Tipping Points 5: I Believe

(You may want to read my essays in order.)

Tipping Points 5

April 9, 2010

I Believe

The movie Food, Inc. came to Rockland, Maine, this past July (2009), and I missed it.  My husband heard an interview with Michael Pollan, who is in the movie.  Pollan discussed how commercial potato fields are sprayed with a chemical fungicide so toxic that workers do not go into the fields afterwards for a full five days.  I confirmed Pollan’s statement and discovered he also says that once grown, the potatoes have to sit for up to six months before the toxins they contain dissipate. 

In August, while chatting with two other people in a windjammer galley, I said that I was looking forward to seeing Food, Inc. when the DVD is released.  A nearby crew member, a high school student, said, “I saw the preview, and I thought it was trying to scare me.”

Setting aside my sudden memory of a recent preview I had seen of a summer blockbuster which involved robots killing everything in sight and a soundtrack that blew me out of my seat, I asked the young man if he had seen the whole movie.  “No,” he said, and followed with what was a heartfelt and emotionally delivered statement:  “I know that the food in the supermarket is ok.  I know that my food is safe and is good for me.”

Belief systems are notoriously powerful.  People will shed blood and, even, life for them.  Belief systems are laden with “facts” that are easy to disprove, but which the heart embraces.  The mystery to me is what this young man’s heart was embracing.  What lay beneath the belief that the great majority of our national food system is producing food that is safe and nourishing when it is demonstrably neither? 

Another reaction I experience often is anger.  One young mother did not like hearing about food issues because “they make me feel like a bad mother.”  What emerged next was “I do not know what to do.”  And, she’s right.  With all the industry-produced junk science claims circulating, how does anyone know what or whom to believe?  Plus, it is time consuming to do the research necessary to figure out who is attached to industry claims and who is not.   

The current, awesome cultural power of our modern food industry represents a development span of over 150 years.  This industry has acquired massive political clout–our government supports and promotes cheap, dangerous, and fake foods and oversees an irresponsible regulatory system.  This industry has successfully managed the legal system; has driven out or co-opted competitors, like organic foods or real milk; has bought scientists who create and promote junk science; has gained control of unregulated media advertising; and has placed this fake, tainted food in one-stop, convenient outlets.  Together with the drug industry, the food industry has manipulated the academic and medical industries so that they create, promote, and teach their junk science and promote their products.

But, if one takes seriously that the safety of our food system has been co-opted by unregulated industry acting rationally in its own interests, one has to begin making personal changes if one wants to be healthy.  Our personal changes can create a new paradigm, one that supports belief with facts that can be investigated and substantiated.

Change always involves first changing the stories we tell ourselves.  There is, thus, a role for emotional belief when it supports the ethic that human and societal health have to trump industry profit.  Have hope, for there are at least three powerful philosophical concepts emerging:  the Precautionary Principle, the rights of all to “the commons,” and the rights of all against toxic trespass. 

The Precautionary Principle states that no chemical can be used unless it has been thoroughly demonstrated not to be harmful for human life.  This concept animates recent regulatory and legal changes in Europe and Canada.  The EU’s Regulation, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals Act (REACH) went into effect in June 2007.  Though considerably mitigated in the political process, especially by efforts of the US State Department under Colin Powell, which acted as agents for the US chemical industry, REACH represents a big crack in the dike. 

In Canada, activists trying to ban ChemLawn chemicals used the Precautionary Principle as a legal strategy rather than pitting their experts against ChemLawn’s experts.  ChemLawn lost.  This story is told in the film A Chemical Reaction, shown this fall at the Camden (Maine) International Film Festival (CIFF).  Portland’s Paul Tukey (Safe Lawns) became ill after applying lawn chemicals, primarily 2, 4-D–a synthetic chemical in the phenoxy class (which includes Agent Orange) and which has a strong association with the rise of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Also, Tukey’s son was born with severe ADHD which doctors think was caused by Tukey’s exposure to lawn chemicals as they affect reproduction.  After losing this particular case in Canada, ChemLawn changed its Canadian name to GreenLawn and its American name to TruGreen. 

