Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

For Americans, Chinese food is ubiquitous.  We debate about authenticity and taste in Chinatown and in our favorite corner takeout joints.   I may prefer the subtle charms of hand-drawn noodles or the joyous free-for-all that is dim sum to a folded white box of General Tso’s Chicken– but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have General Tso’s for lunch yesterday.  We see Chinese restaurants everywhere, without giving them a second thought– the almost-identical menus, the red and gold signs, the isolated Chinese families who are sometimes the only immigrants in town.

Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American New Yorker and beat reporter for the New York Times, tackles the question of Chinese food in America in all its glory in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. It’s an exuberant book, enthusiastic and well-researched, and Lee’s passion for her material is evident on every page.

The scope of Lee’s research is astonishing.  She visits Chinese restaurants all over the world in search of the best one (sorry, no spoilers here).  She travels to China to visit General Tso’s home village, where the inhabitants are surprised to hear that his fame in the West revolves around a chicken dish they’ve never tasted.  She visits San Francisco and Japan in her efforts to track down the origins of the fortune cookie.  And she delves deep into the world of “snakeheads,” the smugglers who charge would-be immigrants their life’s savings for dangerous passage into the US and Europe, and compassionately relates the story of Michael, a Fujianese man who survived a shipwreck on his journey to New York.

What she finds is astonishing.  This isn’t food porn (though there are plenty of tasty descriptions), nor is it fluff (though it is a quick and enjoyable read).  It’s more like the Freakonomics of Chinese food.  Lee applies her crisp writing and sense of humor to the intersections of social justice, the immigrant experience, business, gastronomy, and my favorite topic, political economy.

For example:

Why are American Chinese restaurants’ menus all so similar, even though they’re not centralized?  McDonald’s strives for the kind of uniformity that the China Gardens and Golden Pandas of small towns across American seem to have achieved effortlessly.  Lee argues that Chinese restauranteurs have, in effect, been early adopters of crowdsourcing techniques.

Why are Chinese dishes in America so different from Chinese dishes in China?  (And why do people in China find them so unpalatable?)  Lee traces the history of Chinese cooking in America, from 19th-century mining camps to chop suey palaces, and shows the evolution of the cuisine as it gained popularity and adapted to American tastes.

Why are the delivery people from Chinese restaurants so routinely mugged, beaten and murdered?  What does this say about the position of Chinese immigrants in the US?

Why is Chinese food so popular among American Jews?  Lee explores a kashrut scandal that took place in a Washington, DC-area kosher Chinese duck restaurant and the effect it had on the community.

And the question that ties all of these questions together: What does it mean to be an American child of Chinese parents?  It’s the fortune cookie that brings this question to the fore for Lee:

Fortune cookies weren’t Chinese.

It was like learning I was adopted while being told there was no Santa Claus. How could that be? I had always believed in the crispy, curved, vanilla-flavored wafers with the slips inside.

It was through reading The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan when I was in middle school that I first became aware of the mass deception. In one tale, two Chinese women find jobs in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, where one is utterly perplexed when she learns that the cookies and their cryptic messages are considered Chinese.

I asked my mom if she had known all along that fortune cookies weren’t Chinese. She shrugged. She said when she first got to the United States from Taiwan, she’d assumed they were from Hong Kong or mainland China. China is a large and fractured place. She had never been to mainland China. Neither had I.

Lee’s quest to understand the origins of the fortune cookie becomes a quest to understand her own origins, and she handles it with intelligence, compassion and grace.  It’s a story relevant to every American (hyphenated or otherwise), every immigrant, everyone who’s ever sought a new life.  Whatever nonsense the Republicans and Democrats are spouting about barrier walls and guest-worker programs, it’s stories like the ones Lee brings to life that are the true lifeblood of this immigrant country.

Book Review: Kitchen Literacy

We buy everything, and have no idea by which the articles are produced, and have no means of knowing before hand what the quality may be… Relatively we are in a state of barbarous innocence, as compared with our grandmothers, about the common articles of daily use.

