Del Monte's banana processing building at China Basin, erected in the 1920s, between 3rd and 4th along Mission Creek. Photo: San Francisco History Room, SF Public Library, San Francisco, CA
It was the closest thing to an assembly line that I had ever worked. The complaints were the raw material. The final product was soothed feelings, assurances of quality and care. It was the production of ideology, really. Trust in the system, in the humanitarianism of big companies like Del Monte.
The production process? The mail would come in big bags early in the afternoon. Somebody would do the initial sort: promotional correspondence (things like people sending in 15 coupons for taco holders) off to the promo half of the office, boxes in a bin, rest of the letters to us. The boxes were gross. People would send back food, yummy things like TV dinners put back in the carton and mailed, worm-ridden prunes, cans of discolored Chinese food (love those rotting bean sprouts).
The food might sit in someone's house for a couple days, then be sent through the U.S. Postal System where it would be thrown about, dropped, stamped, crushed. It would reach its destination, only to sit in an overheated office for a week or more. We, the clerical workers, weren't required to open the boxes. The supervisors were supposed to, which was fine with us. The idea was probably that the supes were better able to deal with the health hazard of decay. Now and then one would go through the bin and try to stretch the distinction between a box and a letter, giving us the small boxes to be opened along with the letters. I let this slide just once before I began immediately and obviously dumping the boxes right back into the bin.
Not that the letters were much better. People felt obliged to send us the sticks they almost choked on, the "field debris" (worms, mouse carcasses, dirt clods) they found in their cans, discolored, misshapen pear halves wrapped in baggies and made even more discolored and misshapen by automatic postal equipment.
The department responded to an astounding volume of complaints. I was there in the slow season when we were handling 250-300 a day. The letters would be opened, date stamped, read, and then coded. In coding, we would write down Del Monte's standard name for the product and a code for the complaint. The can codes were an issue. The label asked that customers include the letters and number found on the bottom of the can when writing about problems. Encapsulated in that nine-unit alphanumeric code was the date and location of the packaging. Needless to say, consumers were very interested in cracking the code. People would want to know the age of some cans they had just bought at a warehouse sale or had found at the back of Grandma's shelf. No help from Del Monte.
The information from the coding would be entered into a computer. The computer would (1) compile management reports on all this information and (2) spit out a personable letter, supposedly from the head of the department but in actuality signed by anybody, expressing grave personal concern for the unfortunate experience and assuring intensive quality control. Coupons good for the purchase of more Del Monte products would be offered as compensation.
There was a bizarre schema for determining how much compensation the Customer would receive. For a 50 cent corn of peaches with a worm in it, the customer would get a $1 coupon if she noticed the worm upon opening the can. If she dumped the peaches into a pot and saw the worm, she would get $2. If the peaches reached the table, $4. If the wormy peach was dished out onto a plate, $6. If somebody bit Mr. Worm in half, she would get the grand prize of $8 worth of coupons. For choking, if done by an adult, $3 -- if by a child, $5.
When customers wanted an explanation, they usually got it -- but the explanations were disingenuous. We had form letters detailing the dangers of old, rusty, bent cans. (Surprise! Don't eat food from cans that are leaking and smell funny.) Another letter assured that canned fruits and vegetables were just as nutritious as fresh -- after, of course, chemicalized vitamins and minerals were added back in to substitute for those killed in the preserving process. The supervisors were trained to identify chemical compounds or different species of insects that might be found in someone's package. When the supes were stumped, they sent it off to the lab who could do chemical analyses or identify, say, a found bolt as coming from the drying machine for raisins. If a customer was really hurt, the complaint went to Legal so that they could fast-talk her into signing releases in exchange for minimal, but quick, reimbursement.
The response would be sent, and the complaint would be filed along with any materials that accompanied it. Squished-up pears, rotting worms and stale breakfast pastries would be stuck in the filing cabinet. The office reeked -- and this was in the winter. I understand that in summer the place stinks to high heaven.
