Food for Thinkers: Panic In Aisle Five

Feedlots and chicken fried steak: James Reeves on the moral grey zone at the heart of his relationship with food.

James Reeves is a man with a passion for Panda Express, a professional interest in the Divine Right of Louisiana Fishers regarding riparian servitudes, and an abiding regret for the terrible coffee he sold as a teenage gas station attendant. He is also a writer, designer, teacher, and partner at Civic Center, whose first book, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir, will be published by W. W. Norton in July 2011. I read his blog, Big American Night, and follow him on Twitter, and was delighted when he agreed to join in Food for Thinkers week.

Panic in Aisle Five

I. The Hallucinogenic Stadium. I'm driving east out of New Mexico and feeling rotten because I've been living on cheeseburgers, curly fries, and gas station coffee for a ten day stretch. My stomach is gunked up with International Delight creamers and my veins are pumping Arby's Horsey Sauce. Whenever I’m on the road, I eat like a moron. I’m not particularly nutritious at home, but road-tripping always sends me on a fast food bender. I cave to the siren song of illuminated highway signs pulling me towards Chick-fil-A Spicy Sauce and Triple-Meat Whataburgers. Encased behind three tons of steel, it's easy to forget about my body and pretty soon I'm gobbling bacon cheeseburgers the size of my head. Double Decker Supremes. Moons Over My Hammy. Cream Cheese Poppers. Trademarked and patented food that is designed to wreck our bodies. Today it's catching up to me.

So I'm doubled over behind the wheel of a Honda in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert when I crest a hill and see a stadium on the horizon. Must be hallucinating. Probably still coming down from Grandpa's Country Fried Breakfast after this morning's stop at Cracker Barrel. The stadium is gigantic. There's no sign of life on these hot yellow plains except for this crazy stadium filled with moving dots. Something's kicking up big clouds of dust and the scene looks absolutely Roman. The dots are cows. Thousands of them. Maybe hundreds of thousands. They're packed tight and moving in spooky concentric formations like a hypnotist's pinwheel while giant cannons power-spray waves of feed across their heads and backsides. I hit the brakes and hop a wooden fence for a closer look. Their eyes are glassy and their stomachs and pink parts drag along the ground, etching patterns in the dust. The stench hits like a suckerpunch. Chemical. Ammonia. Yellow smoke belches from a silo in the distance. My mind flashes on ground beef and rendering plants, on triple deluxe patties and automated killing machines.

I vow to swear off meat. I've kicked booze and cigarettes cold turkey. I'm tough. I can do this.

II. Peer Pressure at the Auction. Four hours later, I’m sitting next to a rancher named Ace at a cattle auction along the border of Texas and Oklahoma. They serve dinner while the locals bid on cows (an average heifer fetches around $1500) and he's telling me how much he loves his herd and how much he resents government regulation. "Who are they to tell me how to take care of my herd? I love my cows like they're my family. I doubt the government can say that much." He slides a laminated menu across the table. "This place has got the best chicken fried steak in the state." I scan the wooden tables filled with stern men in cowboy hats and thick flannel and there’s no fucking way I’m ordering a salad.

That was my first and shortest stint as a vegetarian. I went from being disgusted by the thought of eating mechanized beef to ordering chicken fried steak four hours later. Ponder those words for a moment: Chicken. Fried. Steak. We do incredible things with food in this country. That plate of chicken fried steak sums up my relationship with food: moments of anxious concern blurred against many more moments of willful ambivalence. It's the American way. We’re a fat nation with a gym on every corner. We watch television shows about desserts while reading magazines that tell us not to eat so much.

III. Meltdown in the Dairy Section. Sometimes I look down at my plate and panic. What is this? How did it get here? I promise myself that I will eat healthier. And then I don’t. But it’s not just a matter of health. My panic is complex. These days, eating is more than a simple question of "What am I putting in my body?" It's a political, economic, ethical, legal, and chemical question which requires a level of vigilance that I don't yet possess.

Example: One day at the supermarket I was about to reach for the standard white Styrofoam container of jumbo eggs when I was taken aback by all of the different recycled cardboard boxes advertising their contents as cage free, organic, vegetarian, free of animal by-products, earth-friendly, and so on. A dozen honest-looking brands of eggs vied for my attention by declaring how well they treat their chickens. One carton announced that they don’t give their chickens steroids, which I always thought could go without saying. Socially conscious eggs can cost up to $5.99 per dozen, which is a fair hike above the usual $2.29 for the default Styrofoam carton of eggs. Is the extra money worth it?

