Tag Archives: Big Organic

Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Professor and the Wild Pig

The Bison at Altamira

Meal number four

For meal number four, Professor Pollan wanted to get the grub the good old fashioned way, old as in Paleolithic Age old, but he has a problem: “I had never hunted in my life.” It gets worse.

“Being a somewhat accident-prone individual (childhood mishaps included getting bitten in the cheek by a seagull and breaking my nose falling out of bed).”  Moreover, his “father looked upon hunting as a human activity that had stopped making sense with the invention of the steakhouse.”

So how did Pollan’s mum fare? “Thanks to my mother’s more extensive engagement with the natural world, I did have some childhood experience. These elementary foraging expeditions were always accompanied by scary surgeon general-like warnings from my mother about the deadly poisons lurking in berries and mushrooms growing in the wild: she made it sound like it wouldn’t take much for a kid to get himself killed snacking in the woods.”

The poor boy was a danger to himself, even without a gun, and was fungiphobic. Still, he was intent on escaping the cube farm.

“… I had decided that this meal should feature representatives of all three edible kingdoms: animal, vegetable, and fungi. I was about as ill prepared to hunt the former and gather the latter as an eater could possibly be.”

The lack of fire arm proficiency was just too galling: “…a line of Henry David Thoreau’s that had irritated me when I first came across it years ago. ‘We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun,’ he wrote in Walden. ‘He is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.’ That pitiable, uneducated boy was me.”

Gun: tick.

Mushrooms: Well, “Mushroom hunting was to me the very soul of foraging, throwing both the risks and rewards of eating from the wild into the sharpest possible relief. … If I hoped to host representatives of all three kingdoms on my plate, learning to distinguish the delicious from the deadly among the fungi was a necessity

Mushrooms: tick.

Divina Commedia

Pollan needed help. “What if I actually managed to kill something-then what? How do you ‘dress’ an animal you’ve killed? (And what kind of euphemism is that, anyway?)” He will get to almost throw up while dressing his pig. “What I badly needed, I realized, was my own personal foraging Virgil, a fellow not only skilled in the arts of hunting and gathering (and butchering), but also well versed in the flora, fauna, and fungi of Northern California, about which I knew approximately nothing. “As serendipity would have it, a foraging Virgil appeared in my life at exactly the right moment, though it took me a while to recognize him.”

Dante et Vergil dans le neuvième cercle de l'enfer par Gustave Doré

Dante et Vergil dans le neuvième cercle de l’enfer par Gustave Doré

Why Virgil? Does he need Thunderbird 2? Surely Scott in Thunderbird 1 would be a better choice. Ah, no. Pollan is indulging in a literary conceit. A long, long time ago, a poet called Durante degli Alighieri, or the more manageable Dante, was exiled from his home town of Firenze (Florence) by the Black Guelphs. Italian politics was as dysfunctional back then as now, so the machinations are complex, but suffice to say he never returned. He was in the then new wave of Italian poetry, the dolce stil novo (sweet new style, a term which Dante himself coined), and spent 20 years of exile writing Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), expiring the following year. It is no more a comedy in the modern sense than Da Vinci’s Cartoon in the National Gallery, London is like those of the New Yorker. As the blessèd Peter Cook said of the Da Vinci sketch, “I can’t understand the joke.”

 

 

“The poem begins “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (halfway along our life’s path). Dante is lost in a dark wood assailed by beasts (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf). Things were looking dicey for our hero when he is rescued by Virgil. This Virgil is the shade of the Latin poet, author of the epic, Aeneid. He guides Dante, down through the ten circles of the Inferno – one for each sin plus one for Lucifer, then out the bottom of Hell to the base of the mountain Purgatorio, and up its 10 terraces, and to Paradiso.

Divina Commedia “is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature.” To embroider Pollan’s conceit a little, the CAFOs of Agribusiness might be his idea of Hell and, if Agribusiness were a pig, then Big Organic would be a pig with lipstick. Omnivore’s Dilemma doesn’t really have a Purgatorio, it skips straight to the Paradiso of Polyface Farm.

The most famous part of the Commedia is Inferno, which is peopled by the wicked of Dante’s time. You will find a goodly crop of clerics from Pope Boniface VIII down, assorted enemies from his days in Firenze, characters from Greco-Roman myth, and those who chose mortal sin to end their earthly misfortunes. For some of the damned, part of their punishment is to lose their human form: Pier della Vigna committed suicide and was transformed into a thorn tree which bleeds; Guido da Montefeltro, advisor to Boniface VIII, hoped that the dispensation from the Pope would let him into Paradiso, but Dante finds him in the Inferno transformed into a flame.

The adventure Pollan recounts in the 4th part of Omnivore’s Dilemma is transformational, too. The tale would never feature in the Supermarket Pastoral, the genre of advertising favored by Big Organic. He discovers his Paleolithic ancestry and its uncomfortable potency.

The Forger Virgil

“The guy was a one-man traveling food network, a poster boy for tbe Slow Food movement.”

“Angelo Garro is a stout, burly Italian with a five-day beard, sleepy brown eyes, and a passion verging on obsession about the getting and preparing of food.” He “spends many of his days in California re-creating the calendar of life in Sicily, a calendar that is strictly organized around seasonal foods.”

“’In Sicily you could tell by the smell what time of the year it was,’ he said. ‘Orange season, oranges, persimmons, olives, and olive oil.’”

But before we get to the chase, there are three chapters on human nature and food.

Our omnivore’s dilemma

The phrase “… the omnivore’s dilemma, or paradox, was first described in the 1976 paper, “The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals,” by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin. … Rozin found that the rat minimizes the risk of the new by treating its digestive tract as a kind of laboratory. It nibbles a very little bit of the new food (assuming it is food) and then waits to see what happens.” So, omnivores have to be smart enough to successfully recall the foods that were good and successfully distinguish them from the bad and the toxic. “In the words of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, ‘Disgust is intuitive microbiology’”.

Wild Pig by Andrei

Wild Pig by Andrei

Human omnivorosity ”is deeply inscribed in human bodies: “Our teeth are omnicompetent- designed for tearing animal flesh as well as grinding plants. So are our jaws, which we cm move in the manner of a carnivore, a rodent, or a herbivore, depending on the dish.”

