The Other Recycling Business

Cars fueled with dead cow? That’s what Jim Andreoli has in mind, and he’s building a huge biodiesel plant near downtown to prove it
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One night last December, in the kitchen of the steak house Cut at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, an eight-ounce wagyu rib eye was pulled by a cook from a stainless steel drawer, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then quickly transferred to the Montague broiler. Each movement occurred under the quiet, consuming gaze of Ari Ro-senson, Cut’s executive chef. In Los Ange-les few people know more about flesh and fat than Rosenson. He has run Cut’s kitchen since its debut in 2006, and unlike many steak house chefs, he enjoys rummaging through the contents of a steer. He serves short ribs, sweetbreads, liver and marrow, veal cheeks, veal chops, and tongue. Half the weight of a wagyu rib eye can be pure fat, and every action in Rosenson’s kitchen is carried out with the conservation of that fat in mind. Raw, the wagyu fat resembles tiny dots. “Like pixels,” says Rosenson. “Like looking at a TV real close.” Hold the rib eye too long in your hand, however, and the pixels warm and migrate to the steak’s surface. Rosenson knows his steaks are vehicles of fat delivery. Fat is their flavor, and at around $10 an ounce, their currency, and the chef has designed Cut’s kitchen from cold drawer to waiter as a pipeline that conveys a precious lipid. Not a drop is to be lost.

Only one person at Cut that evening knew more about flesh and fat than Rosenson, and it happened to be the man for whom the rib eye in the Montague was bound. Jim Andreoli is a renderer, a job not many people are familiar with these days. Last year a total of 35 million head of cattle were slaughtered for consumption in the United States. So were 115 million hogs and 9.5 billion chickens. Cut may serve more of the steer than other restaurants, but it barely touches the whole animal. Once dressed, a little less than half a steer reaches the kitchen—the same is about true for hogs and poultry—meaning the equivalent of about 17 million steer, 57 million hogs, and billions of chickens went uneaten last year. Where did they go? A lot of them ended up on Andreoli’s doorstep.

Andreoli’s company, Baker Commodities, which he runs with his father and two brothers, is the oldest rendering business in L.A. and the largest on the West Coast. Its headquarters and main plant are located in Vernon, south of downtown, on a piece of land that could hold Union Station. In 2008, some 250 U.S. rendering plants like Baker took in 54 billion pounds of killed livestock—blood, bone, guts, legs, hide, muscle, and head, the detritus of slaughter—warmed the raw material in cookers, and squeezed out a clear liquid called tallow. One of Andreoli’s eight national plants can produce nearly a million pounds of tallow in a week’s time. The fat molecules found in tallow are malleable and wonderfully versatile: Glycerin, stearic acid, and other additives common to skin and beauty products are made from them. In all, more than 3,000 industrial products contain Andreoli’s half of the steer, and wherever he let his eyes settle that night at Cut, the renderer could spot his work.

Rendered steer was likely in the shampoo, hair conditioner, and shaving cream that the attorney sitting at the table directly before him had used that morning, and in the eye makeup and hand lotion worn by the lawyer’s date. In the form of bovine collagen, it plumped the lips of the Chanel-clad woman seated to Andreoli’s right, and if she had used mouthwash that day, or toothpaste or deodorant, it was in those, too. There was a good chance that rendered beef was in the plywood of the restaurant’s subfloor, in the lacquer above it and the floor wax above that, in the paint on the walls, the soap in the kitchen, the rubber around the sink, the sealant on the rubber, the fire extinguisher on the wall, and the plates on the tables. Andreoli’s work was even to be seen on the dining room walls, chemically integrated into a pair of Martin Schoeller photographs hanging behind him: a caramel-colored Brad Pitt and the pale gristle that is Christopher Walken, one lip curled like a dead, dry spider.

