May Contain Additives

“The abstractions of science are too readily assimilable to the abstractions of industry and commerce, which see everything as interchangeable with or replaceable by something else” (41).

Life is a Miracle (2000), Wendell Berry
Image by Hans from Pixabay

Strangely, since questions surfaced and circulated about chlormequat chloride in oats (and in, increasingly, in the bodies of people who have eaten those oats) a couple of weeks ago, it hasn’t been easy to find, much less to follow, that story’s diffusion. The Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology published the Temkin et al. article in February, and then USA Today‘s Mary Walrath-Holdridge authored and published a piece soon thereafter, “Study finds chlormequat in Cheerios and Quaker products: What to know about the pesticide.” When I mentioned in ENGL2014: Food Writing last week that I do still eat oatmeal most days for breakfast, only that I now take each spoonful with my fingers crossed, several new questions arose: What even is chlormequat? What effect is it having on mice? Why are we only just learning about this now? Is chlormequat chloride used on all oats? Just the cheap stuff? Just the stuff not otherwise labeled organic? I didn’t have many sure answers, but I said I would look into it and report back. So this is some of that; that, this. A writing teacher’s porridge, unsweetened.

Chlormequat chloride is a “growth regulator,” and something of a stalk straightening agent, as I understand it. An applied chemical, chlormequat chloride guides the oat plant (avena sativa) to an ideal form: vertical stalk, perpendicular to the earthen plane; no slouching; optimum height. The 2024 Temkin et al. article found that chlormequat chloride showed up in the urine samples taken from 77 out of 96 people (83%). Evidently, we don’t know a whole lot about the effects of chlormequat chloride on humans, but we can with a little bit of plausible extrapolation pause with concern for the what we do know about the animal studies in which chlormequat chloride does observable harm.

So while I tell myself I am eating delicious, nutritious oatmeal, I am probably eating something more like oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or oatmeal+a pretty good chance of chlormequat chloride. I make the cross-my-fingers joke as a way to cope with these unavoidable and late-discovered, later admitted additives; it’s not like we can confirm the presence of chlormequat chloride visually, much less pick it out. Still, we must eat.

Oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or how about we call it CC oatmeal, is merely another in a continuous stream of announcements about additives. Earlier this spring there was the cinnamon+lead recall, which I remember hearing about and wondering, how does something like that sidewind beneath notice such that we only learn about it when preschoolers begin exhibiting lead ingestion symptoms after snack. This week, Lunchables, a popular Kraft Heinz snack pack, have been in the headlines again, as Consumer Reports announced that these convenient miniature meal kits contain nearly the maximum allowable daily limits for sodium, lead, and cadmium–and this comes within a year of Lunchables ascending to the status of a bona fide lunch unto itself in the eyes of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines.

These formulations–oatmeal+chlormequat, MTCI cinnamon+lead, and Lunchables+cadmium–are biochemical realities. The cinnamon was recalled. But the Quaker Oats and Kraft Heinz Lunchables examples elicited the predictable corporate hedges along the lines of “our products are wholesome, verified to be safe and entirely obliging of all FDA standards.” It’s a well worn path and a familiar refrain, and rather than make this about corporate (ir)responsibility, I have been thinking about it in terms of how it figures into food anxiety, insinuating doubt and causing everyday consumption habits to punctuate, as an underscore would, with uncertainty. How much should we worry about this?, was another question I heard not long ago. I don’t know. The ‘this,’ is it really only CC oatmeal for today’s breakfast? Tomorrow’s? I simultaneously understand ‘this’ as also much bigger, about food processing and industrialization, a dying planet, a broken world. I really don’t know. And can only come up with maybe we learn to grow oats again. Maybe we track down some brown sugar and a dash of fuckitol. Maybe we continue to cross our fingers.

Comfort Inventory 10 ?

Shadowy paths near the Sycamore (is it?) between Henderson Hall and Squires Student Center, Blacksburg, Va. (37.229927, -80.416902).

Funny in a way not funny that the last in the series of comfort inventories was titled Discomfort Inventory and posted two years ago in April, a run-down of WTF holy-smokes how the heat then was a’rising. That playful inversion, comfort marked dis-, fuckered the numbering system so now it’s unclear whether this one is CI 9 or CI 10. Executive decision consulting with the EWM advisory board: I’m going with CI 10, so let the footnotes resolve that Discomfort Inventory Unnumbered also was counted. 

