the initial weigh-in.  Immediately upon coming to the scene, Antonio whistled (for the first time anyone could recall) and tells the hulking man behind the hydraulics to stand down. The man complied out of either fear of the owner’s son or out of disbelief due to this tiny, dark-haired child standing next to a four-ton hopper of broccoli, actually shutting down the process line.

“Yeah, kid?” asked the operator.

“This load is bad,” chirped Antonio, “You got to turn this around before it gets mixed into the main batch.”

“It looks good to me and it passed both inspections already.”

“I know,” said Antonio, “I can read the hopper sheet (another first time occurrence) but something, somewhere is rotten, skanky rotten.”

“How did you come to this conclusion?”

“Two things,” said Antonio as if he were this man’s supervisor, “I caught a sniff of ammonia and the load looks a little heavy.” Usually, rotten loads are a percentage or two heavier than a clean load but the differences between loads, factoring a visual assessment of fullness, are very subtle.

“Prove it.”

“I will,” said Antonio as he jumped, head first, into the hopper. The load operator and the truck driver tried to stop him but in he went and was swallowed up by the loose leaves. By this time, most of the front production line was collecting around the main hopper to determine what was causing the stoppage. Once the men stopped working, the line managers came out of their tiny offices to start things up again.

“What the hell is going on?” screamed the Day Manager. “Why is the line down?”

“The bosses’ kid is in the hopper.”

“Get him out!”

Right then, Russell Chopin came upon the scene, almost apoplectic that his factory had ground to a halt. He asked the back of the crowd what the problem was and sincerely hoped no one was hurt. In the early 1930’s, factories were still dangerous places and ideas such as OSHA and Worker’s Compensations were decades away but Russell ran a pro-worker environment and kept things safe.  So, this incident with his own progenysnapped him to attention and all the adrenaline of his youth welled up as he ran toward the hopper, just like it was 1933 all over again. When he finally pieced the facts together, through collecting snippets of spoken conversations that his son was “trapped” in the main hopper, he jumped into action. He pushed the men out of the way and leaned down into the hopper. The impressive vastness of fresh vegetables again overwhelmed him as well as the fact that his kid was down there somewhere, in danger resulted in an odd mixture of fear and ignorance.

Just as he was determining there was nothing he could do, Antonio’s head popped up with his two fists clenching huge, decaying broccoli bouquets. The grayish brown mass of rotten vegetation was warm and beginning to congeal.  He caught a scent of something not right and vindicated himself with his discovery. He was also covered in a fine patina of rotting broccoli and he wore that as a badge of olfactory honor.

“I told you I smelled something.”

His father knew that the rotten broccoli was at least ten feet under the surface and that even his trained nose may have missed the pungent but encapsulated odor. He was proud of his child but at the same time, he had to punish him for breaking every safety and health rule that was technically available. While he was unhappy as a father, he realized that this kid literally had a nose for the business. The legend of Antonio’s passion for quality and a nose which avoided mortal comprehension combined to make this kid the chosen one within the business.

As soon as he could, Antonio joined his father to form a formidable partnership: a natural genius with broccoli, Antonio also forced his father to make critical technological changes in company direction. He knew that the future was not in fresh, but rather, frozen broccoli. Once properly prepared, Chopin wouldn’t need to rely on the energies treating the symptoms of harvesting, preparing and selling fresh broccoli. The solution was freezing fresh and selling the products on their terms.

Antonio studied freezing options and realized that there were three choices, based on the method of heat transfer: These include air blasting, contact and cryogenic. In the middle of 1945, the only application seriously considered was air blast freezers but there were actual rumored uses for contact and cryogenic applications occurring in the armed forces as they struggled with their own issue: feeding two million men a day. The only viable remedy, for anyone serious in freezing perishables was the blast freeze. Air blast freezers that use air for heat transfer (heat leaving the target) and because air is the most common freezing media, this method of heat transfer probably has the largest range of designs and Antonio knew that he could make a version that would work with the broccoli. He fashioned a conveyor belt to take the broccoli through the cleaning rinse and while wet, would blast the vegetables with the chilled air. He used only damaged products to start with to assure no worthwhile product was wasted.  After several iterations, he showed his father on fresh produce but the solution wasn’t initially too elegant. Antonio stood next to the conveyor, constantly striking it from the bottom to distribute the ice that was quickly forming on the broccoli. Eventually, the agitation of the finished product was incorporated into the process and within a few moments, a medium sized truck could be filled with broccoli to be bagged or sent to a distributor for packaging. The aging Russell, seeing the moderately efficient manner that the fresh broccoli was frozen, agreed to begin to turn the company towards the frozen food markets exclusively.

Huge new markets were opening up and many of his competitors realized that the time spent with not being concerned with the fragile and fussy fresh vegetables, could plant an additional crop of broccoli with a guaranteed sale. The first generations of frozen broccoli were not positioned to stay frozen through perpetuity but three months was well within their tolerances. Even broccoli staying semi-perishable for two weeks was astounding so the Chopin Broccoli factories grew, diversified into distribution, commercial and government sales. Their first air blast freezing methods were patented and they also enjoyed selling the proprietary knowledge to other vegetable wholesalers and producers.

