Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Foodies have a song!

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.

Matt: My favorite breakfast: Homegrown red potatoes, sautéed up with fresh green onion, and garlic from the garden, served with eggs from backyard hens, and topped with salsa from garden tomatoes and chilis. Okay, I’m drooling now…

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!


Jen said...

OMG... this is FABULOUS! I love it. What a perfect song for real food. Thanks for sharing!

tara said...

Wow! Thanks for this post. What a fabulous band!! I think this is my new favorite song. I'm going to buy their album. I have a question - when are they coming to Boise?

MaskedMan said...

Any opinions on the way the Amish farm, and the general quality of their produce?

I'm zoned such that I can't have livestock of any nature (not even chicken), and my yard is too small for really productive gardening (not to mention used for the dogs, including the periodic fosters), but I'm right smack up against a very large concentration of Amish farmers. If they've got the good stuff, I know where I'll be shopping...

Nicole said...

Thanks for your comments, glad you guys are enjoying it! We'll add Boise to our tour idea list. If you know of any awesome venues or events there (or anywhere), e-mail them to info@milliondollarnile.com and we'll look into it!

From what I understand, the Amish use very simple recipes and ingredients to cook their food, which automatically will eliminate much of the processing and chemicals you'll get at the grocery store. Sounds like a lucky spot to live!

Jen said...

MaskedMan: I purchase most of my grass fed raw dairy, produce, eggs and chicken (pastured and not fed GMO's) from the Amish. Everything is awesome. I highly recommend the food they produce.


What a fun post! I'll tweet to that!

Christy said...

I would ask the Amish you are buying from how they raise their animals and what if any pesticides they use on their vegetables. Just because it is Amish doesnt' make it "good". However, it is local and it definatly better than something shipped from somewhere else. (They are as subject to the American diet as the next house, eating a lot of processed food. At least in my area of the Midwest)
Disclaimer: I buy 90% of my summer produce from a local Amish farm, and stop and buy eggs from another farm.

Sharon -- The OKI Stampqueen said...

I am corn-allergic so I appreciate your comments in the blog---wish they could have made the song, however, without the "%*##@"...that ruined for me---call me a prude...but, as a Christian, I found it offensive...they lost my attention--and respect--for what they had to say after that...

Matt said...

Good feedback. We had no intention of offending--just wanted to make a strong point. You can substitute "out of luck" if that works better. Thanks for listening!

Deborah said...

Sharon, did you listen to the version on my blog? It's the "radio version" so has a whistle blowing instead of the word that offended you. If you're allergic to corn, you'd probably really like the part where they list all the corn-derived food additives. I've nearly got them all memorized now. Singing all those big words make them easier to remember.

kc said...

I am corn allergic, too, but I think the song is perfect just the way it is. I am excited to hear that this is a radio version - I would love to have it uncensored because #@$@ed is exactly what a corn allergic person is. I don't know how many times I have told the "corn is evil" story but now I can buy the CD and just play the song instead.

By the way, now corn is being made into plastic, clothing and carpet too. It is entirely possible that there are people out there right now buying corn-fed meat injected with corn washed in corn in a corn package while wearing corn and the word corn would not be on the label anywhere.

MaskedMan said...

Thanks for the comments IRT Amish farming. I'll enquire - You can't go to a farmers' or flea market 'round here without you've got 43,000 Amish underfoot... I live little more than a loud shout from Lancaster, PA.

I'll ask some questions next time I'm at the farmers' market.

Kelly the Kitchen Kop said...

Deborah, I'm so glad you found this, I'm stumbling now! :)

Troy @ I Refuse to Recede said...

OK, the song was a bit corny, but it was fun. I wonder how long it took to not only learn all the right pronunciations of thoes wierd monopolyconglomerates, but to be able to remember them all in order.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

What a fun discovery! Thanks for sharing!!

(AKA FoodRenegade)

Matt said...

Oh I get tripped up on those 'monopolyconglomerates' all the time...I think my favorite is sodium carboxylmethyl cellulose--it doesn't get much more elegant then that!

Nicole said...

Yes, it did take a while to learn all those words! Luckily Dan and I mostly repeat them after Matt, which helped a lot.

For kc and anyone else interested, you can hear the un-edited version on our website at www.milliondollarnile.com, and also on our myspace page at www.myspace.com/milliondollarnile. It's also on our album "The Definition of Adventure"!


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