We have used our big brains to master fire and then master cooking, “one of the omnivore’s cleverest tools, [which] opened up whole new vistas of edibility.” “Indeed, there is probably not a nutrient source on earth that is not eaten by some human somewhere – bugs, worms, dirt, fungi, lichens, seaweed, rotten fish; the roots, shoots, stems, bark, buds, flowers, seeds, and fruits of plants; every imaginable part of every imaginable animal, not to mention haggis, granola, and Chicken McNuggets.”

The omnivorous life style is part of the human toolkit, as there “does seem to be an evolutionary trade-off between big brains and big guts…” Herbivores do not have to be smart, as Sid the Sloth explained in the cartoon movie Ice Age.

Diego: You don’t know much about tracking, do you?

Sid: Hey, I’m a sloth. I see a tree, eat a leaf, that’s my tracking.

Those real-life teddy bears, the koala, only eat eucalyptus leaves which means, as “it happens, the koala’s brain is so small it doesn’t even begin to fill up its skull. Zoologists theorize that the koala once ate a more varied and mentally taxing diet than it does now, and that as it evolved toward its present, highly circumscribed concept of lunch, its underemployed brain actually shrank. (Food faddists take note.)”

To complete our toolkit, or the more sciencey “the cognitive niche”, we pass our food tips and techniques in a package “we call a cuisine [which] specifies combinations of foods and flavors that on examination do a great deal to mediate the omnivore’s dilemma. The dangers of eating raw fish, for example, are minimized by consuming it with wasabi, a potent antimicrobial. Similarly, the strong spices characteristic of many cuisines in the tropics, where food is quick to spoil, have antibacterial properties. The mesa-American practice of cooking corn with lime and serving it with beans, like the Asian practice of fermenting soy and serving it with rice, turn out to render these plant species much more nutritious than they otherwise would be.”

The trouble is “America has never had a stable cognitive niche; each immigrant population has brought its own food ways to the American table, but none has ever been powerful enough to hold the national diet very steady. We seem bent on reinventing the American way of eating every generation, in great paroxysms of neophilia and neophobia. That might explain why Americans have been such easy marks for food fads and diets of every description.”

Food fads have been in vogue in America for a long, long time. The “first golden age of American food faddism” was inaugurated by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg on September 5, 1866, when he opened “his legendarily nutty sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan” If you couldn’t afford to go there and get your grape only diet or hourly enemas, then you might “Fletcherize“ which meant “chewing each bite of food as many as one hundred times”. It’s inventor was-“Horace Fletcher, also known as the Great Masticator.” All of these daft ideas were promoted by “exponents [who] spoke not in terms of fashion but of scientific eating, much as we do now.”

The point of any fad is to make money; so long as it follows the letter of the law, you’re fine, consequences are the other guy’s problem. As Pollan puts it, there is a “tendency of capitalism, in its single-minded pursuit of profit, to erode the various cultural underpinnings that a steady society but often impede the march of commercialization.” Care for the bottom line trumps all other considerations.

Steakhouse Dialogues

“The first time I opened Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium rare. If that sounds like a recipe for cognitive dissonance, if not indigestion, well, …”

Pollan has a lot to say on the ethics of eating animals. Are the chickens at Polyface Farm mistreated? If so, would we prefer a vegan paradise? We humans are adept at coming up with excuses. This facility Pollan describes in a story about Benjamin Franklin. “He tells in his autobiography of one day watching friends catch fish and wondering, “If, you eat one another, I don’t see why we may not eat you. He admits, however, that this rationale didn’t occur to him until the fish were in the frying pan, beginning to smell “admirably well”. The great advantage of being a “reasonable creature,” Franklin remarks, is that you can find a reason for whatever you want to do.”

Even so, we now know humans do not make choices rationally. We emote, and justify post hoc. In sciencey speech, decisions are locked away in our limbic system. Pollan’s recalls his brief relationship with the animal he brought during his quest in beef industry. “I had been wondering what 534 would be feeling as he neared his end. Would he have any inkling – a scent of blood, a sound of terror from up the line – that this was no ordinary day? would he. in other words, suffer? [Temple] Grandin anticipated my question.” who observed cattle being feed through a chute “getting their shots, and going up the ramp at the slaughter plant. No difference. If they knew they were going to die you’d see much more agitated behavior.’”

Hunting Pigs

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

Autumn by Alois Wonaschuetz

The professor is a male Homo sapiens sapiens. Hunting and killing wild animals is in his biological ancestry, so he is getting to do what evolution fashioned him to do. In a way, he’s been using his clever brain to avoid doing so; living a comfortable life in the cube farm, something that our cousins, the Neanderthals, didn’t have an option on. Pollan will discover that meeting his human past is literally surreal.

“Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete.

I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, like nerves.

See that smoothly scooped-out puddle of water? That’s a wallow, but notice how the water is perfectly clear: Pigs haven’t disturbed it yet today.

Professor Pollan writes, “Approaching his prey, the hunter instinctively becomes more like the animal, straining to make himself less visible, less audible, more exquisitely alert. predator and prey alike move according to their own maps of this ground, their own forms of attention, and their own systems of instinct, systems that evolved expressly to hasten or avert precisely this encounter … “

This experience is truly disconcerting.

“WAIT A MINUTE. Did I really write that last paragraph? I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Ortega Y Gasset and Hemingway and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene. it never failed to roll my eyes.

And yet here I find myself sliding into the hunter’s ecstatic purple, channeling Ortega -Y Gasset.”

Slightly less disconcerting was the reception of his hunter persona by civilized humans. After “my second trip hunting with Angelo when, … we stopped in at a convenience store … . The two of us were exhausted and filthy, the fronts of our jeans stained dark with blood. …

And under the bright fluorescence of the 7-Eleven, in the mirror behind the cigarette rack behind the cashier, I caught a glimpse of this grungy pair of self-satisfied animal killers and noted the wide berth the other customers in line were only too happy to grant us. It is a wonder that the cashier didn’t preemptively throw contents of the cash register.”

Them pigs ain’t gonna hunt themselves

Pollan started training for his quest: “I had tried out my rifle only once before taking it to the woods, at a firing range in the Oakland Hills, and by the end of the morning my paper target had sustained considerably less damage than my left shoulder, which ached for a week.”

