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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

the revolution will not contain high-fructose corn syrup

"There was a time when people said grace and I think that there are people who bemoan that we no longer say grace. And to me, it's not about thanking God, it's the fact that I don't think we could thank God anymore, we'd have to say, like, 'Bless us, oh Dow Chemical, for these food-like substances in front of us.'"

when i was a kid, we did a lot of food preserving. i remember bags and bags of frozen summer corn, tomatoes, butter beans and field peas, and one of my favorite childhood treats, my grandmother's pickled watermelon rinds. i especially remember blackberry jelly day, when the berries my brother and i had picked from the overgrown hills behind our house would be cooked into jelly by our parents. i remember vividly the cheesecloth filled with the desiccated berries after my dad had squeezed the ever-livin' bejeezus out of them, running our fingers along the sides of the pots to get as much of the warm and sticky mixture as we could before the pots got washed, and the sound of those jar lids popping all afternoon as they sealed while my mother took a little nap on the couch.

it was work, but i suspect that my family preserved food then for one of the reasons i do now-- because it's only good when it's in season. i'm just wrapping up two weeks of doing my own preserving of the summer bounty, and while i don't yet have the courage to start canning, the 18 cubic foot freezer my mother funded as an early birthday present is almost full.

preserving what's in season is one thing, but i've got other motivations as well. over the last several years there have been countless articles, books, movies, documentaries, news spots, radio shows, and bumper stickers dedicated to this subject-- we no longer know what is in our food. it's a sad and scary subject that is constantly on my mind. i moved away from processed foods years ago because i found them soulless-- i'd far rather make my own vegetable soup than open a can from campbell's. but i've learned that soulless is just the beginning. there are greater insidious consequences of our industrialized food system, damaging our environment, our livelihoods, the living conditions of people in other countries, and our health.

this is a hard post to write simply because there is so much to say. i'll try to keep it as uncomplicated as i can, though the situation we're in is anything but uncomplicated. i'll also try not to be a michael pollan parrot, but his book the omnivore's dilemma is the jumping off point for most of what i've got to say.

consider this:
  • our food is full of chemicals-- preservatives, additives, what-have-you, meant to extend the shelf life, preserve the bright color, etc. there's plenty of research to be done, for sure, but even scratching the surface, things turn up-- as one example, a quick web search for "polysorbate 80" yields results saying it contributes to infertility.
  • ingredients travel great distances, sometimes to and from other countries, for production and processing. the more ingredients in a product, the more fossil fuels were burned to move those ingredients around.
  • our system depends on a monoculture of subsidized corn. growing nothing but corn year after year is killing our farmlands, has removed diversity from our diets, and has erased many of our food traditions.
  • speaking of corn, according to michael pollan many american kids get 20% of their daily calories from high-fructose corn syrup. twenty percent! and, lest we suspect we can identify products containing corn by name, here's a list from pollan: lecithin, mono-, di-, and triglycerides, citric acid, modified and unmodified starch, glucose syrup, maltodextrin, crystalline frustose, ascorbic acid, dextrose, lactic acid, lysine, maltose, MSG, polyols, caramel color, xanthan gum-- all are, or can be, derived from corn.
  • corn (unnaturally, and with sickening results) feeds the animals we eat. even the wax coating on fresh produce-- corn. we're all pretty much bipedal ears of corn at this point.
  • the corporations in charge of our food supply are riddled with infractions, from human rights violations to environmental destruction and more. not only that, they appear to be happy to strip our food of nutrition and flavor in order to provide the cheapest possible calories in the interest of their own bottom line, all the while paying farm workers a pitiful sum for their labor.

when thinking about this post, i decided to conduct an experiment. i pulled out some dried fettuccine and a jar of pasta sauce. a pasta dinner-- should be harmless, right? one ingredient in the pasta is ferrous lactate, an additive for color retention and iron fortification, if wikipedia is to be believed. the first page of results from a google search on "ferrous lactate" is heavy with chinese suppliers. do i really need an ingredient to travel from china for my pasta dinner? not to mention the allowable trace amount of arsenic...

next, the sauce. a jar of classico sun-dried tomato sauce with an old-world label resembling a cracked fresco and a silhouette of italy on the lid. the back of the label reads, "In the seaside villas of Capri, sauces made with sun-dried tomatoes have the rich intensity of the Mediterranean sun." that may be true, but i doubt it has any bearing whatsoever on what's in the jar. but i digress. the label also reads that the sauce is distributed by international gourmet specialties company in pittsburgh. turns out their parent company is h.j. heinz, and it didn't take long to find people who think heinz is causing some problems in the world. responsible shopper rates them here, and lists some of the issues with heinz here.

i'm not saying that i know that heinz is making life miserable for indonesians, or that my fettucine has an additive from china. what i am saying is what i started with-- we don't know what's in our food.

thus, i preserve. i started with tomato sauce, something i first tried last year with terrific results. it freezes well in quart-sized containers, ready to stand in for that jar of classico in my winter pasta dishes. and i know where the ingredients came from.

the sauce has carrots from rob's mother's garden. the oregano and thyme are from our herb patch.

the tomatoes, onions, garlic, and basil are from an organic farmer named
don hilario alvarez in yakima valley. alvarez got most of my money this summer, second only to our landlord, and i was happy to pay him directly for his hard work without some impertinent middle man.

i'm thrilled that alvarez had dried beans available-- i've cooked and frozen pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, and garbanzos to have ready for chili, soups and stews this winter.

i've frozen bags of fresh peas, corn, bell peppers, and green beans. i've frozen peeled and diced tomatoes, and tomatoes stewed with peppers and onions. i wish i'd been keeping a log of how much i'm putting away, but i calculated over the weekend that i'd already processed about 70 lbs of tomatoes, and should still get 10-20 more from the garden in the next week or so.

as an experiment i've also frozen chopped walla walla sweet onions (my favorite, other than georgia's vidalia onions!), and jars of salsa. i'm not sure that the textures will hold up, especially with the salsas, but it's certainly worth a try.

my goal is to seriously reduce the purchases i make at the grocery store. no cans of beans, no frozen peas-- just what i've saved from the summer. i live in an area that takes it's local food seriously. if i didn't, there's not a chance i could even entertain this idea. for this, i am thankful. i know not everyone has access to a farmers market twice a week, or anything close to the time it's taken me to get all of this done. (i wish i could do it for everyone!) but i do hope that the rising interest in being able to source one's food, to know what's in it, and to eat locally, continues to shape food production across the country. everyone deserves clean and healthy, not to mention delicious, food.

if you haven't read these, give them a try. really great stuff.

the omnivore's dilemma by michael pollan. (dense but amazing-- i'm only about a third of the way through.)
animal, vegetable, miracle by barbara kingsolver.
in defense of food by michael pollan. (haven't read it, but i most certainly will.)

also, food-related movies, a list from warren etheredge (i haven't seen any of these!)


  1. You should rent Food Inc. Pollan and Schlosser (of Fast Food Nation fame) are both in it. It's beautifully made, engaging and at the same time utterly shocking how our food supply chain has failed us. Go watch it, you'll like it. -Caitlin

  2. yes! i should! i don't know how i missed it coming out, honestly. i'd just frozen my netflix account before i saw this movie list from warren etheredge-- looks like i'm going to undo that. :)