Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Vote With Your Fork

Don’t Eat This Book, by Morgan Spurlock, Read by The Author, Penguin Audiobooks and Books on Tape, 2005

A quick pre-review confession. It was about the time I listened to this audiobook, the companion piece to Spurlock’s award-winning and muck-raking documentary, Super Size Me, in which he lives for thirty days on McDonald’s food only, that I first had the idea of pairing my reviews, bundling each week’s offerings around common themes or genres or even on more tenuous connections. I got this idea when I walked through a Half-Price Books (or as I like to call it, Heaven) and I saw a cookbook entitled Eat This Book. Said I to the wife — well, you can guess. My thematic couplings turn out to be the fruit of just a cheap joke idea, like so many other things in my life.

The actual day, however, that I started listening to this book, I had on my desk at work a full, unopened bag of peanut butter stuffed Oreos that I was supposed to bring in to share in honor of my birthday. I looked at them hungrily and stuffed them into my desk, smiling to myself, rubbing my hands together like a B-movie villain, planning to slowly eat each and every one of them myself over the next two working days. By the end of chapter two, it would be nice to say that my better-natured angels got the better of me, and I set the cookies out for everyone. I did, only angels had nothing to do with it. More like the factoid Spurlock related of how ten extra calories a day will equal one extra pound by year’s end. I patted my tummy and got the bag out to share.

And that’s one of the things you’ll take from Don’t Eat This Book, facts, lots of big ones and little ones and enough accumulating scary details about the food we eat to hopefully make you think harder about what you put in your mouth. For instance, one study Spurlock quotes found that if you give someone a one-pound bag of M&Ms, the average person will eat eighty of them. If you give the same person a two-pound bag, they will eat 112. Apparently our notions of enough are proportionate to the supply. That struck me as I paused in front of the open bag and spread out plate of Oreos, taking a smaller stack in my hand than I might have another day.

As a companion of sorts to Super Size Me, Don’t Eat This Book treads much of the same material but also gives some background to the making of the film. Sitting on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner, Spurlock saw a news story about two girls suing McDonalds and when the corporate flak explained that Mickey D’s is good for you, is healthy, the lightbulb went off for him. He had no intention of becoming a sort of food activist until he underwent what he did, and we learn more about Spurlock the person and more about things surrounding the movie both before and after it was made.

Two specific points related to the movie that are brought up here that were given short shrift in the film are focused on McDonald’s itself, though the book delves more into the cafeteria school lunch issues as well as some corporate sponsorships of dubious provenance. As for the McDonald’s related points, Spurlocks notes, while reading the ingredients for Chicken McNuggets that they include “chicken flavor.” Which begs the obvious query, “Why is chicken flavor being added to chicken?” That’s actually a damn good question. Readers are requested to submit their hypotheses.

He also follows up on his experiment only shown in the DVD extras of the film where he put fast food in glass jars and let them sit for weeks. Fresh made hamburgers and fries from a little burger joint down the road rotted quite quickly, but the McDonald’s food lingered, the fries never once changing even remotely. This then segues into a story of a viewer who told Spurlock of how he once bought two burgers at the end of one winter, ate one, and put the other in his coat pocket for later, then forgot about it and put the coat away. The next winter, one year later, he pulled out his coat and found the burger perfectly preserved. The viewer kept this original burger and buys a new one every year and has a collection of preserved burger tchotchkes on his bookshelf. If that doesn’t put you off McDonald’s food, I don’t know what would.

While Spurlock does focus more of his attention on other elements, his real fixation remains McDonald’s and the anecdotes about that company stick in the memory most. Such as how McDonalds creepily set up a restaurant strategically close to the Dachau concentration camp to catch the tourist trade, and how they would leave fliers under visitors’ windshield wipers directing them to stop on by and have fun. Among the scariest tidbit he drops is that McDonald’s lists on their food fact sheet that there is no way to guarantee a single item on the menu is vegetarian and may contain trace quantities of meat products. Sprite?

In the second chapter on obesity and diabetes Spurlock simply flies at us with figures and statistics, in a kind of whizzing blizzard of numbers and increments, and while this information is frightening in its implicationts, it’s the kind of thing you understand better if you read it on the page. My head simply swam from numbers. What did jump out from all this was the fact that Type-2 diabetes used to be called “Adult Onset Diabetes” because it took so long to develop. With the skyrocketing rates of childhood diabetes of this kind, we no longer call it by its old name but the new Type-2.

For blame in this, Spurlock doesn’t leave out parents, but he claims they are facing an uphill battle. Faced with the ubiquity of advertising, such as commercials during cartoons that suggest Cocoa Pebbles is part of a balanced diet and candy is good for you, kids receive multiples of ten more pro-junk food messages than a parent can ever deliver in sheer volume.

And school lunches are no better; in fact they’re simply a disaster. Veeerrry loosely “regulated” by the FDA and Department of Education, school lunches have increasingly turned into the same kind of junk food bonanza for fast food producers. When Spurlock reads off the FDA members, it’s purely a resume of food corporation industry flaks. Showing how seriously the nutrition of America’s school children is taken, the cast of characters involved in the creation of the new food pyramid is a comical selection of industry lobbies, including the Walnut Institute and the Vitamin lobby that wanted a flag on top of the pyramid to represent supplements.

Each chapter of Don’t Eat This Book feels as if written in isolation with a few ongoing jokes to tie them together but long stretches of time in between the actual composition. Occasionally things sound too familiar and repeated. The overuse of the Homer Simpson phrase “mmmmm (insert food item here)” gets a bit tiresome. Spurlock also chimes in “Sidebar” every time he is reading one of the many magazine style blocks of text on a page that is related to the main body which is rather clunky for an audiobook.

His good humor, though, while presenting a welter of facts, is guaranteed to entertain, while the anecdotes are the kind of strong memory cues to help frame the overall thrust of each segment. Spurlock reads with his slight West Virginia/Kentucky twang, his voice even getting more country when he relates stories about growing up with his mother’s home cooking and the message he ultimately offers, about the growth of the organic food production, the spreading of the slow-food movement, and the public pressures being brought to bear on schools and fast food companies leaves you feeling better by the book’s end. There’s a lot of scary material to get through to get to that point, but in the end, if you liked Super Size Me, Don’t Eat This Book is a deeper, richer follow up.

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