Food Rant

by Bill Monson

The holiday season inevitably brings thoughts of parties, parties remind me of food, and thoughts of food remind me of what's happened to our victuals in the last four decades. Ergo, a holiday food rant.

The U.S. Navy sent me to California in 1958. Shortly after my arrival, I was horrified to discover that, in the All-American pursuit of Almighty Profit, the Golden State was turning agriculture into AGRIBUSINESS. What this meant to most observers was the eventual demise of family farms. What it meant to me was the inevitable doom of my digestion.

A good example is the tomato.

Growing up in Galesburg, I loved tomatoes. They were red, juicy and so sweet you could eat them without condiments if you wanted a fruit and with pepper and salt if you wanted a vegetable. To this day, I don't know which food group claims tomatoes.

What I do know is that my favorite luncheon sandwich was a big slice of tomato with three pieces of corn-fed bacon on toasted Lucky Boy white bread. NOTE: this was NOT a BLT! No connoisseur of bacon and tomato concoctions would ever sully his sandwich with rabbit fodder. I also preferred Meadow Gold butter to mayonnaise. In the days when nearly every Galesburg student from first grade to twelfth went home for lunch, bacon and tomato on buttered white toast got me through many a long and boring afternoon at my desk.

What's more, any restaurant on Main, Simmons or Henderson worth its salt could serve you one nearly as good as home-made -- thanks to buying from local farmers and producers. Grier's lunchroom in the old Burlington Depot could make a dandy, and during my Knox College years I often stopped after play rehearsals or Siwash basketball games for a late night snack of one in order to charge my batteries for hitting the books until the wee hours. Overall, I'd say I ate more B & T's at Grier's than I ate tenderloins at the Huddle (but not hamburgers at the Steak N Shake!)

Then, California agribusiness came up with the machine-picked tomato. Thick-skinned for mechanical picking, it was harvested green in the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys and had all the piquant taste of a hockey puck dipped in battery acid.

To compound this vittle vandalism, the industrial pig farmers in these parts raised their critters in holding pens on sawdust and sorghum. Faced with these twin disasters, California providers of people provender crammed the pork-n-puck between two pieces of toast made of bread with so many preservatives you could use it for house siding. To camouflage it, they covered it with lettuce and skewered it with a toothpick wrapped in red or blue plastic. Sometimes they put a sprig of parsley on the side. Not many people ate the parsley, but it sure was pretty if you put aesthetics above appetite.

Eventually, you couldn't even buy a decent tomato in a store, and finding corn-fed bacon in California was like Coronado seeking the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. He went all the way to Kansas looking -- and so would I if I wanted to have any hope of success.

By the late 60's, while everyone was watching California spearhead the radical youth movement, the state was actually committing a far greater revolution -- turning America's food into a gastronomical gutquake. (I also suspect not all the gas in the other revolution was ideological, either. Too many teens with dyspepsia!!) And what else was happening then to upset us all? Agribusiness sired a bastard -- the Fast Food Business. Remember, McDonald's started in California, too! In my opinion, Berkeley wasn't about Free Speech; it was about Irritable Bowel Syndrome. (The smell was certainly similar!)

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Other states soon fell into lockstep with California. The bottom line changed from edibility to profitability. For example, whatever happened to those wonderful Texas Bermuda onions we used to buy in the A & P? You ever eat an onion sandwich anymore?

Sorry about the rant -- but after forty years of indigestion, I figure I'm entitled to bellyache about my bellyaches. Pepcid, anyone?

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 12, 2001

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