the machiavellian intelligence of maize

The mister saw fit to bring back a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma from Montreal a couple of weeks ago.  As he’s not allowed to read it until he’s fully digested Foucault’s Pendulum I decided to pick it up as my thinking (as opposed to purely entertaining) book of the moment.  I finished reading the first ‘chapter’ (section?) over coffee on my front porch this morning and though I’m not prepared to get into a full review of the book at this moment I do have some initial thoughts and reactions I feel the need to air so I’ve chosen to do so here.  Perhaps I’ll bore you all with a play-by-play as I read along.  The book’s formatting – following four meals back to their natural sources and reminding us of our relationship to the ingredients all the way – is rather conducive to that.  Perhaps I just won’t be arsed.  We’ll see.

An introduction to a new set of socio-political ideals about food is (apparently) kind of like buying a new car in that one sees it everywhere within the first few weeks after adoption.  I think I realised the full effect of the read yesterday while visiting our local farmer’s market determined to bring home an interesting and organic new cut of beef or buffalo or elk to play with.  The latter two being out of my price range and offering nothing I considered interesting enough to justify the expense I turned to the many many offerings of the former, all purporting to be ‘certified organic’ but then also listing ‘corn-fed’ as being one of the value-added benefits of their beef.  Newsflash – cows aren’t naturally gifted in the processing of corn.  They can only do so with the aid of loads of hormones and antibiotics assisting them in converting those precious (and cheap) calories into the steaks we all know and love.  While this isn’t news to me, it has been a long time since I’ve thought about it.  So the question is begged: what then, is ‘organic’?  Who defines it?  Who measures it and by what means?

I don’t have immediate answers to those questions, but I’m certainly bloody-minded enough to go searching for them and, though I’m certain the answers will vary from region to region, I’m kind of hoping they’ll be answered later in the book.  Or that some clever indices I can follow will be presented at the very least, but more on that later.  The thing is that the issue of cows not being able to process corn natural is a mere scratching of the surface of the plant’s place in the global food debate.  The real issue is that corn, with human aid, has circumvented all of the laws of natural selection to become a dominant organism on our planet and in our digestive systems.  Getting into the nitty gritty of all of that is beyond the scope of this post – just go read the book – this post is about my feeling of betrayal, akin to the betrayal I felt toward my own genetics upon reading The Selfish Gene.  Like Dawkins, Pollan is a radical messenger of radical truths who has transformed the favourite summer treat this (quasi) farm-bred girl, raised on the plantable, sustainable, preservable holy trinity of vegetation that is squash, beans and, of course, corn into an alien overlord infiltration of Orwellian proportions.  He makes it quite easy to draw the line of responsibility between corn and global warming, poverty, malnutrition, alcoholism and even war.  Granted, cow corn is different from people corn.  The stuff we buy from roadside tables on lazy Sunday drives is not responsible for all of this as such, but my overactive imagination can’t help drawing the parallels.  Mind = blown.  I’ve not yet decided what my long-term response to this will be.  This section of the book had me checking all of the labels of the all of the jars of all of the products we have in the cupboards and fridges and I can say with some relief that my lack of sweet tooth keeps us away from the onslaught of corn bi-products in the few processed foods that we do keep around the house.  We’re hardly every day meat-eaters in this house, we do try to stay fairly low on the food chain and we don’t own a car but even those efforts don’t seem to be enough in the face of this.   Needless to say I left all traces of beef at the market yesterday but did come home with organic, corn free, birdseed for our feeders.  Damn you, Michael Pollan.  Damn you all to hell for making corn my new boogey man.


5 thoughts on “the machiavellian intelligence of maize

  1. Oh this made me laugh. It brought back my own very similar response to the corn section of Omnivore’s Dilemma. And you are so right about the way Pollan so deftly draws the line of responsibility. I wonder if you saw his new article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine? It’s called “Why Bother?” and addresses your (and all of our) worries that our efforts don’t seem enough. Thanks for this great post! TJ

  2. Thanks for your comments! I’ve just read the article (thank you also for the introduction to it) and the bits about properly valuing things and setting the example certainly resonate but also lead to new questions and concerns – specifically that crazy catch 22 spiral comprised of the food vs. poverty debate. But that’s another angst-fueled post for another time.

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