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Food Fright

We've filled the oceans with so much mercury that a can of tuna contains almost as much metal inside as out.


After the first bad news about cows, eschewers (or is it exchewers?) of red meat found solace in the barnyard's other walking snack food, the chicken, along with her flock of relatives. But farming animals of any kind these days raise ecological issues, issues painfully apparent to anyone who's ever had to follow the smell of an 18-wheeler carrying hogs on Interstate 95.

Maybe you thought you could do right by yourself and the environment by going all fish. Not so fast. Haven't you heard? We've filled the oceans with so much mercury that a can of tuna almost contains as much metal inside as out. I hear if you eat enough halibut, you can take your own temperature.

Vegetarians and vegans thought they had the system licked. They sat back and laughed at the carnivores through mouthfuls of textured-vegetable-protein chicken patties, blissfully unaware that new scientific studies would soon warn of the genetically modified soy beans that made them. Oops.

The newspaper article recommended nuts as an alternative. Nuts, eh? Sounds like a plan, except for those of us who already eat nuts once a year, every time we accidentally gorge ourselves to the point of sickness over a crystal bowl of them at Christmas. Even if you can stomach a diet of mixed nuts, the problem is that too much of anything will give you cancer, or some malady, putting you exclusive nut-eaters right back to square one.

It's not just protein that's a problem, either. There's trouble afoot in almost every aisle. Most contemporary food, as we know, no longer comes au naturel. There are all kinds of weird words written on our food packages, but two seem to be everywhere: high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

The first is a result of government farm subsidies that originated back when farmers with names like Jones and Brown needed the money. But that was a long time ago. The result today is windfalls of cash for farmers with names like Archer, Daniels and Midland and an absurd overabundance of corn for everyone else. Bill Maher was almost laughed off the stage by Cokie Roberts last fall on his "Real Time" show when he dared to besmirch American corn by raising the corn syrup issue. Roberts' spunky patriotism for corn was cute, but wrong.

Corn by itself, Maher was trying to say, is a largely innocuous, though highly caloric, food that tastes great with butter and salt. Concentrating it into syrup doesn't alter its nature, but it does make everything in the grocery store glow like it was painted by Earl Scheib. It's also why we had to invent the term morbidly obese.

Its good buddy is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. This bad boy is made by adding a hydrogen atom to the oil molecule, or something scientific like that. For the layperson, the result is increased fatty taste without increasing the fat grams located on the nutrition label. They say the human body can just as easily digest axle grease.

Or maybe it's not bad for you at all, and the country is obscenely fat and getting intestinal cancer in record numbers because of, well, some other reason. It's important to note that at least one or both of these pervasive additives can be found in just about everything a grocery story offers. The industry might as well refer to it as the candy section, because the ingredients of most bread are not that different from a Baby Ruth.

The answer, obviously, is either a slow poisoning for those who keep eating or a quick starvation for those who want to stay healthy. I don't want to know what the alternative is. I'm afraid to look, much less taste it. S

Wayne Melton is a movie critic for Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com

Ralph Rocks!

By Lee Carleton

After twelve years in Richmond, I thought I'd seen it all. This is a great city and a wonderful place to live with an award-winning parks system -- but Richmond's allure has nothing to do with its leadership. But then again, maybe it does; I know plenty of people who subscribe to cable just so they can watch the circus that has been called the City Council. From embezzling reverends, to the PC charade of renaming of the Mosque, to exorcisms of City Hall, we've all been treated to a real show, but no real leadership. Unfortunately, this poor judgment and weak commitment to public service has trickled down through Richmond city government. With the new leadership in Richmond, I had hoped for a change, for better judgment and more relevant priorities -- that is until they censured City Parks Manager Ralph White.

If the rest of Richmond city government could contribute as much to our city as Ralph White has over the past 25 years, what a spectacular city we would have! Recently, citizen complaints of a dangerous crime wave of hedonism in the parks

(sex & drugs, who knew?) have prompted our ever-vigilant city police to "protect" us from this terrifying menace by promptly locking park gates at dusk. How does this make us safer? I only wish we could get the police to monitor the more real menace of reckless driving with equal enthusiasm. Two pedestrians have been hit near my house in the past year, and the only serious response to this threat (except for a police radar speed trailer) came from Ralph White in the form of yellow safety signs indicating pedestrians and a 15 mph speed limit in their vicinity.

Like any worthy public servant, Ralph White serves the people, not the system or its minions. So when he opened gates to city parks, for the convenience of tax-paying park-users who had been unnecessarily locked out by police, Ralph got censured for "insubordination". Don't the police have more important work to do? Doesn't our city government?

If you read Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Ralph did the right thing, the American thing. To be loyal to the people's needs over the needs of the system, to question the arbitrary or unjust exercise of power and to actively preserve our natural heritage are core American values - or at least they were. In matters great or small, our revolutionary ancestors would have urged us to resist such encroachments. Nobody celebrates the toady.

Ralph White has been a particular inspiration to me in the past few years, as I have seen him tirelessly working at all hours of the day, every day of the week. How many other city employees can say the same? It might be instructive to compare records. Anytime I've stopped to ask him a question, Ralph has always been patient, helpful and pleasant and that's more than I can say for some of the police I've encountered in the parks. Now the council wants to spend our money on high-tech automatic gates to stop this hedonistic menace -- funny the money wasn't available to pave the parking lots or maintain the trails. I say make the complainers pay for the gates.

It was our wonderful park system that first drew me to Richmond, and even before I moved here, I would hike on Belle Isle long before the Lee footbridge was built. I've been hiking on this island for most of the past 12 years, and I've learned quite a lot about its history and natural features -- or so I thought. Last year when I took a group of students on a Belle Isle history walk with Ralph White, I learned more in two hours than I had in 12 years of hiking.

The damp, raw drizzle of the day that we toured the island was barely noticeable as our city naturalist wove an engrossing and encompassing story about the falls of Richmond and their historic, geologic and economic significance. I was envious of his resonant announcer's voice, and as a teacher I was impressed with Ralph White's Socratic method of education, drawing students out with intriguing questions and linking all the parts of his talk into a relevant whole. Nobody loves or understands Richmond like Ralph White and few city officials have served us better.

When I began working with the RC Extreme outdoor program here at UR, we were looking for an opportunity to help support the parks. Ralph White, along with his assistants Mr. Burrell and Mr. Bruce, helped us to organize and complete a repair project on the Buttermilk Trail. Not only did our students get a wonderful opportunity to serve the community, they also got one of Ralph White's worthwhile and informative talks. We completed the project with tired bodies, grubby hands and gratitude for the service exchange we had just experienced. Sure, we were volunteering to repair the trail, but we got a great deal in return: the inspiring example of a true public servant and a true American - Ralph White.

Lee Carleton teaches English at the University of Richmond. His e-mail address is commentary@comcast.net

Opinions expressed on this Web page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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