Someone once said that to have a movement, you have to have a song. Well, now we have our song! About a week ago, I heard Million Dollar Nile's, "What You Don't Know," a song that basically sums up everything people need to know about their food -- and what's behind the subversive eating movement. The song talks about corn -- how it's in pretty much every processed food in the supermarket, how it's fed to livestock that can't digest it, how sugar and fat are subsidized by the government (through corn), and how it's leading to all kinds of medical problems.
I got so excited about the song, I played it for everyone in the family, and then I thought, why stop there? And besides that, we had a few questions that I really wanted to know the answer to -- and I thought that you, my real-food-loving readers, would love the song and want to know more about the band that came up with this amazing idea!
Band members Matt Swanson, Dan Stonington, and Nicole Comforto agreed to be my guests on Antiquity Oaks today, so in addition to answering my questions below, they're graciously agreed to drop in a few times in the next 24 hours to answer your questions!
Deborah: What inspired you to write this song? Have you read Michael Pollan's books or seen "King Corn"?
Matt: During the summer of '08 my wife and I spent two weeks kayaking in Glacier Bay, Alaska. After long days of paddling through the wilderness, we would kick back on the beach, cook a leisurely dinner, and read out loud. The book of choice was Michael Pollan's “The Omnivore's Dilemma.” In packing meals for the expedition, we had of course been concerned largely with weight, bulk, and cost, and thus had ended up with a disproportionate number of dried soup and stew mixes made by Bear Creek and the like. So as Michael Pollan launched into a critique of the industrial food system, one of us would follow along on the breathtaking lists of ingredients that adorned our discarded 'food' packaging. It was a horrifying experience--there were regular shouts of disbelief as Michael revealed yet another disturbing secret of the food industry. Each progressive ‘Progresso’ meal became harder to stomach, and the unbelievable dichotomy of pristine wilderness mixed with the daily ingesting of polysyllabic corn derivatives made a deep imprint in both of our minds. The song “What You Don’t Know” shortly followed our return home from this trip.
Deborah: That's so exciting that Omnivore's Dilemma made such a difference in your life! You mention a lot of health conditions in the song that are caused by a modern diet. Did any of you have health issues that served as a wake-up call?
Matt: I think we’re all fortunate to be young and relatively healthy, but just looking around it’s hard to miss the manifestations of our national eating disorder (as Pollan coins it). Obesity is the most obvious and prevalent affliction. One line of the song goes: “We’ve got diabetes and we’re chronically obese, from all this high fructose and all this subsidized grease.” I think this gets to the heart of the matter. By subsidizing the corn and soy industries so heavily, we’re driven to astonishingly low prices on such ingredients as high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil. Soda, fast food and other such low cost/high calorie foods are a logical outgrowth of such subsidies. The people who truly depend on such cheap options are in the low-income bracket, where obesity is most rampant. Thus, this becomes an issue of social justice, and I believe that what is happening is wrong.
Deborah: You have a long list of multi-syllabic ingredients that are in food. Are they all derivatives of corn? Did it all come from a particular label, or did you just pick a few random ingredients?
Matt: They are indeed all derivatives of corn which I tracked down on a corn allergy website. On it a woman by the name of Jenny Connors has assembled an extensive list of ingredients to be avoided by those with corn allergies. From this huge list, one can assemble most of the packaged food products sold in the supermarket.
Deborah: How has the song been received? Do people know what you're talking about? Do they care?
Matt: The song has been quite well received, and we often hear people referring fondly to “the corn song”. With the explosion of farmer’s markets and local, organic producers, this has been a really hot topic, and I think people appreciate our humorous portrayal of what can be an overwhelming and disturbing issue. In fact Michael Pollan himself came across this song and featured it recently in his newsletter.
So yes, I do think people know what we’re talking about, and they care deeply. We may be preaching to the choir at this point with our progressive-minded fans, but we’re hoping to broaden our audience and extend this message to more and more folks. In fact, to expedite this process, we are donating all the proceeds from our CD to non-profits focusing on sustainability. Here’s how it works: Anyone can go to our website, buy our CD for $10, and then nominate an organization that they think should receive the money. We’re hoping to start a ripple effect with this, so that lots of people get to enjoy our music and we get to donate a sizeable sum to a good cause. It’s a win-win (especially since we all have day jobs) so help us spread the word!
Deborah: Gladly! What's your diet like? Any tips for people attempting to navigate the food jungle and eat healthier?
Dan: Grow your own! One of my favorite lines from Matt's song is "if you really like organic then don't make it transatlantic" - so true. This summer for the first time in several years, I had a housemate with an avid green thumb. Nothing quite beats the convenience, health, and deliciousness of coming home after a busy day, being hungry, and needing to only skip into the backyard for a head of lettuce, a tomato, some kale, and strawberries. Add a bit of goat cheese and dressing and you're set for a fresh dinner salad.
Matt: I second that completely. The summer after our fateful kayaking adventure, we turned every inch of our backyard into a garden, and we’re still harvesting mountains of produce from it. I like Michael Pollan’s distinction between industrial organic and small scale producers. We’re often faced with the dilemna of buying organic produce from some mega farm in California versus non-certified produce from uncle joe’s farm down the street. I’m a big fan of local. Also as you move up the food chain it gets even dicier. Terms like cage-free and free-range can be really misleading, as it really means ‘access to a tiny plot of daylight that animal never really goes to’: I say if you can find a local livestock producer and have them slaughter an animal for you, then stick it in the freezer, that’s the way to go for meat eaters. And why not get your own chickens for eggs?
Nicole: I was lucky enough to be raised by a vegetarian health-nut father. I didn't appreciate his insistence on carrots instead of candy bars until I was in college and realized one day that junk food had no appeal to me. Since then I think I've found a good balance between eating healthily while also enjoying the occasional indulgence. I think that the first step to eating well is to find a regular source of good local produce (whether it be your garden, a farmer's market, or a produce delivery service) and then start experimenting with new produce. Soon you'll find new dishes that you love and start carving healthier foods.
Deborah: What's your favorite healthy food or meal?
Nicole: There are so many to choose from! Lately if I'm in the mood for something quick and healthy I'll saute up whatever vegetables I have around with cashews, organic chicken or tofu, a little sweet chili sauce and spices, and serve them mixed in with rice noodles.
I'm drooling now, too! Okay, while I'm cleaning off my keyboard, you can listen to Million Dollar Nile's song. Just click below:
And remember, if any of you have questions for Seattle's greenest bluegrass band, just give 'em a holler in the comment section.
For more posts on real food, check out Real Food Wednesday and Fight Back Friday!