The Processed Way of Eating

Despite my plan to avoid social media while working on my book, I’ve spent the earlier part of this afternoon over on FaceBook discussing meat glue (why yes, I am procrastinating, how did you guess?), and its implications in the greater food service industry, aside from its use in molecular gastronomy. Because it seems that there are a few restaurants and food supply companies that are taking chunks of stewing beef and mushing them together with meat glue to make what looks like a reasonable facsimile of a filet mignon.

These filet mignon, so far, seem to exist within the realm of large-scale lower-end food service – school cafeterias and catered weddings were two such examples given. I wouldn’t expect to see them at high-end steak houses or places that are known for the authenticity or terroir of their beef, but it’s reasonable to assume that they will eventually show up (unannounced, no doubt) on the menu of low- to mid-range restaurants across both the US and Canada.

(Note that the meat glue itself is perfectly safe. The concern comes from creating a “steak” out of various cuts of beef and then cooking it to less than medium well-done because of possible bacteria that may have been on the surfaces of the various pieces of meat that are now in the centre of the steak and might not be cooked to the appropriate temperature to kill said bacteria. A standard steak has no such problem since the centre is untainted and could not have come in contact with any kind of contamination.)

Not having seen one first hand, I can’t vouch for how good a copy this stuff creates – one would think that the grain of the meat would be messed up and going every which way in a filet made with meat glue, also the texture would be wrong – you can’t really grill stewing beef, it would be tough as leather. But the next time you’re at a wedding and the dinner option is chicken or beef, choose the beef and see if what you get is a real filet mignon or one made from bits and pieces.

I bring up meat glued filets because it ties in nicely with the theme of The American Way of Eating by Traci McMillan.

We all know of some of the travesties committed in the name of creating cheap food. McMillan goes undercover for a month at a time in various positions within the US food industry, first picking various types of produces from peaches and grapes to garlic, then working in the produce department of a Wal-Mart, and then finally working the line at an AppleBee’s in Brooklyn, uncovering racism, poor food handling procedures and general ignorance from people who should, all things considered, know more about the products they’re selling.

Similar in style to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed, McMillan struggles to pay rent and feed herself on minimal wages while documenting the working conditions around her. Working in the fields and earning a rate based on the quantity that she picks, McMillan quickly realizes how fast she must work in order to earn a reasonable wage. She becomes physically exhausted and eats poorly, and only when she shares meals with other workers does she figure out how to (barely) survive.

In the grocery section of the book, she reveals how much food is wasted on a daily basis because stores like WalMart have no one on staff with any level of expertise in terms of knowing what the items are, let alone how to cook or store them. This leads to considerable waste overall, as well as considerable effort to keep produce looking fresh by trimming it back to allow it to stay on the sales floor another day.

Finally, during her time expediting in the kitchen of an AppleBee’s restaurant, McMillan discusses the issues surrounding chain restaurants and the lack of food cooked onsite. Nobody ever chops a vegetable, for instance, salads come in bags. Most of the work done by the cooks is about taking large quantities of pre-packaged processed foods and portioning them out for service. Which might make a restaurant such as AppleBee’s an ideal place for the above-mentioned meat glue filet mignon, where the customer wants to feel they’re getting a high quality product for a low price and the corporation wants a cheap product that they can sell at a premium.

McMillan also discusses the issues surrounding food deserts, and documents some of the alternatives for people that are popping up in her hometown of Detroit.

Also in my processed food radar lately – I happened to see a film called Canned Dreams at the Hot Docs film festival this past week. Finnish director Katja Gauriloff follows all of the elements that go into a can of ravioli in tomato sauce. And while machinery freaks will love the footage of extruders and conveyor belts, the real story comes from interviews with people in the various countries and industries that help to create the product. From the Brazilian woman who picks through rubble in a strip mine (steel for the can) to the Roma woman in Romania whose job it is to burn the hair off pigs in a slaughter house (ground pork for the filling) to the relatively cheerful old Portuguese women who pick the tomatoes for the sauce, we learn about the people whose efforts go into creating a can of pasta for a Finnish grocery chain.

The interviewees don’t really talk about their work, but instead talk about their often miserable lives. The audience begins to grasp what is really a sense of desperation – after all, why would someone take a job cutting the eyes out of beef carcasses? But through the interviews we discover a lot of sadness, poverty and even depression and mental illness, and for some of these people, as is the case with many of the people McMillan encounters, you understand that they feel lucky to have any job at all, even a miserable, badly-paying one.

We think of a can of food as just that, and seldom ever look past it to think about the many hands and hearts that went into getting it to our table, or why those people are there in the first place. We forget (often willfully) what goes into making our food, especially when we want it to be cheap, but from meat glue to immigrant harvesters to truly miserable conditions in fields or abbatoirs, there is a secondary story that we need to be aware of. Because we demand that our food be cheap, that cost comes from either cutting corners and creating fake products of dubious quality, or from selling us stuff past its prime, or from backbreaking work where other human beings barely eke out an existence.

Think before you eat, friends. Know where your food really comes from.

 

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