I posted last night about my experience making the delicious-smelling (and -tasting) Sweet Rice recipe from Madhur Jaffrey's "An Invitation to Indian Cooking," my textbook.
When I made it, the recipe called for beef broth or stock. We didn't have any on hand, and I had no way of transporting my carless self to Trader Joe's and back quickly. Instead, I went to our corner market (like a bodega, minus the Dominican coconut cookies and beer). I bought two cans of College Inn beef broth, made right in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.
Here's what was in them:
Beef broth, less than 1% of the following: monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed corn protein, hydrolyzed soy protein, hydrolyzed whey protein (milk) and wheat bran protein, natural flavor, onion poweder, hydrolyzed wheat protein, autolyzed yeast extract, caramel color, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, thiamine hydrochloride, salt, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate. Contains: soy, milk, wheat.
Now then: why isn't that list two words long? You know what I want to find when I open a can of beef broth? Beef broth! Maybe, maybe, if you want to get fancy, toss an onion in there, some salt, maybe a bay leaf. What is all that shit doing in my beef broth?
Furthermore: thanks to the Food Labeling Act of 2006, possibly the only worthwhile thing George W. Bush has ever done, foods produced in the United States must clearly state whether they contain any of the top eight food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, etc.), fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. This product, ostensibly made of the cooked, lightly seasoned blood and rendered fat of a cow, contains soy, milk and wheat. Why? Why would you take a perfectly allergen-free food and put it out of the reach of millions of potential consumers? (I'll write another post, at some point, about why I think food allergies are on the rise.) What flavor or textural qualities do wheat, corn and soy bring to beef broth?
The thing is, they don't contribute to the taste of beef broth, and I suspect their contribution to its texture is marginal. Perhaps they contribute to its shelf life. It's probably the thiamine hydrochloride (which sounds to my thoroughly unscientific ear like an acid) that keeps anything in the broth from reacting with the metal of the can. So what do they add? My guess is profits for Del Monte Foods, maker of College Inn and one of the top ten polluters of the Pittsburgh area. Wheat, soy and particularly corn are overproduced in the US, and the agribusiness producers which grow most of these crops are always on the lookout for ways to use them in their manufacturing businesses in order to sell crops and keep prices up. That is why it's really, really hard to eat in the United States without consuming a whole lot of high fructose corn syrup. (For a much fuller and better explanation, check out The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan and Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle.)
So here's my question: what does it take to eat a diet composed of real food? I mean, things that are recognizable as having come from plants and animals (and fungi, which aren't real plants)? There was a great piece in the New York Times (I'm trying to find it, but without luck-- anybody?) that talked about trying to eat "things your great-grandmother would have recognized as food." I'm willing to broaden that to things that somebody's great-grandmother would have recognized, since I seriously doubt that my dear, wonderful late great-grandmother Dandeen would have been up for a nice fish curry, but the point stands.
We live in a society in which things are increasingly processed to death. We rob food of all of its foodlike qualities, and then we "fortify" our Coke and Oreos with vitamins so that we can pretend it's healthy. But here's the thing: a century or two ago, nobody knew about vitamins. We're finding out new things about food all the time-- one year it's "good cholesterol," the next year it's omega-3 fatty acids, etc. What do we not know about? What's in a potato that we're not putting into our fortified imitation potato flakes? There is more to a potato than is dream'd of in your philosophy, General Mills...
So these are the questions I'm trying to figure out. How can we human beings start eating like human beings again? How do we get food to the people instead of dumping grain at the bottom of the ocean to keep prices up? How do we grow what we need instead of just lacing everything we eat with high fructose corn syrup? How do we reclaim the homemade flavors we learned from our grandparents (if we're lucky)? How do we treat food as a way to connect across cultures, to bring friends and families together, to polish our skills and nourish our bodies and our planet?