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General News    H3'ed 6/12/11

Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, Eating Money

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The Stomach and the Purse

So at least is my understanding from what I'm told by the news media and learn from the labels at the supermarket, which isn't much because the message wrapped in cellophane holds with the Pentagon's policy of don't ask, don't tell. I rely instead on Aristotle, who draws the distinction between wealth as food and wealth as money by pointing out that the stomach, although earless, is open to instruction and subject to restraint.

A person can only eat so much (1,500 pounds of food per year, according to current estimates), but the craving for money is boundless -- the purse, not the belly, is the void that is never filled. Paul Roberts fits Aristotle's observation to the modern circumstance: "Food production may follow general economic principles of supply and demand; it may indeed create employment, earn trade revenues, and generate profits, sometimes considerable profits; but the underlying product -- the thing we eat -- has never quite conformed to the rigors of the modern industrial model."

What is profitable is not necessarily edible; food apparently doesn't get along well with assembly lines, farm-chemical runoff, antibiotics, and petroleum additives. Its quality deteriorates, as do the soils from which it springs and the health of the people to whom it is dished out.

Roberts defines the problem as the imbalance between "what is demanded and what is actually supplied," and the analogy that comes to mind is the story about the good King Midas, who wishes that everything he touches might turn to gold. Dionysus grants the request, and Midas discovers that he is unable to digest 24-karat cheese or 12-troy-ounce turbot.

Again, if I'm to believe what I read in the papers and infer from the taste of Taco Bell, the shift from an organic to an industrial food chain takes place in the second half of the twentieth century. The use of ammonium nitrate for fertilizer makes possible the production of immense quantities of hybrid corn processed into as many synthetic products (cranberry juice, whole-grain bread, toothpaste, aspirin) as a corporate marketing manager cares to germinate and name.

Family farms give way to factory farms drawing their energies from fossil fuels in place of sunlight (the metamorphosis of two pounds of corn into four ounces of hamburger at the rate of one gallon of diesel fuel per acre); the chemical wastes that flow south with the Mississippi River from Iowa's cornfields form a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico equal in size to the state of New Jersey. The environmental damage is the cost of doing business, which is so abundantly successful that it allows for the presence of maybe as many as two billion people everywhere in the world who might not otherwise have been fed.

The changes move into position within the frame of my own lifetime, but I didn't take much notice of their coming or going. In the vicinity of my childhood I have no recollection of such a thing as a supermarket; the greengrocer sold the fruit and the vegetables, the butcher supplied the pot roast and sometimes the steak. As a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper in the 1950s, I was often in the San Joaquin Valley to admire the apricots or praise the walnuts, but I don't remember meeting any farmers who believed themselves resident in paradise.

Food as Succulent Strings of Heirloom Adjectives and Vintage Nouns

On moving east to New York City in 1960, I formed the habit of eating in restaurants and with it the supposition that the pleasures of the table were those to be found in the company and the conversation rather than in whatever was the sun-dried specialty on the plate. My belated introduction to the notion of a higher food consciousness I owe to Julia Child.

In the early 1960s, having served her apprenticeship at Le Cordon Bleu, she was conducting a cooking class on American public television, her program, The French Chef, so popular that the editors of The Saturday Evening Post sent me to take note of its being whipped up in a kitchen in Boston. The two days in her company -- on set, at home, watching a taped sequence of her prior performances -- were both a joy and a wonder to behold.

A hearty and steadfast woman unburdened with affectation, Mrs. Child didn't preach sermons -- gastronomic, moral, or conceptual. So carefree was her approach to the materials in hand that, when making a mess of a potato pancake, she didn't lose her composure. "If this happens," she said, "just scoop it back into the pan. Remember that you are alone in the kitchen, and nobody can see you."

She took a simple and innocent delight in anything and everything she found pleasing (puff pastry or fish heads), her sense of enthusiastic discovery like that of Duke Ellington's finding "the best barbecued ribs west of Cleveland and the best shrimp Creole outside New Orleans." One of her French Chef episodes opened on an artichoke boiling in a pot under a shroud of cheesecloth, Mrs. Child looming suddenly into the shot to lift the cheesecloth with heavy tweezers and an expression of cheerful surprise.

"What's cooking under this gossamer veil?" she said. "Why, here's a great big bad artichoke, and some people are afraid of it."

She had a way of misplacing things, often the butter, sometimes the seasoning or the chopped carrots -- on one memorable occasion, the turkey. Undismayed by random accident and secure in her belief that all's well that ends well, she could point to chicken frying in a pan and say, reassuringly, "We just leave it there, letting it make simple little cooking noises."

If from Mrs. Child I learned what little I know about gourmandizing, I was never troubled by the wish to live on a farm, there in the morning mist down by the Wabash to milk a cow, butcher a pig, or strangle a chicken. Journalist Brent Cunningham takes to task the notion of rural utopia dispensed from the pulpits of the food-reform movements and finds it suffused with a reduction of "bourgeois nostalgia," an artisanal memory of sweet-water streams overflowing with trout, the countryside teeming with "poor but noble" people, "tough and hard-working... living healthier and fundamentally better lives than the rest of us."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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