-Ellen Richards, home economist, 1885

I picked up Ann Vileisis‘s Kitchen Literacy: How we lost knowledge of where food comes from, and why we need to get it back at the suggestion of a reader, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a fast, fun overview of an important topic.

Vileisis takes the reader from the kitchens of the late 18th-century New England to those of the present day, tracing the history of the American food system from its pastoral beginnings through its process of industrialization.  She shows how each successive generation has been a step or two further removed from knowledge of where food comes from, and explores the social changes and food scandals that shaped the balance between what people want to eat and what the food industry offers them.  She wraps up by arguing that if we’re going to have a sustainable system that doesn’t poison us on a regular basis, we’re going to need to regain an understanding of seasons, local specializations, and where our food comes from.

It’s a simple enough thesis, and Vileisis doesn’t overcomplicate things– her explorations of the changing roles of women, the nature of work and living patterns, and the politics of federal agencies are mostly cursory.  I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already read, but I’m pretty well read on this subject.  If you haven’t already exhausted the works of Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Friedrich Engels and Upton Sinclair, you’ll find much to enlighten you– and even if you have, it’s an enjoyable and accessible synthesis of what can be a complicated literature.

The joy of this book is in the details Vileisis digs up in her extensive research.  She uses antique cans, product labels and advertisements to trace the way food manufacturers have adapted their pitch to appeal to the needs of each new generation of consumers.  The book is packed with little gems, like a 1928 Piggly Wiggly ad that appeals to the liberated woman (complete with chic hat) by telling her how the new self-service supermarket gives her self-sufficiency:

The woman of today!  So self-reliant now in all her shopping– so sure of her new skill!  Only yesterday her mother depended almost wholly on the advice of salesmen when she bought food-stuffs…  The woman of today with her new, wide knowledge of real values has blazed a trail of her own.  The she may be entirely free to choose for herself, she has made this plan of household buying a nation-wide vogue.

These details really bring the book to life.  (Especially for cultural studies types like me, who loooove to deconstruct advertising.)

Vileisis begins in colonial Maine, where she draws on the wonderful diary of midwife and farm matriarch Martha Ballard (worth a read in itself) to illustrate how very close Americans once were to the sources of our food.  Back then, you knew your milk was fresh because you milked the cow yourself.  Food came directly from sweat and hard work– you grew it yourself, or you traded what you grew for what your neighbors were growing.

As the nineteenth century began, the country began to urbanize rapidly, and the countryside began producing for the city.  A city’s foodshed consisted mostly of the farms in the surrounding countryside, plus a few exotic items like sugar and tropical fruits that were shipped in.  Food was mostly sold fresh in open-air markets.  But as cities industrialized and transportation improved, food was being brought in from more and more far-flung locations.  Fresh food often didn’t survive the trip too well– fruits and vegetables were beginning to rot, and cattle were bruised and emaciated from long and brutal train trips.  This was when the food system began an industrialization of its own, with the introduction of canned produce and “Chicago-dressed” meats (killed and dressed before being shipped).  Vileisis does a great job of illustrating the initial suspicious reactions of people used to fresh foods– it was, after all, a hard sell to convince people to buy food they couldn’t see until they’d paid for it.  Early canning methods were worthy of their skepticism– it took a while for canners to realize that if cans weren’t heated to a specific temperature, botulism could grow and thrive. Food poisoning was quite common in those days, and even well into the twentieth century: Armour’s canned meats notoriously killed nearly as many World War I soldiers as the enemy did.