Andreoli is 55 years old and has a leonine head of hair, a nose that sails right off his face, and a chin that would make George Clooney weep. He grew up in Whittier and lives in nearby La Habra, but there is a soft-hewn intelligence about him that suggests a career in the heartland. Driving his Ford pickup, dressed in a checked shirt and smoking a hand-carved pipe, Andreoli resembles the American farmer in repose, and dressed that night in a simple brown suit and a pink tie, he looked like a cattleman on the town. He does not talk like one. A couple of weeks after I met Andreoli, he turned to me in the car and asked, “What would you think about forming a literary salon with me?” He sounded like a man asking for advice on building a wall; a life boiling down cows has left him a little starved for intellectual companionship. He loves fat. He is boyish and expressive, and nothing races his mind like thoughts of gorgeous cholesterol. He asks for “double bacon” at breakfast, a heavy rib eye for dinner, and says, “I love the flavor of fat like I do a beautiful painting I don’t understand—a thing that just blows you away and makes you go, ‘Wow, what the heck is that?’ ”

At the table Andreoli was amazed by Rosenson’s skills. Upon tasting the Kobe sashimi he remarked, “Oh man, wow, yeah—there we go!” and after sampling the veal tongue he was heard to remark, “Tender, so tender—oh geez, is that good. Check it out!” Andreoli usually ventures no farther than Ruth’s Chris for dinner, and so when a waiter dropped off a plate of roasted marrowbones, he approached the hot femur segments with caution. A bone was delicately lifted into the air, when—whoosh—its creamy fat emptied onto the plate. Dismayed, Andreoli looked to me, at his plate, and then to the passing waiter. “Dude!” he said. “It all came out!”

As plastic, glass, have second careers, so do flesh and fat. At Andreoli’s plant in Vernon, trucks arrive daily ferrying loads of slaughterhouse material that is dumped into a blood-washed pit. Mondays, the pit is quiet, but on Tuesdays, the 18-wheelers steam in—loads of chicken parts from La Puente, cow guts from Fresno. The reclaiming of fat from dead flesh is gory and alarmingly fragrant. In the pit, carcasses are ground into a slurry by a station-wagon-size auger, pumped into a series of vats that cook them, and then pushed through filters that strain out impurities.

Within an hour tallow as clear as canola oil pours from a pipe in the cooking shed. From another pipe flies a fluffy brown protein called meat-and-bone meal. The tallow is stored at the Vernon plant in three-story tanks that warm the liquid to keep it from solidifying or is shipped out immediately to meet orders that arrive at Baker’s sales office. Raked clean, the meal is sold off to feed blenders, who use it as a protein additive in livestock diets. In this country rendered cattle are fed to hogs and poultry, rendered chicken and pigs are fed to cattle, and everything is fed to fish.

Baker seizes on fat wherever it can: dairy cows that have died in the heat of the Central Valley, the trimmings left over from the purchase of a Niman Ranch roast at Whole Foods, steaks and chickens whose shelf life at Pavilions has expired. The company retrieves grease from deep fryers at McDonald’s and the drippings of ribs in the Vons hot section. Rendering is the most elemental form of recycling, the regeneration of the dead into soap and scented creams. It has existed for millennia in societies, and its reach in modern America is staggering. We live in a vast cycle of fat reclamation, one that stretches from the killing floors of the Midwest to our medicine cabinets, making a stop along the way at the local Burger King.

Every restaurant and fast-food stand in L.A. has a fat reservoir called a grease trap, usually secreted under the parking lot. A trap may strain as much as 15,000 gallons of liquid fat from a kitchen’s drains, though the speed at which it fills depends on what’s cooking upstairs. A Burger King trap can take three months to fill, while an El Pollo Loco trap might need to be emptied in weeks. There are tens of thousands of grease traps citywide, each a promising revenue source for rendering companies. Baker taps around 8,000 of them.

All night long, tanker trunks exit the Vernon plant, leaving on routes whose typical destination is a cold manhole in a dark parking lot. One evening I accompanied a driver named Alex Lopez into South L.A. Lopez wore a miner’s flashlight on his forehead and lifted a shovel with a 12-foot handle at our first stop—a fast-food stand near Florence and Normandie. After flipping the trap’s steel lid, he trained his light beam into a white cavern of thick grease that was the size of a bedroom.