After working in the office a while, most of the workers found themselves avoiding canned and frozen foods -- especially the "problem products" like cream corn or canned salsa. (I myself opened at least six letters relating how palls were cast on New Year's Eve parties when someone fished up broken glass on their tortilla chip.) Some workers frankly said they were revolted by the stuff. Some asserted that fresh vegetables were healthier. Others commented that most of the letters were from out of state; in California, though, we have a completely different way of eating (the snooty way out).
Whatever the reason, we were all alienated from seeing the problems of the corresponding consumers as our problem, too. We knew better than to buy the stuff in the first place.
A cornucopia of canned delights from Del Monte, mid-1990s.
I liked working in Del Monte's Complaint Department for about a week. At first, the letters were interesting, funny documents. Instead of being grossed out, unable to eat, I found myself obsessed with food. Reading about a freezer-burnt chicken pot pie filled with artificially flavored cornstarch would make me think of the wonders of a chicken pot pie done right -- a butter crust filled with chunks of stewed chicken and baby carrots in a light cream sauce. Returned cartons of Hawaiian Punch that looked and smelled like anti-freeze made me thirsty for fresh fruit juices, for bittersweet carrot juice, cloudy organic apple cider, bottled Napa Valley wine-grape juice. Letter after letter about shoddy canned vegetables made me hunger for crisp green beans cooked in butter, garlic and fresh oregano from my garden, swiss chard with an olive oil and white vinegar dressing and lots of freshly ground black pepper, or artichokes served with homemade mayonnaise...
But the amusement and heightened sensuality soon wore off. I became depressed. There were sad things, infuriating things, going on in these letters.
What were the letters saying? To paraphrase and simplify an idea developed by Claude Levi-Strauss -- humankind as biological beings stand midway between nature and culture. Food is our primary link both to nature and to each other. Our system for obtaining and preparing food indicates both our relationship to nature and the structure of our society.
Take this letter:
"Last night my husband came in from work late so I fixed him a 'Del Monte Fried Chicken Dinner.' He found a hair in the broccoli. It has always made him sick to find a hair in anything he eats. So that was my wasted money, time, and a dinner.
"He is on his lunch hour now. So I fixed him a Salisbury Steak Dinner. I'd been busy with my daughter and I really didn't expect him home because of the terrible weather. When he started to eat, he found a very long hair in his steak gravy. Well he was going to eat it, and ate the steak, but found another hair in the au gratin potatoes...
"Since this has happened, I'm going to buy Morton dinners, again." (Morton is made by Del Monte. In fact, the Del Monte frozen foods are supposed to be top of the line relative to Morton. So it won't do this consumer any good to switch.)
The classic working-class family: The husband works at some low level job where it's normal to go home for lunch. He is the breadwinner, the king of the castle. And out of utter gratitude for her state of dependency, the wife is expected to be his personal servant, preparing all his food on demand. Bad enough. But what about TV dinners? The foodstuff is of poor quality, the portions meager. An analysis would reveal high salt content (just the thing for that high blood pressure) and destroyed nutrients from the cooking-freezing-baking cycle (three, three, three processes in one!). And let's not forget the various unnecessary and potentially carcinogenic chemicals used to color, thicken, flavor, emulsify, leaven, preserve.
Nobody likes to find hair in their food, but why should it be so unexpected? To be sure, all kinds of disgusting things happen in food processing plants. Field rats go into catsup. Workers drop rubber gloves, hair nets and chewing gum into vats. A friend of mine worked in a Watsonville brussel sprouts factory where a junkie friend of hers barfed on the belt. My friend watched in smug revulsion as the vomit-sauced cabbagettes were packaged and frozen. (Aren't these stories oddly fascinating?)
The husband's horror of the hairs is embedded in the modern food distribution system. Until recently, meals were prepared in small kitchens by people intimately associated in daily life. If you found a hair in your food, it was Cousin Bette's, or maybe the landlady's. A hair in a TV dinner, on the other hand, is an anonymous yet intimate intrusion. It provokes a correspondingly vague-yet-intense dread of contamination.
This separation from the source of food and its natural qualities can take on absurd distances, as in the following letter:
"I recently purchased your product Del Monte 'PITTED PRUNES.' While chewing one of the pitted prunes, much to my horror, I bit down upon a pit -- you will find this pit attached plus the purchase wrapper.
