Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Ever since I read the latest indictment of the abuses of big business, The Omnivore's Dilemma, I have been looking at my food a little differently. I've started playing a game where I read all the ingredients of the things I eat, and indeed corn-processed products are all up in them. It's like playing Where's Waldo with my food, only in this case Waldo is cut up into 17 different parts and spread all over the ingredients list. I was actually giddy a few weeks ago when I bought an upscale off-brand soft drink and it listed "cane sugar" as an ingredient-- and not "high fructose corn syrup."

I also have a new campaign to try to eat local whenever I can. This seems to be the best solution to our processed food problem. Local food solves most of the problems caused by the economies of scale that are necessary with large industrial farming. Eating locally grown food is better for the environment, better for our bodies, and better for farmers. (You know, the people who actually grow our food.)

This presents quite a dilemma for me, a lazy convenience-phile who rarely cooks and never buys produce. Probably 60% of my diet is frozen dinners and pizza. This is the same person who, when I lived in Germany, used to complain that my bread would go bad after a week. "Haven't these people ever heard of preservatives?!?" I would shout. So it's going to be a challenge for me to put my, uh, mouth where my mouth is. This new attitude has the potential to just add another heap of guilt on me when I eat, to go with all the other Catholic guilt I grew up with.

But I can start with small steps, like joining the local food co-op and trying to be on the lookout for better eating options. Just like you can't eat Rome in a day (I think Godzilla said that), neither will I be able to completely transform my bachelor eating habits overnight.

So it was with this mindset that I was looking for food on my latest road trip to Philadelphia. (My fifth visit there in the past eight months-- Boy, do I love history!) I often break the trip into two days, and my 800-mile, 14-hour journey always has me driving through the Washington, PA area around lunch time. The past few times I've stopped at Wendy's there, but it's been less than satisfying. In addition to my new social food conscience, I fear that I may be becoming a food snob. I blame it on the people I hang out with.

So, with fast food not appealing to me, and with this new attitude about eating local, non-processed food, I pulled off the highway and drove past Wendy's, McDonald's, and Taco Bell hoping to find some local restaurant that might have fresher options.

My eyes perked up when I saw a sign for a place called Eat'nPark. Not a great name (what the hell does "eat 'n park" mean? Shouldn't it be the other way around?) but it looked like a local greasy spoon that might at least be something different than the ubiquitous MickieDees. But it also looked like a sit-down restaurant, and I wanted something fast. I did have a schedule to keep, after all. I drove past Eat'nPark, but there were no other options closer to town. So I turned around. I was just about to give up and go back to Wendy's when I passed Eat'nPark again. And I noticed the marquee sign outside said, "Local produce in our salad bar." If I was looking for a sign from the Universe, that was it. With all my talk about eating local, how could I pass that up?

So I pulled off the road and parked. I was very apprehensive, because I never take chances like this when I travel. I'm not spontaneous, daring, or comfortable with unknown situations. But I took a chance.

It was like a higher quality Denny's. Clean and wholesome with fast friendly service and a glass case full of pies next to the register. I ordered a chicken mushroom sandwich with a side of cole slaw and felt very pleased with myself. Look at me, taking chances! Eating local and healthy! The food was great and it didn't take me much longer than a fast food place. I ate half my sandwich and took the other half with me, which made a great leftover lunch the next day. The rest of the afternoon I felt so smug and self-satisfied for my lunch choice that I could have burst. I can't wait for my next road trip to Philly so I can stop there again.

When I got home I looked up Eat'nPark. It turns out it's a Pittsburg-based chain of about 75 restaurants in PA, WV, and OH. I couldn't find any mention on their website about the local angle, but the one in Washington, PA, sure had a local feel to it.


While in Philadelphia, I visited a local farmer's market in, of all places, a subway station. It was one local farm selling their products, and although I wasn't interested in any of the produce (my friend bought enough for the both of us), I did noticed that they had beef jerky. One of the things that I learned from my book is that grass-fed beef is way healthier (and better for the environment, etc.) than the corn-fed ones that live in crowded factories their whole life. The grass-fed lifestyle also appears to negate many of the (legitimate) objections that vegetarians have about eating beef. So I asked the guy if their cows were grass-fed, and he said yes. I couldn't pass this up, so I bought grass-fed beef jerky. I wonder if it's the first time I've ever had grass-fed beef, but there's really no way to know. I am enjoying my jerky as I type this. (I know that sounds dirty, but it's not. Unless you think eating beef is in itself pornographic.)


On my return trip, I was driving through western Ohio at lunchtime and I had the same dilemma as before. How can I feed myself without stopping at fast food?

I couldn't hope to find another Eat'nPark with a local salad bar, but I decided to just pull off at an exit with lots of restaurants and hope to find at least a local business, if not local food. What I found instead was Tim Hortons. What the hell was a Tim Hortons doing in Dayton, OH?

