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Posts Tagged ‘food’

12. “Twinkie, Deconstructed,” Steve Ettlinger

January 26, 2010 2 comments

The subtitle is “My Journey to Discover how the Ingredients in Processed Foods are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into what America Eats.”

My over-all reaction is just a big “eh.” I was expecting more muck-raking and generally more intrigue (that is, I expected to be more intrigued) than this pretty harmless list of chemical names provides. I did pretty well in chemistry, but that’s only because my wonderful teachers carried me (shout-out to Angie Melcher and Dr. Rivkin!). It also just seemed weird in this day and age to talk about high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #40 without talking about how people are shitting themselves over how scary these things are (or aren’t?).

Maybe the honey moon is just over for me and the cultural history of a noun books, but I kind of doubt it. In fact, my problem may have been that there wasn’t enough culture here. This book was mostly like an episode of “follow that food.” We go to the mines for salt, the oil fields for hydrogenation, but there’s not a lot of talk about the cultural meaning of these products. I’m writing this when not quite finished with the book, and here’s an excerpt from the page I’m on:

Shanghai Dyestuffs Research Institute Co., Ltd., the largest synthetic food color producer in China, plays a very important role in creating colors: reacting aniline in a metal sulfate to create sulfanilic acid (a common metal sulfate is magnesium sulfate, aka Epsom salts.)
Meanwhile, Sinopec refines naphtha and ethylene out of more crude oil and combines them to make naphthalene (a rather unlikely subingredient for a food ingredient, this is the main ingredient in old-fashioned mothballs). Shanghai Dyestuffs reacts this with another acid and plain old table salt to make something called Shaeffer’s Salt, the key ingredient in both red and yellow [food dyes].” (250-251)

This is pretty characteristic of the writing style in this book. It’s how things happen, I guess, but not what it means. I don’t know what naphtha is. I barely know what ethylene is. So their creating naphthalene doesn’t mean much. Ettlinger obviously is great with science stuff, but maybe not great at translating that to non-science audiences. The result is uneven and occasionally a little patronizing. And it’s the worst kind of patronizing, too, where you don’t know the information but just resent being talked down to, so you can’t even stomp your foot and be like “yeah, duh, napphthalene, like msot chemical intermediaries, is frequrntly reacted wit ha large number of other chemicals to produce wildly different results. For example,
naphthalene sulfonic acids are used in the manufacture of naphthalene sulfonate polymer plasticizers or dispersants, which are used in the production of concrete and other building materials, like drywall. In addition to their use as dispersants for dyes and tanning agents, they are used in a similar capacity are also used in pesticides and Lead-acid battery plates. But all of that is hardly the same as your insinuation that we’re eating sugary mothballs.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) I do. however, know enough to say “I’ve noticed that a lot of things contain both carbon and one oxygen, but they are probably not going to smother me if I eat them in my garage.”

So, to sum up, I think overall the implied audience (people who enjoy science) and actual audience (people who enjoy snack cakes) for this book are quite different.

The book also felt really stilted to me. I only just put a finger on it: each chapter is about a different ingredient and overall it has the feeling of a large stack of pamphlets created by Hostess to dispel some unsavory rumors about how theirs is the most-processed food of all time.

The last chapter is fairly redeeming and more what I expected overall. In it, he cautions us against being too paranoid over food additives, because we have been adding things to food to change their behaviors or prolong shelf life forever– salt and sugar, for example. But the biggest gift this book gave me is my continued attempts to make flour dust explode.

Page count: 263
Page total: 2,802

Edit: The author was kind enough to comment below. Go see!

64. “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” Jennifer 8 Lee

October 2, 2009 1 comment

I liked this book. Like most “a cultural history of [a noun]” books, it would have benefited from a good editor, but it’s no worse than most of these book, and much better than some.

I learned a number of things that it never occurred to me to wonder about. Among them:
-Those white cartons Chinese food comes in (in the US) are a purely American invention. They aren’t even in Canada. Some places import them in response to strong customer demand for those white things on “Seinfeld.”
-In the US, Chinese food restraunts out number McDonald’s 2:1
-In 2005, 110 people hit five out of six Powerball numbers one night– 104 of them played numbers from a fortune cookie.
-The PF of PF Chang’s is Paul Fleming, who also had a hand in creating Outback Steakhouse (18)
-In 1994, Philip Carlo served sixty days in Rikers for assaulting a Chinese food delivery man for leaving menus in Carlo’s building (33)
-“‘People consider it ethnic [food] when it’s new to them and they don’t understand’.” (19)
-Between 1850-1910 Taishan, China had 14 floods, 7 typhoons, 4 earthquakes, 2 droughts, 4 epidemics, 5 famines, and a 12-year ethnic war. Before the 1950s, 80% of all Chinese immigrants came from this region in the Guangdong province. (51)
-In a 1865 trial of a white race rioter, his white lawyer argued that Chinese people were inferior saying: “why, sir, these Chinamen live on rice, and, sir, and they eat it with sticks” (54)
-Chinese immigrants were referred to as “Celestials” by European-Americans who had never seen Asians before. (51)
-In the 1870s, (what is now) Idaho was one-third Chinese. (55)
-Fortune cookies are Japanese, but it was US Chinese restaurants that made them the cultural symbol they are
-The largest fortune cooking company in the US, and therefore the world, picks their lucky numbers by hand, out of a jar. When word leaked out that they were thinking about switching to computer-generated numbers, they received a number of letters including one about the small human connection that this offers that might have made me tear up a little on the train. (Judging by this blog, I spend a lot of time manfully blinking back tears on the train.)