And before we get too sorry for the pigs, he points out that in Sonoma County: “The animal is regarded as a pest in many parts of California” and “They are also, by reputation, vicious; one of the nicknames the California pig has earned is ‘dog ripper’.”

Now that the Prof has embarked on the adventure, he has to put any qualms aside; his Virgil is determined and compelling. “’You are going to kill your first pig today’, Angelo shouted over the roar of the engine. Given the nature of hunting, not to mention me, I understood this as less a prediction than a prayer.”

The experience unfolds: “When I could hear Angelo’s footsteps no more my ears and eyes started tuning in-everything. It was as if I’d dialed up the gain on started tuning in – everything.

I found I could see farther into the woods than I ever had before, picking out the tiniest changes in my visual field at an almost inconceivable distance, just so long as those changes involved movement or blackness. The sharpness of focus and depth of field was uncanny, ‘Hunter’s eye’, Angelo said later when I described the phenomenon; he knew all about it.

Later it occurred to me that this mental state, which I quite liked, in many ways resembled the one induced by smoking marijuana…”

The lucky fellow has great cannabis memories; some people just become giddy. The active ingredients of cannabis, the cannabinoids, stimulate the “brain’s ’cannabinoid network’”.  Human brains have receptors for THC, and for anandamine, an endogenous neurotransmitter, which implies that there is a serious role for the cannabinoid network. Pollan suggests that this network has evolved to tune a hunter’s mind to the task at hand. When asked about the cannabinoid network and the role of anandamine, regular pharmacologists plump for their default hypothesis of pain and reward. I prefer Pollan’s hypothesis Anything but the musings of scientists betraying the pervasive conditioning brought to us by their employers.

“Later, when [Pollan] reread Ortega Y Gasset’s description of the experience, I decided that maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all, not even when he asserted that hunting offers us our last best chance to escape history and the state of nature, if only for a time – for what he called a ‘vacation from the human condition.’”

The cannabinoid network even comes with automatic debrief. “It’s curious how the hunting story takes shape in the minutes after the shot, as you work through the chaotic simultaneous of that lightning, elusive moment, trying to tease out of the adrenaline fog something linear and comprehensible.”

“Having introduced a loaded gun …“,

“ … in Act One, the curtain can’t come down until it is fired”. Pollan becomes oppressed by Chekhov and his dictate. Why? Prof missed; close but no cigar (or pig, in this case). A lesser man would have been content to call it a day. but he had not only Chekhov guilting him, he would disappoint Angelo. Then, there was Señor Ortega Y Gasset, Pollan’s literary guide to the hunt. Ortega Y Gasset would understand, smile sadly, and suggest that he had achieved a “platonic” understanding of the hunt, akin to bird watching. The Señor wrote, “Platonism represents the maximum tradition of affected piety.” That kind of affection was not for the Prof, he determined to try again, and consummate the experience.

“The crystal stillness of the scene and the moment in time now exploded into a thousand shards of sense. Something like the fog of war now descended on the scene, and I’m uncertain exactly what happened next, but I believe Angelo fired a second time. Angelo clapped me on the back and congratulated me extravagantly. ‘Your first pig! Look at the size of it. And with a perfect shot, right in the head.’, Angelo continued, “You got yourself a big one. That’s some very nice prosciutto!”

It was a big pig; it weighed “190 pounds. The pig weighed exactly as much as [Pollan] did.” Then, he learns all about the dressing-a-pig thing: “Dead bodies are awkward, among other things, and negotiating one this big proved a difficult, clumsy, and oddly intimate operation.” To Angelo, though, all of it was normal, indeed, “[Pollan] could not believe Angelo was still talking about food. “ They managed to haul the bulky animal back to the truck and suspended from a custom made crane on the truck’s stern.

Undressing a Pig

“Next Angelo made a shallow incision along an equator circling the pig’s belly and began to gently work the hide loose. I held down a narrow flap of skin while he cut into the fat behind it, leaving as much of the creamy white adipose layer on the carcass as possible. ‘This is really good fat,’ Angelo explained, ‘for the salami.’”

Quickly they had an audience: “… a pair of turkey vultures [circled] high overhead, patiently waiting for us to finish. Whatever parts of this pig we didn’t take the local fauna were preparing to set upon and consume, weaving this bonanza of fat and protein back into the fabric of the land. Pollan dutifully “held the [animal’s stomach] cavity open while Angelo reached in to pull out the mass of organs …”

He “reached in and pulled gently and the rest of the viscera tumbled out onto the ground in a heap, up from which rose a stench so awful it made me gag. This. was not just the stink of pig shit or piss but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it.

I still had my arms wrapped around the pig from behind, holding it steady and open, but I needed, badly, to break away for a moment to lo-care an uncontaminated breath.

What disgusted me about “cleaning” the animal was just how messy – in every sense of the word – the process really was, how it forced me to look at and smell and touch and even to taste the death, at my hands, of a creature my size that, on the inside at least, had all the same parts and probably looked an awful lot like I did.”

The yucky bit, thankfully, came to an end. Professor Pollan had successfully killed his pig. He, Angelo and Ortega Y Gasset could be proud, and Prof could return to real life. That evening, Angelo sent him an email entitled Look the great hunter! with some photo attachments. Pollan was keen to show his family, so he opened one.

“The image that appeared on my computer screen hit me like an unexpected blow to the body. A hunter in an orange sweater was kneeling observing some hoary convention of the hunter’s trophy portrait. One proprietary hand rests on the dead animal’s broad flank. The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing a big shit-eating grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame.

What could I possibly have been thinking? What was the man in that picture feeling?”

 

The mushrooms stalk the Prof

“Nature, as the Woody Allen character says in Love and Death is like an enormous restaurant.” Quite how Woody Allen, an icon of New York City life, might know I’ll leave for your musings. The Prof finds that: “It was almost as if I had donned a new pair of glasses that divided the natural world into the possibly good to eat and the probably not.” He saw “clumps of miner’s lettuce off in the shade (Claytonia, a succulent coin-shaped green I had once grown in my Connecticut garden) and wild mustard out in the sun. {Angelo called it rapini. and said the young leaves: were delicious sautéed in olive oil and garlic.”

In his newly found vigilance, the mushrooms made an appearance. “Hiking in the Berkeley Hills one afternoon in January I noticed a narrow shady path dropping off the main trail into the woods, and I followed it down into a grove of big oaks and bay laurel trees.”