The one feature of the first generation Chopin Air Blaster was that it came with many items to adjust. Since crops types change and maturity levels vary, the blaster allowed the user significant latitude to temperatures and timings. The machine was a critical piece of the puzzle but the knowledge behind it made the real differences. Antonio knew, in the hands of someone curious and caring, they would experiment and eventually come to their own recipe for flash freezing. To prove his point, they also sold their machine to the competitors (they would have stole it, anyway) and thus, allowed their patent to stand as well as opening a nice business that repaired and maintained blasters all over the country. The competitors, unable to dial it in expertly, eventually paid Chopin to conduct and manage their freezing needs. By the end of the decade that endured World War Two, if you were frozen broccoli, you were Chopin.

The guiding principles of freezing were becoming the company’s mantra as it was viewed as the single most important way to optimize the harvesting and distribution. Among the critical design parameters are product quality, minimum product losses, reliable operation, simple operation and maintenance, and refrigeration economy.  Looking at the next generation of solutions, Antonio was looking at the two most commonly air blast-freezing systems, fluidized bed freezers and spiral systems. The former type produces a superior individually quick frozen food product, answering round-the-clock volume-freezing needs, perfect for large slabs of broccoli. A self-stacking spiral freezer, on the other hand, delivers impressive quality but only good (but not great) throughput. Since its capacity is severed limited so you would use it for high quality and expensive food.

Antonio knew that someday he would employ its unique freezing zone, driven by the frictionless drive system, gives greater food safety, quality, and gentle food handling. Once it got its volumes up, this would likely be the next generation Chopin Air Blaster. However, time is time; he would likely leave that decision to the next President of the Company. His granddaughter, Sophie, had inherited his love of the business plus an impressive ability to smell out the bad broccoli so the legend would likely live on through her.  She didn’t have the golden nose but she instinctively knew how to run a business.

Even as a child, she would listen to him tell stories about equipment (“the freezer is the most expensive part of the processing line”) and accounting principles (“energy consumption, labor and maintenance, downtime, and product losses from dehydration are crucial factors to take into determining profit”) with rapt attention. And when she listened, she made little farms and used her little trucks to move her produce to the factory. The kid was a natural and Antonio knew the legend loomed large within her.

As a high school student, she would employ her food knowledge in all subjects; from physics when building machines to economics when debating the nuances of supply and demand. She could equally argue both sides of a rather mundane subject of food labeling laws in debate as well as argue convincingly the roles of government and the FDA in political science. The night when she graduated from High School, she pigeonholed her grandfather and asked for a job.

“You have a job with me,” said her Grandfather.

“A paying job, Poppa” said Sophia. “I want to work with you and run the plant.”

Antonio was flattered. His children were born into luxury and showed no interest in the plant; they were gracious and polite but extremely lazy and somewhat slow-witted. His three children had no idea about quality of frozen foods and when Antonio talked of his business, their slightly uni-browed expressions would go bored and their limited minds would immediately wander elsewhere. But his oldest son’s daughter Sophie was a natural. She was purposely falling into hoppers and charming the production crews into allowing her to teach her all tricks on the loud and impressive machinery in the various buildings and could drive a forklift at the age of eight (a separate story in itself). She knew each building’s name, what it did and why it was important. When the family got together, she would pepper her Grandfather with thousands of questions and give him numerous, credible improvements.

So, on the night of her high school graduation, she asked him again. As she asked, he welled up with pride at her passion and desire to be part of something as pure as Chopin Broccoli.

“Grandpa, give me a job.”

“Okay, you have a job.”

“What is the job?”

“You will be President.”

“Quit kidding, Grandpa. I want to start at the bottom, start in Brigadier.”

“No, you will be President. But you will wait four years or maybe six if you get your Masters.”

“What? You promised I could work for you.”

“You can, but you have to go to college. The day you graduate, you become President.”

Sophie agreed and worked, in a paid role, for the summer. Each year, she arrived back to work and took lunch with the crews. She had been such a fixture around the buildings that the whole company treated her as their child. She was remembered by everyone growing up and everyone seemed to have a story about her and her Grandfather when asked.

The current president and father, Antonio, was also not slowing down and in preparation for her ascension, joined with his father to force her to co-publish numerous articles in the trades about best practices. During her undergraduate years, both Russell and Antonio were hot properties and was sought out as guest lecturers despite barely possessing a high school diploma between them. As the foremost expert on broccoli quality, Russell began to make the rounds, each spring to the major agriculture universities promoting a combination of old world ante dotes and cutting edge quality processes. As he got older, he would play a role of a small town craftsman and pad out onto the stage and address the advanced graduates with a quiet unassuming voice. Finally, one day, unbeknownst to Sophie, he stood up at her Food Science Master’s class.

“Before I begin my remarks,” he would ask, “I want to be respectful of your time. Soon, you will be asked to give a majority of your waking hours in the pursuit of food quality.”

He would pause and ask, “Are there any question before I start? I would rather answer your questions and make sure you got something out of this lecture than prattle on as an old man confirming his own prejudices.”

