Monday, February 12, 2007

Book Excerpt #2

"From our western point of view it would be easy to imagine that eating rice or bread at every meal was a step down from the diversity and wonder of our own habits, where we can have take out Thai for lunch, Mexican for dinner and oatmeal for breakfast, but that is, in fact, not the case. Most people love their staple foods, find them comforting and pleasurable, and come to believe that a meal without them is not a meal. For example, in several Asian cultures the question, "Have you eaten?" actually means "Have you had rice." Margaret Visser points out,

"Rice eaters are intensely knowledgeable about varieties of flavour
and aroma in their favourite food; they may be used to eating little,
but they care a great deal whether that little is good. (Visser, 175)"

The same is true of any people with staple foods. Varieties of bread are debated and preserved and recipes passed down among those who rely on wheat. Sourdough eaters preserve their starters, those accustomed to dark ryes search the earth for them when they travel, and at holidays everyone enjoys their sweetened celebratory breads. Those whose traditions involve corn preserve ancient varieties, like traditional Mexican and Hopi varieties for making tortillas, because of the remarkable flavors involved. They know a thousand ways to use cornmeal - as breads, porridges and desserts, and never seem to tire of them. And anyone who has ever eaten a buttery, yellow yukon gold potato, and a waxy carola potato know how different they can be, how much a "meat and potatoes person" finds a meal without potatoes an empty thing indeed.

In fact, you might turn Visser's statement around, and point out that the only people who don't care about the quality of their food are us, the people who have so much of it that we don't know what to do with it. We have allowed our tastes for salt and fat and sugar to override the natural, profound liking for a staple whole grain and its natural partners, and we can no longer taste the subtleties of their pleasures. Or perhaps because we rely on the supermarket we simply don't know how very diverse these tastes can be. We imagine ourselves as having a tremendously interesting diet, but is it really better to eat lobster, chicken and pork in one week, or to enjoy sourdough, black rye, honey-wheat and salt rising bread?

I want to emphasize that when we call for a return to staple starch based diets, we are not calling for a return to the bland, the boring, the unbalanced or the unpleasant. We have become accustomed to another kind of diet, one that is tremendously energy and carbon intensive and often very boring - in the sense that everything tastes strongly of salt and fat. Becoming a nation of home cooks means, in part, developing a new, but not at all inferior diet. It involves opening ourselves to new tastes, and reconsidering what constitutes novelty and good food.

In fact, we imagine ourselves as eating a variety of foods, but in fact, if we eat from the typical supermarket, much of our diet is derived from a single ingredient.. As Michael Pollan points out in _The Omnivore's Dilemma_, corn is a central ingredient in virtually everything Americans eat. We are not aware of how dependent we are upon zea mays, but we are, as Pollan observes, rather like Koala bears that eat only one sort of plant. He says,

"Corn is what feeds the steeer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds
the chickens and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the
tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that
fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made
of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from the
dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins
that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating

Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate
manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn
upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but
so do most of the nugget's other constituents, including the modified
corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter
that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less
obviously, the leavenings and lecitithin, the mono-,and di-, and
triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid
that keeps the nugget 'fresh' can all be derived from corn.
To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink
in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the
1980s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the
supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup
(HFCS) - after water, corn sweetener is their principle ingredient.
Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you'd still be driking
corn in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from
corn..." (Pollan, 18)

Wow, doesn't that sound yummy! It turns out that our diet isn't nearly as diverse as we'd like to be, and changing to devote ourselves primarily to a few staple food might actually be an expansion, rather than a contraction of our experience and our palates.

We would encourage people to think about what is likely to be their own natural staple starch(s), and how to provision themselves with it, to learn to cook it well and in multiple ways, and to enjoy it. For many people farming on small lots, growing a lot of grain is probably not feasible, although you certainly can grow a surprisingly large amount in small spaces. There are good reasons to grow some staple grains and vegetables. One of them is as a hedge against famine in hard times, and also as a means of creating complete local food systems. If the basis of your diet has to come from far away, there are limits to how food secure your community can ever be."



Alantex said...

Just wanted to point out one thing: good beer isn't made from corn. If you drink Bud or Miller or one of their cheaper clones, then, yes, you're drinking corn. But if you drink one of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of malt beverages from local microbreweries that have sprung up around the U.S. in the last 20 years, then you'll be imbibing a considerable variety of grains, fruits, and other ingredients, increasingly organically-grown.

And if you do drink these craft-brewed beers and ales, you'll never go back to that crummy corn-based stuff.

Anonymous said...

Coming fromthe UK, I am not sure if by "corn" you mean wheat, or maize which we call 'sweetcorn'. We grew maize on our allotment last year, which was very successful, but we also grow lots of potatoes. Perhaps we could have more than one 'staple' carbohydrate. Would the masses of parsnips and carrots also count?

RAS said...

Sharon, if you don't mind me asking, where did you get your copy of Heat? Not only can I not find it in any of the used bookstores, but none of the new ones have it either! Amazon is claiming it won't even be published until July! What the devil?

Anna said...

Nobody asked me, but - the book I want you to write is the personal/global "living sustainably" one - containing "Love Miles", "Home Economics, Sustainability and the "Mommy Wars"", and the like.

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Folks - Hi Alan - a good reminder. I definitely don't think Pollan is talking about *good* food in general, much less good beer ;-). But yes, an important point.

And sorry - when we speak of "corn" here in the US, we mean Maize. "Sweetcorn" is the green (that is, not dried) form of corn eaten off the cob, and "dry corn" is the dried meal grown for grinding. Sorry to be confusing - and yes, I do talk later in the book about needing more than one staple food - and yes, carrots and parsnips do count, although their nutritional balance is someone different. John Jeavons and Ecology action argue that if you must grow your food intensively, root crops are the best possible return for your energy investment.

RAS, for some stupid reason, _Heat_ hasn't been released in the US at all. I ordered my copy direct from The Guardian, but I gather has it as well. It is a pain. Stupid to release a book that has had so much impact on the global warming conversation and then wait on the US printing.

Anna, that's very nice of you - and some of it may not be out of the question. I can't say any more at the moment, though. I will once things are final! Thank you!


RAS said...

Hmm, is it a stupid reason, or a political reason, I wonder?

And congratulations on the troll. You know that you're making a difference and are a success when you get a troll, especially one when that goes back and attacks previous posts!
BTW, you're writing is very clear -either someone was deliberately misunderstanding, or has very low levels of reading comprehension.

Alantex said...

Hi, Sharon, et al,
Maybe Heat's publishers are waiting on a version tailored for the U.S. situation/market? You, know, "English" measurements instead of metric, American habits, housing styles, appliances, vehicle models, etc.

Anna said...

alantex, that ("version tailored for the U.S.") makes sense. We're pretty spoiled in our reading habits, to expect it - recently I read a book that was Brit-oriented in its examples and units, and found it surprisingly jarring.

the sun does revolve around us U.S. residents, after all...

Jo said...

I experienced this when I lived in Costa Rica for three months. Most people ate some version of rice and beans three meals a day. The sides varied--sometimes you would have fruit, bread, yucca, or a little meat with it. It seemed strange at first but soon felt normal. There are times I'm tempted to cook this way now--it would certainly simplify things, and would be cheaper to boot.

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