“I noticed a bright, yolky glimmer of something pushing up the carpet of leaves not two feet from where I’d just stepped. I brushed away the leaves and there it was, this big, fleshy, vase-shaped mushroom that I was dead certain had to be a chanterelle.” Bingo!

“I took the mushroom home, brushed off the soil, and put it on a plate, then pulled out my field guides to see if I could confirm the identification. Everything matched up: the color, the faint apricot smell, the asymmetrical trumpet shape on top, the underside etched in a shallow pattern of “false” gills.” Getting warm.

He “felt fairly confident. But confident enough to eat it? Not quite. The field guide mentioned something called a false chanterelle that had slightly thinner gills. Uh oh. Thinner, thicker …”

Damn!                         Prof, the Chanterelle hunter: 0          Prof’s fungiphobia: 1

Pig: Tick, Mushrooms: Next

“Isn’t it curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs-for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things …” In Bavaria, after a full week’s work building BMWs, the German male with his German son will don identikit overalls and toolbelts, and set about building houses. Fun should be taken seriously.

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

Chanterelles by Charles de Mille-Isles

Professor Pollan likes to garden, and has done so “since [he] was ten years old, when [he] planted a “farm” in [his] parents’ suburban yard and set up a farm stand patronized, pretty much exclusively, by [his] mother.” Garden[ing] is diverting: “mostly comic dialogue with other species”, and awesome: “… the fact that by planting and working an ordinary patch of dirt you could in a few months’ time harvest things of taste and value was, for me, nature’s most enduring astonishment. It still is.”

Still, none of this is going to help in the mushroom hunt, and there is another problem: “Mushroom hunters are famously protective of their spots, and a good chanterelle spot is a precious personal possession ….” He “… asked a slew of acquaintances [he] knew to be mycophiles [literally mushroom lovers] if I might accompany them. (The Bay Area is home to many such people, probably because mushroom hunting marries the regions two guiding obsessions: eating and the outdoors.)”

Pollan discovers that the reaction to this seemingly innocuous request might have been caused by something done by Ted, the teddy bear, in Seth MacFarlane’s movie, Ted. “You could see at once that this was an entirely outrageous request, tantamount to asking if I might borrow their credit card for the afternoon.” Even the urbane fellow pig-hunter, Jean-Pierre fended him off, and others employed :“…the same joke: “Sure. you can come mushroom hunting with me, but I must tell you that immediately afterward I will have to kill you.”

Luckily, the Prof had his Virgil. “I was beginning to think it was hopeless, that I was going to have to learn to hunt mushrooms from books-a dubious, not to mention dangerous, proposition. And then Angelo called.” After Pollan had finished skipping around in glee, a period of mature reflection set in, so he wrote: “Though l probably shouldn’t overstate Angelo’s generosity. The place he took me mushrooming was on private and gated land owned by an old friend of his, so it wasn’t as though he was giving away the family jewels.”

“The chanterelle is a mycorrhizal species, which means it lives in association with the roots of plants – oak trees, in the chanterelle’s case, and usually oak trees of a venerable age.” Angelo had taken him to an oak grove where he was on first name terms with every single tree.

“I looked around my tree for a few minutes, walking a stooped circle under its drip line, flicking the leaf litter here and there with my stick, but I saw nothing. Eventually Angelo came over and pointed to a spot no more than a yard from where I stood. I looked, I stared, but still saw nothing but a chaotic field of tan leaves and tangled branches. Angelo got down on his knees and brushed the leaves and soil away to reveal a bright squash-colored trumpet the size of his fist. He cut it at the base with a knife and handed it to me; the mushroom was unexpectedly heavy, and cool to the touch.

How in the world had he spotted it?”

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

Morel Mushroom by Clayton Sieg

The age-old reason: practice. That’s “apparently how it goes with hunting mushrooms: You have to get your eyes on”, and “before the morning was out [he]’d begun to find a few chanterelles on my own. [He] began to understand what it meant to have [his] eyes on, and the chanterelles started to pop out of the landscape, one and then another, almost as though they were beckoning to me.”

As you’ll recall, Pollan is a professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and therefore a fully paid up member of the Guild of Wordsmiths, but the quest to find wild mushrooms has uncovered a profound truth: “Our ability to identify plants and fungi with confidence, which after all is one of the most critical tools of our survival, involves far more sensory information than can ever be printed on a page; it is, truly, a form of “body knowledge not easily reduced or conveyed over a distance.” Language leaves a lot out. No matter how capacious our digital storage becomes, the written word and therefore the Internet, will only capture a little of the world we humans are capable of perceiving. Pollan sums this up in a quote from the Marriage of the Sun and Moon by Andrew Weil:

“’One learns most mushrooms in only one-way: through people who know them.”, which he illustrates with his own experience:

“… now that I have held a freshly picked chanterelle in my hands, smelled its apricoty scent, registered its specific heft and the precise quality of its cool dampness (and absorbed who knows how many other qualities beneath the threshold of conscious notice), I’ll recognize the next one without a moment’s hesitation.”

And he is, rightly, jolly pleased with himself: “It’s not every day you acquire such a sturdy piece of knowledge.” The following week, he’s off to his oak tree and its cache of golden chanterelles: “I hadn’t thought to bring a bag, and there were more chanterelles than I could carry, so I made a carrier of my T-shirt, folding it up in front of me like a basket, and then filled it with the big, mud-encrusted mushrooms.” Gleefully, he “drew looks from passers-by, looks of envy, I decided …” and later smugly mused: “So now I have a spot and, just like Jean-Pierre’s town. (Please don’t ask me where it is.)”

MUSHROOMS ARE MYSTERIOUS

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

Burned forest by Ethan Trewhitt

Just in time, too. “Once the rains stopped in April the chanterelles were done for the year” The next mushrooming where the “morels [which] came up in May.”

During the pig hunts the Prof had interrogated Jean-Pierre, who finally, reluctantly, gave him a name, Anthony Tassinello, and put Pollan “in touch with Anthony” via e-mail. And Anthony was up for it. Pollan: “was surprised he’d let a complete stranger tag along, but after some back and forth by e-mail, it began to make more sense. The morels were on, and Anthony could use an extra pair of hands. especially ones that were asking for nothing in return. … the secrecy issue is not nearly so touchy in the case of the ‘burn’ morels we would be hunting.” “Burn” morels mushroom after a pine forest fire, so are temporary and easy to Google.

