Sunday, March 10, 2002

The Chinese Food System: a fearful tourist's fallible snapshot

The Buffet at the Beijing Marco Polo. Cadogan, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, and the relatively little known Beijing Walks all advised against eating fresh vegetables or cold foods in China. Sometimes the reasons given were relatively simple – that the state of the art in kitchen hygiene in China is still rather low, and the knowledge and awareness of the germ theory of disease isn’t fully permeated into the cookery culture. Norbert Elias has written about the revolution in sanitation in Europe in the late nineteenth century, the shit-phobia that had been instilled into the culture by the advent of the germ theory of disease invented by Pasteur and the public health advocates, and the elaboration of techniques of germ control and cleanliness to control periodic outbreaks of infectious disease. Northern China is now in the stage of this process that the Western World passed through seventy years ago, only it has had the assistance of antibiotics in moderating the impact of the message. Seventy years ago, western hospitality industry journals were advising hoteliers and hostel mongers to reuse all unused meat and other meal leftover in special dishes purposefully designed to recycle meal waste. Roast joints to meat dormers and cottage pie (at least in Great Britain).

Sometimes the reasons given in the guides are straightforward: 85 per cent of China is still rural and agricultural, and this system of agriculture, which now feeds the population, unlike in the past when it was unequal to supplying a smaller population, still relies on tradition methods of intensive cultivation, including the use of human honeypot waste for fertilizer in the fields. Human waste is a vector for disease; the continued Chinese use of human waste for agriculture at least poses a public health risk to the foreign traveler unused to the novel disease environment.

The Buffet at the Beijing Marco Polo. The advise given in the travel guides is simple – don’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled, do not use chopsticks that don’t come in plastic seals, and don’t drink the water (which is the name of a Woody Allen play that has nothing to do with gastric upset experienced by travelers in foreign countries – only potential political difficulties). Don’t eat foods that arrive cold. Pickles that are highly preserved might be okay, but might not be okay for other different reasons (the Chinese still use niter and saltpeter to pickle vegetables and meats). To violate these rules meant to risk severe illness. My friend Dave, when he was taken to Russia with a school tour group in 1986, said that the first thing he and the rest of his group did upon arriving was to drink the water and to eat the fresh vegetables – what fresh vegetables he could find in a Communist dictatorship with a dysfunctional food system – and only one of the ten in their group got sick. An admirable rate of disease avoidance.

Here in the US, in Minneapolis, the water system was contaminated by Cryptosporidia in 1997 and 1998, and Milwaukee suffered the same outbreak in 2000. People died of Escherischia Coli-contaminated ground beef cooked into burgers at Jack-In-The-Box franchises in 1994, and of Listeria-infected pork, chicken, and beef cold cuts sold by Thorn Apple Valley in 2000. With growing frequency, meat factory farms in Arkansas and North Carolina herald the glorious future of environmental problems caused by livestock manure run-off, while they pollute and contaminate streams, rivers, and lakes, and contaminate underground water supplies, supplies which are used to irrigate the vegetable fields and orchards of rural farmers in the South. People have gotten ill from contaminated fresh vegetables served raw in salad bars at Wendy’s – enough so that public health officials and doctors advise people with acquired or innate immune deficiencies to avoid salad bars or other kinds of public food buffet.

Despite the prevalence of food-related danger in the USA, on the whole, I took the warnings about the nature of food in China much more seriously. I think I took it more seriously because of the durability of the threatening images of third world Agriculture – the uncleanness, the fright of ill-effected sanitation, the ever-present honeypots. The images of the unclean street markets, where street vendors hawked skewers of raw chicken, beef, fish, and pork, food that sat out in the unseasonably warm air, exposed to the spattered droplets of passerby-shoe-pavement strikes, and the ever-present phlegm of the perpetually expectorating population (the pollution in Beijing was so bad that everyone, including myself, coughed out the airborne insults of the day at night into handkerchiefs.) China was an unknown place with inscrutable habits, lack of caution in the bazaars and the eating halls only augured ill.

The Buffet at the Beijing Marco Polo hotel. China’s agricultural system has three tiers: the first, most primitive, yet not the oldest, is the subsistence agriculture of rural dependent peasantry. The urban rural commercial food exchange system broke down at the end of the nineteenth century, and the social chaos which descended on China after the Opium wars and the rebellion of the Great Tai’Ping drove rural proprietors into an essentially subsistent growth regime. The extensive interregional trading systems which prevailed earlier failed in the face of tremendous rural population growth and land pressure, combined with a failing market for agricultural produce. Capitated taxes fixed in money could not be paid with proceeds earned on crops grown for steadily diminishing market prices, and retail inflation squeezed peasants pocketbooks. This dysfunctional system provided a way out – farmers simply grew enough to survive on, and no more. Under the communists, these peasants found their minimally productive estates squeezed by exactions of contributions by the state in kind. The Communist collectivization of agriculture killed millions, particularly during the Great Leap Forward and the subsequent famines. Communes formed from subsistence farming communities sometimes died out completely. Today, this agricultural system still prevails in many remote provinces away from the primary riverine trading routes – the thrust of modernization has not touched these rural holdings, despite the divestiture of the notional communes and the return of ownership, or at least proprietorship, to private hands. Productivity remained very, very low.