"This pit incident has caused damage to my tooth (which is capped). I cannot predict the extent of damage until I see my dentist, however, when the pit made contact with my tooth, I heard a loud 'crack' and I now find the area to be very sensitive.
"As you can well imagine I am in great distress and would appreciate hearing from you as soon as possible.
"I cannot afford dentistry as I am unemployed."
The food companies can't even leave untouched the most ostensibly 'natural' foods. There are ways to eat prunes and avoid the pits -- you can hold the prune and just bite around the pit, or gingerly puncture the end of the prune and suck the pit out, or stick the whole prune in your mouth and chew around the sides of the pit with your molars. If you expect to find the pit anyway, you can deal with it. I read many other letters where people were similarly "horrified," "shocked"' or "appalled" to find a naturally-occuring part in their food. And because they really weren't expecting it, they often hurt themselves when they choked on a bean or grape stem, cut their cheek on a chicken bone, or bit into a prune pit.
We need to know what to expect from food so that we don't find ourselves poisoned, down with case of the runs, or unexpectedly drugged (what delicious mushrooms!). But we also desire variety, both for nutritional satisfaction and sensual interest. The desire for variety could be an evolutionary adaptation, enabling humans to obtain the nutrition they need in a range of environments. Tribal people, except in times of extreme shortage, usually have a varied diet obtained from small-scale agriculture, hunting, and gathering. One tribe in the Philippines can identify and use 1,600 different plants. Similarly, peasant cultures, though usually burdened by landlords, banks and profiteering middlemen, diversify their diet by raising vegetables appropriate to the season, gathering herbs, greens, berries and nuts in the wild, and hunting and trapping. The people in outlying towns and cities benefit from their resourcefulness -- witness a European or Chinese town on market day.
The food corporations flatten diversity. Choice and variety exist as an array of commodities. What we find at supermarkets is not real variety; the same things in different packaging take up large amounts of "shelf space." A standard American "junk food" item like chocolate wafers with "creme" centers is offered in the name brand form (Oreos), the competitive brand form (Hydrox) and the "economy" house brand form (Lady Lee, Bonnie Hubbard, Frau Sicheweg, etc.). In the produce section, you can buy the standard tomato, the standard zucchini, the standard peach. But a perusal of any seed or fruit tree catalog is a revelation. Every "basic" fruit or vegetable exists in several forms, each varying in taste, texture and appearance. Unless you have your own garden it's impossible to obtain the variety our agricultural heritage has to offer.
The Del Monte letters revealed a great deal of atomized, isolated food consumption. Particularly sad were the old people who would write about how they lived on TV dinners. Since they ate by themselves, they found the portions just right, with no waste or leftovers, and the dinners were easy to prepare. But TV dinners are not a healthy diet, especially for older people needing to restrict their consumption of salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates. These atomized meal preparations reveal the sort of community that people in our society age into -- none.
True, at least a third of the letters claimed a "guest" or "company" was present when food was found to be defective. Like the asparagus letter at the beginning of [the Del Monte Complaints]. Or this one:
"... Last evening I had guests for dinner. I was serving the fruit cocktail as an appetizer when one of my guests found this bit of extra on his spoon [a grape stem]. Needless to say, I was very embarrassed..."
But having guests was such a common claim that I suspect it often wasn't true. People didn't feel confident in asserting complaints on their own behalf. They needed a witness, imaginary or otherwise. Somehow, they were embarrassed about eating alone.
Meal sharing is a way of experiencing human connectedness -- care, equality friendship. From this point of view, the nuclear family dependent on corporate merchandise is clearly a failure. Inside it, people are bored, tense, harrassed -- like the harried housewife with her Steak Dinner. Outside, they are alone. The most fundamental human collective activity, meal preparation and consumption, is done in solitude, even after the preparation becomes strenuous and the consumption delicate, as it is for the elderly. In many suburban families, it is common for people regularly to eat their dinners while watching separate TV's, unless they go out together to eat.
