Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I'm thinking about the machines.

This is something I've been meaning to write for a while now, but have been too busy and drained from personal events I will not now go into to get down. In fact, if and when I do get back into a regular routine with this posting stuff what you read will pretty much all fall into the category of "majorly delayed." So here we are, back to cooking and food related musings--

The last recommendation I ventured forth and shared food-wise was to buy less more expensive food. This is more or less blasphemy in our culture, in that it in effect is saying "pay more to get less" when we are possessed by the need of getting "value" in the form of "more stuff for less money." That's fine, I would argue, with things you don't put into your body (although one has to question the notion of "value" when it's completely divested of the notion of "quality." Is thirteen pounds of animal-grade pigshit worth a nickel when the other guy is selling sub-animal-grade human sewage, same quantity for a dime? Sadly, folks, I think most of our decision making has entered this realm, when what it might be time to do is dismiss ourselves to recess and politely say, "Um, I don't want any shit. Thanks anyway. I'm going to play on the monkeybars now."); but when it comes to things you do put in your body, that you try to digest, there's more at stake here than simply how much it costs or, even more importantly, how much you get.

Now, the first objection I see being raised to my eat less and pay more for it argument is the whole mother of eight who may or may not be an immigrant and is trying to put dinner on the table each and every night on almost no income. I'll get to this objection in a minute, as it's a valid point and more or less vocalizes the single biggest argument FOR our current industrial food system--namely, that it's a triumph of being able to feed a huge number of people for not much money, which of course means nobody's going hungry in our country and we're all healthy. I hope you can sniff the faint whiff of ozone as the bullshit meter just starting smoking after blowing all its fuses on the end of that last sentence. But more in a minute.

First, I need to share my big machine metaphor, which isn't much of one as metaphors go but it'll work. I see the human body, all human bodies, mine, yours, your friends' and families', as a big, beautiful chugga-chugga machine, complete with cogs and specialized parts that do different things, and most importantly, with the need for fuel. All machines need something--whether it's gas or electricity or whatever--to make them go. And all machines use that something, that fuel, by transforming it into something else, often with a waste or other byproducts (in our case we poop and pee and generate energy, mainly in the form of heat but also metabolic activities we need to keep running). And, to my mind, the question with the human body machine remains the simple one of, "How much output are you getting for your fuel?" With all this hyperactivity about gas mileage in recent months and years, we ought to ask ourselves what our fuel efficiency rating is.

This means defining our gallon of gas, our fuel unit. For human fuel that would be the calorie. Everything you eat (not drink, because water has none), whether it's protein, fat, or cabohydrate based, vitamin and mineral loaded or not, has calories in it. Your body needs these calories to keep going, but only so many (can't remember exactly where we're at now but I think the recommendation is around 2,000-2,500). After that we start storing the fuel as fat, and our machine gets kinda bloated and porky-acting. Imagine a car with deposits of fuel sludge all over the place, or, better yet, imagine a whole tangle of cars being used with only one driver in each and creating an atmosphere that chokes the drivers to death along with all other life on Earth. Come to think of it, you don't really have to imagine that so much as look around.

So, yeah, we need calories, a certain number to keep going, but with a maximum limit. The question, then, becomes, how much bang are you getting for your buck? /Here/ is where we should be asking value questions, here is where and how we should be defining value anew. By asking ourselves, what am I getting for each calorie I intake? For example, I eat a bowl of McCann's Irish Oatmeal, which just means the oats are steel cut, or whacked into little pieces rather than rolled like that Quaker Wilfred Brimley's. I eat approximately a quarter cup of it a day with a cup of water, often with apples or raisins and walnuts in it. The oatmeal itself has 120 calories. Add in about 30 calories for the added fruit--without sugar, which would jack the total considerably more than 30--and you've got 150 calories total. But more importantly, let's ask ourselves: what did I get for it? Well, I got full, mainly, as I don't usually want to eat anything but these 150 calories for about four more hours. Compare this to when I eat breakfast cereal, like Life that Mikey likes so much. Now, Life has about the same calorie content--not to mention all those /awesome/ enrichments of Riboflavin and Folic Acid and Vitamin B12 and what not--but the thing is, when I eat a bowl of Life with milk, which adds more calories than the pat of butter I eat with the oatmeal I forgot to tell you about earlier--oops--then I'm hungry in like an hour and a half.

But isn't it worth it on the whole? I mean, what /else/ do you get from this lumpy porridge gruel looking crap that's the consistency of bread dough? Let's see. Looking on the label...well, not much. Some protein, a shit ton of dietary fiber--about a quarter of your daily recommended allowance--but overall our "Nutrition Facts" tell us it doesn't have any of that snazzy vitamin B12 and Riboflavin I've heard so much about and that Mikey likes. But here's the thing: those things don't /belong/ in oatmeal, or cereal made from oats like Life. A little bit of protein and a whole lot of dietary fiber, both of which, it turns out, are necessary to keep me full and are lacking from Life, are what belong in oats--like the plant oats. Like if you started chewing on some grain, its "Nutrition Facts" would be much closer to McCann's than Life.

