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Monday, April 21

so food is what it comes down to

I've been sitting back for the most part, observing the media feeding frenzy over food prices. They like to mix up the stories about Al Qaeda's #2 guy getting hit for the umpteenth time, and Bush taunting Iran, etc, with local stuff on occasion. And since there's such a liberal bias against faith, and we're kind of poped out, and hey it segues into the politicking of Hillary, Barack, and Little John ('let me prove to you just how clueless I am and that I haven't bought my own groceries for the last decade, word!')... the focus is on foodstuffs, their exponential leap in pricing, and what it means to working poor, worldwide.

Seeing as this was going to be a problem, I started buying more bulk goods last month. Flour, yeast, oats, powdered milk, beans, rice, masa, cornmeal. About roughly half of it is organic.

Incidentally, when's the last time anyone heard the liberally-biased media mention that rampant monoculturing is killing our soil, ruining food for everyone, and destroying otherwise fertile habitat for plants and critters worldwide? Yeah, me neither. I mean, we read about it on the OCA website, and we've all heard interviews with Michael Pollan for his current book, In Defense of Food. (Oh! I take that back, I think I saw a very brief factoid about how diabetes might be traced to consumption of corn syrups. I think I blinked and missed 95% of it, it was so brief, in fact.)

In the past year I've had one of those moments of clarity, as regards the food I prepare and consume. It started when I found a copy of Slow Food Nation by Carlo Petrini, read it at the laundromat on Sundays, and started to wonder when the hell I was led astray from what should be common sense. Michael Pollan's dictum of 'eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables' is something I lived by for years without realizing it was something noteworthy. And even better, I was cooking everything.

But... we've been told we don't have time to cook, in our 'busy lives'. All of these modern conveniences, and yet we have no time? When did that start? I must admit I owe quite a bit to Nigella Lawson as well as Carlo Petrini. Forget Martha Stewart... Nigella tells it the way it is in her How to Be a Domestic Goddess baking book, and in How to Eat. In a nutshell, cooking is good for you. It is easy to learn, it is grounding, it is meditational in fact. And for fuck's sake, of course we have time for it; just make time and be done with it. Alice B. Toklas was also by turns reassuring and inspiring. I found Alice's classic cookbook which is also a travelogue and memoir, in a recycling bin, last year. What a bloody brilliant read, once you learn to ignore her quirk of referring to Gertrude Stein as 'Gertrude Stein' incessantly.

But back to slow food... I used to think these guys were kind of nuts. After reading an account of a local Slow Food event hosted by Alice Waters where the writer described how the fish they prepared had been fed especially for the event for a couple weeks, and was killed just that evening, and all these other foods served along with it were harvested, threshed, aged, fermented, prepared just that very afternoon, all in the most florid detail possible I swear, I rolled my eyes and muttered, "yeah, we all think we're French in Berkeley..." That was several years ago, and I'm seeing that the French way or whatever you want to call it (I call it common sense 'eat as you purchase and prepare', more than anything else) is actually more practical than it is nutty or snooty.

Why? It forces you to eat foods in season, and to stay in season. The benefits are multiple:
1. it reintroduces an awareness of why we eat certain foods at certain times of the year which helps us get over our warped relationship with food (the US really does not grok food; we have all manner of food porn on tv at all times with cooking shows, cooking competitions, and the like, but we're obsessed with dieting and not eating too much, and no one cooks?),
2. it lessens pollution because food does not have to travel as far as it would if you were getting off-season items from, say, Chile or New Zealand,
3. it gives smaller local farms more of our business and helps them to stay in business (and it is no coincidence many of those locals are organic), natch,
4. (this it the big one) eating within season reinforces the finite nature of the foods we grow and prepare. In Japanese, there's this term 'mono no aware' which refers to the transitory nature of things. Food's that way. We've forgotten this, culturally, to everyone's detriment. Maybe I can get the same damn mesclun salad mix in Tehachapi that I'd get in Philly, but why am I fixated on getting the same damn mesclun salad mix? What's really going on here? Or let's say I went to 25 different Denny's diners across the country... would any of those be selling local foods? Or how about McDonald's? The answer is a resounding no.

Food's a commodity like scrap metal, or petroleum; it's no longer just sustenance once it rakes in the money, so Big Ag goes to some lengths to make it predictable, uniform, and maybe even a medium for using up some side-effects, or by-products, of factory farming. Let's look at soy for example. Okay, we grow soy for its unsaturated oil (which we more often than not mess up with hydrogenation, rendering it patently bad for us). For the protein. Look at how many manufactured foods contain it, or its derivatives. That Hershey's bar has soy lecithin in it, as an emulsifier. You may even have some body care products that contain lecithin. Some people take it as a nutritional supplement, because we've been sold on soy being good for us. Factory-baked breads contain soy flour, because the bleached and enriched flours used in them have lower protein content. Infant formulas contain soy. Most 'vegetarian' foods that contain a meat substitute have soy in them, be it tofu or TVP (textured vegetable protein). And this is before we get to the world of soy milks in non-recyclable aseptic packaging... (If you want to read further on soy being a problematic and overexploited food, Terrain magazine did a good article and supplement to that, last year.) Go to Asia, and not so much soy is consumed. What is consumed is not messed with, much. Tofu, the cooked beans, some milk, no big whoop. It doesn't predominate in the way that anything that is remotely good for you does, in this culture.

How about corn? Bush and his damned scorched earth ethanol aside, how many products can you count which contain corn syrup? Breads contain corn syrup, as do juices, sodas, canned fruits, jams, ice creams, yogurts, pastries, cookies, canned soups, baked beans, marinades, sweet mustards, instant mac & cheese, pasta sauces, baking mixes, maple-flavored syrups, candies, chocolates, yada yada yada, and look at how many adults and children are diabetic.

So, I'm ranting. Monoculture really screws with our sustenance strategies.

(Geez, Sara has a real bug up her ass about food today, it's just FOOD for pete's sake. Someone hand her a sandwich and maybe she'll shut up).

No, it's not just food. When food is commoditized in the way we've done, fewer people eat healthfully; look at the US for proof of that, and look at the health decline in nations like China, which did not used to eat the foods we do. The major factoid of the day, which I heard on Democracy Now this morning, is that GMO soy produces 10% less edible product than conventionally grown/farmed soy beans do. Can you imagine what the yield is when the beans are grown organically in naturally-amended/fertilized soil? Holy cow. But give the mainstream media a day and they'll squash that information like a roach under Madonna's stiletto.

Michael Pollan's commentary is that when we walk into the grocery store, the real foods are on the periphery of the market. You know. The dairy products are on one side, the meats at one side, the veggies and fruits at one side. And then it's an aisle closely parallel with one side that usually has all the baking ingredients. HUGE market. And in the remainder of the aisles in the center, once you get past the charcoal, and paper products, and kitchen items, and personal hygiene... it's a bevvy of 'edible food-like substances'.

My person feeling is that if we continue to frequent the aisles full of food facsimiles, we'll bring on the food armageddon that much sooner, because we'll be supporting the efforts of a few large companies that control farming and food production.

(And to think, I didn't even bring up the topic of meat and feedlots... that's a post unto itself. Meat is behind some of the food shortages being seen, by the way, because people are eating more of it.)

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