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(post, Joan Menefee)
Innovation, research, and scientific experimentation have been much on my mind lately. Accordingly, I have been seeing examples of these phenomena in unlikely places: In the woods. Around the campfire. And alongside the maple-syrup evaporator. Early this spring, during a classroom discussion about “analysis” (not easy to teach, I tell you), a student asked me if I had heard of Six Sigma, a process-improvement technique that he had encountered in the military. Six Sigma was originally conceived to reduce product defects in manufactured goods. Think large-scale factories, dozens of moving parts, and teams of managers each responsible for a set of those many parts learning how to collaborate. Also not easy. Because I am better versed in 19th-century American history and public-television cooking shows than just about anything else, I had to admit that I hadn’t heard of Six Sigma. But I got curious. Following a link the student sent me, I found a veritable forest of process-improvement methods, including the beautifully named Blue Skies Research, a paradigm some folks consider the nemesis of Six Sigma. Where Six Sigma is governed by detailed rules that allow managers to gnaw patiently on problems, Blue Skies Research gives people space and time and as few rules as possible, the better to produce anti-sequential solutions. I guess you could call this yet another reframing of the Hedgehog and Fox dichotomy that Isaiah Berlin hatched in 1953. What looks like humorless plodding to one person is simply efficient focus for another. Likewise, sometimes it’s ADD/ADHD; sometimes, it’s creativity. [%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Wintergreen and syrup."] The corky food experiments I saw conducted in the woods this spring exhibited both Six Sigma and Blue Skies mindsets. When our friends [mix/dinnerguest/duluthisforsausagelovers "Curt and Melissa"] brought their family for a visit, Melissa wove a toasting structure from basswood twigs. Moritz, a student from Germany living with their family this year, and Devin, my husband, opened a coconut (younger daughter Greta’s birthday request) with a brace-and-bit normally used to tap maples. And Greta developed a stick-bread dough-application method that resembled nothing so much as a glassblower gathering molten glass. At times, sugar camp was like '"Gilligan’s there were so many experiments afoot. I expected to see a bamboo bicycle at any moment. The work paid off: Melissa made fresh sandwich bread for her grilled pork chop, we all got coconut water, and Greta drew cheers when her dough successfully baked into a roll. In each case, I noticed the emergence of critique and caution among our party. We went from “Whoa, what’re you doing?” to “I see how that could work” all the way to “What if you did it like this?” in a heartbeat. Humans seem naturally to care for each other’s discoveries and, in the right frame of mind (which the sugar bush almost always seems to produce), none of the commentary was taken as discouragement. We worked together to keep the projects going, intuitively understanding that the originator of the experiment had the final word. The day was capped by Devin teaching Moritz how to ride a birch, which, though not innovative, certainly requires pluck. [%image joanie float=right width=400 caption="The author, a sled, and her dog."] Inspired by those projects, Devin and I infused a batch of maple syrup with wintergreen leaves. Though there was a faint minty bite to the whiskey-and-butter finish of the batch, we agreed that next time, we would wait to add the leaves until the syrup was off the flame, to avoid the leaves breaking down too much and imparting bitterness during the infusion period. We expect good things of Wintergreen Maple 2.0. Perhaps it is useful to think about such activity as Blue Skies Cooking. Keys to good food research (or innovation of any kind) express themselves in these slight and odd pastimes my friends and family undertook. It’s good to see food out of its normal context. It’s good to bring a little less into the woods than you might need, the better to see the potential of the stuff around you. It’s good to allow tools to express their value in novel uses, as it is good to allow people to show you sides of themselves they normally conceal. It doesn’t really matter if you swing Six Sigma or Blue Skies, or if you consider yourself a fox or a hedgehog, or even if you think all process enhancement is business jargon and bunk. The point is that you’re looking, that you’re hungry, and that you have a German exchange student around to help you out.