In due course the call came and Anthony advised Pollan how he should prepare. “Anthony also advised me to bring sunscreen and bug spray (for mosquitoes), at least a gallon of water, ChapStick, and, if I owned one, a walkie-talkie. Morel hunting didn’t sound like much fun, more like survival training than a walk in the woods.” The Prof set his alarm for 4:30 A.M.

“The forest was gorgeous, and the forest was ghastly. Ghastly because it was, for as far as you could see, a graveyard of vertically soaring trunks that had been shorn of every horizontal, every branch, by the fire.”

Anthony and Professor Pollan were joined by Ben, Anthony’s mushrooming buddy, and the legendary Paulie Porcini. Their prey: The Morel, which is “a decidedly comic-looking mushroom, resembling leprechauns or little penises. The morel’s distinctive form and pattern would make it easy to spot if not for its color, which ranges from dun to black and could not blend in more completely with a charred landscape.” On the blasted, blackened hill slopes, more than ever mushrooms “seem[ed] autochthonous, arising seemingly from nowhere, seemingly, without cause.”

Carefully schooled by the three, the Prof extemporized. “When Ben spotted me hunting in a prone position, he approved. ‘We say, stop, drop, and roll, because you can see things at level you’ll never see from above.” For a time, they wandered, Pollan trying to get his eyes on, and experiencing “mushroom frustration”. “’Mushroom frustration’ is what you feel when everyone around you is seeing them and you’re still blind …”

“Ben and Anthony had a slew of these mushroom-hunting adages and I collected them over the course of the day. ‘Seeing is boleting’ means you never see any mushrooms until someone else has demonstrated their presence by finding one.”

The “’screen saver’ – the fact that after several hours interrogating the ground for little brown dunce caps, their images will be burned on your retinas. ‘You’ll see. When you get into bed tonight,’ Ben said, ‘you’ll shut your eyes and there they’ll be again – wall-to-wall morels.”

“’But you must never forget the final theory, the theory of all theories, ’Ben warned near the end of my morning tutorial. ‘We call it TPITP: The Proof Is in the Pudding’.

After lunch, “Along Beaver Creek that afternoon the morels were totally on, as Ben would say; almost everywhere I looked the honeycombed dunce caps appeared, and I filled a bag in less than an hour.”

“It was deeply satisfying when the morels appeared, a phenomenon ‘You could swear was as much under their control as yours. I became, perforce, a student of the “pop-out effect,” a term I’d first heard from mushroomers but subsequently learned is used by psychologists studying visual perception.” I suppose the “pop-out effect” is something like seeing the 3D shapes in a stereogram or Magic Eye picture.

Circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno Graphic by INFOGRAFIKA

This, the Professor’s last adventure has given us a wonderful insight into human nature and human religion. Earlier, I included a brief introduction to Paradiso under the guise of introducing Virgil, Dante’s guide and mentor. Now, let’s revisit the poem so I may draw an appropriate metaphor for the Prof’s achievement. Paradiso is a truly wonderful poem, and, with a little work, it’s fairly easy to read in Dante’s actual words. In the poem, Dante has captured the universe of the Feudal Church, which, to me, is full of sin and guilt, and far from the teacher who once said, “Let the children come to me”. In our world, there is no pit dug by Lucifer’s plummet from heaven, our real mountains are majestic but nothing like the terraced Babel reaching the outskirts of heaven, and heaven is not a beautiful rose window, sterile and unmoved.

Instead the Prof has brought us news from beyond words, from Husserl’s Lebenswelt (Life world). This Lebenswelt is more wonderful than we imagine, and the more we look the more wonderful it is. Its order is built into a Copper Sulphate crystal growing in a super saturated solution; into the enormous gypsum crystals of the Cueva de los Cristales, Naica; into the basalt hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway, Ireland, built by the wonderfully named giant Finn MacCool; and reflected from far away by the Ice Sculptures of the Carina Nebula. Life, Merleau Ponty’s “Chair” (français (literally): flesh), encompasses the exquisite choreography of cell division, a baby’s smile, the bliss of humans bound together in orgasm, the life of chanterelles, the mighty breach of a right whale, and up and out to the transcendental wonder of our Blue Dot. The humans of the Life-World have answered back with the serene call of the Muezzin floating over Istanbul, the throaty roar of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, the piquancy of Lai from Richard the Lionheart: Troubadors et trouvères by Alla Francesca, and the overwhelming Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The genius of people created the Song Lines running across the Outback; the feathered serpent god rippling down the staircase to the pyramid temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza; the luminous spaces of Santa Sophia, Istanbul; and the ranked immortals and votives, the winged bulls and the black marble throne room at Takht-e-Jamshid. So it goes this Life-World, this Flesh: It runs on and on, worlds without end.

The hunt had made the Prof feel awesomely powerful, similar to the feelings described by Israeli tank commanders driving the routed Egyptian army back across the Sinai during the ‘67 War. The principle entertainment of monarchs and nobles has been hunting, because the chase gave something of the same thrills as battle. A warrior could easily describe his experience as being one with Mars or St. Michael.

Even to a sophisticated, well informed individual like Professor Pollan, mushrooming felt magical and unknowable. The secretive reflexes of mushroomers as they refused to divulge their places was akin to those concealing magical or religious law; the feelings of those questing to find such places is akin to those seeking to find answers in Nostradamus or John Dee’s angelic language. This also goes someway to explain why many prefer the half-baked Ancient Aliens to real science. For supplicants watching a TV science show, they are excluded from the chase, the false leads, the dumb mistakes, and the work with its final triumph.

If science is to be better appreciated then TV science shows should refrain from trotting out facts, handed down from Olympian heights, and seek to engage people in the process of scientific discovery. In the history of science, the pop-out effect has happened many times. From Galileo looking at Jupiter and its moons, through Kekulé dreaming of a snake biting its tail and upon waking realizing that he had a solution for the structure of benzene, to James Watson playing with cardboard shapes representing the components of DNA called bases and realizing that was a good reason for the unusual ratio of their proportions, there is ample material to include regular folk. I maintain that it is quite possible to explain Einstein Special Relativity and Gödel’s Theorem to an interested anyone, perhaps even explain Darwinian Evolution to the satisfaction of a Southern Baptist preacher.

