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Review: King Corn


I’ve been wanting to see King Corn since it was released last year, but there wasn’t a chance it would appear in a theatre here in Knoxville and I missed the PBS broadcast here so I had to wait for the DVD release of this documentary about the current state of the American agricultural business. This past week I finally had my chance to view it and my reaction was, “Not bad, pretty good in fact.”

King CornThe conceit here is that two friends (writers Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis), fresh out of college and having nothing better to do, decide to grow an acre of corn to see how the U.S. farm system actually works. It turns out their great-grandfathers lived in the same Iowa corn town at the turn of the century (they document this curious coincidence) so they go back to their roots – their greatgrandfathers’ Iowa corn town – to lease an acre of farmland and grow an acre of corn.

The “boys” are personable, articulate, and appealingly na├»ve. They ask good questions, they don’t preach. There’s nothing overtly ideological in this movie. Even Earl Butz, the former Secretary of Agriculture who initiated the current farm subsidies back in the 1970s before resigning his post over some racist remarks is allowed to speak his mind.

They also raise some interesting points – again without judgment: “Just for moving to Iowa and growing an acre of corn the government was going to pay us $28 – we should have raised 1000 acres!” And one of the farmers they talk to says, “I guarantee, if you’re not in the government program you’re going to lose money.” It’s an assertion born out at the end when the two add up the cost of growing their corn and find the current market price is less than what it cost them to produce the crop. Fortunately for them, there were other government programs that pushed them into profitability. The point: The U.S. government encourages over-production, which creates low market prices, by using tax dollars to subsidize the farmers – and the farmers know it.

But even with federal government subsidies, you can only make so much unless you get into volume – serious volume – by growing thousands of acres of corn. There are no family farms out there in the corn belt, in fact one farmer, who leases thousands of acres of land (from former farmers who are now no more than land-owners) baldly states his preference: “Get rid of all the housing and you can just farm through everything.” Every time you have to turn your tractor you lose productivity.

In the course of the film, Cheney and Ellis speak to a rancher running a Confined Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) who talks about how cheap corn has directly led to industrialized animal production. They talk to a woman at a plant that produces high-fructose corn syrup (they even try making their own). And they interview Big Ag’s harshest – and smartest – critic Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food,

If you’ve read your Pollan you won’t learn much from this film. The film-makers don’t attempt to cover everything – they don’t address the ethanol issue and its impact on corn prices. Nor do they discuss the use of land that had previously been set aside in the interest of conservation being put under the plow because of artificially high corn prices. Nevertheless, King Corn presents a solid overview of the place corn holds in our food supply and its wide-ranging effects.

The “boys” do have a nice sense of irony so watching the film is a pleasant experience and not overly negative. The special effects consist of using kernels of corn, sheets of construction paper, and a toy barn to make some of their points – a charming wink to school projects. And there are several subtle and not-so-subtle references to Field of Dreams.

All in all, I recommend the film. You’ll enjoy watching it and probably learn something important at the same time. What more could you ask from a documentary?

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 8:00 AM | Permalink

Hell’s Kitchen


Against my better judgment I watched Hell’s Kitchen the other night and. It contained:

So much for “reality” TV.

Gordan RamsayOr perhaps it is reality in what passes for most commercial kitchens these days. But I understand Thomas Keller runs a quiet, focused, and phenomenally effective kitchen at The French Laundry. And probably because it makes great TV, the idea – instilled by many an egomaniacal cook – that abuse and teaching go hand-in-hand stays with us.

Judging from the show, Gordon Ramsay is a pig. A small-minded martinet far more interested in his power than in the food. I’m unimpressed with his skin-tight chefs’ jackets and even less impressed with his ability to motivate cooks beyond anything but terror.

I did my homework. I watched a full episode and forced myself to watch half a dozen segments on YouTube. Ramsay complained recently on NightLine that, “Unfortunately, today at the age of 41, my persona gets judged over my substance, which is really frustrating.” Poor baby. Did he think people would ignore his referring to people as “stupid cows?” In that same episode he balled out a customer who had the nerve to complain. Did he think we would assume he had ability when we don’t see him cook but do hear him have tantrums?

He went on to say of his critics, “Have they actually spent a 16-hour shift cooking 70 to 80 lunches, 120 to 150 dinners short staffed, fish cook is not turning in, produce inconsistent because of the weather?” In one episode he screams at a contestant who talked back to him that the contestant is rude.

Sounds like a whiner to me. I have no doubt he could beat the crap out of me, and only a little more doubt that he would, given the opportunity. Hell, for all I know he’s a decent cook, I just see no evidence of that in his show. And yes, I understand the reality show concept. But let me compare Hell’s Kitchen with Bravo’s Top Chef.

Watching Top Chef you get a genuine feeling for each chef’s culinary personality, for how they think about food. Sure, Top Chef also is mostly about personality, but it’s about everyone’s personalities, not just the odious obscenity-filled rantings of an egomaniac. Watching the show you learn why the chefs make the choices they do in ingredients and techniques and you learn why the judges reach the conclusions they do. Food may not be the main point in Top Chef, but it is an important point.

I hadn’t expected to like Top Chef, but a couple of fellow cooks talked me into watching it and I got hooked. The various contests are generally more realistic than I expected. They selected chefs who are good to begin with and over the course of the show you can see contestants getting even better.

The judging strikes me as knowledgeable and it’s formed by consensus – unlike Hell’s Kitchen where one madman’s opinion is the only judgment. I’m well aware that in a professional kitchen the only opinion that does count is the chef’s, but with no way of knowing whether I might be inclined to agree with the chef – or in Ramsay’s case actively loathing him – I gain nothing from his pronouncements. When the last episode of Top Chef rolled around, though, I appreciated the quandary the judges faced. And for what it’s worth, their choice of Stephanie Izard as the Top Chef made sense to me: I know I wanted to eat her food.

I don’t know that I’ll tune in to Top Chef again, I watched most of the last season and I suspect that was enough. But I do know I’ve seen enough Hell’s Kitchen to last a lifetime. Recently, poor little Mr. Ramsay says he’s going to avoid the telly in the future.

Apparently he can’t take the heat.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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