Deng Xaioping’s 1978 and 1986 reforms permitted the growth of a new agricultural system - or rather, the renewal of the older kind of effective intensive market agriculture. From the enormous holdings of communes in the fertile valleys along the main river courses, individuals, their families, or small alliances of families, recreated the intensive productive agriculture that fed the China’s burgeoning cities during the Song, Ming, and Manchu dynasties – an agricultural regime not based on required requisitions in kind in lieu of taxation, as the Communist state did before, but based instead on flexibility in crop selection, transport and marketing to regional population centers, with farmers keeping profits only moderately taxed by the government. Traditional agricultural methods have persisted here, too: the ruthless frugality of the traditional intensivist agriculture has been complemented by modern strains of crops and breeds of farm animals, and by the introduction of modern fertilizers and pesticides – the Green Revolution strikes China. Productivity in this system is higher, and it is this system that presently feeds the vast majority of Chinese. Its greenhouses, fields, paddocks and paddies supply the grain (wheat or rice), the fruits and vegetables, and the variety of meats that Chinese use to make up their diet.

The Buffet at the Marco Polo Hotel. The last agricultural system to be implanted inside China is the modern factory farm. Assays and attempts have been made to emulate the corporate farm in China for decades – one of Mao’s favorite communes, Dazhai, was built around a Soviet imported dairy and feedlot, built with the application of cutting-edge agronomic theory in the Taylorized matrix of Soviet mass-production. But now, a different force remakes the countryside, exciting high productivity, heavily capital-intensive commercial mass agriculture. This force would be McDonalds.

There are twenty eight McDonalds in Beijing City alone; over a hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises are in the Beijing prefecture. A TCBY sits close to Mao’s tomb. Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Bob’s Big Boy, and Schlotsky’s Deli complete the set, with dozens of outlets sprinkled around Beijing. One McDonalds in Beijing is the world’s largest, and the world’s cleanest, seating thousands – together they sell hundreds of millions of hamburgers every year – and since they are growing, they will be selling more. These western foodsellers require sufficient regular inputs of qualitatively predictable agricultural produce, since the importation of food is not only illegal but would also be prohibitively expensive. These chains set up, in the countryside, with select farmers chosen for their willingness to supply a new market, an entirely new agricultural system fashioned after the American model. Rural holdings were bought out and amalgamated into enormous factory farms, growing the tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and cows that McDonalds needs for making its hamburgers. Dairies and cheese packers were set up, supported by a liberal regime of loans from the state-owned agricultural banks, Taylorized to supply this insatiable market. Every technique of American agriculture is at work on these farms, which are, in dollar terms, are the most productive farms in China, producing the most predicable product.

That Buffet at the Marco Polo Hotel was of a variety and quality that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. The Marco Polo Hotel, on 6 Xuan Wei Men Wu Dajie, about five blocks from Tian’anman Square, is brand new, part of a chain of luxury businessmen’s hotels built in urban centers throughout the Far East. This particular hotel was built by a joint venture of the international chain and a public company owned by the Beijing City Development Authority, a state agency. It was opened and managed, while I was there, by an Australian expatriate. For the breakfast buffet, the managers of the hotel deployed a heroic variety of foodstuffs, from cultures round the globe: Scandinavians found smoked fish; Britons and Americans could wolf down traditional English breakfasts of thick-cut bacon, farm fresh eggs, Poor Knights of Windsor, and spotted dick; Japanese guests could eat sushi, congee, and a variety of soups and broiled skewered meats and fish; those whose palates turned to the Chinese model could consume traditional Chinese dishes, like fried rice and noodles; Germans found their rolls, aufschnit, and butter; the health conscious could consume from a variety of fresh fruits, breakfast cereals, western bread, crescent rolls, fresh fruit juice. The food met a very high standard of quality and freshness.

And there was a salad bar, with the whole variety of salad vegetables that a Westerner might expect in Europe. Clearly, in the center of all that plenty, the salad bar shrieked caution. I was surprised, what I saw the salad bar at the Beijing Marco Polo hotel. That salad bar symbolized everything that was full of fear in Chinese cuisine. The Cadogan guide was particularly severe- in no uncertain terms did it condemn the consumption of fresh raw vegetables from Chinese tables. If I wanted to contract a gastrointestinal illness or hepatitis or, God forbid, some horrific unknown viral disease of uncertain etiology, then I certainly ought to partake. These salad vegetables in glistened with moisture; they were freshness and perfection. They looked and certainly cost delicious.

It was a clarion call to the accumulated wisdom of a million turista’ed travellers gone before: “Do Not Eat!” (like the sign on the silica gel packets sold with moisture sensitive products).

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