The Perfect Meal

The Menu

The Menu

“Perfect?! A dangerous boast, you must be thinking.” the Prof quips, but I do think so. The food was spectacularly good – have a look at the photo of the menu. The first course of Abalone performed well as a “chaser of mouthwash”.

The humans furnished conversation which was like a “sustainable effervescence, unfurl[ing] like a sail”.

“There comes a moment in the course of a dinner party when, with any luck, you realize everything’s going to be okay. The food and the company having sailed past the shoals of awkwardness or disaster, and the host can allow himself at last to slip into the warm currents of the evening and actually begin to enjoy himself.”

Good job, Professor Pollan, good job.

Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part 1: Children Of the Corn

Cow
Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the Philosopher of Foodies. He starts his book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, with a simple question “What should we have for dinner?”, and comes up with interesting food for thought. He has the temerity to do something that most people do their best to ignore, and something that the food industry, which he charts, dissects and skewers, does its best to encourage. He writes, “Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner”. Ignorance is bliss, you might say.

I think it would be fair to say Pollan’s point of view could be summarized by a quote from the hero of part two and three of the book, Joel Salatin: “Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?” (page: 240)

The plot of the Omnivore’s Dilemma (not a catchy title in my opinion) revolves around preparing four meals.

  • A McMeal which was gobbled up in a moving car. It was adequate. Pollan had his guilty Big Mac and fries. He could persuade his wife to take a salad, and his 11-year-old son had the McNuggets which “taste like what they are, which is nuggets, du-h”. We get introduced to George Naylor, Pioneer Hi-Breed’s 34H31, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and a brockle-face calf called Steer Number 534.
  • A Big Organic meal came care of Whole Foods, and consisted of roast “Rosie” chicken, roast veggies – “yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash, steamed asparagus, and a spring mix salad”; followed by organic ice cream and organic blackberries.
  • This is contrasted to the locatarian fare which was mainly from Polyface Farm located in rural Swoope, Virginia. The food was roasted corn, roast chicken again, and lemony rocket salad washed down with a peachy Viognier out of VA. The wine was an “unexpectedly fine wine”. Dessert was chocolate soufflé.
  • The stupendous final meal, its ingredients all handmade or plucked and killed by Prof. Pollan justifiably proud of his achievement wrote the dinner up in a Berkeley-style menu.
Pollan's Menu

Pollan’s Menu

Our omnivorous dilemma

Our omnivorous dilemma is AKA “What should we have for dinner?” We humans are omnivores capable of eating a surprisingly wide variety of food. This includes comestibles that some folk swear are delicious, healthy and nutritious, such as Japanese Natto, or Cantonese chicken feet or tripe from Morpeth, but to me are as appetizing as cold sick.

Koala Bear

Koala Bear

What to eat does not trouble animals with a more restricted diet, say a Koala Bear. “The koala doesn’t worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner.” For most people for most of history the choice of what to eat was limited to what there was, and during famines, what might keep body and soul together for another day. Even in the good times and the good places consumption was guided by custom and etiquette. It is not surprising that the cuisine of the great courtly cultures of the world – China, India, France, Turkey/Greece – features lots of little dishes drawing inspiration from the good wife cooking for her peasant family. For example Crêpe Suzette was invented by Henri Charpentier, He learned its crêpe and fruit elements from his foster mum. The alcohol was added by the Parisian restaurants of the Fin de siècle, the flame by chance, and the appreciation by the then Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England, and guests. Or that was Henri’s story.

By stu_spivack (Preparing the crepes auf flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Crêpe Suzette by stu_spivack

Those times are still the daily reality of most people today, but large and growing proportion of us have moved on to modern life and modern eating. Instead of selecting available foods from a market and cooking them according to family recipes, we have advanced to the food aisles of the supermarket. And they are extraordinary. I wonder what a gifted Renaissance man like Erasmus would have made of the cornucopias we visit every week or so. There are “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments”, “freezer cases with “home meal replacements” “, “broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks”. I recall wandering around a Target in Denver being quite overwhelmed by the size of its food section and especially by the size of some of the packages. As most of the packages and brands were new to me, I had a problem deciding what to buy for my meal for one. I’m not alone in this. “Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the return of the omnivore’s dilemma has deep roots in the modern food industry …”

Supermarket

Supermarket

Pollan maintains that as we modernized we have been cut off from traditions which have been systematically tested over hundreds of years. Now we have a food industry instead. It may be shocking but the executives at Tyson, Walmart, and Whole Foods are mainly interested in running profitable businesses, and their next bonus; they are not necessarily the best folk to ensure our welfare. In theory that welfare is provided by a plethora of laws and agencies. Unfortunately, the science that underpins these laws and guidelines has only had a couple of hundred years to figure how to grow and maintain a human, compared to the thousands afforded to cultures. The Illiad tells us that the young blades at Nestor’s court at Pylos cooked kebabs in the hearth of the king’s throne room Moreover, as Big Tobacco showed us, science can be brought for a price.

Adrift from a distinct food culture, and our concerns multiplied by Madison Avenue and the latest research, we are prey to fads. So a book like the Atkins diet can radically alter eating habits by demonizing pasta and bread and replacing the food pyramid as people’s go-to reference, for a while. Meanwhile we are all getting fatter and dying unnecessarily from so-called diseases of affluence, while we read the labels and wonder “What is “natural grill flavor” or TBHQ or xanthan gum?”

Pollan recognizes this as a cultural problem, and writes: “We show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of being healthy.”

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel

[It’s interesting that a worldly wise, well read, West Coast professor like Pollan should find the notion of an American Paradox odd. Does he think that paradoxical behavior is something that only other nations do? In America, I see paradox everywhere. It’s the only Western country where any old lunatic may arm himself – they are nearly always men – in order to shoot up a school, movie theatre, whatever. And there’s never a stout NRA member to return fire.]

Pollan’s answers his question by following the clues “that, I found, reach all the way back to fields of corn growing in places like Iowa.”

Why Corn (Maize)?

Pollan writes, “I invariably found myself in the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.”, because “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” including “things like Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers …” and there is a good reason for this. Corn, after its seeds have been lovingly synthesized and protected from all manner of ills, produces more calories per square foot than pretty much any other food crop. This is due to its unique biochemistry, its “C-4 trick” as Pollan calls it.