Usually the lecture hall remained quiet and Sophie sat transfixed. This likely immigrant was a legend in the food processing world and had contributed many scholarly papers and was cited in hundreds of industry papers. He had honorary degrees piling up monthly but he liked to turn the tables on his audience. One day, after he opened with the humble remarks, an unidentified voice from the back said, “Don’t tell me something I can read in a book, and give me something that I can use.”

The crowed gasped. An apparent smart ass from the back broke the reverent silence.

Russell smiled and said, “Too many people rely on visual defects, such as EVM but don’t rely on your eyes. One has to reach into the hopper and feel the uniform coolness of the harvested broccoli and let your fingers feels for poorly trimmed broccoli, over mature or poorly developed broccoli in which individual buds are in various stages of size and maturing and the death knell of broccoli: fibrous and woody portions which will guarantee both a loss of flavor and an annoying toughness that takes away all eating enjoyment.”

Then, he pulled out a pocket copy of the International Code of Practice and General Principles of Food Hygiene, published by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and while waving it said, “Who asked me that question?”

The students in the lecture hall leaned either left or right and formed an open path up the seats until the path stopped at a dark haired older graduate student. The graduate student smiled back at Antonio and said, “That was me.”

“That was a good question. Do you like broccoli?”

“It’s okay but there are other vegetables and fruits that intrigue me more.”

“Okay, find one or two that you care about and apply these standards.” He tossed the paperback book directly at the student and demonstrated no surprise when it landed elegantly on the center of the student's desk. “I know you don’t want a book but since we can’t be walking my California fields, this isn’t a bad start.”

“Thank you,” said the student. “Why don’t you tell me why you like broccoli?”

“I like broccoli because my father and his father liked broccoli. I enjoy eating it and I enjoy packaging so people across the country can enjoy it. A good quality broccoli should have dark or bright green closed florets, and the head should be firm to your hand with a cleanly cut stalk of the required length.  It is a beautiful, nutritious vegetable by itself and a sinful, wonderful vegetable when covered in other flavors like cheese, bacon and garlic."

“You make it sound beautiful.”

“In a sense it is. I wouldn’t insult John Keats and call it a joy forever but there is not arguing its beauty in its own right.”

“You are lucky that you enjoyed your father’s business.”

Right then, Antonio walked in and answered the question. When he began speaking, the crowd took in a synchronized inhale of air. The two legends were together in public, representing a common passion for something that had no right to be revered.

“I hated my father’s business," said Antonio. "Back in those days, hygiene and regulations were only crazy ideas. If you got your finger cut off on the line, that was too bad. The line kept going and you went home. My father made me work in the factory, unpaid, and I was ostracized as the boss’s kid. I was initially resented because I was likely taking the place of some worker who had a family to feed.”

The lecture hall was quiet.

"However, when I began to gain wisdom I realized my father wasn't a bad guy and I couldn't continue to act like a martyr. I came to work because he was there and I prospered because he was there. No one put a stalk to my head, I was drawn to it as it was exciting and in need of people who cared."

"You had a nose for the business," said Russell. The story of the hopper was legendary and most the students had heard some iteration of it. The crowd collectively exhaled.

“Broccoli is like anything: you can suffer through floret yellowing, fight bacterial decay, hunting down and preventing fungal pathogens before breakfast,” said Russell.

“What else?” instinctively said Sophie without knowing that she actually said that out loud.

“Learn to love what you do,” said her Grandfather. He responded without giving the audience a clue on her relation to him. His voice and mannerisms were the same as when he began. “Know what you grow, know what cultivation really means.”

Another voice said, “What is the shelf life for broccoli?”

“It varies from 12 to 20 days,” said Antonio automatically, “but appearance of any yellow beads effectively means the end of shelf-life."

“What is the ideal temperature for storing broccoli?”

“That would be five degrees Celsius or forty-one degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure you have a relative humidity of ninety-five percent,” answered Russell as if he was reading off a crib sheet. 

“What is the etymology of ‘broccoli’ and are there other words that are used for it?”

“The vegetable 'broccoli' is a member of the Cole Crop group and is classified as a botanical variety of the species Brassica Oleracea. In the United Kingdom, the crop in that country is referred to as 'calabrese' and," said Antonio.

"The term 'broccoli' in the United Kingdom," continued Russell, "is often applied to a winter-hardy cauliflower, planted in the field in the late summer and maturing to a normal white curd the following spring.”

The original heckler said, “Stop asking those questions. Your textbook has all that. It is a beautiful day outside, let the Chopins go outside and enjoy it.”

Russell smiled and nodded. “I thank you for your time. My last word of advice is to learn to love what you do: As my new friend in the back with the bad haircut says, and I concur, ‘Don’t spend your time reading it in books, learn something.’”

They gathered up with materials and slowly walked up the steps in the lecture hall to sincere applause. Russell paused at almost every step to accept congratulations from a student and he eventually got to Sophie and shook her hand. She beamed at him and he smiled.

“Ask Mr. Bad Haircut out for a drink,” he said. “He reminds me of us.”

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