Monday, September 4, 2017

Some laborers have jobs machines just can't do

    Happy Labor Day! Typically I'd post my Monday column from the Sun-Times here. But scheduling interceded. Wanting to have a columnist in the paper every blessed day—see, it's not just me—my boss asked if they could nudge me to Tuesday this week, and, accommodating chap that I am, I heartily agreed.
    So what to run today? I could write something, but Tuesday's story is rather complicated—it involves shipping—and as this is a holiday, I hope you don't mind something out of the vault. Deep from the vault; almost a quarter century. This leapt to mind, for the range of workers it shows—and no, the photographs don't go with it, but rather illustrate various working folks I've encountered over the years.
     But only one guy like the man deboning whitefish in this story. He made a deep impression on me, because he was happy, grateful for his job. At least he said he was. Many times, I've told myself, if that guy deboning whitefish in a cold room can do it for 13 years, you can do this.
     The Fish House, by the way, is long gone — there's a Lexus dealer there now. So is Alfred Dunhill. And Brach's, which took a thousand jobs with it to Mexico, victim of our daft sugar tariffs. Something to keep in mind now that we've got an unfit, unhinged president with his erratic hand on our trade policy tiller.

     One hundred pounds an hour, the whitefish fillets are set before Christ Kostakis. One hundred pounds an hour, Kostakis runs his naked left hand gently over the chilly fish, caressing it, feeling it, probing for tiny pin bones as thick as a blade of grass.
     One hundred pounds an hour, he takes a needle nose pliers and removes the 32 or so bones in an average fish fillet.   

     "You don't see the bones, you feel them," says Kostakis, who has done this at the Chicago Fish House, 1250 W. Division, for 13 years, explaining why he cannot wear a glove to protect himself from the 40 degree temperature.
     "The whitefish has soft meat," adds Carl Mitsakopoulos, treasurer of the Fish House. "A machine would tear up the meat. If you do it by hand, the meat comes out whole instead of ragged - better eye appeal and better quality."
     In this technical age, with the robots of mass production clicking away, it is useful to remember that in reality this is not always the case.
     Just as a machine hasn't been made that can pick pin bones without destroying a whitefish fillet, so there are a surprising range of jobs that are still filled by humans because no machine can do them properly.
     The best cigars, for instance, are still hand-rolled, because machines just cannot handle the variation of natural tobacco leaves.
     "The handmade cigar has to be all tobacco leaf, typically top quality leaf," says Hal Ross, humidor manager at Alfred Dunhill, which sells tobacco at Water Tower Place. "And it makes a huge difference."
     Likewise, the Brach's candy complex on Kinzie Avenue, the largest candy factory in the world, at first seems a wonder of automation. Computers control the big vats that feed into automated ovens, and dozens of varieties are made at the same time in one hygienic maze of production and automation, the armies of cherry cordials and chocolate stars untouched by human hands.
     Except for one thing: those hard peppermints, with the pictures in the center. Sometimes a Christmas tree, sometimes a flag, sometimes a heart. It seems that no machine can make those little mint pictures without making them look all messy.
     So the images are created by hand: each of the myriad mints that leave the factory each year, bearing a tiny original image.
     When the corn syrup candy used to make the mints comes out of huge pressure cookers, it's the color and consistency of petroleum jelly. Workers refer to the substance as "glass."
     Strong men then take the warm blobs and carry them over to stone tables, where they are worked by hand, pressed with metal bars, kneaded and folded while colorings are added, turning them electric greens and hot pinks, deep roses and searing blues.
     The colored "glass" is tugged into long shapes, which a candy artist then works into a picture. Using his hands, powdered in sugar, each man forms what is basically a giant mint - a disc that's more than two feet in diameter, weighing about 100 pounds, with an image surrounded by white peppermint. Each one is slightly different.
     Then the big aromatic blob is hefted into an extruder, a machine that begins slowly turning the disc until it is transformed into a long rope of candy. The rope, when sliced into segments, reveals hundreds and hundreds of quarter-sized mints, each containing a perfect, tiny, handmade rose.
     Food manufacturing is often so labor intensive because machines frequently just can't make the kind of subtle distinctions that a human can.
    "You have to detect sours, ferments, medicinal tastes and off-aromas from a quick sampling," says Wayne Thomas who, along with a staff of three, spends his days "continuously" tasting coffee brewed from the semitrailers of beans arriving at Richheimer Coffee on North Halsted—150 cups a day, by his estimate.
     Asked whether a machine could do what he does, Thomas seemed to savor the challenge of constructing an imaginary one.
     "They could run a sample of coffee through high-pressure, liquid chromotography and determine what compounds are present," he says. "Then go through a statistical analysis of how many people say this is a good cup of coffee versus the spectral analysis of the product. Then they might be able to correlate the information and submit the sample to the instrument, which might then identify an ideal coffee taste profile because of the presence of certain components in coffee . . . "
     But is there any chance of anybody going to that trouble and expense anytime soon?
     "Nah," says Thomas, who, amazingly, sometimes drinks coffee on his off hours. "Coffee is really a strange animal. It is somewhat subtle. It's an individual thing."

                  —Originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 27, 1992


  1. See "Dilbert" cartoon for today.


    By the way, I'm sure many people out there have removed pin bones from fish fillets. My efforts generally mangle the texture and usually miss a bone or two. I always ponder Sherwood Anderson's fate every time I eat fish that I've prepared. [I wasn't all that sure that Anderson choked to death on a fish bone and so looked it up. I was right that I was wrong -- it was a toothpick according to Wikipedia.]

    1. Perhaps Kostakis packed up and moved to Winesburg, under the impression that his services were needed.

  2. A fine selection for Labor Day. I can't tell if Richheimer Coffee is still around these days, or not. Starbucks had their IPO and 165 stores in 1992, when this was written. (22,519 as of 2015, FWIW.) Intelligentsia wouldn't open for another 3 years. There couldn't have been many old-school coffee companies that anticipated what was happening to the simple idea of a cup of coffee. On the upside, coffee shops seem to be quite the human-labor-intensive enterprises...

    Something else that machines evidently haven't figured out how to do? Pick the cars, road signs and bridges out of a segmented photographic background, like we trusty commenters can! ; )

  3. 300 farmers in North Dakota kept their sugar beet farms while at least 10,000 people in Northern Illinois lost their candy factory jobs due to our sugar quota insanity!
    Since the candy factories moved to Mexico & even Canada, they use cheap Cuban sugar, so we're now importing Cuban sugar through the back door.


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