“Sure, I’ll be back in a couple weeks,” I told Mrs. Mingus when she asked me to go grocery shopping. I hopped on a plane and flew to the States. Shopping for food in Tartu can be a maddening experience. If you have a specific dinner in mind, you need specific ingredients. Which are all, for the most part, available in Tartu. If you can find them. There is not one grocery store that has ever had everything I need. They’re always out of one thing, or another item has been discontinued.
Grocery shopping always involves a trip to Rimi, then Selver to get the thing Rimi didn’t have, then Kaubamaja’s Food World to get the thing Selver didn’t have, and most recently Retroo cheese—so vital to my preparation of Mexican food, and found only in Food World—was no longer made, and I’d remembered a possible substitute available at the first shop I’d gone to—so back to Rimi. All that driving gets expensive.
After flying for hours I landed somewhere in the American South and rented a car for virtually no money. Driving was easy because of the spattering of snow and near-total lack of traffic. I drove for a couple hours and saw a curious billboard with a bunch of flying pigs, advertising a fast-food barbeque joint called Maurice’s. I decided to give it a try. It was a good decision. I bought what’s called the Big Joe Basket. Hush puppies (deep-fried and seasoned corn bread, essentially—a Southern specialty), fries and Coleslaw were the sides. Coleslaw is the American version of the omnipresent Estonian cabbage salad. Shredded cabbage dotted with traces of carrot and whatnot—whatnot is also a popular ingredient in the Estonian kitchen, usually in the form of a leftover ingredient that by itself is not large enough to constitute an actual dish. A small handful of raisins, a half-eaten apple. In the States it’s usually mayonnaise, at least in Coleslaw.
Let us not forget the sandwich itself. Barbequed pork, in this case “pulled” pork, where the meat is ripped off the carcass and shredded after spending all day cooking in a hole in the ground (a pit barbeque). Then it’s mixed with barbeque sauce. At Maurice’s BBQ, it’s a heavily mustard-based sauce—I’ve had this sauce before, as it’s sold across the country. It’s amazing on any meat, and would probably do wonders for the Estonian mystery meat burger as well.
It reminded me of something. I glanced at the wall covered in pigs flying in heaven. Why were they in heaven? Oh right, I was eating them. And then it hit me—America! It reminded me of America. That’s a new place opened in the Sõbra Keskus (Friend Center) in Tartu, by a guy apparently interested in, well, America. His previous restaurant went bust. It was called Rodeo Saloon. The owner is also interested in poisoning his customers, as his fries have the largest concentration of potato spice outside of the Narva Spice Mines themselves. But the “grillburger” (yet again the word “grill” apparently means “beef”) deserves special mention. It’s the largest hamburger in Tartu, and probably the best. I don’t know what sauce they put on it, but it is very similar to Maurice’s BBQ sauce. Mrs. Mingus and I actually had a fight over who got to eat the grillburger, because I made the mistake of ordering their kebob as well, for variety. So the Southern States have Maurice's Gourmet Barbeque, and Tartu has America's grillburger.
This Maurice guy—the owner of the flying pigs restaurant—seems to be an interesting character. One of those guys who is stuck in the details of the past, incapable of looking to the future. In the unlikely event of the South actually rising again—successfully this time—he would be called a Founding Father and a patriot, and money would be printed and songs written about this hugely fat old racist who flies the Confederate flag at his restaurants in lieu of the American flag, but who can also make a very good pork barbeque sandwich. But until that happens, I’ll just think of him as the brothel owner from the movie Porky’s.
All this shopping for food and pork got me thinking about something I’d recently heard from an American friend—I’ll call him Mr. World. It is extremely annoying to watch the Travel Channel with Mr. World because he keeps shouting out, “I’ve been there!” He pointed out some interesting reads on the food processing industry. What you’re about to read may sound alarmist, but that’s why I’m going to tell you.
Supposedly three-quarters of the ground beef products in America (the country, I mean) have connections to one single beef processing company. They take the leftovers—the half-eaten apples—from slaughterhouses across the country and make a paste the industry calls “pink slime”. This stuff is full of ammonia, to kill off pathogens. Fast-food companies, school cafeterias and a lot of other places buy their product, and sometimes as much as fifteen percent of the burger you’re eating contains pink slime. In America at least. But I somehow doubt the European Union is much better.