But social changes prevailed over skepticism: agricultural jobs gave way to factory work, and city children grew up never seeing live plants and animals.  More and more women entered the workplace, not only out of a desire for freedom from traditional roles, but also just to earn enough to keep families afloat.  They had less time to spend shopping and cooking, and convenience foods began to sell widely.  As new generations were raised on canned and prepackaged foods, they became the familiar, comforting norm– and advertisements became less about connecting products to “nature” and more about creating an imaginary world of bountiful farms and idyllic countryside that would appeal to the eyes of consumers.  (Vileisis’s description of the term “natural” and its evolving meaning to generations of consumers is a highlight of the book.)

While each generation had different emotional and cultural needs to which food producers responded, consumers also had fears that shaped both federal regulation and product marketing.  The food system has never been free of problems– from the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Upton Sinclair portrayed in nauseating detail in The Jungle (1906) to, um, the horrific slaughterhouse conditions Eric Schlosser portrayed in nauseating detail in Fast Food Nation (2001).  Contemporary readers are also consumers, and today’s worries about tomatoes, spinach, e. coli and pet food from China will seem familiar in Vileisis’s descriptions of scandals over adulterated jam, pesticide residues in canned vegetables and sodium benzoate (a poisonous and once-controversial preservative still widely used in manufactured foods):

Even as serious concerns were raised and not addressed, most consumers had little choice but to continue their grocery shopping as usual.  What could an individual shopper do about the fact that pesticides killed fish, that chickens were jammed into cages, or that agriculture used too much oil?  Through the 1950s most American shoppers’ lack of awareness about their foods may have been characterized by a naive “I don’t know,” but by the mid-1970s, with more prevalent news of toxic pesticide residues and repugnant animal factories, it had become an anxious and resigned “I don’t want to know.”

Sound familiar?  She follows this with a quick overview of the rise of the organic food movement and a call for consumers to become more involved with their food choices.  It’s surprisingly short, though in fairness, how to do so can be (and is) enough for an entire book in itself.

Kitchen Literacy is a fascinating book.  It’s not a food-politics education in itself, but it’s a great jumping-off point for those new to food politics, and might inspire even the skeptical to read further, and better yet, to ask some pointed questions about what’s in the food they eat.

The Gadget Wall: Pot Roast and Moroccan Chicken Stew in the Slow Cooker.

Certain things happen when you get married. Your parents cry. You learn way more than you ever wanted to know about ring sizes. You learn a lot about your relationship. You explore many ways of answering the question ‘So when are you having a baby?’ (We’ll have to get back to you on that, nebnose.) And at the end of it all, you’re left with lots of photos, lots of memories, and lots and lots of kitchen appliances.

This is probably even more true if you are known to be foodies. Joe and I met working at the late, great Lechters Housewares, received all sorts of coffee makers, flatware, and slow cookers, among other gifts, from our wonderful and generous friends and family. We love gadgets, and we both subscribe to Alton Brown’s Unitasker Theory: the only unitasker allowed in our kitchen is the fire extinguisher. (OK, and maybe that awesome stovetop coffeepot Paola brought us from Lebanon.)

Fortunately, the slow cooker is versatile. Stew? Sauce? A whole chicken? Check, check and check. Our thoughtful friends Peter and Cat gave us not only a spiffy slow cooker, but also The Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting Cookbook: 160 Sumptuous Meals that Cook Themselves by Rick Rodgers. Like many cookbooks organized around a gadget, this one pulls recipes from every corner of the globe and adapts them for American tastes. I’m generally skeptical of this approach, but after two really, really delicious meals, I have to admit that Rick knows what he’s doing.

Both recipes are deceptively simple. The recipes are long, and aimed at beginner cooks, with instructions like ‘turn on the slow cooker’– so I’ll summarize them here but add a few notes. My main criticism is that these recipes go too light on the seasonings– feel free to load up on your spices and aromatics. Also, he seems to be a fan of canned broths. I use them sometimes, but try to stick to fresh– the sodium levels in canned broth are ridiculous, and they tend to be full of additives. The pot roast recipe is gluten-free, if GF beer is used; the chicken stew is dairy free, and also GF if served with rice or quinoa instead of couscous. Read the rest of this entry »

What to Eat: How I Learned to Stop Fussing and Eat My Vegetables

fractal cauliflower
Stare directly into the cauliflower.