“See that?” Lopez asked, pointing his shovel blade at the slopping mass. “You got your grease, your food remnants, your french fries in here.” He scraped at the cavern’s walls before dropping in a vacuum hose to suck the grease into his truck. The trap’s congealed interior was on its way to becoming cattle feed. Later it would be cleaned in Vernon, and then, along with the old cooking oil that Baker also recycles, shipped to feedlots and sprayed on corn fed to livestock—adding to their flesh the fat we prize. “This is good and loose,” Lopez said, stirring the bone-colored foam with his shovel. “In a trap that hasn’t been cleaned well, the grease solidifies. You got to get in there and break up the chunks by hand.”

Until recently, a food supplement for livestock was about the only use for grease. With the advent of biodiesel, however, a whole new market has emerged. The nation’s largest rendering company, Darling International, announced plans last fall to erect a biodiesel facility in San Francisco, and Baker is building a 10-million-gallon biodiesel plant in Vernon. Andreoli hopes biodiesel will re-label the most repellent form of recycling with a term anybody would love: “green.” Trying to convince stalwarts like his father, who has been rendering since 1951, has so far gone nowhere. “Green, green, green,” says Andreoli Sr. “It’s a new buzzword that’s as meaningless as ‘organic.’ ” Convincing the industry’s critics will be even harder because Andreoli isn’t only thinking about making biodiesel from old grease. He’s interested in getting a tank of gas from a cow.

As it turns out, about 40 pounds of good ground beef heated to 250 degrees will produce enough tallow to make a gallon of biodiesel. The process is insanely wasteful if cattle are raised for it alone; you’d need to boil an entire cow to fill your Chevy Volt. Yet there’s no shortage of cow remnants in slaughterhouses, and U.S. production of biodiesel from renderers has grown from 78,000 metric tons in 2007 to 400,000 metric tons in 2008.

Andreoli’s problem is that allies he should easily score—environmentalists, hipster armies in their corn-oil-fueled Benzes—view men like him as the hated opposition. Critics of the slaughter industry imagine nine circles of Hell when they contemplate their enemy. The largest of the circles is the wasteful production of corn crops for animal feed. Inside that circle one will find diseased feedlots awash in antibiotics, followed by inhumane veal and hog pens, followed by a room of horrors where caged hens suffer the surgical removal of their beaks to stop them from self-mutilation. The last circle of Hell is the rendering plant. Simply mentioning it sets activists on edge. “The rendering plant is the dirtiest and most disgusting of the dirty and disgusting industries,” says Bruce Friedrich, vice president of policy and government affairs at PETA. “When people learn about the rendering industry, they are often so disgusted that they start thinking of giving up meat consumption altogether.”

Such reactions play a large part in the industry’s self-imposed silence. Press for renderers has never been very good—Baker’s own headlines include the doozies “Accident Unloads 22 Cattle Carcasses” and “Outdoor Disposal of Horse Parts Called Inadvertent”—and men like Andreoli Sr. have chosen to keep a low profile.

Andreoli wants to change that. He sees the path he’s laid out for himself as momentous. By moving a company his father helped build into biodiesel, and at the same time moving Baker into public scrutiny, he wants to close the gap between himself and his industry’s critics. Common sense would appear to be on his side: You cannot safely landfill 54 billion tons of carcasses a year, nor can you pass down our sewers a quarter of the fat cities produce without stopping them up. Still, breaking the silence worries him.

“Renderers are a pretty closed-off group of people,” Andreoli said to me. We were sitting in his office. “So far, everyone I know has told me that I’m crazy to go public with what we do for a living.” Andreoli paused and then said, “Either I’m the stupidest renderer in the world, or something good will come from all of this.”

