A few years ago, puppeteer-satirist Paul Zaloom performed Phood, a tongue-in-cheek paean to technologized foodstuffs, the script of which was based on some investigative digging Zaloom had done through publicly filed documents of major food companies. “I want the audience to sit down at breakfast,” he said, “and as they’re eating their cereal, wonder if the cake they had last night had beef plasma in it.”
After reading David Bodanis’ The Secret Family, I have to say that beef plasma sounds pretty good. Consider the humble jar of baby food: According to Bodanis, it’s common to start making baby food with a polymer base, of the kind that also serves as the main component of wallpaper paste. To cover that admittedly unpleasant taste, manufacturers add pureed tomatoesones that are “too decrepit,” in Bodanis’ words, to be sold on their own. Next, they add skimmed pig’s feet extract or the “scooped inner pith of discarded fruit,” whatever that may be. Enough already? Nope. Next comes chalkyes, the same stuff that covers the common classroom eraser. Then, to make the concoction even more enticing, portions of familiar livestock are added, though not the parts most of us are used to. There’s mucus-lined digestive tubing. And bowels. Brains. Testicles. Nostrils. Plus, for good connectivity, a random assortment of fats. Then, iron shavings are added for baby’s recommended allowance. And if the jar happens to be labeled “for the hungrier child,” it may also include processed cotton shavings, cellulose pulp, or dextrin glue (the stuff they use on the back of postage stamps).
Bodanis goes on to dissect what comprises other yummy treats, such as fast-food burgers, cheap danish, and even “fresh-squeezed” orange juice, which contains, he notes, “embalming fluid, varnish solvent, vinegar, and nail polish,” not to mention the enigmatically named “pulpwash,” which is what they call the water-laden secretions from discarded orange peelsliquids that can account for a third of the volume of some orange juices.
What’s great about the book is that one can almost imagine the author moaning, à la Homer Simpson, “Mmmmm…pulpwash.” The Secret Family could easily have been The Jungle, but Bodanis eschews the moral high ground occupied by the ubiquitous food police, the folks who regularly urge readers not to touch “buttered” popcorn, fettuccine alfredo, or Mexican food. Bodanis is just a skillful science writer with an eccentric sense of humor and a willingness to chuckle at the foolishness of modern civilization.
The frame of The Secret Family is one day in the life of a family consisting of a mother, a father, a baby, a younger son, and an anorexic, smoking, teenage daughter. The author leads the reader on a kaleidoscopic tour, as if he were filming a movie where the camera was constantly changing its magnification and speed to capture images at their weirdest. (Indeed, the book includes a wealth of striking color micrographs and close-up photos, though not all of them seem to have any point other than to look cool.) In Bodanis’ hands, split seconds can go on for a dozen pages. Breakfast alone fills a leisurely 93.
Because writing the book required a knowledge of biology, chemistry, astrophysics, psychology, and cultural historyjust for startersonly a few of Bodanis’ nuggets are familiar. The book is a fount of cocktail-party chatter and urban legends. I almost wish he’d stuck in a few fakes here and there, letting the reader guess which ones they were.
The book’s creepier momentssuch as when Bodanis explains how 400,000 mites can come to inhabit a normal pillowshould be great for the Goosebumps demographic. It’s the adult paranoids who must be kept away from this book at all costs. Otherwise they might learn that plastic bags leak oily residues onto bread crusts, possibly mimicking estrogen and decreasing sperm production. Vitamins, depending on the brand, may not actually be releasing any of their valuable minerals into the body. Photocopiers emit selenium and cadmium oxide, plus carbon monoxide and corrosive ozone. Dry cleaning is apt to not only provide a whiff of phosgene on “clean” clothes (that’s the World War I poison gas) but to send chemicals pouring into sticks of butter at supermarkets next door. Even something as harmless as opening an envelope will scatter “microclouds of cardboard rubble” that will inevitably find their way into human sinuses.
I do have a few quibbles. Some of Bodanis’ soft-science data, particularly the behavioral differences between the sexes, seem to be stated a bit too definitively; more supporting evidence would have been nice. In fact, if there is an overall drawback to the book, it’s that Bodanis provides no footnotes to back up the amazing allegations he presents. It must all be taken on faith.
But scattered throughout the book are some small bits of good news. Petting dogs exercises certain underutilized finger nerves, and dog companionship almost always results in lower blood pressure for the human. And pizza, if it’s not overly laden with cheese, can be a nutritious meal. But remember not to eat it in front of the television. According to Bodanis, studies show that sitting in front of a television actually burns fewer calories than would be burned while doing absolutely nothing. Now that’s food for thought. CP