Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Michael Pollan, again

Being the sort of guy who plunges, headfirst, into the latest fashion, LI pondered two options, this week. We could start an exploratory committee to see about running for president (with the secret aim, of course, of being picked as VP by the candidate whose inevitability, at the moment, is crushing, Senator Dodd); or we could start reading Independent People by Halldor Laxness.

We crossed off the first option, because we are not going to give up shooting heroin just to pass that nasty drug test they give you to become the Libertarians for War candidate. Fuck that. And it is so sad, since the libertarians for war wanted to combine a muscular liberal approach to foreign policy with small government at home that would concentrate on destroying the scourge of drugs and cutting taxes for the most productive. So we opted for the second. Happily, Independent People is not just recommended by Jonathan Franzen and flaunted around by Columbia U. creative writing students, but is absolutely worth reading…

Which is connected, believe it or not, to our last post, about the excellent essay by Michael Pollan on the replacement of food by nutrition, the laboratory spawn of the agribusiness-chemical business, and its numerous malign side effects.

In Independent People, a homesteader, Bjartur, who has finally acquired land and had built a turf house and looks forward to becoming a debt free sheepowner, marries a woman named Rosa from the village of Utirauthsmyri and takes her to the little piece of independence he’s carved out of the world, much to her dawning horror. The first night is ill omened – Rosa finds out that Bjartur is a doubter, and refuses to even placate the local demon, whereas Bjartur finds out that Rosa has slept with other men (which, in all probability, is false – but she has had her crushes on other men). But Rosa’s ordeal of joylessness seems to increase day by day as, day by day, Bjartur seems content for them to subsist on dried catfish, oatmeal, and coffee. Plenty of sugar, though.

Then one day this dialogue ensues:
“Bjatur,” she said after a short silence, “I’d love some meat.”
“Meat?” he asked, astonished. “Meat in the height of summer?”
“My mouth waters every time I look at a sheep.”
“Waters?” he repeated. “Why, it must be water-brash.”
“That salt catfish of yours isn’t fit to offer to a dog.”

Rosa proceeds to truly astonish Bjatur by saying that she wants milk too. She dreams of milk. And tops it off here:

“Can we possibly buy a cow, Bjatur?”
“A cow?” he repeated in gaping astonishment. “A cow?”

This couple live, I would guess from internal references, late in the nineteenth century. So often the story of conjugal misery centers on money, or sex – and ignores food. Food, however, can be a powerful carrier of joylessness. The most irritating thing about second rate magical realism is the way food becomes empowerment – feminist empowerment, no less. That is a decorator magazine’s lie. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, (I think – or was this in Shame?) contained a much more powerful truth in the person of an aunt in a household who curses the household with her food – every dish holds a curse. Although the conversations between Rosa and Bjatur are funny, we all know that domestic life for women in the nineteenth century, or the eighteenth, or the seventeenth – in China, in France, in England, in Iceland, in Kansas, etc., etc. – was often symbolized by an expertise in making food that the women personally despised. There’s an interesting story to be written about the relationship between male taste and female cooking, and it isn’t just the happy story of peasant bacchanals, that’s for damn sure. One has the impression from, say, Willa Cather novels that the joy of growing old for a woman among the sod huts of Kansas is being able to make, once in a while, food that she actually wants to eat – although one suspects that the joy of the taste has so long been extinguished by its omission from the signals sent each day from the tongue that the taste, in truth, disappoints.

I can sympathize with both Rosa and Bjatur. An ex lover of mine once accused me of being anorexic, and though, as a matter of fact, she was wrong, her exaggeration did hit on certain salient LI features. It is true that, more often than I care to admit, the whole notion of food disgusts me in the very pit of my stomach, and that visiting the standard grocery store often fills me with great, chainclanking boredom. A grocery store is my idea of karma – where else do we commune with the spirits of the dead as visually and viscerally as in a grocery store? I would be a much happier guy if I could eat like a sage – say three times a week, broth and French bread. But I am dragged by the habits of my mouth to hamburgers and fried chicken – and so, automatically defined as a denizen of my time.

Ezra Klein, in his post on Pollan, quotes a passage in the NYT Mag essay that ends like this:

“Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick. It’s gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it’s working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is itself marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery.”

