You’ve already finished this whole book, haven’t you? (sigh) That’s okay. This is why no one ever invites me to any book clubs. Well, one reason anyway.
In the blissfully short Chapter 3 (four pages), Pollan explains how corn’s identity moved from corn-as-food to corn-as-commodity, like oil or anything else that’s bought and sold in bulk. It becomes less about individual quality and more about quantity and consistency and efficiently moving it from place to place:
“With the coming of the railroads and the invention of the grain elevator (essentially a great vertical warehouse filled by conveyor belt and emptied by spigot)…it made sense to… treat corn less as a certain number of discrete packages someone had to haul and more like an unbounded liquid that could be pumped, in effect, by machine. Mix it all together in a great golden river. The river of corn would flow from the farms to the Chicago market and then out from there to buyers anywhere in the world.”
I’ll admit, the capitalist in me (yes, she’s in there somewhere) thought this sounded pretty cool. The model of ingenuity and efficiency that we Americans are known for. After all, this isn’t sweet corn we’re talking about, which you can eat raw right off the cob if you feel like it, but the starchy grain that forms the basis of nearly all packaged food nowadays. Maybe it doesn’t matter who the individual farmer was or what was unique about his crop. Every box of Corn Chex just needs to taste the same.
But Pollan makes a convincing point. Small organic farmers could really learn a thing or two from those in commodity corn. After all, the Midwest isn’t the only place with elevators. We have plenty of elevators right here in Boston, and we’re not afraid to use them. In fact, I’m sure the folks in the Financial District wouldn’t mind bumping elbows with commodity organic produce. We’ll just ship the crates in on the T and cram them into the elevators real tight. No, forget the crates. Big piles. Sure, the fruits and vegetables might get bruised and start to weep a little after a while, but that’s the beauty of an unbounded liquid. It’ll drip right into your coffee cup on the way to your 10:00 meeting. Mmmmm.
I can’t wait to tell my farmer about this!