  • Owing to an upcoming WPA hiatus (or, more technically true, indefinite but careful and non-harmful evacuation of the role) I am at the end of June transitioning to the first email-unencumbered and otherwise work-appointment-free summer months in more than 14 years, the last ten of which were lurched along with one foot snagged in that bottomless and unpredictable quicksand of administrative responsibilities, late July surprises, and then some. Feels like something…different. Notably I would’ve thrown a handful of confetti for myself on-around May 12, but I was told I must oblige an unwritten rule that pins switch-over date on The Calendar at and only at June 30. Pope Gregory sighed in relief. 
  • Is it possible at the age of 48 to have (meaning host) new feelings, or feelings unfelt before? If so, I have and am in that standing aside from writing program administration has elicited the faintest of mixes. Not bitter+sweet only, though that’s a familiar sentiment and not entirely distinct from this particular structure of feeling. Easier to name, the bittersweet. We have the word for this paradox. Oh, your feelings are crossed up? But right now, these work-facing feelings are curiously small, faint, light, but also complexly mixed and parts wow-wonderful with parts whoa-startling—sort of like at the froyo bar where the eager but ascetic everything-topper only takes the smallest unit possible: a shred of coconut, a violet petal, a fragment of toffee bar, a speck of syrup-soaked strawberry, one boba tapioca, a sprinklet, sugar granule, a raisin if you must. Don’t overdo it. Let me not get too too too lost in these feelings. 
  • But then again I did order a chicken coop today to make better on a commitment to a different kind of holler life here in SW Virginia. I have the good fortune of working with a few chicken enthusiasts who are sharing with me and A. every possible angle to consider, from the hazards of automatic door closers (remember that Jim Johnson article?!; it’s sort of like that one fused with this one) to the predator barriers, to the problems and opportunities with chicken trucks/mobile coops, and so on. Get the heated water vessel, I’ve learned. Expect rodents to nosh the feed off-shed, I’m told. Park them under a canopy tree in the hottest heats of summertime. And so on.
  • We’ll start with six chickens. ??????
  • I received a Red Bubble take down notice the other day because the “rights holder” complained about one of my illustrations, from the Pandemic Bestiary, #18 Write (turkey hunched at a keyboard). The takedown notice, according to Red Bubble, was initiated by Virginia Tech. I contested it, of course, because I happen to have the Procreate file, which can play back the production process, and it includes the stroke count (1,082) and the time I spent on that drawing (3 hours, 13 minutes). I suppose it must be some sort of lax image-matching AI running interference on this sort of thing, and it turns out that it can be difficult to convince an AI that you are human, or that you, as a human, made something that to the AI’s still sort of iffy matching operations presumes your “original work” to belong to someone else. So it’s not possible for now to purchase a Pandemic Bestiary #18 Write sticker for under two dollars at Red Bubble. World turns. Loss of side-hustle counter-claim pending for .35 USD. Maybe I’ll follow-up on this, continue to chronicle the very low-level hijinks. Or maybe right along with that drawing everything pleasingly digressive and light-hearted and playful will be disappeared. Fun while it lasted!
  • For Monday’s Food Writing class we’re leafing the last of the semester’s readings, one from Savor, on apple eating, and another from A Pebble for Your Pocket, “Eating an Orange.” We’ll have apples and oranges. Write a 90. And maybe I’ll go one step farther, time allowing, with “Four Mantras,” because the opening line is in itself a simple—perhaps the simplest—theory of rhetoric: “A mantra is a magic formula. Every time you pronounce a mantra, you can transform a situation right away; you don’t have to wait” (111). 
  • In January, on a phone call (following an email exchange) with longtime mentor LWP, I mentioned this line about mantras. She reminded me that the most reliable mantra she’d been advised to recite as an administrator came from one of her mentors: Be kind. Be fair. Be brave. Even as my WPAing decade winds down, perhaps this one can continue to transform situations. Teaching preparation situations. Absurd takedown notice situations. Chicken tending situations.