*****

It was 11 a.m., and the Tule fog that blankets the Central Valley on winter mornings had burned off. Andreoli steered his pickup off Highway 99 and onto a thin line of farmland asphalt, heading west toward a Baker plant near Visalia. The Ford, powered by a 351-cubic-inch engine to which Andreoli had attached a supercharger, hummed along past ghostly fields rimmed with barren orchards. When Andreoli was growing up in Whittier in the ’60s, the area was nearly as rural as the Central Valley. Andreoli remembers men on horseback in Vernon lassoing runaway cattle along Bandini Boulevard. He visited killing floors with his father, nurturing a familiarity with animals and death that’s common on small farms. He hunted and fished, joined the Boy Scouts, discovered the Beach Boys, and built muscle cars that he raced on back roads. “I like American trucks, and I like American muscle,” Andreoli said, scanning the supercharger’s dials. “I like engines that go fast.”

Andreoli’s truck is a regular sight in the valley. Over the last 20 years the dairy business there has soared. Nearly a thousand dairies and more than a million cows reside between Bakersfield and Sacramento, cows that supply much of the nation’s milk and, if Andreoli gets his wish, will soon supply the state with gas. The valley’s dairy expansion would have been impossible without renderers. Many of the farms Andreoli’s truck slipped past once sat in such temperate cities as Garden Grove and Pomona. Development, however, pushed them out and pushed their livestock into a precarious existence. The area around Visalia is famous for its temperature fluctuations. They raise, or lower, the ambient heat by as much as 20 degrees a day.

“Cows can endure steady heat or cold,” said Andreoli, turning into the driveway of Baker’s dead-stock plant. “But the sudden shifts kill them.” Beside the plant’s mailbox lay an expired calf, left like an unclaimed letter. “Yeah,” Andreoli said, acknowledging the animal, “we pick them up when they die of natural causes for processing, but sometimes people drop them off.” During a regular workweek, Baker retrieves 1,500 dead cows for rendering. In one punishing week, in the summer of 2006, when temperatures soared to 110 degrees, the company hauled away 14,000 cows.

Three brothers, the Jeromes, started Baker in 1936. They were former manure haulers who switched to hauling dead cattle in the trunk of a 1921 Studebaker touring car because, they said, it was a step up in life. Jim Andreoli Sr. never planned to enter the rendering business. He wanted to be an accountant, and after he graduated from college in 1951, the only company hiring was Baker.

“When I walked in the first day,” says Andreoli Sr., “I nearly vomited—the smell was that bad.” He worked nights and weekends, learned how to run the plant, and was quickly made a partner. In 1955, Andreoli Sr. helped design the continuous rendering process. Instead of the nearly two days it took the Jeromes to cook a cow, a company could now render tens of thousands of pounds an hour amid a tangle of pumps, vats, piping, and filters. The Rube Goldberg device, a version of which operates in the cooking shed in Vernon, is still the industry standard. In 1985, Andreoli Sr. purchased the company with the idea that his sons would join him. “I knew that was the plan growing up,” says Andreoli. “My dad could make the job sound noble.”

Andreoli brought his Ford to a stop next to a structure that resembled an airplane hangar large enough to shelter a 747. Baker’s expansion in the valley has turned Andreoli into the company’s lobbyist, visiting Visalia, Fresno, or Sacramento, where regulatory issues concerning runoff and odor control proliferate around rendering plants. “This is where we hang ’em, skin ’em, chop ’em up into little pieces,” he said, getting out. “Then we send them north by truck to our other plant for rendering.” The calf on the corner had been replaced by a hill of 500 dead calves beside which rose a palisade of bloated cows. Nearby, a single pink calf hoof sat forlornly on the wet cement.

At another Baker plant, 50 or so miles north in Kerman, I stood once alongside Steve Dessauer, a genial brown-haired Chicago transplant in his late fifties who left retirement to manage the factory for Andreoli. Dessauer’s operation takes in some 700,000 pounds of chopped cow a day, much of which comes from Visalia and seemed that afternoon to be piled before us: shanks, heads, hearts, blood, and pink squiggles of intestine.

“See that blood running out?” Dessauer asked, pointing merrily at the gore. “This is nice, fresh stuff.” Like most renderers, Dessauer appeared to love his work and at the same time kept a wry sense of humor about it. “I look at this like it’s job security,” he said, hitching his pants. “We’ll never run out of dead animals.”