There is no such plant as “natural” corn. Like nearly all our foods, humans have developed it from an unprepossessing original, in corn’s case a plant called Toesinte. Native Americans capitalized on variant plants in which a genetic mutation had wrapped the seeds in a tough husk. The tough husk prevents the corn from propagating naturally, but what would be a death sentence to a wild plant was a bonanza for humans. From then on, we unnaturally selected those characteristics which pleased us, up to and including “the biological equivalent of a patent”. It so happened that frequently the offspring of two varieties of a plant is bigger and better than either of its parents. In Genetics-speak, that cross strain or hybrid is called the F1. The children of the F1 hybrids, the F2 hybrids, are usually shadows of their parents so the farmer must buy his F1 seed from Monsanto or such. George Naylor, Pollan’s corn farmer, buys his, a brand called Pioneer Hi-Bred’s 34H31.

From somewhere in Idaho

Pollan met George Naylor in the middle of his corn field on a “slate-grey” day. Naylor “is a big man with a moon face and a scraggly grey beard” and was wearing “the farmer’s standard-issue baseball cap, a yellow chamois shirt and overalls – the stripy kind favored by railroad workers”. His Iowan field “has some of the richest soil in the world, a cake of alluvial loam nearly two feet thick” made by the “retreat of the Wisconsin glacier ten thousand years ago”, and is home to tall “prairie grasses – big bluestem, foxtail, needlegrass, and switchgrass”.

Corn Field

Corn Field

It is remarkably productive: an acre of the Naylor farm yields “more than ten thousand pounds of food”. The farm is part of a vast mono-culture of identical plants which runs skyline to skyline, a Manhattan of corn, devoid of people. The population of Green County, where the Naylor farm is, in its heyday was 16,467, now it’s a bit over ten thousand. The local town, Churdan, is a shuttered ghost town, just a café and minimart left, with the “windowless concrete skyscraper” of the grain elevator standing vigil at the far end.

The growth from the modest twenty bushels per acre eked out by the Native Americans and the pioneer farmers, got underway in 1947 when the munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama started to turn its surplus of ammonium nitrate into fertilizers instead of explosive. Hybrid corn just loves lots of nitrate fertilizer. The combination spawned corn farms running on oil. Pollan writes “every bushel of industrial requires the equivalent of … fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn”. “Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food …”. The industrialized farm-factory has a side effect: nitrate fertilizer is washed from the fields down into the Raccoon River, which runs through Des Moines. River chemistry converts nitrate into toxic nitrite, which can find its way into tap water for humans. So, in Des Moines, the city has to issue “blue baby alerts”.

Yet despite all this technology and hard work, George Naylor “is all but going broke”. Why this should be “is complicated” and “has something to do with the perverse economics of agriculture …; a little to do with the psychology of farmers; and everything to do with farm policies …”, the last being the life’s work of Earl “Rusty” Butz, AKA “The Sage of Perdue”, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture. See the picture of Butz with Trickie Dickie, and a young Dick Chaney.

A sale of 30 million tons of grain to the Soviet Union “in the fall of 1972” compounded with “a spell of bad weather in the Farm Belt” forced grocery prices to a record high and an apparent food scarcity. Hunger It is never lost on politicos that the immediate cause of the French Revolution was hunger due to bad harvests, so when in 1973 ominous grumblings  started; “housewives were organizing protests at supermarkets” and newspapers asked “Why a Food Scare in a Land of Plenty?”, there was action.

Richard Nixon, Earl "Rusty" Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

Richard Nixon, Earl “Rusty” Butz, and Donald Rumsfeld

So, the “Sage of Perdue set to work re-engineering the American food system, driving down prices and vastly increasing the output of American farmers.” “He exhorted farmers to plant their fields ‘fencerow to fencerow’ and advised them to ‘get big or get out’.” With the 1973 farm bill, he rejinked government subsidies from loans designed to keep farmers’ solvent into direct payments intended to increase production. And that farmers did, all too well. Over the years, government has found other things to spend money on, consequently “just about every farm bill since has lowered the target price in order [apparently] to make American grain more competitive on world markets.”  The result is that as of October 2005, corn was bought for $1.45 a bushel and the agriculturists at the University of Idaho reckon that that bushel costs $2.50 to produce, trapping the farmer into attempting to grow still more, ad infinitum.

A monument to this abundance, or a “plague of cheap corn” as George Naylor put it, was the “bright yellow pyramid the size of a circus tent” Pollan saw at the foot of the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa, part of a “bumper crop” “represent[ing] what was left of the millions of bushels of corn that had overflowed the elevators [the previous] … October.” Pollan felt that “something [was] deeply amiss in the sight of so much food lying around on wet ground.”  Ricardo Salvador, a Latino agronomist and Prof. at Iowa State, took a similar line: “To be honest I felt revulsion. In Mexico, even today, you do not let corn lay on the ground; it is considered almost sacrilegious.”

But from the perspective of hardnosed commodity brokers, this hill is only so much “number 2 field corn”. This term was coined by the Chicago Board of Trade as part of a grading system introduced in 1856 to simplify commodity trading. It is almost inedible: you’ll have to soak the corn kernels in water for several hours to get something tasting like “lightly corn-flavored starch.”  But, then again, you’re not supposed to eat it; it flows into factories which turn it into ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, umpteen other things and meat. Pollan intended to follow this yellow river on its journey to the consumer so he contacted the chief processors of corn, Cargill and ADM, but they declined Pollan on “food security” grounds.

Mommy, what does C.A.F.O. mean?

Pollan left the Manhattan of corn and towering corn elevators which stand like a lone moorland menhirs to visit a cattle metropolis called Poky Feeders. The high plains of western Kansas are crisscrossed by “ramrod roads”, Kansas lay lines to the standing stones of Idaho. He speeds down one until “the empty dun-colored January prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see” which is coupled “an aroma more bus station men’s room than cows in the country”. Welcome to Poky Feeders. He had come to visit his steer, number 534.