In the United States, and for the moment that includes the United Kingdom—an EU member—if you criticize the food industry, you can be sued, even if you’re right in what you say and can back it up with fact. This is due to “food libel laws”, evil evidence of the lack of real free speech in the Free World. Hippies unite, right?
There’s a lot of talk of going green, an eco lifestyle and diet. Of course that sounds attractive, and I always love the Lettuce Ladies. Can you name one person on this planet who would voluntarily, consciously choose to eat chemicals instead of fresh, organic foods free of pesticides and growth hormones and antibiotics and artificial flavorings and preservatives? Well, that’s probably an easy one, but I mean a person who is more intelligent than a fruit fly.
The problem is, there are a lot of people on our planet. Somewhere in the neighborhood of seven billion. On a side note, Estonians should keep that in mind when they get bitter about Kristiina winning a silver medal in this week’s Olympics. As Mr. World wisely pointed out, she competed against the best of the best of the best. Hell, we should all be proud of her just for being good enough to go race in Vancouver in the first place!
But seven billion screaming, hungry mouths. It is simply not possible to feed them all without industry. For the time being, we have to face the facts: the eco lifestyle is a fringe society, available only to a few people out of all those who live in the industrialized, modern world. I simply don’t have the time or the land to be a hunter-gatherer. If humanity all at once decided to boycott any foods tinged with industry, we would all die, be it from hunger or economic collapse—again resulting in hunger.
People might find the pink slime story disgusting, but that’s only because we’re talking about dead animals and guts. If you can silence your personal biases against the meat industry for a moment, I promise you the veggie industry is no better. It is, after all, organic matter we’re talking about. Any successful farm buys poison by the tank to spray on your food.
Modern food processing might not be sustainable in the long run, but a system of private, organic farms feeding everyone is even less sustainable. Think potato blight. Think of progress. We might not be anywhere close to harmony and success as a species, but we’re better off than just a few decades ago, when famine really was a reality for a majority of the world population. We need corrupt politicians, greedy bankers and racist sons-o-bitches just as much as we need informed citizens, hippies and in-your-face vegans and Lettuce Ladies to fight them. That is learning. That is progress. Even the authors of the Bible realized that. Perhaps these food libel laws are necessary to prevent a panic and ensuing collapse of industry. This makes me think of a run on the bank. Remember when, in Estonia, a currency exchange company spread rumors of the devaluation of the kroon, and made tons of money? Instead of everyone studying law and economics, maybe we need more food chemists? To help us move past this unattractive step in our social and technological evolution. In the meantime, I’m going to eat my chemicals. I don’t really have much of a choice anyhow.
I’ve been hospitalized in Estonia twice. And while I was impressed with the care I received, I could not understand why they were serving coffee to patients in the cardiac intensive care unit. I also could not eat the food served. I would say it was not unlike paper soup, but I’ve never had it, so I can’t be certain. As long as we live within the confines of economics, however, paper soup will remain on the menu.
It would be interesting to see what would happen in Estonia if a Postimees newspaper reporter decided to investigate where America’s beef comes from. The place at Friend Center, I mean. Would this reporter find the same stuff? Maybe blue, black and white slime instead? Would anyone even care? Maybe Estonia’s burgeoning beef industry would sue. I think an investigation of Tallegg may be more relevant, but again—would anyone care what the findings are?
A Swedish friend once told me about “public” cemeteries in his country. Due to limited land, low-income, one-time clients would be removed (and the land “resettled”) after ten years of residency. In the past decades though, that residency has increased to twenty-five years, because the corpses just don’t decay fast enough. This is evidence of the despicable, right? Here’s the thing—worldwide life expectancies are rising.
I grabbed a bottle of Maurice’s barbeque sauce to take home to Mrs. Mingus. First, however, I looked at the list of ingredients. I fail to understand the difference between “natural flavoring” and “natural flavors”, both listed. I suspect one of them might not be exactly as they are described. And this, I admit, is the one major thing I despise about the food industry: the law requires them to list all ingredients, but it seems to apply only to the “natural” ingredients, including naturally occurring sodium nitrate. Every single processed product I have ever seen has a bafflingly vague ingredient in the plural. The public only needs to be informed if it doesn’t expose a secret recipe? That’s hardly consistent, but I suppose the secret recipe is so important to protect the product’s consistency?