Then Klein makes this transitions to a passage in the Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“The short version of this is that we've taken an animal accustomed to feeding on forage and forced it to digest grain. Corn, after all, is cheaper, more plentiful, more engineerable, less land-intensive, and more subsidized than grass. But cows haven't evolved to eat corn. And so we drug 'em.”

Here we have stumbled upon what looks like a disconnected giant – a whole system, if we want to look at it. But Klein’s conclusion is that we, as consumers, should buy more grass fed beef. That’s admirable, but there is a certain… inadequacy to it. The misfit liberal in me wants to go back to the whole corn/land-intensity issue and ask a few questions about the basic system – a system that, I should say, extends through capitalism and communism. A system of production. Not a malign system – one shouldn’t be nostalgic for Rosa’s dilemma, the way things were in the pre-industrial agricultural days, for her joylessness could be multiplied by millions of instances - but one that, having provided the Rosas and the Bjaltur’s with all the Big Macs they can stand, is slowly but surely drowning in its social costs.

Oh, dear. I’ll never cover this in one post. Shit. Well, Pollan’s article, which I haven’t even touched on, deserves another post.


Roger Gathmann said...

Rabelais, I think, offers a better idea of what that flame in your guts is doing. This is the picnic preceeding the birth of Gargantua:

"Les tripes furent copieuses, comme entendez, et tant friandes estoient que chascun en leichoit ses doigtz. Mais la grande diablerie à quatre personnaiges estoit bien en ce que possible n'estoit longuement les reserver, car elles feussent pourries. Ce que sembloit indecent. Dont fut conclud qu'ils les bauffreroient sans rien y perdre. A ce faire convierent tous les citadins de Sainnais, de Suillé, de la Roche Clermaud, de Vaugaudray, sans laisser arrieres le Coudray Montpensier, le Gué de Vede et aultres voisins, tous bons beveurs, bons compaignons, et beaulx joueurs de quille là.

Le bon homme Grandgousier y prenoit plaisir bien grand et commendoit que tout allast par escuelles. Disoit toutesfoys à sa femme qu'elle en mangeast le moins, veu qu'elle aprochoit de son terme et que ceste tripaille n'estoit viande moult louable : « Celluy (disoit il) a grande envie de mascher merde, qui d'icelle le sac mangeue. » Non obstant ces remonstrances, elle en mangea seze muiz, deux bussars et six tupins. O belle matiere fecale que doivoit boursouffler en elle !"

Or, to quote Urquhart:

They had abundance of tripes, as you have heard, and they were so delicious, that everyone licked his fingers. But the mischief was this, that, for all men could do, there was no possibility to keep them long in that relish; for in a very short while they would have stunk, which had been an undecent thing. It was therefore concluded, that they should be all of them gulched up, without losing anything. To this effect they invited all the burghers of Sainais, of Suille, of the Roche-Clermaud, of Vaugaudry, without omitting the Coudray, Monpensier, the Gue de Vede, and other their neighbours, all stiff drinkers, brave fellows, and good players at the kyles. The good man Grangousier took great pleasure in their company, and commanded there should be no want nor pinching for anything. Nevertheless he bade his wife eat sparingly, because she was near her time, and that these tripes were no very commendable meat. They would fain, said he, be at the chewing of ordure, that would eat the case wherein it was. Notwithstanding these admonitions, she did eat sixteen quarters, two bushels, three pecks and a pipkin full. O the fair fecality wherewith she swelled, by the ingrediency of such shitten stuff!

northanger said...


Seventeen thousand, nine hundred and thirteen cows were required to keep him supplied with milk.

i feel more like little otik sometimes.

Roger Gathmann said...

Thank you for that link! I'm definitely going to see that.

northanger said...

oh, tripe, that's chittlings in my neck of the woods. which my mom knows how to cook, but i never ate. in a very short while they would have stunk .... i think their stink is always already. the smell of mom's apple pie cooking inverted. (what a theme you've got going here, lol). don't want to give away plot details, but after you see "little otik" you might appreciate Sharpton Showers Daily, which kinda points to my favorite most ridiculous part of the movie. btw, the little girl who plays Alžbětka is perfect.

northanger said...

Boss Hog.

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...