You know those kids who will not eat their vegetables, no matter how much you prod and bribe and threaten? The ones who gag at the sight of a bowl of peas?

That was me. Until about two months ago.

All right, I’m exaggerating a little– I started eating some vegetables in college– but it was only recently that I started seeking veggies out and eating them voluntarily. Before that, it took serious effort to get anything leafy, green or nutritious through my lips. My stepbrothers still tease me about that bowl of peas.

I’m telling you this with the zeal of the recent convert. I want you to know that it’s possible. I’m not some tofu-eating hippie who grew up vegetarian, no ma’am. I was the food industry’s dream, a pleasure seeker who refused to read food labels and thought a cream-filled oatmeal cookie sandwich in plastic wrap was a nutritious breakfast. I spent an entire year of high school eating Lance wafer cookies and Burger King for lunch every day. Don’t blame my mom– she tried her best to get those veggies into my mouth, but I just wasn’t having it. Read the rest of this entry »

Five reasons you should be a Tony Bourdain fan.

nasty bits

So last Friday, I finally joined the 21st century and started using Google Reader. I added some Philly events blogs, and the first thing that popped up was an announcement that Anthony Bourdain would be speaking for free at the Vine St. library the following day. I’ve been a fan of Bourdain’s since his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and have since enjoyed both of his TV shows, A Cook’s Tour and, currently, No Reservations. So I changed my plans (thank you, Diana!), grabbed my copy of Bourdain’s new essay collection, The Nasty Bits, and joined an absurdly long line in the library basement to wait for a seat.

Bourdain didn’t disappoint– despite being exhausted from his book tour and ready to go home to his wife and baby in New York, he gave a heartfelt and witty talk urging his fans to get passports, see the world, and open their minds to new ideas, foods and cultures. He answered lots of questions from the audience, including mine, and then he stayed for at least an hour signing books. (I gave him a card for this blog, so Tony, if you actually read this, hi there!)

I’m not much for TV chefs (except for Alton Brown), but I think Bourdain is a talented, decent guy, and you should totally buy his books and watch his show. For the uninitiated, here’s why I’m a Bourdain fan:

1. He’s hilarious, and a talented writer.

On filming in Singapore:

I am barely able to speak. I can’t even drink my industrial-size Tsing Tao beer. My eyes swim around in my head like drugged minnows, and my stomach is in full warning mode, signaling “one more thing, Tony– and it’s curtains.” I know what the penalty is for publicly urinating in Singapore. What, I wonder, is the penalty for lurching into the street and spraying vomit into the gutter? Then collapsing into a gibbering, crying, spastically shaking heap? Read the rest of this entry »

Gluten-Free for a Day

gluten free girl

When I went gluten-free, it was a crash course in nutrition not only for me, but for everyone who cared about me. Joe read everything he could about flour mixes, and learned to bake gluten-free versions of all of my favories. Friends who’d never read a label in their lives were suddenly asking me detailed questions about the contents of modified food starch, and my grammy spent the holiday season figuring out which of her cookie recipes could be adapted to be gluten-free. I was deeply touched to see them going to such great lengths to feed me– in fact, it was that experience that made me realize how deeply rooted our food traditions are in our lives and relationships.

But cooking for (or even finding a restaurant for) a gluten-free loved one was also a learning experience for them. They were always astonished to realize how much effort is involved in maintaining a strictly gluten-free life. It reminds me of an interactive exhibit that was at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum when I was a kid– there was a whole setup with a kitchen, a store, and other areas, and you had to negotiate everything using a wheelchair. It helped kids to realize the challenges people who use wheelchairs face, and learn to be more considerate and mindful.

