Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It’s not where you are but what you make of it that counts.

5:20am wake up; thin vibrations of my electric toothbrush jotted my brain ready for the gym. My half awakened body struggled for a while in spin class, but for the first time in quite a while I was excited to get done working out and get back into my book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Perhaps the tedious legal readings I endured in school so far have killed the sense of enjoyment I once had for books. Reading about the food industry, however, seems to be just what I needed to want to read for pleasure again.

The book is about our food culture – a culture that is depended on industrial processes strictly focused on the economy of food. The industrialization of our relationship with food has created a passionless uniformed food identity that spells Orwellian doom. If it is true that we are what we eat, then even if we can convince ourselves of our freedom politically, can we truly believe in freedom existentially?

Food should be a culture of diverse communities giving rise to a core identity of being human. Food is something we all have in common. We come to love food and enjoy them with quite extravagance at times. Yet we each take a different approach and taste to food. That diversity creates a rich presence of culture in our daily lives of being human. Take the Chinese for example. Their “family style” meal at weddings could reach staggering hundreds of varieties and courses featuring anything from white tree fungus, to actual bird’s nest, to steam-pot turtles. Chinese cooking style can be recognized by its regional flavors, evolved from hundreds of years of coexistence with the local vegetation and livestock (turtles being one from my father's hometown). Northern China favors steamed buns and dumplings made primarily from wheat that originates form its local farms. Southern China is a flood plain and suitable for rice to flourish. Its regional flavor mostly involves fish and rice. The Southwest part of China is mountainous but some spots are fertile and produce various spices and tea. The people from that region will use different ways to cook with tea leaves. Northwestern Chinese have adopted an even larger variety of spices due to its historical trade route to the Middle Ease, and it shares its taste for wheat in buns, bread, and noodle with the northerners, but this region also developed a distinct taste for goat and lamb that dominates its local market as opposed to pork that dominates the northern parts of China. 

American food culture, or more precisely – food industry culture, is exactly the opposite of my Chinese tradition. In America, there is a superficial variety predominantly depended on one single commodity – Zea mays, the Number 2 corn. While we directly consume some of this corn in the form of corn meal, a huge percentage of this corn is “processed” into a variety of food products include high fructose corn syrup. Part of this processed product is then fed to livestock to fatten them quickly by adding intramuscular fat (bad for your body not to mention the amount of antibiotics and hormones injected to help “mitigate” the fact that cows are not meant to eat corn and cannot survive long on a corn-fed diet). With the wave of “organic” fads, we can tell that people do want something better. At least part of the population believes in a distinctive connection with their food that they are willing to go to the extra step to buy “organic” products. But they failed to recognize the industrialization of “organic” food in disguise. The 1984 nightmare continues.

After reading a passage from the book to Lauren, she suggested that we should just move. At first the idea was tempting. But as I thought more about the options, I realized that nowhere is better than here and that is the point. The Chinese were confined to regions and developed a rich food culture inherently sustainable to its locality with a range of diversity to prevent food shortages. We, on the other hand, face the uphill challenge of reshaping our attitude towards food and our food culture to make our dependency on food a healthier one - a local one. We can either run away and keep running from things we do not like and continue to participate in the food industry's 1984 Project and continue to eat the Big Mac; or we can love and and help make a change in our local communities. I like Indiana. I’ve come to appreciate its people and its pride in the farming culture. Only if we could help the people here really see farming as it should be and develop a connection with our food once again.

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