There Wasn’t Any Food, He Explained

Chapter 3 is a short piece on “The Elevator.” Pollan doesn’t have a lot to say here, except to point out what a large amount of corn there is out there, and to state it in such a way as to make us a bit disgusted with certain aspects of handling that much.

For example, the fact that trucks head toward the elevators, “scattering a light rain of yellow kernels as they go” is represented by one person Pollan interviewed as “almost sacrilegious.” And then he quotes, approvingly, an account of the Aztec reverence for maize. If they saw any kernels on the ground, they would gather them up quickly — and superstitiously. In contrast, American farmers barrel down the road in lots of trucks, with a light yellow plume behind them. Of course, however distressing this might be to the Aztec way, it is not dangerous — like driving behind an onion truck near Walla Walla, as I have done.

In this chapter, Pollan states what I take to be a central aspect of his thesis — the distinction between corn as food, and corn as commodity. Pollan refers to “our confusion of corn-the-food with corn-the-commodity, which turn ouut to be two subtly but crucially different things” (p. 58). But this distinction, which Pollan wants to press, is right at the heart of his confusion.

In an attempt to get to the high ground, he wants to say that his thesis is simple — eat food. Don’t eat not-food. This plays into his critique of that grocery store near

you, because most of that stuff in there is made out of corn-the-commodity, not corn-the-food. Consequently . . .

So what is food? It is that which, if you eat, will be digested in your stomach, and keep you alive. If it will not keep you alive, then it isn’t food. If you were stranded on a desert island, that which is “not food” would include palm fronds, bark, beach sand, and coconut shells. However much you wanted to keep yourself alive by eating them, it would not work. It is not food. But if, in a freak accident, you were stranded on that island with ten tons of oreo cookies, you could stay alive for quite some time. That is because the oreos are food. Not a balanced diet, certainly, not something to volunteer for, quite, and you will have an interesting shape when they rescue you, absolutely. But however deficient it might be as a food, it remains food. It would be the kind of food you could not look at for the rest of your life, but it would still be food.

If you took ten unlabeled sacks of the Number 2 corn from one of these Iowa elevators, and dropped them off at a frontier homestead in 1850 somewhere, the folks there would know just what to do with it, and they would say grace over the regular old food they got from it, for however long it lasted. It would be food, because it is food. It is edible. Our bodies can process it. Now food does not cease to be food just because there is a lot of it, or because lots of different things can be done with it. The food remains food. In other words, becoming a commodity does not alter the nature of what something is.

In short, corn can be food and a commodity at the same time. Blue jeans can be clothes, even if there are countless other pairs of them out there. Quantity can affect quality, certainly, but not to the extent of zeroing out the quality of being whatever it is. If commodification made blue jeans “not clothes,” it would be just a matter of time before people would stop buying the empty hangers. They would catch on. If life stopped being sustained by any food made out of corn-the-commodity, people would quit buying it — being tired, as they were, of family members starving to death.

This is not to say that such food is great food, only that it is food. If it weren’t food, we would be starving if our diets were made out of it. This is why it is radically inconsistent to say that this stuff is “not food” and that because we eat so much of it, we are now dealing with an obesity epidemic. We finally rescue that guy on the desert island, and we are astonished. “You have been here ten years,” we say. “How did you stay so fat?”

“There wasn’t any food,” he explained.

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