I diligently sorted through slogans and promises, trying to decide. I like to believe that I'm a friend of poultry and livestock. I’ve read Fast Food Nation and I know about the awful things agribusinesses like Kraft and ConAgra do in Arkansas and Iowa. I know about the mechanical farms and zombie chickens that can’t stand up and how Cargill and Tyson slashed their wages in the nineties and played no small part in increasing the demand for meth in small towns where workers were forced to swing two or three shifts to make a living. I'm informed and up-to-date. I avoid eating veal and I stopped buying Wonder Bread ages ago. But I resent being forced to declare my eco-politics at the grocery store. This should not be a consumer decision. A reliable system should ensure that egg companies do not torture their chickens, inject them with drugs, dip them in ammonia, or feed them ground up cardboard, cattle, or children. The fate of chickenkind should not rest on my shoulders.

Everything I purchase feeds an invisible and terrible machine and I don't know how to remove myself from the system. Again, that anxiety. The supermarket is supposed to be a soothing place. After World War II, scientists and ad men perfected it by monitoring the blinking patterns of housewives and fine-tuning the package colors and product arrangement until each aisle induced a semi-narcotic state. I found a safe place near the canned vegetables and caught my breath while an old Fleetwood Mac song mellowed me out.

IV. Evil Cocoa & Popcorn. If you're reading this, you probably know about H.R. 2419, the farm bill that pumps cheap corn syrup throughout the nation, and you've probably seen the scars left by a ruthless breed of agribusiness that abuses every possible law, including taking advantage of the "corporation is a person" doctrine to advertise in Mexican newspapers for cheap labor. I didn't start connecting these dots until my waiter at a Pizza Hut in South Dakota told me about the farm that his family owned before a conglomerate forced them off their land and into waiting tables and stocking shelves. 
That was back in 2007. I know about these things yet I'm still living in a moral grey zone when it comes to food. I go to the supermarket and shop like it doesn’t matter, as if it isn't a political act. The persistance of my ambivalence mystifies me.

The other day I started making a list. If I want to avoid corporate food, I can't buy the following: Banquet frozen foods, Blue Bonnet margarine, Chef Boyardee, Crunch 'n Munch, David Sunflower Seeds, Eagle Mills whole grain flour, Egg Beaters, Fiddle Faddle, Fleischmann's spreads, Golden Cuisine ready-made food for seniors, Gulden's mustard, Healthy Choice prepared foods, Hebrew National, Hunt's tomato products and shelf-stable pudding, Jiffy Pop, Kid Cuisine, La Choy, Manwich, Margherita meats, Marie Callender's frozen meals, Move Over Butter margarine, Orville Redenbacher's popcorn, PAM, Parkay, Peter Pan peanut butter, Reddi-wip, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, Slim Jim, Swiss Miss, Squeez 'N Go, Van Camp's beans, and Wesson cooking oils.

That’s just a partial list of products owned by ConAgra Foods. Kraft Foods owns almost everything else, and Cargill and Tyson make most of the meat. No wonder I feel helpless. What are the alternatives? Food co-ops and farmers' markets seem complicated with their erratic hours and requirements; figuring out what to do with raw vegetables and basic ingredients is even more challenging. These things require effort, which is not something that I'm used to when it comes to purchasing food in America.

This piece is a confession. For years I've been waiting for some benevolent leader or dramatic event to transform me into a righteous consumer and a healthy eater. But blinding flashes of insight are a myth, at least when it comes to grocery shopping. Scrolling up and down the aisles is a quiet fight against all kinds of personal and institutional routines. I picture myself trembling in aisle five, wishing a larger authority would fix things for me. Then I imagine Ace the cowboy shaking his fist at federal regulations. Maybe he's right. Relying on others is a cop-out. Chances are better that I'll become a smarter shopper long before those scary ammonia stadiums go away.

Here's a list of ConAgra and Kraft products. For further reading on supermarket design, see Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders. For an account of the relationship between agribusiness and methamphetamines, see Nick Reding's Methland.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

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