Rice as Self, Corn as Nonentity: Thoughts on Food Identity and Culture Inspired by The Omnivore’s Dilemma

You have to wonder why we Americans don’t worship this plant as feverishly as the Aztecs; like they once did, we make extraordinary sacrifices to it.

(Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma)

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I mentioned in my previous post that I am currently reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s universally acclaimed investigative expose/focused history/personal travelogue about food production in the United States. I recently finished the first part, which tells the sordid story of how corn came to be so ubiquitous in American food and other consumer products, often in sneaky and perturbing ways.

The book has its flaws, but so far I am very impressed with just how detailed and revealing Pollan’s account of King Corn’s coup d’etat has been. Specifically, the way he tracks and synthesizes various cultural, biological, economic, and especially political developments that all have led to corn’s rather ridiculously powerful grip on the United States foodscape is engrossing. It’s an excellent work of literary journalism, and more than that, it’s a brilliant work of food scholarship.

One of Pollan’s most interesting points about corn comes early on in the book, when he discusses how the Aztecs associated themselves and their culture with maize so strongly that they called themselves the “corn people.” Later, he posits a question: why don’t modern United States citizens consider themselves “corn people” in a similar way? Corn is overwhelmingly the most-grown and most-eaten (or maybe more accurately, most-consumed) crop in America; we get our corn not only from cans or cobs but also from steaks, chips, desserts, soda, beer, candy, and even seafood, among many, many other things.

Pollan’s (and some of his sources’) rhetoric about Americans being “made of” corn is a little annoying, but his point about Americans’ great intellectual disconnect with the food they consume by the hundreds of thousands of tons each year is extremely provocative. While he doesn’t really say it explicitly (or at least he hasn’t yet – I am only halfway through the book), Pollan avows an important conjecture throughout the subtext: the main reason most of us don’t consider ourselves “corn people,” or personally/collectively identify with any particular food is because we are generally so far removed from, and so complacently unaware, or simply complacent, about how our food is produced (he describes it, somewhat self-righteously, as “eating ignorantly”).

The idea of “corn as self” reminded me of Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s Rice As Self, a comprehensive history of the many important roles of rice in Japanese society. These roles have been economical, religious, nutritive, culinary, political, artistic, and ultimately fundamental in creating, in very real as well as symbolic ways, Japanese culture. As far as I know, most Heisei-era Japanese do not think of themselves as “rice people,” in the same quasi-literal that way the Aztecs conflated their social identity with maize, but rice is still considered extremely important. Many Japanese, including some of my young and increasingly non-traditional middle school students, name rice as their favorite food – and they eat it three times a day. The conviction that “Japanese people eat rice everyday” (or minor variations thereof) is an idea that frequently comes up in class activities; I hear it from students, from teachers, and, notably, from textbooks. To use Ohnuki-Tierney’s term, it is rather widely accepted that rice is the food of Japan.

In 2004, with the help of subsidies and tariffs, the Japanese produced 7,100,000 metric tons of rice – and they ate almost all of it, plus another 1,700,000 metric tons or so imported from other countries, namely China and the United States. That’s a lot of rice – a grand total of 8,658,000 metric tons. However, rice consumption in Japan has actually decreased by half since the 1960s, when rice consumption peaked after recovering from wartime economic problems and rationing. As the Japanese government continues to ease restrictions on imports and an increasingly adventurous and fiscally confident society of eaters ups the demand for foreign foods, rice is steadily losing its share of the Japanese market. Significantly, wheat is edging out rice at a very rapid pace – mostly in the form of awful industrial bread, the Japanese ate 6,040,000 metric tons of it in 2004, nearly seventy percent of total rice consumption.

But despite these trends, rice has largely maintained its status as the emperor of Japanese (agri)culture, and it is still respected as both a staple food and a cornerstone of Japanese civilization. Meanwhile, corn is rarely regarded as anything more than tasty among United States citizens. In fact, it’s hardly regarded as anything at all, even though the rate of corn consumption in America is far, far higher than the rate of rice consumption in Japan. What accounts for this discrepancy?