Which is why I was so moved when I read a post called One Gluten-Free Day at Not Martha (which is hereby added to my blogroll). In honor of the release of the book Gluten-Free Girl, by Shauna James Ahern (of the wonderful blog by the same name), Not Martha decided to see if she could follow a strict GF diet for an entire day. The result is an eye-opener for her and for the reader– go, click, enjoy!

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The Paradox of Plenty: Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics”

 

If you’re older than I am, you might remember an incident that took place in 1981, during the early days of the Reagan administration.  Parents were complaining that their children’s federally funded school lunches, often poor children’s only full meal of the day, weren’t nutritious enough.  In fact, few lunches contained any vegetables at all.  The administration’s infamous response was to reclassify tomatoes, botanically a fruit, so that the ketchup served with kids’ soggy French fries would be considered a vegetable.

In Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002), Marion Nestle, a leading nutritionist and then-chair of the NYU department of nutrition, food science, and public health, shows that calling ketchup a vegetable is just the tip of the regulatory iceberg.  The book is a thorough and often shocking review of the historically cozy relationship between the food industry and the US government, and how that relationship has affected the food regulations (and deregulation) that determine the quality and the marketing of the food we eat.  Read the rest of this entry »

World Hunger: Twelve Myths

In a comment that I made in response to a comment on the post The Local Food Bandwagon, I suggested that people should read the book World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset with Luis Esparza. Back in 2000, I did a review of the book for the International Socialist Review. I thought that I would reprint the review here to see if I can motivate people to read this book. If I were to write the review over, I probably would’ve gone into the author’s criticisms of the Green Revolution a bit more, as well as what they have to say about local production techniques. Maybe I will write another review when the next edition comes out.

Why Does Anyone Go Hungry?

Review by Joe Cleffie

Each day 34,000 children under the age of five die from hunger and the diseases that hunger brings. At any given moment, almost 800 million people in the world are going hungry. Why? Is there enough food to go around? Would feeding everybody in the developing world mean increasing hunger in the West?

Frances Moore Lappe and her coauthors answer “no” again in the second edition of their classic World Hunger: Twelve Myths. In their book, Lappe, Collins and Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as “Food First,” demolish commonly held views about the causes of hunger and famine.

Citing UN statistics, the authors begin by showing that today’s farms actually produce a food surplus:

The world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with thirty-five hundred calories a day. That’s enough to make most people fat? And this estimate does not even count many other commonly eaten foods – vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops, fruits, grass-fed meats and fish. In fact, if all foods are considered together, enough is available to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person a day. That includes…nearly [a] pound of meat, milk and eggs.

But aren’t there shortages of food in the places where hunger is most prevalent, such as India and sub-Saharan Africa?

No, say the authors, citing a 1997 study that showed that “78 percent of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.” In 1995, for example, India exported $625 million in wheat and flour and $1.3 billion in rice while at least 200 million of its citizens went hungry. In sub-Saharan Africa, 11 countries are net exporters of food.

So, do ordinary people in the US benefit from hunger elsewhere? In answer to this common view-that workers around the world are in a winner-take-all competition for the globe’s “naturally scarce” resources-World Hunger blames the market system for the maldistribution and outright squandering of resources that could actually provide for everybody.

“The market,” the authors point out, “responds to money,” not to need. The world market that prices food out of the reach of poor people in Africa, Asia and Latin America does not thereby siphon resources to American workers. That same world market has been sucking American workers dry for the past 25 years!

Instead, the real beneficiaries of the market are the megacorporations that profit when everybody works harder for less. In response to the pressures of the global market, Lappe and her coauthors an internationalist prescription:

In a global economy, our own jobs, wages and working conditions will be protected only when working people in every country establish their rights to organize and protect their interests…If we allow our government to help drive wages down elsewhere, our own wages will soon follow. If, on the other hand, we support improving living standards abroad, those will help push our own back up.

