Monday, January 23, 2012

From The Sublime To The Ridiculous

In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan coins the phrase the “Agricultural Sublime” to describe the “satisfactions of the ordered earth” — which is to say, nature being reigned in to unnatural shapes by man. Wherever man has become a husband of the land he has given it geometry, sowing by rows, squares, circles. Thus do grasses become regiments of wheat, oats, barley — while root vegetables are only given their freedom out of sight, underground.

Mastery over nature is ably demonstrated by the French formal gardens at palaces, like Versailles, for example, or in extravagant topiary or bonsai pruning. But it can also be seen in the baize-like lawns surrounding the stone edifices of Oxford and Cambridge universities, a quality tourists admire but cannot hope to replicate, as the wardens are fond of reminding them. Achieving perfection is easy, they say; all it takes is 400 years of watering and rolling.

It’s notable that people presume that should extra-terrestial life ever visit our lowly planet, they would make their presence known via crop circles. They wouldn’t land their spaceships on something large and flat like a North American mall parking lot; no — they prefer to land in the middle of a wheatfield. Even aliens (well, the people imitating them) prefer to leave geometric footprints, it seems. Old-growth forests are an intricate web of haphazard vegetation that adheres only to nature’s intelligent design, but when man cuts them down and re-plants, he does so in great rows as if the trees were the living ribs of a cathedral.

But these physical examples of order are only the ones which are easy to see. Man’s manipulation of nature’s very DNA through genetic modification is hidden but perhaps more insidious. The wildness and unpredictibility of a crop can be bred out, leaving docile, well-behaved, compliant plants who do not complain about growing cheek-to-cheek with their neighbor in ways nature worked for billennia to avoid. Today’s fields produce more corn per bushel than ever not necessarily because the ears are made to produce more kernals, but because more plants can be sown per square foot. Along with proximity comes disease, so they are bred to resist the pitfalls of monoculture. The NewLeaf potato resists its own bugs, and is therefore classified as a pesticide rather than a vegetable. As such, it has transcended yet another boundary ushered along by that architect of the taxonomy of the Agricultural Subline, Linneas.

The boxes into which plants are fitted, each according to its family and species give shape to nature’s messiness, and are just as rigid as a ploughed furrow. Folks like things that fit easily into pre-conceived spaces.

The lunchbox is one such space. Could anything be as far from the complexity of flesh as a circle of luncheon meat? There are people who have never known cheese to come in anything but square tiles of uniform yellow plastic. The deli counter is an emporium of sliceables designed to fit the dimensions of the sandwich loaf. What’s celebrated isn’t so much the flavor they impart but their ability to fit in. We tend to like our edibles to be predictable, reliable, recognizable. We have learned to trust that foods which come in a geometric form are safer than those which don’t — having survived the rigor of the factory rather than the vigor of the farm.

The palatte of animal fats pressed neatly into shape we choose from to layer between two slices of bread (as seen above) might be called the Lunchbox Sublime.

The Lunch Box Cookbook, Book Production Industries, Inc., 1955

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