Whatever Dessauer saw, I could not. I knew I was looking at an alternative gas supply, but faced with the plain fact of livestock slaughter, one’s corneas begin to contract and the frontal lobe shuts down. The nose, however, does not. Stroll through a rendering plant and you traverse an entire ecology of microclimates: Smells of decay, bone, and burnt fat, along with the scent of new puppies, fill the air. A steamy film that reeks of meat clings to you, and fat globules dripping from high rafters stick to your face. Worst of all are the vats where restaurant grease is cleaned. In the heat men’s pores open, trapping a smell of congealed fat that stays on the skin for weeks. Baker veils its aroma with a product called Odor Mask that is constantly sprayed into the air, but its effects are limited. Standing near the cow mountain at the Visalia hangar, Andreoli had been joined by a plant manager. “Jimmy wants us to spray the vanilla scent 24 hours a day when it’s hot,” said the man, grinning sideways. “But it still smells like vanilla-flavored dead cow to me.”

The all-consuming death on display at Andreoli’s plants is an ancient fact. Romans may have been the first to record the technique of melting down animal fat to produce soap, yet they probably learned the skill from the Bedouins or the Celts. In the Middle Ages, Paris was renowned for its tallow candles; later Marseilles became known for its soap-making factories, which by the time of the French Revolution produced as much as 3,500 tons of soap a year. The Spanish, settling around missions and on ranchos in Alta California in the 18th century, built up the largest tallow trade in the Americas. Prior to the Gold Rush, California’s economy was largely based on rendering. Shipping routes between New England and the West Coast were established to move tallow and hides, and ports such as San Pedro were developed for renderers. The most famous early account of California in English, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, was reported on the deck of a tallow ship. So valuable was tallow in California that the cattle meat was left unwanted on hillsides, to be eaten by grizzly bears.

No matter tallow’s worth, renderers have never had to worry about being treated like bankers. The job may have been a step up from manure hauling for the Jeromes, but where did that leave them? Even in the slaughter industry, renderers have long been dismissed. In the 1980s, a restaurant called La Villa Basque was Vernon’s social equivalent of Spago. “The Basque was the power spot,” says Andreoli. “Everyone went there—good guys, bad guys, drinking like fish, getting fucked up. But not renderers—we were always looked down on. Every diner in the Basque was a customer of mine, but if I tried walking through the front door? Forget it. It was like, ‘Aw—fuckin’ renderers. Who let you guys in? Aren’t you supposed to use the back door?’ ”

The bottom rung of the business is the pet renderer. Though no agency tracks figures of pet disposal in the United States, most dogs and cats that die—whether in a shelter, a veterinarian’s office, or at home—likely end up in a rendering pot unless their owners bury them or request cremation. In L.A. a company named West Coast Rendering does this work. West Coast is quiet about its operation, but contracts held with Kern, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Ventura, and L.A. counties require it to process pets and roadkill. The material—a mix of dogs, cats, snakes, sea lions, raccoons, and birds—is cooked in the same manner as livestock. The impure tallow that’s produced, called yellow grease, is shipped out to be blended into cattle feed. In 2004, a vice president of West Coast testified that his company daily received 75 tons of Southern California’s pets and wild animals for cooking.

Baker Commodities does not process pets. But it has had its difficulties. Five years ago a Baker plant in Washington rendered the remains of a dairy cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Commonly known as mad cow disease, BSE kills the animal by attacking its nerve tissue and is believed to stem from the practice of feeding BSE-infected bovine meat-and-bone meal to cattle. The disease’s infectious agent, called a prion, is able to survive in brain and spinal cord tissue even after it’s been rendered, making BSE highly transmissible between cattle and between cattle and humans. In the United Kingdom more than 250 people were diagnosed with the disease after an outbreak in the 1980s, and a U.S. ban on feeding bovine meat-and-bone meal to cattle has been in place since 1997.

