Today's Question: How many of Michael Pollan's Food Rules can be broken in a chop suey joint?
Old St. Louis Chop Suey (83 Florissant Oaks Shopping Center; 314-831-7337)
"Help! I'm a prisoner in a Chinese bakery!" Was Michael Pollan's first writing job for a fortune-cookie company? The portentousness and faux sagacity of his Food Rules certainly hint at such beginnings. In particular, the ancient garble of Rule #24 is the kind of crumb-covered omen chop suey eaters immediately wad up in disgust.
Far Cathay may have been "civilized" longer than the West, but that doesn't prevent the People's Republic from lacing dog food with melamine in century 21. Why does Pollan conscript a confusing old Chinese proverb into the service of Rule #24, "Eating what stands on one leg [mushrooms and plant foods] is better than eating what stands on two legs [fowl], which is better than eating what stands on four legs [cows, pigs, and other mammals]"? (The words in the brackets are his own clarification, just in case you're as stupid as he knows you are and thought that "what stands on two legs" refers to an extension ladder.)
Why couldn't he just use a nice, straightforward union-made American proverb? Here's a good one by Mark Twain: "Eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."
The beef chop suey at Old St. Louis Chop Suey hews to the annoying Rule 24 discussed above. There are only six paper-thin slices of four-leggedness to the half-order; every other ingredient "stood on one leg": canned mushrooms, celery, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, carrots and bamboo shoots (some of which are so tough they could have been used as eco-friendly hardwood flooring).
So what rules actually get broken in this strip-mall takeout joint?
Rule #2, "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," is a definite bust. Too many weird vegetables on the menu (think of those tooth-chipping bamboo shoots) for most St. Louis ancestresses: The locals polled said their great-grannies subsisted on diets of "drippings" (recycled grease) and weevil-infested white flour and wouldn't recognize any vegetable but a potato if it popped them in the eyeball.
Rule #34, "Sweeten and salt your food yourself," gets flouted here as well. The etymology of "chop suey" may have been formalized by the dictionary -- from Chinese (Cantonese dialect) tsaap suì "mixed bits" -- but it's still code for "MSG Used Here." Monosodium glutamate is not recommended for those on low-sodium diets. So even if you don't pour on extra soy sauce, your food has been salted. As far as the pre-sweetened aspect of this rule goes, just order sweet-and-sour anything, then check your blood sugar an hour later.
It'll be enough to make Michael Pollan have a [what stands on four legs].
But fuck him!
And don't forget to read the fortune cookie!
Michael Pollan's 2007 best seller The Omnivore's Dilemma documented the industrialization of the world's food supply and whipped the foodie vanguard into a self-righteous froth. His encore, the "Manifesto" In Defense of Food, revealed the author as a proselytizing zealot/minimalist poet ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."). Then, in 2009, came Food Rules, an "Eater's Manual" of 64 pedantic edicts whose presumption will cause angry boils and cuss words to flare up in those who resent cultural fascism in any form.
This series of weekly blog posts, written by Gut Check contributor Suzy Rust, is for the free-thinking few...
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