Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Somebody stop me!

Strange things happening over here, brain's all scrambled, so bear with me as I try to get the frequency unfuzzied. First, what we know: My girlfriend (Olivia) is an archivist in the Brooklyn Collection at the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which is the second biggest library in New York and a pretty whopping big system overall. She makes less money per year than a sanitation worker here. Not that I have anything against people that pick up my trash, but basically this says trash is more valuable than books. I also know that for some strange reason nancy pelosi looks kinda good to me. You heard it here first. But I think it's only because I have a man crush on heath ledger playing the joker in that movie where the bad guy dresses in black and flies around at night, and now heath ledger isn't around anymore so I gotta put that somewhere.

None of this is relevant. I wanna talk about sweetness. No, not THAT sweetness--
I mean like sweet tooth, sugar daddy kind of sweetness. I mean like holy crap /look/ at this haul I brought in my candybag on Halloween. I'm talking SUGAH, people. Here's why:

Couple weeks ago I went on a trip to New Mexico. While on this trip visiting happy time friends I did something I almost never do: eat out. A lot. Like all but once for dinner in five days. I won't tell you about all of it, because I want to focus on the grits. These grits were so-called Tabasco grits, and I had them as part of brunch just a day or two before I left. By this time I had been feeling a nagging unnamed suspicion grow in the back of my head, cancer-like, until it became an annoying bulging mass clouding my thoughts. Everything tastes weird, I thought (later after I came home I noticed that I had a weird metallic/sour taste in my mouth that I thought came from the mineral content in the water there, but am now guessing was some sort of mouth bacteria that had spawned after using non-chemical toothpaste for the first time. but who knows).

Anyway, the grits did it for me--the whole plate of food that brunch, actually. I had "oatmeal guiness" pancakes, which involved dark buckwheat looking guys drenched in "whiskey syrup" and paired with a sunny side up egg, peppered bacon, and said Tabasco grits. Ignoring the overkill factor here, both in terms of flavor combinations and amount of food, I took a bite of the grits, which had already nabbed my attention when I was looking at the menu and especially after the fabulously flaming waiter recommended them (they're sooooooo good, with the vocal tone rising as the sentence continues). This tastes weird, I thought, for the four hundred and eighty fifth time. Then I took another bite. Same thought. The bulging mass in grew a mouth and a nose. Another bite, slow chewing, confused brow furrowing--the mass has eyes now, and is scanning the lower half of the back of my head, near my neck hairline. I swallow, just in time to feel the mass /taking a bite out of my left ear/.

"They're really sweet." I'm pretty sure I said this out loud, if only in an attempt to quell the beast, to let everyone at the table agree with me. John, who was also out there visiting and who ordered the same thing, agreed. it was weird, because they were orange, like they'd been doused with Tabasco, and I guess they were a bit spicy tangy like the sauce. But really they just tasted sweet.

Then I had it, and with understanding took up arms against the tumor of my confused ignorance. I looked at my pancakes, swimming in maple syrup actually sweetened with reduced distilled corn. Then I looked at my bacon all pebbled with hugely cracked peppercorns, and the same black flecks everywhere suspended in my bloody mary. Everything was either sweet or spicy. Everything, with the exception of one absolutely unreal dinner at the Pueblo Cultural Center, where I had buffalo short ribs braised in ancho plum sauce, followed this rule, and there was plenty of sweet and spicy to go around, as everything was imbalanced in either one or the other direction.