On making the discovery, Baker recalled several weeks’ worth of produced meal and then went public with its find. What ensued was a national media event, a global food panic, and a temporary slowdown in the U.S. beef industry. Thirteen months later, in 2005, the Government Accountability Office issued a review of the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of the rendering and feed-blending industries. By default, renderers have been made gatekeepers protecting the nation from another BSE outbreak. It is renderers, not slaughterhouses, that must remove brain and spine tissue from carcasses before cooking. It is renderers, not feed blenders, that must ensure that bovine meat-and-bone meal is not mislabeled and fed to cattle.

The GAO made troubling discoveries, but these concerned the FDA. The agency, according to the report, didn’t even know whom it should be monitoring. The FDA lacked clear procedures to identify firms that were dealing with meat-and-bone meal, and it didn’t require those it had identified to detail how they were processing the stuff. If renderers were dealt with softly in the report, they weren’t let off so easily by the industry’s staunchest critic, PETA. Andreoli would say Baker’s decision to go public with its BSE find and to recall several weeks’ worth of production is proof of the industry’s transparency. The opposite is the case, says PETA vice president Friedrich. He maintains that most renderers possessing a BSE-infected carcass would sooner process it than turn it over to the FDA and risk economic hardship. “They have the financial incentive to violate the law,” says Friedrich.

A few years ago Andreoli was attending a convention of the National Renderers Association when he found himself momentarily excited about his industry. “My problem with the NRA has been that I don’t fit in,” Andreoli says. “They revel in political conservatism and the party line, and I think differently.” Yet on that day Andreoli was happy to see an “environmental committee” listed in the program. “I was like, ‘Finally—something I can contribute to. I won’t have to sit here all day holding my tongue.’ Then I walk in and—fuck—they’re strategizing how they’re going to fight environmentalists.”

An industry that has been left alone for decades tends to be libertarian in its outlook. Among renderers, Andreoli is an unusual figure. He is a natural defender of free markets, a herald of deregulation, yet within his Vernon office—which usually resembles the aftermath of an IED blast—Andreoli keeps a messy pile of Sierra Club newsletters and an anti-George Bush bumper sticker on prominent display. He can sound more Republican than he is (he’s not), more liberal than circumstances allow, older than he looks, younger than his age, too conscious of the burden of taking over the family business, and completely lost in his thoughts—all at the same time. He was called “the Seeker” by his family because he was a dreamy kid, always reading, and he still gets so impassioned by new ideas that he forgets where he is. “My biggest problem,” says Andreoli, “is that I get caught up in something new but then move on as soon as I find the chance.”

“Jimmy’s problem is that he thinks faster than he can talk,” says his father, and this is never more apparent than when Andreoli is homilizing about the latest venture commanding his life—biodiesel, say, or the 40-acre vineyard he recently purchased in Paso Robles, or an upcoming surf trip. As a kid, Andreoli swam competitively until he fell into the Pacific for good. “By the time I was 16,” says Andreoli, “my whole reason for living was to surf.”

In the early ’70s, two schools of surfing were practiced in Southern California. There were gonzo surfers like Corky Carroll, who went after big waves and bigger moves, and then there were the Zen masters, guys like Gerry Lopez—Mr. Pipeline—who drew long lines on waves and considered themselves artists. Andreoli idealized Lopez. “That notion of the art and beauty of surfing,” he says, “that idea of being one with the sea—not just a surfer but a swimmer, a fisherman, a waterman who can survive for weeks off the ocean—that’s what I aspired to.”

After Andreoli graduated from high school he enrolled at San Diego State, in part for the surfing. One day someone told him about plans to build a nuclear power plant on his beach. “The only thing I felt protective about was the environment,” he says, “and suddenly they were going to build a nuclear plant at San Onofre.” Andreoli attended political rallies, dropped out of school, and left home to spend a year globe-tripping. He wound up in Kathmandu, where he soon contracted dysentery before coming home sick. He didn’t stay long. He met his future wife, Tricia, and with her moved to a Northern California commune. “It wasn’t Easy Rider—it wasn’t that bullshit,” says Andreoli. “It was just a lot of people on a huge spread of land who each had twelve-and-a-half acres to live on.” Andreoli and Tricia planted corn and okra, bartered with their neighbors, slept in a trailer with no heat, and drove a pickup that never started. Typical of Andreoli’s enthusiasms, he imagined living there the rest of his life. They lasted about a year.