“The Commons” concept is taken from the lost use of peasant-farmed common land in Europe in the 1400-1500s.  Today, “the commons” concept supports the ability of local areas to stop industrial dumping of Class A sewage sludge into a local environment.  Or, the extraction of local water for bottled water sales.  Or, in the case of our Port Clyde, Maine, fisherman, as detailed in the local movie recently shown at CIFF, The Fish Are For The People, the unsustainable harvesting of too many fish from our local waters by nonlocal industrial boats.  Certainly, clean air and water can be seen as “the commons.”

Toxic Trespass covers both the spread of unwanted chemicals and of Genetically Modified (GM) seeds.  In 1997, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser noticed that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM seeds had taken root at the edges of his fields next to public roads.  He collected his own seed, as usual, but by 1998, 95 percent of his 1030 acres were contaminated with Monsanto’s GM canola.  Monsanto tried to charge Schmeiser $400,000 for this seed, but he refused to pay or to settle since settlement included a legal “gag” provision.  Under patent law, Schmeiser lost his trial, his appeal, and, later, in the Supreme Court. 

Schmeiser quit planting.  The work of his life, the development of his own seed, was destroyed.  The movie The Future of Food (2004) suggested the idea that Schmeiser’s situation involved a trespass concept.  Monsanto seeds either blew into Schmeiser’s fields from truck beds or spread there on their own.  In 2005, Schmeiser found more Roundup Ready Canola in his fields.  He had the fields cleaned ($660) and sent the bill to Monsanto, but they refused to pay.  Schmeiser sued, and this time, Monsanto lost.    

To date, no one is holding chemical applicators responsible for chemical drift into the soil, water, or air in any meaningful way.  But, the idea of toxic trespass linked to the Precautionary Principle and our right to a clean “commons” holds promise for those willing to insist on a different, safer world.

Turkey Tracks: Book Club, Lane Cake

April 9, 2010

Book Club, Lane Cake

Yesterday our Book Club met to discuss A. S. Byatt’s THE CHILDREN’S BOOK–a dense, amazing, informative, complicated, wonderful novel.  In may ways, this novel is as much history as it is fiction.  Set in Britain, Germany, and France, but primarily in Britain, in the years before World War I erupts, the novel explores so many themes we got dizzy trying to identify all of them.  Certainly class conflict, art, artisans, theater, puppets, philosophical and political groups, gender issues, connections to nature and the loss thereof, the power of national groups when war looms, the power of geography to form culture, the production of fairy tales in this era by many authors, and on and on. 

Byatt sees this period as a Silver Age that degenerates into a Lead Age with the war and its aftermath.  The Golden Age preceding the Silver Age has already passed.  It’s clear that she sees that the fermentation of politics and culture change drastically with the war.  All the energy, especially the energy of young people across Europe, pours into nationalism.  The result is that cultural changes that could have taken place in lieu of war don’t.  It’s not so much that the slate is wiped clean, but that all the energy for change is dissipated for those who survive the war. 

In this way, the characters in the novel are not unlike the puppet theaters Byatt reproduces throughout the novel.  We perform inside scripts created by forces that drive us, and while mankind created those forces, we have lost touch with how they do drive us.   Plus, we have lost touch with nature, which is a primary ingredient of the Golden Age.  Thus, the descent into an Age of Lead begins.  And, I think, Byatt is saying that, by extension, that is how we have arrived where we are now, where more than ever before, the hidden scripts of economics drives us, where we are detached from nature, and where we are at a crossroads where life will change drastically in some direction. 

The Lane Cake

My grandmother used to bake two cakes around the winter holidays:  a Lane Cake and a Japanese Fruit Cake.  The Lane Cake was always my favorite.  It was a minimum of three layers, filled with a raisin, coconut, pecan, wine or whiskey filling, and iced with a cooked white icing. 