I'd never seen a Tim Hortons before, but as I understand it, it's like the Canadian Starbucks. They are ubiquitous in Canada and serve coffee and pastries. Do they also serve lunch? I didn't know. But I was going to find out.
I realize that going to Tim Hortons is the opposite of eating local. It's a large international chain that probably buys all of its food in bulk from all over the world. But it's also Canadian, and I imagine that large evil corporations in Canada aren't nearly as large and evil as their American counterparts. Plus, it was at least a new experience.

The food was serviceable and the service friendly. My turkey club sandwich at least had the appearance of being fresh, like they advertise.

And now my Eat'nFresh souvenir cup has a companion.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Feeding Our Cornholes

There I go again, reading.

Learnin' stuff.

The more I learn about how our world operates, the more I believe that ignorance really is bliss. Because The Omnivore's Dilemma : a Natural History of Four Meals, a book by Michael Pollan, is bumming me out.

Basically, it's about how we're all just big ole' walking piles of corn. Bushels and bushels and bushels of corn. It's in almost everything we eat. It's in a lot of things we don't eat. It's what the things we eat eat. It's what the things we drive eat.

As omnivores, humans eat both plants and meat. We're not like koala bears, who eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves. The "dilemma" in Pollan's title is, when you have such a wide range of possibilities, what do you eat? Well, it turns out that more and more, we Americans eat corn. And we don't have much choice about it.

According to Pollan, 45 out of the 60 items on a McDonald's menu contain some form of processed corn. It's in the drinks, it's in the hamburger bun, it's in the cheese, it's in the fries. The McNuggets? Fuggedaboudit! They're loaded with corn products! (Ironically, actual corn is not on the menu.)

Because of all this cornhole stuffing, we're becoming less like omnivores and more like the koala. "This is what the industrialized eater has become: the koala of corn."

That's what you are.

Pollan lays out lots of reasons why it's become almost unsustainable for farmers to grow anything but corn in this country: "A quarter century of farm policies designed to encourage the overproduction of this crop [corn] and nothing else."

The problem is-- this overproduction of corn at the expense of all other crops-- it's bad for us. It's bad for farmers, who, because of the supersaturated market, can't get a good price for their corn, but because of subsidies can't afford to grow anything else. It's bad for the environment. It's bad for the livestock who eat it. (Cattle don't naturally eat corn.) Hence, it's bad for us who eat the livestock who eat the corn. It's bad for our health, because of all the unhealthy ways it's processed. ("We subsidize high fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots.")

The only people who benefit by this overproduction of corn is (SURPRISE!) the large food corporations (ADM and Cargill) who process all this cheap, overabundant corn into the high-calorie products that we stuff down our fat gullets.

It should come as no surprise that this policy, which has hurt the little guy (farmers) at the expense of big corporations, was instituted by a Republican administration. Earl Butz (heh, heh, you said "butts") was Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture. He made it a priority to change many New Deal farm subsidy programs, to the detriment of small farms. According to Wikipedia (this quote sounds like it was lifted from Pollan's book):
His mantra to farmers was "get big or get out," and he urged farmers to plant commodity crops like corn "from fencerow to fencerow." These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.
Incidentally, after implementing policies that would dismantle the family farm, rape the nation's soil, stuff livestock into unsustainable factories, and cause the current obesity epidemic, Butz went on to make offensive and racist statements which forced him out of office. Oh, he also went to jail for tax evasion. What a guy!

For a more sympathetic view of Butz that considers historical context, see this:


This whole story just bums me out because it once again shows how we live in a corporatocracy. Corporations wield all the power, and all the big decisions get made based on the bottom line. Our health, our environment, our standard of living-- none of that matters when it gets in the way of a corporation making a big pile of money.

Another example from the book: the "Industrial Organic" industry. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it's actually how most of the "organic" food that we buy is grown. What started out as an alternative movement to grow food on smaller farms in a sustainable and healthy way has grown into a huge industry, run by giant corporations. The corporations themselves have a hand in defining how the FDA labels things as "organic." So of course they allow a lot of the same practices that support the economic model of the factory farm.

An economic model that, though efficient and financially successful to the large corporation, is overworking the land and its resources. As Pollan warns, "Civilizations that abuse their soil eventually collapse."

So as organic farmers have become more successful, they have turned into the very thing that they originally set out to oppose. Overworking the land for economic gain. It's depressing to see how human nature does that. How even the best intentions get corrupted.

Seriously, how can you think of anything but corruption when you hear phrases like, "organic Twinkie" or "organic frozen dinner"?

Ugh, it hurts my head to think about. Where's my corn-coated organic aspirin?