A decade of drift had opened between Andreoli and his father after he left school. But in 1985, at the end of a string of odd stints that included time in a flour factory, Andreoli joined his dad at Baker and was guided through a series of jobs: swamper, truck driver, route supervisor, cooker, grease dock worker, night shift operator, shovel hand at the offal pit. “My dad believes no one gets a free pass,” Andreoli says. “Especially his son.” (Andreoli hired his own son, Jim II, eight years ago when he was 11; he had him answer customer service calls, work he still does today.)

Andreoli took 20 years to finish the crash course, and it toughened him. “In the old days,” he says, “I was a skinny little runt. The meat luggers at the packing houses were rough guys. Every day it was someone saying, ‘I’ll kick your ass,’ and me saying, ‘Well, fuck you—I’ll kick your ass.’ You had to prove you could survive. Show any weakness, and they would be all over you.”

This year I accompanied Andreoli to the NRA’s 75th annual convention, which was held at the Laguna Niguel Ritz-Carlton. The Santa Anas were blowing, and it was one of those halcyon California days; the Pacific never appeared so inviting to a lifelong surfer. A couple hundred middle-aged men looking as if they were dressed for an ocean cruise had gathered to hear Charles Schwab give a talk, the central complaint of which was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Andreoli needed to be elsewhere—a family funeral in Las Cruces—but he was warm with everyone he met. “I like all these people,” Andreoli said. “I really love them. I just disagree with them.”

Andreoli became the man he made of himself, the surfer and the communard, and the man fashioned by his father’s business, the truck driver who became an industrialist. He strayed from his father’s business, then returned, and now, well into middle age, he has found himself in an unenviable position. He wants to be a steward of the environment, an advance man for biodiesel. Yet he is stuck in an industry at war with his core beliefs, one that repels others who may share his ideals. There are not too many Sierra Club meetings you can comfortably walk into and say, “Hi, I’m Jim Andreoli, and I’m a renderer.”

Even counting the Central Valley’s legions of dairy cows waiting to be converted into gas, Andreoli would not be able to reinvent his father’s company without Los Angeles. To produce biodiesel on the level he imagines—10 million gallons a year—you need a metropolitan area that’s overstuffed with grease traps and fryers. Renderers look to those fat reservoirs in the same way the Midwest’s ethanol producers look to Nebraska’s cornfields, as a bonanza of raw materials, and few cities enjoy L.A.’s riches. That unctuous bounty, along with our car-pool lanes crammed with environmentalists, has made Los Angeles an ideal laboratory to test the future success of rendered gas. In ten years’ time it’s possible that every pound of grease and Holstein in the county might go into biofuel production. Or not. A lot will depend on Andreoli’s luck.

The last time I saw Andreoli, he was lost. A few wrong turns in Tulare County had left him at an unmarked crossroads, an X in a field of cauliflower. Fortunately, this X had its own carnicería that served tacos and sold beer, and after some conferring, Andreoli disappeared into it, reemerging moments later with a half-dozen carne asada tacos and a six-pack that he spread out on the Ford’s bed.

The sun was dropping on the Cholame Hills, and the sky was shifting from blue to a thin white. “I’m not a wise guy,” Andreoli said. “I’m emotionally driven and spontaneous, and I make a lot of mistakes. I say stupid things. Sometimes I can sound like I’m at the beginning of a revelation talking about my beliefs. When my dad started at Baker, it wasn’t because he wanted to recycle. He still hates the label and pushes against it. And I’ve often been a thorn in his side—he hasn’t needed my bullshit. But even if it sounds overboard, I do get excited about growing Baker as a green company.”          

Illustration by Jude Buffum

 

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