Page count: 291
Page total: 24,830

29. “The Hamburger: A History,” Josh Ozersky

May 5, 2009 1 comment

Interesting, quick read. Sometimes the sentence structure was fucking ridiculous, though.

Page count: 148
Page total: 15,073

20. “The Secret Garden”, Frances Hodgson Burnett

March 1, 2009 Leave a comment

What is up with all the books about orphans?

Page count: 227

18. “Kitchen Confidential”, Anthony Bourdain

February 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Well, first things first, this book is aimed at chefs. I am not a chef. I am not even a true foodie (that whole kosher thing makes that hard), but I really, really enjoy food. I also often watch food shows (like “No Reservations”) and think to myself “if I didn’t care about G-d, I would totally be eating that prosciutto-wrapped whatever and loving every salty second of it”, so there is a vicarious thrill for me in books about food. I also really like books about how disgusting food and food prep is.

This book had bits of all of those things (Bourdain recounts his first tastes of Normandy butter and uses the phrase “truffle oil” at least a dozen times). Most of it, however, is about how Bourdain puts together a kitchen and his various job-related exploits. Interesting, if a bit repetitive, but it’s just not what I thought I was getting. And I was not the least bit grossed out by the idea that fish ordered on Monday is from Thursday’s delivery, so that supposedly mind-blowing anecdote was totally lost on me. I’m a dude, I’m in college. I wish the stuff I am eating was only four or five days old.

Page count: 312
Total: 12,846

Currently reading: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity; The Secret Garden; and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

10. “Don’t Eat this Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America”, Morgan Spurlock

December 29, 2008 1 comment

Well, this book got me thinking, which is always a good thing. Unfortunately, a lot of that thinking what about how annoying Spurlock’s writing style is. I found him quirky and personable in “Supersize Me”, but that was just two hours of him. I was with this book for much longer, and his verbal tics (affixing the prefix “Mc” before things to mock them, refering to Dr. Atkins as “Fatkins”, his tendency to imitate Homer Simpson’s “Mmm, ______ _______” in the face of barely-edible objects) really got to me. Really. Got to me. I also never managed to figure out what the purpose of his grey boxes were.

I also was nagged by a frequent feeling that this book was not as well-researched as it should have been. Other blogs have tackled some of these problems on a case-by-case basis, but I felt that he was making a lot of heavy allegations with very few citations. And it may just be the academic snob in me, but I found his use of endnotes really irritating. Not only were they endnotes, which are inconvenient, but he didn’t use superscript numbers, which would signal the less-critical reader that not everything was the pure, unadulterated fact that it might seem. We don’t cite the assertion “the sky is blue”, but if we are writing a quasi-academic work and say “the sky is blue because of cow farts”, we should probably cite that. The apparent lack of citation may signal to some people that everything Spurlock is saying is as well-accepted and uncontroversial as he makes it seem. He also cites Wikipedia at one point. Which, come on.

I’m also pretty concerned that reading this book caused me to teach at McDonald’s twice. Over two days. That’s more fast food than I usually eat in two or three months.

As a total sap, I was of course really excited about the positive reactions so many students, teachers, and school districts had to eliminating the junk in their cafeterias and vending machines. The school at which I did my student teaching had open campus, which means that if a student had a free block or it was lunch or break, they were allowed to leave school. Within one block of the school, there are two gas station convenience stores, one CVS, a Domino’s, a wings place, a taqueria, and a McDonald’s. Within two blocks, there was also a Burger King. Within a third, there was a Dunkin’ Donuts, another pizza place, 7-11, another McDonald’s, and another taqueria. Needless to say, I saw much of what Spurlock describes. Students would come back wired. They weren’t allowed to eat in my class, but that didn’t make a difference. The damage was done. One double period block, I ran into the teacher’s lounge during break to grab some water. We had had a really amazing class so far (they were debating about Amendments! Spontaneously!) and I made the horrible mistake of telling another teacher how awesomely my kids were doing. Fifteen minutes later, they were back from break and I was on the verge of losing my voice and my temper.

Most students at my school (about 60%) qualify for free or reduced lunch, but hardly any use it. The food is nasty, and, if it’s anything like my own high school’s food, probably not much healthier. There was a minor revolt in my high school when they started selling fried chicken patties and pizza only one or two days a week, while in my middle school the baked potato and salad bars were incredibly popular (not for the best of reasons, mind. Most of us were loading out potatoes with sour cream and bacon, and eating the iceberg lettuce in an attempt to lose weight.)

Obviously this book got me thinking a lot. I’ve leave you with one last thing to chew on. Evidently, there is a McDonald’s in Dachau, Germany, within two miles of the concentration camp. When it first opened, McDonald’s put fliers under the windshields of people at the Camp.

Page count: 284 Total: 4839
Started 23 December?, finished 29 December