Sometimes Better Isn’t Better

It has been said that smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. Think about it… how often do you walk by a restaurant or an ice cream parlor, and the smells wafting into your nostrils transport you back to another place and time?

Last week I decided to cook Italian Sausage with peppers and onions for dinner. As the sausages were sizzling in one pan, I dumped a bowl of sliced green peppers and sweet onions into another.

As the aromas rose from the stove and co-mingled around my head, I was immediately taken back to an event from my youth, one that occurred every September. This annual experience was one of my very favorites, until the year someone tried to “improve it” and in doing so, ruined it forever.

Girl Scouts are known for selling cookies and in recent years, the Boy Scouts have become synonymous with popcorn. However, the popcorn thing is fairly recent. When I was a Boy Scout in the 1980s, fundraising was different for every troop.

Some troops sold Christmas Trees, other Troops sold coupon books, but my Troop sold Italian Sausages with peppers & onions, once a year, at the Penfield Country Fair Days.

If you’ve never been to upstate NY during the non-snowing months, it is important for you to know it is the “land of festivals.” Every Saturday from May to October, you can find a festival within thirty miles celebrating something. The “mac-daddy” of them all is the 10-day Rochester Lilac Festival, but most others are only a single weekend, extolling the virtues of everything from apples to garlic to grapes. The one in my town of Penfield NY was late in the season, usually the weekend after Labor Day.

The Penfield Country Fair Days weren’t focused on anything specific, but in my youth it was a huge deal.

Late Friday afternoon, the main road through town would be closed, and vendors of all types would arrive to set up their booths. The recreation department would have crafts and activities planned for the kids, and by 10:00am Saturday, there would be thousands of people roaming the center of town, buying crafts, eating fatty, fried foods and enjoying the last vestiges of sun before the snow flew.

It was in the not-so-healthful food department that Troop 9 made their mark.

From the opening of the event “until gone,” the boys and dads of Troop 9, served up shimmering links of locally made Italian sausages, mounted on fresh-baked rolls and piled high with peppers and onions, lovingly fried in sausage grease on a giant propane griddle we borrowed from the Rotary Club. The Dads did the cooking and the boys did the selling, alongside the sausages we sold cans of soda. From the moment we opened until the food was gone, the line was 3-4 people deep. You could smell the goodness for a mile.

In one day we made enough money to fund the troop for the entire year.

Now, to sell at such a furious pace required quite a bit of prep work. The sausages came ready to cook, the rolls came pre-sliced, but the peppers and onions were a different story.

On the Friday night before the big event, the entire troop would descend on a single home to chop.

Since Boy Scouts are well acquainted with knives, every member of my troop would arrive with the largest, most menacing blade they could manage to sneak out of their house. The giant knife below was the one I brought every year.


The mighty Nazarian Blade

Bragging rights went to those with the biggest, meanest knives. Ridicule would of course fall on the untutored Tenderfoot who showed up with a pedestrian paring knife… or worse a pocketknife. This was a mistake you made only once.

We would all arrive around 6:00pm, and atop paper covered folding tables the boys would slice hundreds of pounds of giant Spanish onions and green bell peppers the size of grapefruits. The vegetables came in giant food-service sized mesh bags, and after literally being cut to ribbons by the eager boys, they were combined into big black garbage bags to be stored overnight.


The fruits of our labor

We would slice for hours. You had to alternate between peppers and onions because doing more than one or two onions in a row caused pretty severe tears to fall. When the task was done, the boys would get pizza and if memory serves, the Dads enjoyed a beer or two.

This was a functional tradition, but also a right of passage for every member of Troop 9. Ask anyone who was there and they will confirm it was one of the best nights of the year.

Year after year, the tradition went on as I have just described until…

The last year I remember (probably because it was the last one I attended), we were all to gather at the home of a new scout. His father (an engineer) had volunteered to host the event. We all arrived as we had in the past, with each boy proudly presenting his chosen knife for the year. The bags of produce were already lined up along one wall of the garage and a row of newspaper-covered tables were waiting for the mêlée to begin.

It was then that it happened.

The father who’s garage we were in, spoke up and said the following:

Okay boys, this year you only need to core the peppers and cut them in half, peel the onions and cut them in half.

He then pulled out two 1980s era food processors. We were to do as he said, and the Dads would do the rest using their new-fangled machines. Being dutiful scouts, we did what we were told, but instead of hours of manly chopping and fellowship, mixed with pubescent bravado, the whole thing was over in 45 minutes.


The offending mechanical chopper

When the pizza was served, none of us felt like we had actually earned it. The next day as we served food to the gathered throngs, it didn’t feel the same – it was almost like we had cheated on an exam.

When the chopping was done, the two Dads stood by their Cuisinarts and truly believed they had done a good thing. If you measured it on a spreadsheet you couldn’t argue the contrary, but in their effort to “do better,” they managed to kill the spirit of the tradition.

Companies are constantly trying to improve efficiencies. Leaders, using systems like ISO and six-sigma are in ongoing pursuit of the almighty “bigger-better-faster-more.”

Here’s the thing… life is not always about how fast or efficiently you can get things done.

As you head into your week, make sure your efforts to “improve” something don’t inadvertently ruin something else. Better isn’t always better… sometimes it is way worse.

Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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