The Price of Grain & the Price of Blood
The Third World is starving. Some would claim that it is wrong to be concerned with alienation and sensual deprivation in the U.S. when many people can't even get a minimal daily serving of rice and beans. Such an attitude fails to see the interrelatedness of the problems, how the same institutions are responsible for both. It also misses the possibility for a politics rooted in our daily life, leaving us powerless to do anything except donate money to this or that relief agency.
In Food First by Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, you can look up Del Monte in the index, and then go down the sublistings to find the sublistings to find out how the company usurps traditional farm practices in different areas.
In Costa Rica the company gives special loans to politically well-placed landowners.
In Guatemala, Del Monte owns 57,000 acres of agricultural land but plants only 9,000. The rest is fenced off just to keep the peasants from using it.
In Mexico the company pays the farmers 10 cents a pound for asparagus that it gets 23 cents a pound for in the United States.
In the Philippines armed company agents coerce peasants into leasing their land to Del Monte's pineapple plantations. Cattle have been driven onto planted fields to destroy crops, the peasants and their animals are bombarded with aerial sprays.
See also sublistings for Kenya, Hawaii, and Crystal City, Texas.
An anonymous source in Del Monte middle management relates a bit of company lore. In the early seventies, a new data entry clerk punched in the wrong destination code for a 480-boxcar shipment of lima beans grown in the Philippines. Instead of arriving in Japan for processing, the limas wound up, completely rotten, in Kenya. The company fired the clerk and cavalierly wrote off the loss as a food donation to starving Africa. Such charity.
A principal mechanism used for the destruction of native food systems is the conversion to export-oriented cash economies. The best lands are stolen / bought by the corporations -- or, more usually, by their agents in the local upper class. Companies like Del Monte serve as the notorious "middleman," taking over the secondary role of broker, shipper, packer, merchandiser. The displaced peasantry surge onto marginal land which is quickly exhausted, farmed to death. Those remaining work for wages on the coffee, cocoa, rubber, luxury vegetable plantations. They buy their food from stores, much of it now imported and alien to the native cuisine.
Here in the U.S. the best lands are obliterated by housing tracts, shopping malls, industrial plants. I grew up in the Marysville-Yuba City area of California. Dividing the two towns is the Feather River. Like the Nile, the Feather River used to flood once a year, depositing a layer of fertile silt. This silt built up into a topsoil suitable for wonderfully productive orchards. The area used to be forested with peach, walnut, almond and plum trees. Until the construction of expensive, ecologically destructive dams, the towns used to worry about rainy season flooding. As I was growing up, more and more of the orchards were covered over by housing tracts. Immediately outside of town began the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a region not as suitable for intensive farming but more pleasant for living (above the fog, below the snow, and with a view). And the foothills didn't flood. It seemed obvious that people should live in the hills and leave the valley floor either in its natural state or as farmland. As an adolescent, I would spend afternoons mapping such ideal communities, sketching in community greenhouses and herb gardens as well as libraries, theaters, and hospitals.
-- Mark Leger; this is excerpted from a longer piece "Dear Del Monte" that originally appeared in Processed World magazine #15, Winter 1985.
Utopian Food Fantasies
I still fantasize urgently about such communities. I imagine little burgs with lookout points onto the valley, parts of which are laid out for agriculture, parts of which have been reclaimed by nature. The housing tracts and shopping malls have been torn down -- the material from the old buildings has rotted away, been recycled, or been shipped off to the anthropological section of the Museum of Natural History in San Francisco. The orchards have been replanted -- but instead of miles of boring Elbertas and Freestone peaches for the canning industry, we grow many varieties of fruit. This not only enlivens our diet and prolongs the seasons in which different fruits are available, it ensures that entire stands aren't threatened by blights or bad weather affecting either certain genetic strains or particular times of ripening or blossoming. The diversity also satisfies the cultural preferences of the different peoples who have settled in the area.
There are fields of grain, again of diverse varieties and genetic strains. We never export grain though. Most areas of the world are regionally self-sufficient in staple agriculture, and have well maintained warehouses to protect themselves from food shortage. We do ship off a few regional delicacies like spiced canned peaches -- we had to do something with those old canneries! -- nut butters, a Chinese-influenced plum sauce, virgin olive oil, wine. But our exports are nothing we can hold anyone to ransom with.