The bulging mass has receded enough to open some real estate for more mental workings by this point, and that's when the tilt a whirl really got going. I thought about, in no particular order, kids, about a particular set of high school girls I had helped teach for a week back in July, and how when we were talking about Whitman's Leaves of Grasses, which involved polling them as to what they had for breakfast this morning (it's a long story, but the bottom line is that corn is a type of grass), and finding out it was mostly Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. I thought about how when I wrinkled my nose at how unhealthy that was, I was told, "We're kids--whaddya expect? We like sweets." And how that had always been my assumption, that kids /loved/ sweets, and later in life when I got presumably smarter I had reasoned that it was an evolutionary or physiological thing, in the sense that sugar is needed for energy, is the cheapest form of energy, and is a result of the superabundant needs of a growing child's body. Then I thought some more about Darwin, and adapting to environments (I've been thinking a /long/ time about the intersection between natural selection and artificial selection, and in plain English the fact that we as humans can create environments that select for different adaptive traits in our given population, which is to say within a culture. And who's to say that culture itself isn't that very created environment wherein certain adaptations allow for survival and others lead to extinction? this is why I don't sleep), and thought about the French, and how my dad told me once they have a bitter cake, meant to be eaten for dessert. And that it's, well, bitter. And sure enough, I just got a French cookbook, and among the recipes for dessert is a "swiss chard tart". Now, putting aside for a second the fact that the French also eat frogs, and that I'm French, and all that these things must mean, I thought, isn't it funny that all these sugary cereals have cartoons in them, and isn't it funny that McDonald's uses (or at least used to use) a clown to sell its hamburgers, and/or cute "fry guys" and Grimace and Hamburglar and Mayor McFreakinCheese (my favorite) and all those other cartoon-like fellas. Is there anything, I thought, intrinsically necessary to child nutrition in cereal and McDonald's? Because if you would have asked me up until a few days ago, I would have said not only to kids and sweets go hand in hand, but I would have defended until my last dying breath the fact that kids LOVE, in an almost self-evident, inalienable right kind of way, McDonald's. All kids. Even kids who wear berets and have funny accents--you give little Pierre or Chloe some McNugNugs, man, and they'll be off to the races. They'll be hooked before they know it.

Only if they've got Cap'n Crunch stuffed animals and a stack of freebies from happy meals stowed away. I guarantee it. It's total bullshit, as I'm sure you've figured out by now. In fact, me sort of quasi-reading along with what I'm typing is thinking, This is so dang obvious, why even point it out? Well, because the obvious things happen to go by another name: the most important values we live by, every day. And to resist the negative ones is hard, since ubiquity and "good" are often considered synonymous (in America if you also add "cheap" and "conveniently available" you've got yourself a winning business model). See, the problem is not figuring out that we as Americans love sweet, crappy junk food of no nutritional model, or even that we love it because of our influences. It's no harder to see or prove than the fact that planting corn and soy in every square mile of the Great Plains is not only helping to destroy our Earth but also killing us with unhealthy food wrought from sweeteners and animals living and dying in unhealthy conditions, jacked up with drugs (quarter pounder and a coke, please!). What's really hard, what's really really hard, at least for me, is two things: first, to escape it, and second, to understand the effort involved in rejecting it.

How do you undo conditioning though? For years and years we've trained our taste buds to love, first and foremost, sweet things. After all, it's good for the economy! It got into our brains young ("Moloch who entered my soul early!"), such that it is /the/ central reality of our lives, unless we were raised differently (and even then we may flee to it as a refuge from uptight treehugging nazi parents, as this person explains). Well, the answer lies in the same place as the answer to quitting any bad habit, at least as far as I can tell--namely, develop new, better habits. And that means, not skipping dessert so much as cutting back on the amount of sugar when you make cookies or cake, or simply paying attention to how much sweetener of one kind or another you use when cooking, or drinking coffee, or in the food you order, which is the hardest, I've found. It means being aware, being conscious, at least at first. This is annoying and hard, it saps brain cells you'd rather use on Soduku, or at least that's how it was for me.

But over time I noticed something--well, lots of somethings, really. First, the obvious point that if I cut out high fructose corn syrup, I don't miss soda. Turns out I /like/ water (weird). And, well, I was never much into Twinkies, and aside from the treat or tantrum int he grocery store stopping candy bar, I wasn't allowed much candy growing up, so I guess I was prone to turning away from the sweet side already. But more subtly, what happens is a creeping weaning of your taste buds off the preference for sweet. It's like working out all your muscles, instead of just your pecs or your calves whatever. You may not look like someone stuck a bicycle pump into your boobs, or anywhere for that matter, but everything kind of works better together. Those puny malnourished bitter and sour buds get some time in the gym, and they bulk up, and instead of crowding out, sweet, they kinda commingle. I got, gasp, a palate--a real live pseudoEuropean person palate! I got /sensitive/ to different tastes, rather than simply feeding the sweet addiction. Of course, the subtle change becomes pretty honking obvious when I'm out of my food element, on away turf, eating out a lot, but it was that wake up call that made me realize: damn, I'm just not that into sweet.

To do this is borderline unpatriotic, given how much taxpayer money we throw at corn subsidies for megafarms, but I don't give a rat's ass anymore. I mean, I'll eat the grits--I did, because I don't believe knowing about food and taste should make you prissy or wasteful about either--but as soon as I get home I'm getting on the freeway of savory luuuuurrrrve. I can't go back now. I'm on my way!

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