By Derekbalsley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cattle Lot By Derekbalsle

534 had started his life in a birthing shed on the Blaire Ranch “a few miles outside Sturgis, South Dakota”. His mother was 9534, that would be the 34th cow born in 1995, and his father via “a fifteen-dollar mail order straw” was “Gar Precision 1680, a bull distinguished by the size and marbling of his offspring’s rib-eye steaks. If this strikes you as rather Brave New Worldish, you’re not alone; only we’ve not yet applied industrialization to human reproduction. His first six months were spent with his mother, on Blair Ranch’s “rolling short-grass prairie” with the option of “nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses: western wheatgrass, little bluestem, buffalo grass, green needlegrass.”

“In October, two weeks before [Pollan] made his acquaintance, steer number 534 was weaned from his mother.” Then “he was rounded up and herded into a “backgrounding” pen with others of his cohort, to spend a couple of months learning to eat corn from a trough. It was in this pen that Pollan chose 534 because he “had a wide stout frame and was brockle-faced- he has three easy-to-spot white blazes.” “Ed Blair, the older of the two brothers, suggested only half in jest that [Pollan] go the whole hog and buy the animal” which “immediately struck [Pollan] as a promising idea.” Shortly after 534 was off to Poky Feeders.

The heart of Poky Feeders is the mill. It processes a million pounds of feed a day, which is corn rolled into flakes which weren’t “half bad; not as crisp as a Kellogg’s flake, but with a cornier flavor”, liquefied fat i.e. beef tallow, and “a sticky brown goop of molasses and urea, plus vitamins and a couple of antibiotics “- Rumensin and Tylosin.”

It all makes inexorable economic sense, even the cannibalism.“ “Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged when [Pollan] raised an eyebrow.”  Trouble is, apart from the yuck factor, the system is new in evolutionary terms which means things go wrong. The classic example is “Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, first brought to light in merry England where, once upon a time, bits of sheep were fed to cattle. A disease of sheep known as scrapie was passed to the cattle and then to humans. For a while British beef was banned in Europe and , there were fears that it could turn into an epidemic as the human version Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease was essentially untreatable. In a damage control exercise, the British public were treated to the spectacle of the nerdy Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, feeding his four year old daughter with hamburgers at a Norfolk country fete. The furor has died down, for now, and is not a known problem at Poky Feeders.

The main problem that Poky’s three “hospitals” cope with is Bloat. A diet loaded with starch stalls the fermentation in the animal’s rumen which “inflates like a balloon” and may occlude his esophagus and suffocate him. The cattle can also get “a kind of bovine heartburn” which too can be lethal. This is why the animals are fed antibiotics. “Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed”. As the current stocks of antibiotics are variations of a handful of compounds, it is only a matter of time before they are compromised by antibiotic resistant superbugs. According the staff veterinarian, Dr. Mel Metzin, all this is due to the simple fact that “they’re made to eat forage and we make them eat grain.” so the “cattle rarely live on feedlot diets for more than 150 days”, perhaps “as much as [the animals”] systems can tolerate.” Still Dr. Mel is upbeat: “Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space, I wouldn’t have a job.”

Pollan found 534 in pen 63 which on first impression was “not a bad piece of real estate, all considered.” Then he figured out the pond which pen 63 overlooked was no pond at all but in CAFO speak “a manure lagoon”. (CAFO is the acronym for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.) Pollan had on “the same carrot-colored sweater” he had worn when they had first met in South Dakota and wondered if 534 would show a “glint of recognition?” Nope, “none whatsoever.” He looked well although his eyes were a little bloodshot, “irritated by feedlot dust” according to Dr. Mel. Indeed, Dr. Mel was impressed: ““That’s a handsome-looking beef you got there.” “[Pollan’s unspoken reply:] Shucks”

Rube Goldberg and Number 2 corn

Around 60% of “the 10 billion bushels of corn harvested each year” is used in CAFOs and the like. The rest – remember humans don’t eat kernels of number 2 field corn – is deconstructed in a wet mill. As ADM and Cargill, who do most of America’s wet milling, had declined to show him their plants in Decatur, Illinois and Iowa City respectively, he made do with a model mill at the Center for Crops Utilization Research at Iowa State University. It is “a Rube Goldberg [Heath Robinson (GB Eng.)] contraption of stainless steel tubes, pipes, valves, vents, drying tables, centrifuges, filters and tanks” which as Larry Johnson, the Center’s director, describes it “is essentially an industrial version of digestion”. Pollan goes into some detail on how the processes work, but suffice to say it is ingenious, cost effective and mainly made from metal. The end product are things like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is “the most valuable product refined from corn”. Then these products are reassembled into food items like Cocoa Pebbles breakfast cereal or Coca Cola, and a surprising range of other products, e.g. Windex, diapers, gypsum drywall, wax paper and fresh vegetables!

First Booze Then Fries

Unsurprisingly, the result of ingenuity and a prodigious amount of cash is what Pollan calls “A Republic of Fat”. The UN reckons that there are now a billion or so people with overnutrition – an interesting euphemism – which is more than the unfortunates with malnutrition, at around 800 million. So, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone and it is probably technically possible to do it. Quite when we’ll get around to it is another matter.

The US takes the lead in the obese league with 60% of Americans who are overweight and 20% who are obese. It has not always been so. “Most researchers trace America’s rising rates of obesity to the 1970s.” which is coincidentally the era of Earl Butz. Maybe that’s no coincidence at all.

Pollan gets his label Republic of Fat from a book about America and alcohol entitled The Alcoholic Republic. Apparently, from the time of the Founding Fathers onwards, America was on a “collective bender” to the astonishment of European visitors. One wrote home, “Come on then, if you love toping. For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.” Pollan reckons that the driving forces for both republics are the same things: too much corn and ingenious marketing.

At the top of the roll of honor for those marketers is David Wallerstein, who invented for McDonalds the “equivalent of a papal dispensation”: Supersize. McDonald’s empire has in recent times been losing market share which wasn’t helped by the film Super Size Me. This goes some way to showing that the Republic of Fat will not need a period like Prohibition to reform a clearly daft state of affairs.

A recent Freakonomics Radio podcast “You eat what you are”, which includes Pollan, suggests that reform is happening in the US, so soon back to slimmer Americans, with the rest of the world in tow with the end of world hunger thrown in. That would be nice. In the meanwhile, Pollan has updated the ancient Mayan self-description “the corn people” or corning walking”, “So that’s us: processed corn, walking”.