With all of its virtues, though, World Hunger does have some shortcomings. Although they condemn the market, the authors still see it as essential to ending world hunger. They call for pressure on governments and international bodies to curb the power of businesses and to regulate the market’s worst effects. No doubt they were thrilled to see the impact of the protests upon the WTO conference in Seattle. Socialists should join the authors in building such movements, but we need to point beyond the immediate tasks of pressuring government and multilateral institutions that are, in the end, answerable to big business. We need to build this movement of international solidarity to the point where it can create new institutions to begin the democratic deployment of the world’s productive resources.

Despite the limits of its political strategies, World Hunger does the best job of any single book in cutting through the conservative myths that obscure the real social causes of hunger.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Taste

Omnivore’s Dilemma

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is the kind of book that gets passed around; I heard about it from my mother, a coworker and the guy who sells cheese at the farmer’s market before I picked it up. After reading it, I’m convinced that it’s no longer possible to have a serious discussion about food in the US without mentioning this book.

We live in a country with massive class inequalities-in our health care, our modes of transportation, our housing, our education and the food we eat. The size and terrain of the United States makes it possible for fresh, high-quality foods to be easily shipped around the country, and immigration from around the world gives us access to an amazing variety of cuisines. The US is a fantastic place to eat a meal-if you’ve got the cash. For working-class people, though, there’s another American cuisine-one that comes from a box and is loaded with synthetic chemical additives and high fructose corn syrup. The US also has a massive processed-food industry that stresses profit margin, branding and shelf life over factors like taste and nutrition. And while rich neighborhoods have the upscale gourmet nutrition of Whole Foods, rural and inner-city neighborhoods have been largely abandoned by even basic grocery store chains, leaving poor people to search for nutrition in small stores that sell boxes and cans, not fresh produce. Diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity rates are rising rapidly among the poorest segments of the population-and the food industry’s response has been to add vitamins to Diet Coke.

Yet there is some healthy, affordable and delicious food still available, both in cities and in rural areas, thanks to a growing segment of small farmers who are becoming disillusioned with the food industry and are struggling to stay afloat by finding a niche. So how do we get the food to the people? And, even more to the point, what should we eat?

“What should we eat?” is the question Michael Pollan proposes to answer in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He reviews the sorry state of nutrition in the US, as well as the history of legislation and government programs designed to improve nutrition, often based on the input of the major food processors, and diagnoses the US with what he calls “a national eating disorder.” He looks at the ways in which capitalism has rendered unrecognizable what were for thousand of years the normal ecological patterns of human eating:

…We’ve acquired the ability to substantially modify the food chains we depend on, by means of such revolutionary technologies as cooking with fire, hunting with tools, farming, and food preservation… Agriculture allowed us to vastly multiply the populations of a few favored food species, and therefore in turn our own. And, most recently, industry has allowed us to reinvent the human food chain, from the synthetic fertility of the soil to the microwaveable can of soup designed to fit into a car’s cup holder. The implications of this last revolution, for our health and the health of the natural world, we are still struggling to grasp.

Pollan’s aim is to begin to grasp what food means in an advanced capitalist society. When we are so very distant from the origins of our food, how can we even know what is good for us? In most parts of the country, particularly in urban areas, we no longer are in touch with what grows locally-tomatoes are always in season somewhere in the world, and we have become used to tomatoes as a commodity that is available on demand, whether it means they are grown in a greenhouse or shipped in from Chile. And we eat tasteless, white tomatoes that bear little resemblance to the juicy red gems that could easily grow from the soil in our neighborhoods. So rather than having a diet that is directed by local culture and based on the availability of local ingredients, we are faced with the overabundance that is characteristic of capitalism-megastores filled with more food choices than have ever been available to human beings in the history of our species, some nutritious and some that are quite dangerous for us.