I’ve never been a good cake baker.   Maybe I avoided them since they are exacting, and I’m more of a handful of this and a pinch of that kind of cook.  And, since my 30’s, I’ve struggled with weight issues, so baking didn’t seem a good idea.   Anyway, baking some of Julia Child’s cakes this winter made me see they are full of eggs and butter and not a lot of sugar.  Making those cakes gave me a bit of courage.  So, I thought to try the Lane Cake recipe of my grandmother’s, especially since I have all the fresh eggs now from the chickens.  I figured I could bake it for the Book Club meeting since it is way too special to have for everyday use.

You must start it three days ahead, as it needs to season with the filling.  It called for “pastry” flour, which I had my doubts about.  I think that term might not have translated across time and space.  But, against my better judgment, I used it anyway.  The layers rose amazingly tall.  It may be ok, I thought.  The filling was tedious, but easy, and tasted divine.  I filled the cake and left it to sit for three days.  On the day of the book club, I iced it, and that went fine as well.

But, the cake layers were not light and wonderful, but heavy and coarse.  So, next time, I’ll use cake flour.  I’m sure it will be quite wonderful then. 

I researched the recipe, which is very old.  Here’s some history from a web site on food history:  http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcakes.html#lane

            “The Lane cake, one of Alabama’s more famous culinary specialties, was created by Emma Rylander Lane of Clayton, Barbour County. It is a type of white sponge cake made with egg whites and consists of four layers that are filled with a mixture of the egg yolks, butter, sugar, raisins, and whiskey. The cake is frosted with a boiled, fluffy white confection of water, sugar, and whipped egg whites. The cake is typically served in the South at birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and other special occasions. The recipe was first printed in Lane’s cookbook Some Good Things to Eat, which she self-published in 1898. According to chef and culinary scholar Neil Ravenna, Lane first brought her cake recipe to public attention at a county fair in Columbus, Georgia, when she entered her cake in a baking competition there and took first prize. She originally named the cake the Prize cake, but an acquaintance convinced her to lend her own name to the dessert.”

Here is my cake:

And, here is a recipe I think will work:

Cake:

Preheat oven to 375

8 egg whites, stiffly beaten; 1 cup of butter (two sticks); 2 cups sugar; 1 cup sweet milk; 3 1/2 cups CAKE FLOUR; 2 teaspoons baking powder; pinch of salt for egg whites; 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Sift flour and baking powder 4 or 5 times.  The more the flour is sifted, the lighter the cake.  Cream butter and sugar together until foamy.  (Sift sugar for a lighter cake.)  Add flour and milk alternately to butter/sugar mixture.  Begin and end with adding flour.  Add vanilla.  Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites.  Bake in four 8-inch cake pans that have been greased with butter and floured.  Or, three larger cake pans.  Bake at 375 for 30 to 35 minutes.  Keep a sharp eye, as doneness depends upon the size of the pans.  Allow cake to sit in pans for a few minutes, then turn them out onto wire racks to THOROUGHLY COOL.

Filling:

8 egg yolks; 2 cups sugar; 1/2 cup butter (1 stick); 1 cup raisins chopped; 1 cup fresh coconut or good quality freeze dried; 1 cup chopped pecans (soak these first in salted water and dry in the oven or a dehydrator to remove the phytates); pinch salt, 1 cup brandy or 3/4 cup wine or 1/2 cup whiskey; 1 teaspoon vanilla.  (I added grated lemon peel and that was nice–1 or 2 tsps.)

Beat egg yolks until lemon colored.  Add sugar, salt, and continue beating until mixture is light.  Melt butter in top of a double boiler and add egg-sugar mixture; stir constantly until thickens (up to 20 minutes).  Add other ingredients.  Let cool, spread between cake layers.  Let cake sit for up to 3 days before icing.

White Icing:

4 egg whites, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/4 cup water, 1 tsp. cream of tartar, pinch of salt, 1 tsp. vanilla.

Put everything BUT the vanilla into a double boiler and cook for about 5 minutes, beating with a hand electric mixer.  Remove from heat when mixture forms good peaks and is shiny.  Add vanilla.  Continue beating until spreading consistency is good. 

Make it for a special event and ENJOY!!!!