Pollan in grocery store.pdf - ONE THE PLANT Cams Conquest 1...

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Unformatted text preview: ONE THE PLANT Cam’s Conquest 1. A NATURALIST IN THE SUPERMARKET Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature. And yet what is this place if not a landscape (man— made, it’s true),teemingwith plants‘and animals? 3 I’m not just talking about the produce section or the meat counter, either—the supermarket’s flora and fauna. Ecologically speaking, these are this landscape’s most legible Zones, the places where it doesn’t take a field guide to identify the resident species. Over there's your eggplant, onion, potato, and leek; here your apple, banana, and orange. Spritzed with morning dew every few minutes, Produce is the only corner of the supermarket where we’re apt to think ”Ah,flyes, the bounty of Nature!" Which probably explains why such’gamgarden of fruits and vegetables (sometimes flowers, too) is What usually greets the shopper coming through the automatic doors. Keep rolling, back to the mirrored rear wall behind which the butch— 6 4- THF. OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA ers toil, and you encounter a set of species only slightly harder to identify—there’s chicken and turkey, lamb and cow and pig. Though in Meat the creaturely character of the species on display does seem to be fading, as the cows and pigs increasingly come subdivided into bone— less and bloodless geometrical cuts. In recent years some of this superj market euphemism has seeped into Produce, where you’ll now find formerly soil—encrusted potatoes cubed pristine white, and "baby” car— rots machine—lathed into neatly tapered torpedoes. But in general here in flora and fauna you don’t need to be a naturalist, much less a food scientist, to know what species you're tossing into your cart. Venture farther, though, and you come to regions of the supermar— ket where the very notion of species seems increasingly obscure: the canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments; the freezer cases stacked with “home meal replacements” and bagged platonic peas; the broad expanses of soft drinks and towering cliffs of snacks; the unclassifiable Pop—Tarts and Lunchables; the frankly synthetic coffee whiteners and the Linnaeus—defying Twinkie. Plants? Animals?! Though it might not always seem that way, even the deathless Twinkie is constructed out of . . . well, precisely What I don’t know offhand, but ultimately some sort of formerly living creature, i.e., a species. We haven’t yet begun to synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly. If you do manage to regard the supermarket through the eyes of a naturalist, your first impression is apt to be of its astounding biodiver- sity. Look how many different plants and animals (and fungi) are rep— resented on this single acre of land! What forest or prairie could hope to match it? There must be a hundred different species in the produce section alone, a handful more in the meat counter. And this diversity appears only to be increasing: When I was a kid, you never saw radic— chio in the produce section, or a half dozen different kinds of mush- rooms, or kiwis and passion fruit and durians and mangoes. Indeed, in the last few years a whole catalog of exotic species from the tropics has colonized, and considerably enlivened, the produce department. Over in fauna, on a good day you’re apt to find—beyond beef~ostrich and quail and even bison, while in Fish you can catch not just salmon and THE PLANT: CORN'S CONQUEST‘I-I” shrimp but catfish and tilapia, too. Naturalists regard biodiversity as a measure of a landscapes health, and the modern supermarkets devo- tion to variety and choice would seem to reflect, perhaps even pro— mote, precisely that sort of ecological vigor. ' l Except for the salt and a handful of synthetic food additives, every edible item in the supermarket is a link in a food chain that begins with a-particular plant growing in a specific patch of soil (or, more seldom, stretch of sea) somewhere on earth. Sometimes, as in the produce sec- tion, that chain is fairly short and easy to follow: As the netted bag says, this potato was grown in Idaho, that onion came from a farm in Texas. Move over to Meat, though, and the chain grows longer and less com— prehensible: The label doesn’t mention that that rib—eye steak came from a steer born in South Dakota and fattened in a Kansas feedlot on grain grown in Iowa. Once you get into the processed foods you have to be a fairly determined ecological detective to follow the intricate and increasingly obscure lines of connection linking the Twinkie, or the nondairy creamer, to a plant growing in the earth someplace, but it can be done. So what exactly would an ecological detective set loose in an Amer— ican supermarket discover, were he to trace the items in his shopping» cart all the way back to the soil? The notion began to occupy me a few years ago, after I realized that the straightforwaid question “What ' should I eat?” could no longer be answered without first addressing I two other even more straightforward questions: ”What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?" Not very long ago an eater didn't need a journalist to answer these questions. The fact that today one so often does suggests a pretty good start on a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or ob— n, \ scure that it requires expert help to ascertain When I started trying to follow the industrial food chain—the one that now feeds most of us most of the time and typically culminates ei— ther in a supermarket or fast-food meal—I expected that my investiga- tions would lead me to a wide variety of places. And though my journeys did take me to a great many states, and covered a great many 184‘ THE OMNIVORF'S DlLEMIVlA miles, at the very end of these food chains (which is to say, at the very beginning), I invariably found myself in almost exactly the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt. The great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket turns out to rest on a remark— ably narrow biological foundation comprised of a tiny group of plants that is dominated by a single species: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn. Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia easingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn. 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 get’s other constituents including the modified corn and, incr most of a nug 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 lecithin the mono—, 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 19805 virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermar— ket have been sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HPCS)—after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you d still be drinking corn, in the form of alco— hol fermented from glucose refined from corn. Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical namesit/travels under, corn is what YQEWfll find. For modified or uni modified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and ly— THE PLANT: CORN’S CONQUEST .1, 1) sine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn Com is in the coffee whitenei and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and short— ening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins. (Yes, it s in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty—five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now , ‘ contain corn. This goes for the nonfood items as well—everything from; the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleans— ers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn. Even in Produce on a day when there 5 ostensibly no corn for sale you ll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce 5 perfection, even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. In— deed, the supermarket itself—the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself __ has been built—is in no small measure a manifestation of corn. 2. CORN WALKING Descendents of the Maya living in Mexico still sometimes refer to them- selves as “the corn people.” The phrase is not intended as metaphor. Rather, it’s meant to acknowledge their abiding dependence on this miraculous grass, the staple of their diet for almost nine thousand years. Forty percent of the calories a Mexican eats in a day comes directly from corn, most of it in the form of tortillas. So when a Mexican says "I am maize" or "corn walking,” it is simply a statement of fact: The very sub- stance of the Mexicans body is to a considerable extent a manifestation of this plant. ...
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