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January 26th, 2016

Eating Our Words

BY Christian Ford

A thousand years ago, the Norman Conquest changed the course of British history.  It also, from our particular point of view, introduced a conceptual fuzziness into how we talk about — and around — the ways we feed ourselves.  The cows, pigs, sheep and chickens in the barnyards of the English (“Angle-ish”) peasantry became beef, pork, mutton and poultry on the tables of the French-speaking nobility which conquered Britain.

While the differentiation of pigs from pork has simplified the mental gymnastics of children looking to separate their picture-book piggies from their bacon, it’s complexified just about everything else.  Most of the time, our sloppiness doesn’t get us in that much trouble.  But it’s hard to think straight when the words you think in are themselves a landscape of pitfalls.

Take for instance, the English-speaking Scotsman Michael McFeat, who was, until recently, employed at a gold mine in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.  Following a holiday feast he’d attended with his Kyrgyz coworkers, McFeat took to Facebook to comment about  the popular horse sausage called chuchuk.  Not long after the post, the Kyrgyz miners went on strike, McFeat was arrested and threatened with a five year sentence on charges of racial hatred while being told that his actions could lead to war between Kyrgyzstan and the UK.  What had happened, exactly?  Well, McFeat had taken a picture and captioned it: “The Kyrgyz people queuing out of the door for there special delicacy the horses penis!!!”  In retrospect, it’s not hard to understand how the (now safely-deported) McFeat conflated the awareness that chuchuk uses horse offal with the appearance of the sausage itself to draw what he thought was a logical conclusion — and put it on Facebook.

Words.  Sometimes they get you even when you mean well.

Which, it would seem, is more than can be said for the craft chocolate superstars the Mast Brothers, who are finding themselves hung out to dry by their own (overweening) verbiage. I managed to miss the PR cloud of the brothers, instead having my first encounter directly with their chocolate.  A high end restaurant which shall remain nameless was giving out their chocolate bars for a holiday treat and I unthinkingly took a bite.  I never would have remembered the moment except that I was so startled by the sheer lousiness of it that I stopped to see just what I’d bitten into.  I admit, the sophisticated art direction of the wrapper gave me some pause; perhaps my palette was just too uncultured to appreciate this?  But the doubt quickly faded behind a certainty that the emperor had no clothes and less taste.

Now, it seems, that the high-minded words which the Mast Brothers have used to shape perception of their product may have been suffused with conceptual fuzziness shared by fans of their product.  Slate gives a good rundown on the storm that’s arisen from a Texas food blogger’s accusations that the Mast titan’s feet are likely industrial chocolate that happens to taste like clay.  But the question remains, would they have sidestepped this whole thing if they’d just been a bit more humble?  Or was Mast Brothers Chocolate entirely a construction of language?

More fratricide is afoot in the world of Really Big Food Companies where Campbell’s Soup has come out in favor of mandatory labels for foods containing GMOs.  Their press release is well worth reading, if only for the surreal fusion of state-of-the-art corporate non-speak (“At Campbell, we are unleashing the power of our Purpose, Real food that matters for life’s moments.” with a truly rebellious act.  In a move that can only be described as defecting,   Campbell’s — which put money into the anti-GMO labeling fight in states like California and Washington, which uses GMO ingredients in 75% of their products and which is a (soon to be ex-) member of the virulently anti-labeling Grocery Manufacturers Association— it now arguing for nationwide GMO labeling.

While Campbell’s CEO references the 92% of the population that are in favor of labeling, a lifetime of living in corporate America does make me pause to wonder if there might be other motivations lurking within that Purpose.  It could be a bold way to conduct market research, to see if sales are impacted by the presence of GMOs?  Alternately, maybe it’s a sly Trojan Horse move, an effort to get national labeling established, but in a uselessly weak form, pre-empting the functional labeling that has been on the state ballots.

But I don’t think that’s the case.  The reason is that there has been a growing schism between companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta, who make their fortune by selling GMOs to commodity producers and companies like Campbell’s and grocery stores, which earn a living by converting those commodities to products they sell directly to the end consumer.  GMOs have proved to be of marginal utility in terms of the traits that they’re sold for, such as pest and drought resistance, but they’re a fine tool to lock up intellectual property and monopolize profits.  Those profits, however, don’t trickle down to the groceries and companies like Campbell’s, but the PR nightmare does.  Consequently, Campbell’s move is a very big deal, one that stands to make other food companies put up or shut up when it comes to writing the truth of what’s inside those carefully designed packages.

The meaning of the words we use are at stake, too, in the outback of Oregon, where the highly entitled Ammon Bundy and his tarp-wearing sidekicks are holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, standing off “the government”… but for what, exactly?   Ostensibly to recover land that has been “stolen” from the people, people apparently translating as cattle ranchers and loggers and similar industries which see the public lands of the West as something that God personally deeded to them to strip mine as they see fit.  It’s a complex situation made more so by the way in which this risible sideshow is so amenable to interpretation.  But Zack Schwartz-Weinstein take a particularly insightful and erudite stab at it here, pointing out that the cattle industry for which Bundy and Company keep promising (but failing) to defend with their lives was itself a creation of the government in cahoots with long-ago cattle ranchers.  Still, to really understand the level of disingenuousness and outright ignorance vomited forth by the would-be tyrannicides, you have to go back to the original sin of the whole charade.  Before the open spaces of the west could become public land, they had to be emptied of the people who had lived there forever.

Finally, as an antidote to the asshat rodeo in Oregon, we bring you a profile of a Diné (Navajo) woman, Lyla June Johnston, who opted out of Harvard for a considerably more earthy and — some would argue, salient — way of life: planting corn.  It’s an interesting thing, to abandon a way of life based on the words on the Harvard diploma in favor of a way of life based on life, itself.

I know who I’d rather have looking after the land, that’s for sure.


Mast Brothers Storefront by Simon Pearson
Mast Brothers in Happier Days by Simon Pearson
Edifice of Soup by Martin Deutsch
Lyla June Johnston by Herself
Horse Sausage by Evgeni Zotov
A Man and His Stars by Gage Skidmore