The FMA clutches a rare victorious win against the Lords of Fate in the shape of Rizzo the Rat.
I wasn’t originally planning on writing about today’s excursion to the Marin County Fair, but it’s as good a jumping-off point as anything else for me to rant a bit about food. Jon Carroll may have his feline fulminations, but I’ve got the inescapable edible. Unless you’re consuming cats, I think we can all agree on who’s got the topic with broader appeal.
I’m currently reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which neatly lays out in about 400 pages everything that’s wrong with the American food production system. I’m not yet done with it, but Michael Pollan’s ability to present some new idea or an old one in a fresh manner on nearly every page still blows me away. Some of his concepts are only tangentially related to the sort of idea-fucking that I’ve been doing for most of my life: “What if,” I wonder, and then go off on a brain tangent about steampunk aesthetic and whether people like brass because it’s shiny or the implications of a galactic police force that chooses more of its members from one planet than any other.
Other ideas that Pollan explores in his book have serious, real-world implications for people who care about cooking, and he discusses them in such a way as to be inclusive and let people come to their own conclusions. There is very little dragging-the-horse-to-water crap that many opinion columnists or non-fiction book authors perpetuate. His writing style is conversational: Here is what I’ve learned by doing this. He doesn’t even get to the point of, “…and draw your own conclusions.” The terseness of the style forgoes the need for ham-handedness, and so you can actually decide whether he’s on drugs or making sense.
Frankly, I think he’s making a lot of sense, and since the book came out in 2006 I’m a bit late to the game. That said, and book unfinished, it’s important for me to note a few things about The Omnivore’s Dilemma and its implications thus far. First off, for those of you who don’t know how the FMA and I deal with our weekly consumption of fuel, we cook a lot. We prepare about five or six meals per week at home, although in any given week the number of meals eaten at home can vary from four to seven, depending on our social proclivities and the Jewish holiday calendar. These meals that we prepare at home don’t just cover dinner, they make up almost all of my lunches and most of the FMA’s, as well. We shop at the local Chinese and Mexican markets, hitting Trader Joe’s only for orange juice, cheap but decent vodka, and bread and yogurt free of high-fructose corn syrup.
If asked us for our favorite inert gas, it would have to be freon, since we depend mightily on our freezer to keep leftovers and home-cooked meals that were made to be frozen ready for a quick reinvigoration. At any given time, we have around half a dozen dinners for two ready to be defrosted on short notice, and none of them were bought.
We do this for several reasons. We like to cook. Preparing our own food has more to do with taste than anything else. I remember soon after we moved to San Francisco and discovered that a Thai restaurant we had been to twice used the same Thai curry paste that we bought at our Asian market, but charged us more for the meal without the sense of pride we could take in preparing it ourselves. Fuck that, we said, and we haven’t been to a Thai restaurant in more than a year. Why, when we can prepare the food like we remember it in Thailand, instead of having the tastes adjusted for Western taste buds.
We like our cooking, but we like our flexibility, too.
Americans, and that includes those who live and eat in America but don’t identify as countrymen of L’Etats Unis, are facing perilous times. Our very health is being thrown into risk by the mere and base act of eating. Looking at statistics, the food we consume can be broken down into one large category, supplanted by an even larger one: We eat corn, and that corn is fed on oil.
The chicken or cow that you’re eating along with your broccoli in garlic and brown rice? Sounds healthy, right? But if Pollan and his colleagues are to be believed – and there’s ample evidence that they’re right – all those food products, if bought at a major American food reseller like Safeway, Shaw’s, or Albertson’s, all come from corn, and that corn essentially comes from petrochemicals. The chicken is fed corn. The cow is fed corn. The veggies were grown with fertilizer that comes from a mix of oil-based crap, and corn. The corn itself comes from animal- and petro-based fertilizer, and so even when you make an effort to avoid HFCS you’re essentially buying the same shit that you put in your car.
Not only do we like to cook, but we know it’s healthier. We can choose which recipes are worthy of a full-on butter assault, and which can get by with a dash of olive oil, or with nothing. Fanqie chowdan, which I’ve just butchered the spelling of but is essentially a Chinese dish of egg, tomato, and green onion stir-fried and served with rice, is a healthy dish. We add nothing, letting the natural oils permeate the food. The more you know about what goes into your body, the healthier you’ll be. Please, find me a logical counter-argument, because I haven’t been able to think of one.
Food is not merely fuel. We have been genetically and physiologically programmed to both utilize and enjoy food that tastes good. As the farmers that Pollan interviews in his book suggest, though, things that taste best to us are not always available. So we’re designed to enjoy a range of foods, in different seasons and conforming to different tastes, but all of which can benefit our bodies. So it’s good to eat potatoes in winter, and chicken in the summer. Strawberries are meant for one time of year, and asparagus another: just because some “organic” enclave can have it flown to your local Whole Foods regardless of season doesn’t mean you should buy it. Nor does it mean that it’s organic.
So, we get back to the FMA winning a stuffed Muppet, Rizzo the Rat, at the Marin County Fair. Just north of San Francisco, Marin County is one of the most affluent counties in the entire United States, and the world, too. There are minority-heavy pockets of poverty – ask how many of the people you know who live in Marin have been to Marin City in the past 25 years – but there’s also extreme wealth. Marin is also the northern gateway to San Francisco and the traditional marketplace that S.F. is, so the farmers even further north in northern and western Marin, in Sonoma and Novato counties, and some from Mendocino, too, make their way down to The City.
The Marin County Fair was big on electric vehicle displays. PG&E had a booth, and classic muscle cars from the 60s, sleek and strong, had been refurbished with electric-only engines. Somewhere, Shai Agassi was bashing his head into a keyboard.
An emphasis on the greenness of the fair was heavily drilled into your head, yet the fair lacked an equal emphasis on green food. Many of the food stalls might have had signs up indicating that this meat bowl or that funnel cake fried dough thing was baked using “organic” ingredients, but organic could mean anything. Organically-grown whatever that have to be flown and trucked into your hometown during the nadir of the off-season aren’t “organic,” at least not in the original sense of the term, according to Pollan.
What you know about what you eat can make a huge difference in your health, so when a place as eco-friendly as Marin offers shoddy (in other words, zero) documentation at one of their biggest annual events, it doesn’t bode well for the impact of changing hearts and minds.
Then again, it’s all slow going, and the FMA, who claims she never wins anything, participated for the first time ever in the classic American pastime known as the carnival ruse and walked away with an enormous stuffed and probably bootleg rendition of the Muppet Rizzo the Rat. This is how they sucker you in – but she looked so happy.