One important factor may be that when the Japanese say they eat rice everyday, they mean they eat rice everyday – not rice-fed beef, not rice-emulsified McNuggets, not cola with high fructose rice syrup, or even rice flour – they mean plain, simple, white (or, far less often, brown) rice. Most Americans do eat corn everyday, but they eat it in processed, perverted forms. We do not eat corn on the cob or even Niblets nearly as often as the Japanese eat steamed rice. The processing of corn, or any food, puts a certain distance between the eater and the actual plant, as Pollan describes very well in his book. It is easy to associate a bowl of rice or onigiri with an actual rice paddy – it takes a lot more imagination to see the stalk of corn in a Big Mac or a bottle of Pepsi. And it is easier to appreciate the plant itself, in all its natural deliciousness and nutritiousness, when you eat it in a relatively unadulterated form.

Another possible reason Japanese rice enjoys a degree of respect that American corn doesn’t is because many Japanese are still connected with the production of rice in some way. At the very least, rice production remains nearby and familiar to people living in Japan (if only as part of a nostalgic fantasy), even though Japan is now more urbanized than the United States. This is changing, of course, but you might be surprised at how short a distance you have to travel outside central Tokyo to find a rice paddy – to me, it often seems that there is no space too small or too inconvenient in Japan to stick a rice paddy (or an advertisement). I live in a city of one million people that sprang up around a steel factory – and yet I pass by rice paddies every day on my daily commute. And as for the Japanese who don’t get to see rice paddies in real life everyday, they can see them all over TV – most notably, as part of an imperial ceremony on New Year’s Day. Japanese rice paddies are revered and protected in a way that American corn fields aren’t.

But the connection to rice production isn’t just visual and symbolic; for many Japanese, it’s also experiential. In most Japanese middle schools (at least in Kyushu), students participate in some sort of school-organized planting and harvest at a nearby farm. If a school doesn’t organize this sort of communal farming, then they typically send students away on nōhaku, a two- or three-day homestay at a nearby farm to help out with growing crops. Both these events usually focus on a single plant – sometimes daikon, sometimes potatoes, and sometimes cabbage, but most often, rice. These sorts of programs are incredibly useful for instilling students with a sense of respect for farmers and the things they farm. Moreover, the fact that these kids do everything by hand leaves them with the impression that rice cultivation is a strictly premodern endeavor – a living history of sorts – even though today the majority of rice in Japan is harvested and processed industrially, just like corn is in America.

Looking at why the Japanese care so much about rice makes it fairly apparent why we Americans don’t care so much about corn: it’s because we don’t care so much about corn. We don’t think about corn, as a plant, as a staple, as a source of life and energy and culture, the way the Japanese think about rice. I’ve scoffed at Japanese who denounce the Western (read: American) diet and stubbornly stick to their culinary traditions. But those culinary conservatives may be onto something, for respecting food, in many ways, translates into respecting yourself and your culture. I hope Americans learn to think harder about where their food comes from, and I hope Japan doesn’t lose its culinary and agricultural ideals. I never thought I’d say it, but I can see where Takeo Koizumi is coming from.

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4 thoughts on “Rice as Self, Corn as Nonentity: Thoughts on Food Identity and Culture Inspired by The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. Megan says:

    What an interesting perspective to approach, comparing what you’re learning about in the Omnivore’s dilemma with your experiences with Japanese food culture. I think you’ve well-articulated a really truthful and intelligently-minded point here. A bit of info I liked in that book is how when tested for corn content (“you are what you eat”), American bodies reveal a higher corn content than Mexican bodies. Unbeknownst to most American consumers (myself included before I read this book), corn syrup and corn byproducts are snuck into our foods at every corner, to a level that compromises our health and diets. While I don’t see a lot of health value in eating white rice as frequently as they do here in Japan, I do see how having a national food culture depended on for centuries contributes to having a healthy population.

  2. Dad says:

    I eat Corn-nuts almost everyday on my way home from work.

    Mmmmm – corn!

    The corn comes from the AM/PM that is by my office (I think, at least that’s where I get the corn-nuts).

    I think that the Borg run on corn oil, high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol. That’s why they want to take over Earth.

    Live long, prosper and eat corn.

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  4. sdsdgasdgasd says:

    Rice as culture and identity is not restricted to the Japanese. many East Asian and other countries whose staple is rice hold a deep respect for it, and this continues even among immigrants who travel to other countries.

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