Our senses developed to help us make decisions about food: our noses evolved to help us weed out spoiled foods; our eyes pick up on what’s ripe and appealing; our taste buds tell us when something’s not supposed to be eaten. But the skills that millions of years of evolution have given us don’t give us all of the information we need to make decisions in supermarkets filled with the bounty of industrial production. The dangers we face are different:

By replacing solar energy with fossil fuel, by raising millions of food animals in close confinement, by feeding those animals foods they never evolved to eat, and by feeding ourselves foods far more novel than we even realize, we are taking risks with our health and the health of the natural world that are unprecedented. (10)

So how do we make those decisions?

Pollan’s method mirrors the way most of us make decisions about our meals. He makes four meals, each representing one of four unequal options in food production: mainstream industrial agriculture, large-scale organic production, small-scale local farming, and hunting and gathering. After visiting farms, factories or forests, as well as the stores through which each kind of food is distributed, he serves his family a meal from each kind of food and analyzes its taste, nutritional value, ethical content, potential health effects, environmental impact, and accessibility.

In part I, “Corn”, Pollan uses a meal from McDonald’s-eaten in the family car-as the springboard for an investigation into the industrial production of a fast food meal. He covers some of the same territory as Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation, but takes a very different tack; this investigation is really about the political economics of corn. What do burgers, fries and Coke have to do with corn? Everything, as Pollan discovers-thanks to the use of corn-based ingredients, a lab analysis shows that a McDonald’s cheeseburger is 52% corn; chicken nuggets are 56% corn, a milkshake is 78% corn, and a Coke, impressively, is 100% corn (117). (With such outlandish overexposure to one specific food item, is it any wonder that corn allergies are on the rise?) Even the cows eat corn almost exclusively, although their bodies are not built to do so-it’s cheaper and more profitable to feed corn and antibiotics to sick cows than to raise them on nutritious grass.

In fact, corn has gone from a dietary staple of the Americas to a massively overproduced commodity. Pollan traces corn from its evolutionary rise as a foodstuff to the farm legislation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the modern food industry’s quest to keep corn prices high by utilizing as much of the grain glut as possible in every mass-produced food item possible. As Pollan explains it:

If where you stand is in agribusiness, processing cheap corn into forty-five different McDonald’s items is an impressive accomplishment. It represents a solution to the agricultural contradictions of capitalism, the challenge of increasing food industry profits faster than America can increase its population. Supersized portions of cheap corn-fixed carbon solve the problem of the fixed stomach: we may not be expanding the number of eaters in America, but we’ve figured out how to expand each of their appetites, which is almost as good… If where you stand is on one of the lower rungs of America’s economic ladder, our cornified food chain offers real advantages: not cheap food exactly (for the consumer ultimately pays the added cost of processing), but cheap calories in a variety of attractive forms. In the long run, however, the eater pays a high price for these cheap calories: obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease. (117)

He then goes on to explain the impact that this has on the vast majority of people on the bottom rungs of the world’s economic ladder. He visits a corn farm, a grain elevator and a food science laboratory, and follows a specific steer through its (entirely unsettling) lifetime from ranch to feedlot to slaughterhouse.

Part Two, “Grass,” investigates two alternatives methods of food production: “Big Organic,” the growing mainstream organic foods industry of which Whole Foods is the most prominent public face, and a small, family-run “grass farm” in Virginia. One of the joys of the book is watching Pollan rip apart the ‘friendly capitalist’ image of Whole Foods, whose food sourcing and labor practices are much less friendly and green than the rolling hills and farmlands pictured on the labels of so many of its products.

The “grass farm” Pollan visits is the most inspiring part of the book. Run by a fiercely individualistic farmer named Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm is a vision of what healthy, locally based agriculture can be. Pollan stays on the farm for two weeks and traces the complex food chains that are preserved and nurtured at Polyface. It’s called a grass farm because, just as the hamburgers at McDonald’s trace their existence back to industrial corn, the livestock and poultry at Polyface can be traced back to the lush pastures of grass in which Salatin’s animals graze. His ingenious system allows the farm’s animals’ natural processes to renew the soil and grass, as farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Salatin also explains the ecological benefits of giving over part of his farmland to forest, and his deep understanding of the workings of the ecosystem in which he farms gives the reader an idea of what it might take to bring about a truly sustainable system of food production.

