When Old Farmer Brown and Mother Nature partnered on the growing of corn, an acre of pretty good land could be depended on to produce about 8,000 stalks of corn--every other year. After a German chemist figured out how to "fix" nitrogen in the early part of the last century, that same acre of corn started to produce many more stalks of corn. Today, your average cornfield produces about 30,000 stalks of corn--every year. What in the world do we do with all that corn?
As you probably know, or at least can imagine, the United States is awash with corn. There are mountains and towers of the stuff all over America. What you probably don't know--pre energy crisis-is that farmers spend about $2.10 to produce a bushel of corn that they sell for about $1.74 cents a bushel. And, what you probably know, but as a rational human being can hardly imagine, is that Uncle Sam pays the difference in the production cost and sale price to the farmers in the form of a subsidy.
Another set of numbers (that I find interesting) is that three out of every four of the processed food items that land in our grocery cart contain corn or, for meat products, require corn to produce. Much the same is true for the foods we eat at restaurants. Did you know, for example, that seven pounds of corn go into the making of one McDonald's Happy Meal? Or, that it takes a gallon and half petroleum to produce a bushel of corn?
Clearly, I have numbers on the brain, in part because most of us have begun to choose our food by the numbers: calories, grams of fat, amount of carbohydrates, price--and not by taste or tradition. When was the last time, for example, that you used real cream?
I've been thinking a lot about food lately--and have started putting real cream in my coffee, by the way--because of Michael Pollen's newest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. In it, Pollen describes our peculiarly American approach to industrial food production, processing and eating. What we Americans mostly produce, process--and eat--is corn.
Why we mostly produce, process and eat corn is, as Pollen points out, because corn is easy to grow and relatively cheap for consumers to buy. In fact, it is so easy and cheap that we are starting to burn it up in our cars after it is processed into ethanol. Why corn is so cheap is because of government subsidies and its (generally good) intention to keep food prices low.
These are not bad things, but the Human Animal is an omnivore who, unlike the koala bear or spindly giraffe, can eat an unbounded multiplicity of foods, can eat more or less any organic thing in creation. His dilemma, as Pollen writes, is in choosing what to eat. And curiously, we've chosen to heap our platters with processed corn.
Pollen, the food expert, is curious about that choice. If you are like me, you are suspicious of experts, especially of those who have satisfied their curiosity. Dr Hudge from the Rooty Toot Toot Institute tells us that there is no such thing as global warming--and then we find that the RTTI is a tool of Shell Oil. Equally distressing is the case of Dr. Gudge, who informs us that the world is toast, literally--and then we find that Gudge labors in the pay of Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. Whether to believe Hudge or Gudge depends almost entirely on politics and perception and personal values. Facts have little to do with the believing of one or the other.
Pollen, on the other hand, is a food expert because he's a guy who likes to eat, he likes to think about the food he eats, and he is still curious about food. Those are the facts. He is not a Food Nazi or health faddist or a nuts and berries aficionado. He's just a guy who likes to eat. In that regard he is an expert in the way that we are all experts, but in The Omnivore's Dilemma, he applies his expertise to documenting the food we eat by examining the origins of four very specific meals from the fields and forests in which they originate to the ends of the forks where they terminate. The result is utterly fascinating. If you have time to read but one book this year, I hope you will make it The Omnivore's Dilemma. The payoff is permission to use cream in all its lovely voluptuousness.