Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Food Friday on Wednesday: I just found a stem in my blueberry muffin.

It was kind of poignant, actually, and a little subversive. Think about it: food that we buy is so processed and uniform that the odds of finding stray odds and ends in a piece of it are really quite low. But it isn't even about a reminder of the "good old days" before factory fooding (the good old days that I'm too young to remember or talk about with any authority), it's about the reminder of where our food comes from. I'd be a lot less happy if I had found some stray cowhide in my hamburger, but the effect would have been the same—and maybe my unwillingness to confront it should have broader implications on my behavior.

We're at a place in American society where it's completely feasible, in most places, not ever to make food from scratch. When we do make food "from scratch," we are still often many steps away from the source of those ingredients. Let's imagine I make blueberry pancakes. I will likely use unbleached flour, cornmeal, eggs, buttermilk and blueberries (plus a few other spices and some baking powder/soda), all bought in bulk at my grocery store. I didn't interact with the source of a single one of those ingredients: in this case, the wheat, corn, chicken, cow, or blueberry bush. In some cases, I'm more than one step removed: I did not grind the wheat or the corn, and I did not churn the buttermilk.

I don't want to harvest and grind wheat and corn every time I make pancakes. But doing that kind of thing every now and then can be kind of profound. I shelled pomegranates tonight, which is something I don't need to do anymore, ever. If I need the seeds, they're available shelled at my local grocery store (albeit at a premium) and if I need the juice, I can get it all over the place (also at a premium). But I miss out by doing that, just as I'd miss out by eating out every night, even if the cook where I ate out made better food than I can. I'd miss out on the quiet lapping of water against my sink's edge, the warm water under which my relaxed hands pry out the luscious blood-colored seeds, and the seeds' slow, contemplative drop to the bottom of the basin. I wouldn't know that pomegranate seeds will barely float on water's surface tension.

That might not sound like a lot to lose. But it's a beautiful, sensual experience. And it has some practical implications. I know more about pomegranate seeds for having shelled them—I know that they can float, that they are redder when bunched together at the tip, and that they are difficult to accidentally pop. That could all be useful one day in designing a dish or a drink. The political implications are broader. Michael Pollen's work in the politics of food reveals that the distance our food travels can actually be more significant than its original source, not least in terms of carbon footprint. Serving a loyal local population allows farmers to diversify because they have to compete less with a national and global food market. They can grow chickens, beef, grass, and corn, not just corn. Contrary to what the free marketers would argue, specialization in the farm industry hurts the quality of the final product because organisms just don't exist well in a monoculture. Millions of years of evolution—or the hand of God, if you're an idiot—have wired plants and animals to rely on each other, and short-circuiting that reliance makes for all kinds of problems. Feed cows corn and you need to pump them full of antibiotics. Pump them full of antibiotics and you produce antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Feed chickens a protein-free diet, and it makes their eggs less tasty. Stop growing beef because your corn is more profitable, and now you need to buy fertilizer. That fertilizer runs off, ruining perfectly good fresh water for swimming and fishing.*

Pollen spends a lot of time talking about a Virginia farm that doesn't qualify for organic status, but nevertheless uses a tremendously sustainable way of producing food. Their cows graze on grass. They rotate pastures frequently to make the grass grow faster. When they leave a pasture, it's covered in manure, which quickly develops maggots. Their chickens eat those maggots, spreading the manure, fertilizing the paster. The chickens then require less food, get more protein, and produce healthier eggs, all for doing a job that needed to be done anyway. The farm sells only locally.

I wish I knew that much about the lives of the food I eat.

*I'm obviously taking a completely anthropocentric approach here, since a non-anthropocentric approach makes not mistreating our animals in food production a foregone conclusion.

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