The final section, “The Forest,” traces Pollan’s attempts to produce an entirely non-commercial meal-he goes mushroom hunting at secret locations around Northern California, hunts for wild boar, and even bakes bread with yeast he cultivates in his neighborhood. The point is to try, in the face of an economic system set up to disguise the true costs of food production, to shoulder all of the hidden costs that go into the creation of a meal-the labor, the environmental costs, the sweat and even the emotional cost of killing an animal. He finds it more challenging than he’d anticipated, and concludes, as one might expect, that while the experiment is enlightening, there is simply no way, in a developed economy, for any one person to realistically try to produce his or her food on an individual basis. We are in this together, he concludes, and we have to try to figure out what to eat and how to produce it without incurring costs we can’t pay, or passing the real costs on to farmers, workers and the world’s poor.

What are Pollan’s conclusions? He finds that organic food, while not the cure-all it purports to be, is indeed better for you and better tasting; industrially produced food is frightening and disgusting in the way it treats animals, the way it overloads our diets with superdoses of specific foods, its environmental impact and its health effects; local, fresh, sustainably farmed food is the best thing out there; and hunting and gathering your own food is a rewarding thing to do, but not sustainable as a solution for any but a tiny minority of people.

As Pollan himself is the first to admit, he is a food writer, not a political writer, and is generally not given to polemics. He does not attempt to come up with a political solution to the problem of industrial food production- but he does acknowledge that such a solution is necessary, and leaves the door open to more political writers to attempt it. In writing the book, however, Pollan seems to swing to the left on the issue of food politics. It was probably impossible to avoid-after all, food is an unavoidably politicized arena, and one central to the survival of every human society. You can learn a great deal about the politics of any culture, time or place by asking how it produces its food-and in the case of modern capitalism, the answers are disturbing.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a popular book, I think, not only because it’s a well-written, engaging look at a universally popular topic. It also poses some very important questions about what we’re eating and why. As food allergies, heart disease, diabetes and cancer rates soar, and as we see more and more scandals arise around issues of food safety and sanitation, people are becoming more aware of what the industrial food chain means for their health and their lives, and they’re beginning to seek alternatives. Even bland corporate outfits like the Food Network have helped to raise popular awareness about the quality of food and alternatives to boxed ‘fake-food’ products.

So what is the solution? More to the point, is there a solution under capitalism? Certainly, there are steps we can take as individuals and as communities toward eating better-we can help to organize farmer’s markets in urban areas, we can shop for local foods whenever possible, and we can educate ourselves about nutrition. But the steps we can take as consumers are aimed at circumventing Big Food, not changing it. In order to change the nature of food production, it’s necessary to completely rethink the entire system-and that would mean organizing the sustenance of human beings around the nutritional needs of people and the health of the planet, not around profit. That’s not going to happen under a capitalist system that is completely organized around maximizing profit at all costs.

It’s difficult for us even to picture what a healthy, sustainable global food market might look like-but I think it would have to decentralize food production, placing an emphasis on local production and local cuisines, and on using the land in less harmful ways, like Joel Saladin’s grass farm. I think that it would have to involve ordinary people’s labor and their guidance. I think it would also have to be organized around the elimination of hunger. It would have to use agricultural techniques that nourish the land rather than exacerbating the tendency toward desertification of arable land that already begun by global warming. And I hope that it would involve educating the palates of a new generation whose children will be able to taste the difference between real, healthy food and dangerous synthetic concoctions.

As a piece of culinary writing, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, a work in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher and other giants of the food world. I couldn’t agree more-but it also deserves to be acclaimed as a work of political economy.

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