And now more questions arise, the two most prominent being intertwined, it turns out. First, what about the enriched contents of Life, all the snazzy stuff they added later at the cereal's processing plant (a factory preparing things for your little factory)? And second, where's the beef, so to speak: where'd the dietary fiber and protein I'd need to stay full on Life /go/? Because it's not there. I've looked. The carbohydrates, instead of coming from complex sources like the much lauded "whole grain"--which is to say, more like the oat plant than like the lattice work square floating in milk--are coming in at least equal measure (more in sugary cereal) from sugars, or what the cheap beer world calls "adjuncts." Invariably the sugar of choice is high fructose corn syrup, which is a refined version of another grain, corn. So what we're faced with here is a breakfast cereal, and Life is by no means an exception, that, in being created, had the stuff it was born with, fiber and protein and whatever else on a micro-level. stripped away or at least leeched out in processing (which ultimately just "stretches" the amount of oats you need so that you need less grain to make something you somehow still call cereal), and then replaced first by a variety of isolated vitamins and minerals somehow chemically implanted into the processed oats and had its carbohydrate structure reconstituted with, not just sugar, a simpler carb., but a /form of sugar derived from another grain/.

At this point you may ask yourself as I can't help asking myself again, what the fuck is going on here? This makes almost no sense. It's simple, really: corn's cheap. Sugar's actually cheaper to make in the form of corn syrup than simply growing oats in a field, drying them out, and hacking them up with rotary steel blades like they do in the county in Ireland where McCann's comes from. Somehow the chemistry mechanism whereby foods are "enriched" is also now cheaper. I have no idea how this happened, or at least not a full understanding, but let me assure you of one thing: it does not have to be this way. Just because the current apparatus makes it looks like this is what grain should be, it is absolutely ludicrous to think that the only way to make food cheap is to make it cheaply, in a processed and refined and mostly nutrition-free form (while I can't prove that the enriched Vitamins and Minerals in these cereals are not absorbed by your body, I can tell you that increasingly the same food science that brought us Yellow No. 5 is also researching and revealing how closely linked the absorption of nutritive elements like vitamins, minerals, and those precious darling antioxidants, is to the food in which those nutritive elements appear in nature, whole. In other words, you can't take a blueberry extract capsule and absorb the good stuff from it; you have to eat a blueberry. Which means you can't just eat Total or Life and expect those "Nutrition Facts" percentages of your daily recommended amount of Folic Acid to be met. It is increasingly coming to light, sadly, that this is a lie. That's life, Mikey). Unfortunately, we're locked into a logic whereby we think 'good food'--i.e. food that doesn't make us fat and sad and full of Wilfred Brimley-hates it die-uh-beatus of the type II variety--costs a lot, and that Hilda the eight children rearing mother can't bring her kids up on anything but dollar ninety-nine a lb. feedlot beef and Life cereal, because McCann's costs 5.29 for a little metal barrel of it (grass-fed ground beef, which is to say beef from cows eating what they are /genetically designed to eat/, costs much much more than corn-fed feedlot beef).

But here's the thing. Go back to that description of what I eat for breakfast. A quarter cup of McCann's. That's even /less/ than the "serving size" of most breakfast cereals, ignoring of course the fact that we usually eat twice that serving size, and thus get twice as many calories for half as much other nutritive elements we need in the course of a day. I get a tin of McCann's every two weeks, sometimes every three. You do the math, you determine the value. Get more, pay more, and eat less, and maybe, eventually, our consumer choices will drive an agriculture in this country that when described in plain and open terms can only be labeled insane. It's possible. There's absolutely nothing that says we must have the Great Plains full of corn except the farm bill's glut of subsidies. We could keep the subsidies so the farmers don't lost their shirts, just redirecting them to different products.

But that's a different recommendation for a different day. For now, just eat less and pay more--a quarter pound of grass-fed filet mignon tastes so god damned much like real beef, and is so rich and buttery and absolutely decadent while still tasting like a real animal that hasn't been pumped full of drugs and feed a grain it doesn't know how to digest, that you'll not only feel better in your conscience, you'll be much fuller, too, and much fuller of the good fat, Omega-3, so many folks are popping fish oil pills of, than the Omega-6 overflow of, say, a Whopper. Sick cows make for sick people, and frankenfoodfactories produce products, not food (breakfast cereal is a created commodity; there's absolutely no reason we need nine hundred varieties of a combination of corn, rice, oats, and wheat). That product may seem cheap, but like that black market Mexican or Venezuelan gas with the 60 octane rating, it'll break your machine.

PS--Just as a footnote the food science regarding the connections between nutritive elements and whole foods has been discussed by Michael Pollan in /In Defense of Food/--can't remember where specifically, but, like Prego, it's in there.

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