no corn for me, thanks

At a rented cottage with friends last weekend, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. In a stunningly surreal setting—the glittering, frozen lake crisscrossed with snowmobile trails and dotted with ice-fishing huts—I learned exactly how stunningly surreal our food industries have become.

In a nutshell, it all comes down to corn. The superabundant monocrop floating on a sea of fossil-fuel fertilizers. North American agribusiness has done everything in its power to use up the corn—not just to include its by-products in every processed food we eat, but to force it up through parts of the food chain nature never intended it to occupy. Feedlot cows eat not grass but corn; they cramp up, bloat, and die of heartburn and liver abscess—but hopefully not before they’re slaughtered. Salmon, naturally carnivorous, are now GM’ed to survive on corn. And homo sapiens is the most cooperative of all: it turns out that high-fructose corn syrup short-circuits our appetite control and induces us to Supersize everything.

I slumped at the rustic pine table poring over the ingredient labels of the items Son #1 had been allowed to add to the grocery cart for special: maltodextrin in the Beefaroni, lecithin in the Nutella, xanthan gum in the jelly beans. All of it comes from corn. In the hot-tub I explained to everyone how even free-range chickens are given only two weeks out of the cage, and—surprise—they’re corn-fed.

Then there was our new-mom friend, Maya. She already knew all this. She’d brought a Hubbard squash the size of my head, bunches and bunches of leeks; she served a delicious whole-wheat linguine with cilantro-walnut pesto. The baby ate rice puffs and lentil mush.

After the depressing parts of The Omnivore’s Dilemma –to eat an organic peach in January is to eat thirty liters of crude oil, or whatever—comes the exploration of alternatives, and even some real joy. The joy of a meal shot, cleaned, cured and cooked by one’s own hand. The joy of a farm on which the manure feeds the plants and the plants feed the animals, and both feed the soil, forever and ever. The joy of knowing what you’re eating and still feeling good about eating it.

And in our cottage? For me there was joy busting out all over. The joy of sitting down to a meal I didn’t prepare (scrambled eggs are scrumptious with sautéed leeks!). The joy of talking with people whose ideals exceed mine but whose feet are planted on exactly the same ground. And the joy of reading a book whose gorgeous prose style is as inspiring as its ideas.

Of course, my delight in the Omnivore may have something to do with the other book I was reading that weekend—Tom Hodgkinson’s The Idle Parent, which heads off the potential migraine of responsible decision-making in a troubled world by trumpeting, “Kids love a tipsy mom!”

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