Individuals or small collectives have trusteeship for plots of land that they work themselves. I and a couple of friends oversee an olive orchard planted on the lower slope of the hills, a prune orchard a little below that, an orchard of mixed fruits - -fancy peaches, kiwis, persimmons, other things we raise for the local market. Next to the orchards is an open cropped field that sometimes grows wheat, sometimes safflower, sometimes clover for grazing goats. The work required by our land trust varies from season to season, year to year. Things are especially hectic in late summer and fall when the olives need to be picked and pressed, the prunes dried and stored. We divide chores as best we can, but people have different capacities and other pulls on their time. Inequities happen, quarrels do flare up as a result and need to be mediated. Other collectives have been known to fragment in huffs of personal resentment.
We use a mixed-bag technology. Even if we wanted to use petroleum-based chemicals and fertilizers, we couldn't. They're just not available -- oil is too scarce. We learned a lot from the farmers on a work-learn excursion we made to Italy, which has a climate similar to ours and grows similar crops. A lot of the stuff that comes out of the transformed U.C. Davis is useful, too. Davis, previously a research center for agribusiness, is now a bustling study center for the decentralized western North America food production systems. But many improvement come out of our own experimentation. We own the tools and machinery that we use day-to-day. The special stuff we either borrow from the county warehouse or have brought in by special jobber teams that share in the harvest.
At home I have a vegetable garden shared with the woman next door and her daughter. Now and then I coerce my lover to go out and pick some squash or rake the paths, but he mostly likes to stay inside and read. Jeff is a teacher -- for him, dirt-poking ranges from tedious to uninteresting.
How do we prepare our food? Sometimes we cook at home, sometimes we warm up leftovers, sometimes we eat at the neighborhood kitchen. The cooking ,it the neighborhood kitchen is usually good, and the kitchen is a great place to catch up on local gossip and caucus for county meetings. Now and then, to celebrate, we eat at a specialized restaurant, where the real cooks operate...
A sane food system, both for the Third World and for us, would mean community responsibility for, and control of, local food production resources. To leave them in the hands of the corporations is to be vulnerable to their repressive and irresponsible economic, political and ecological practices.
Parts of such a sane food system already exist. In San Francisco, there are a couple of fairly good cooperatively-run grocery stores, a farmers' market where small growers can sell their produce, and a community garden network. There used to be a widely-patronized home delivery cooperative. These institutions should be emulated and broadened. But along with such worthy do-it-yourself projects, we should examine the land use in our vicinities. Our cities are built on valleys and plains that were once farmland -- land that should still be the ground of our sustenance. Possible activities to retake this ground range from organizing community gardens (especially in an urban area, it's a good idea to get the soil tested for lead and other chemical residues before you start a garden -- make the landlord pay for it!) on vacant land to fighting construction projects that eat into agricultural districts, demanding a redistribution of that land to small growers who use ecologically responsible methods.
People have a fierce emotional attachment to what they eat. Food is pleasure, security, cultural affirmation. A politics of food needs to account for all these things. Pleasure particularly is discounted in discussing food. Take pains with a pie for a party and you're immediately accused of being a yuppie. Propose that a group meet at a local cafe and somebody will assert that McDonalds is more working-class. Yet a reclamation of regional cuisine can be a motivation for a Third World people to reject the banal diet it has been forced to adopt since the destruction of its native agriculture. A similar urge on our part can be an enticement to the development of food distribution systems that supersede the corporate food industry because they offer food that is more pleasurable as well as produced in socially and ecologically responsible ways.
We also find pleasure in the communality of food -- sitting down and gossiping while peeling apples, hoeing a garden together, sharing a feast. Such activities may seem too homely for political consideration. But think about what it means to have these activities supplanted from our daily life in favor of the more quickly prepared, the more brilliantly packaged. There are many ways to be starved. Food is our primary connection to the world around us and to each other. Leaving it to the corporations is self-destructive in more ways than one. Establishing an intimate relationship to food is a way of reviving our own diminishing humanity.
-- Mark Leger; this is excerpted from a longer piece "Dear Del Monte" that originally appeared in Processed World magazine #15, Winter 1985.