"It's difficult to believe that people are starving in this country because food isn't available."
—Ronald Reagan, 1986 (cited in Lapham's Quarterly, summer 2011 issue, p.43)
(Swans - June 20, 2011) FOOD STORIES: I was set to write about Greece's slow descent into not-so-Platonic hell and the other hell in the making, that of US Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- social constructs that the decision makers are bent on screwing up -- and I got distracted by a stomach requiring Tums to counteract my acid indigestion of late, and then I got further distracted by a non-obliging intestine and turned my attention to food -- you know, the stuff we ingurgitate in order to keep the motor going. It's amazing what can be found in that department, though, as usual, it does not make the news.
AN OUTBREAK of a particularly pernicious strain of E. coli erupted in northern Germany just about mid-May. To date the bacteria has infected over 3,200 people and caused almost forty deaths. The health authorities like the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German institute for disease control and prevention, reacted promptly. Researchers claimed that they had found the deadly bacteria in three cucumbers that had been shipped from a Spanish organic farm to Hamburg. The RKI issued an immediate warning to stop eating cucumbers. The warning was then extended to tomatoes, lettuce, sprouts, and other raw veggies (and, I think, even fruits). Consumers responded immediately. Produce was left rotting on supermarkets' shelves. Wholesalers had to destroy their stocks. Russia banned all imports of German and Spanish fruits and vegetables. Cases of infection were reported in countries as far away as Sweden, Great Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, etc. But, in each case, apparently, the infected person had recently traveled to Germany. It did not take long for the Spanish authorities to put 2 and 2 together. After all, cucumbers were also exported to these countries. How come no Spanish cucumber could be found with the deadly bacteria in any of these countries? Keep in mind that Spaniards eat their own cucumbers too, and no case was reported there. So, they swiftly proceeded to test the cucumbers of the organic farm that allegedly had provoked the outbreak. Again, if three cucumbers were carrying the bacteria, then, logic told them, more cucumbers would had to be involved, and the bacteria should still be found on the farm. So they tested and tested and found none. Then, they tested many other farms and could not find any trace of E. coli. They reasonably concluded that Spanish cucumbers were not the culprit. To put it mildly, the Spanish politicians were not impressed by German finger pointing...
MEANTIME, the German health inspectors and researchers, being methodical good sleuths, kept doing their detective, cop-like investigations. They began to question the infected population, those who were not too sick and could talk -- the dead no longer could. They asked what they had eaten in recent weeks, where they had shopped, what restaurants they had given their patronage. A trend came out of these questionnaires. Whether a canteen, a hotel, a restaurant, a supermarket, all these businesses had one thing in common: they carried or served sprouts from an organic farm in Bienenbüttel, Lower Saxony. At least, this is the latest explanation for the deadly outbreak -- but it will not assuage the pain of the farmers who have lost everything.
IT HAPPENS that the crisis came at the worst of times for the farmers: The harvest season. With no market or outlet for their produce they have been forced to destroy their crops. Even feeding livestock with the produce was not allowed since if E. coli was present, which it was not, it could infect the animals and later on be transmitted to humans. Due to incorrect research and data, millions of people lost their livelihood. How one quantifies the loss of food and the financial losses is for the "experts" to determine -- the EU is talking about allocating 210 million euros ($300 million) to compensate the farmers, but that is pennies on the dollar (or the euro). And no one is quantifying the impact of these events and losses on the price of food worldwide.
IN THE FASCINATING Summer 2011 issue of Lapham's Quarterly -- 221 pages dedicated to "Food" -- Lewis H. Lapham, its editor and former editor of Harper's magazine, illustrated the latter point in his introductory essay, "The Midas Touch" (an abridged version can be read on TomDispatch). States Lapham: "Between March 2010 and March 2011, the average cost of food in U.S. cities rose to a 40-year high -- iceberg lettuce up 48 percent, coffee 30 percent, bacon 24 percent, beef 21 percent, potatoes 14 percent. The worldwide cost of food meanwhile rose 37 percent, the cost of crude oil on the New York Stock Exchange 23 percent. All the available data indicates a steadily upward trend, the global market for food subject not only to crop failure and the loss of arable land but also to its uses as engine fuel."
LAPHAM GOES ON to discourse about the "imbalance between the world's food supply and a world population" that keeps increasing. Unfortunately, he does not mention the serious challenge humans face in regard to food, whatever the size of the tribe: The ongoing loss of water, which is now scientifically documented. He also fails to address the end of fish and the destruction of bee hives, the bees that pollinate about 40 percent of the fruits and veggies we eat. Forget the extinction of fish and bees, and water depletion, when an outbreak of E. coli hits again in the soon-to-be-former advanced economies, food will be destroyed to save the few at the expense of the many. As Daniel Quinn once wrote, "The greatest discovery any alien anthropologist could make about our culture is our overriding response to failure: If it didn't work last year, do it AGAIN this year (and if possible do it MORE)."
WORRY NOT, THOUGH. If you happen to be in New York (Manhattan), grab a cab and get to Masa, "the city's greatest sushi restaurant ... one of New York's peak culinary indulgences," according to Sam Sifton, the Chief Restaurant Critic at The New York Times. The 26-seat restaurant is located on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center at 10 Columbus Circle (Broadway and 59th Street). There, in a quiet and "luxuriant atmosphere" you will be served bluefin tuna (a plundered species) and other fish delicatessens, flown in directly from the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and exquisitely prepared by Chef Masayoshi Takayama. The price for such lavishness is a mere prix fixe of $450 per person, though says Sifton, "a meal for two at the restaurant can easily run to $1,500." Mind you, beverages are not included. If you fancy white wine, I'd recommend the 2007 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru ($1,550 a bottle). For red, try a 1996 Château Margaux ($2,500) or a 1996 Château Lafite Rothschild ($3,000). Of course, you may wish to conform to the Japanese tradition of drinking sake with your sushi. Masa carries an "extraordinary, fine and rare sake, aged for 10 years," Kikuhime, Ishikawa ($400 for a carafe, $1,400 for a bottle). Please, do not forget to tip your waiter.
SHORT LAST NOTE: As the saying goes, one should never lose the opportunity to learn. According to Lapham's Quarterly (page 45), the origin of French fries -- re-christened "Freedom fries" in a 2003 idiotic act of Congress...since abandoned -- is not France, but Belgium: "In 1680, inhabitants along the Meuse River replace a side of fish fried in oil with potatoes cut lengthwise when river freezes." Apparently, "during World War I, British and US soldiers qualify fries as "French" because they ate them in French-speaking parts of Belgium." Now you know the origin of "Freedom fries"!
Ah, la bouffe!
. . . . .
C'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.
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