Sometime in the late 80’s or 90’s the word MSG entered my world. MSG was reported high and low to do damage to something or other quite vital to the, you know, circulation of something or other on the other side of the spleen. What was more, it let bad cooking get taken for good, hoodwinking our tastebuds and giving credit where credit was not due. I don’t know how all this got started – a local news show, or an interview with the surgeon general’s deputy for sodium affairs, but before long the nation was in an MSG tizzy. Unfortunately, back in those hardscrabble days, we didn’t have ready-made “terrorism” to scare the pants off us. We had to be creative, I tell you; even if there was no threat from a foreign enemy our stalwart, selfless media would look for the next best thing: the foreigner within.
In no time, MSG had its fifth column within US borders: Chinese restaurants. Again, I have no idea how this information originated; even less do I have hard statistics on which restaurants in fact used what flavor enhancers. I do know that at a certain point it was common knowledge that Chinese cooks were sneaky. They didn’t play by the rules, and if it tasted great it was to be suspected. What was more, though the “problem of hygiene” among poor immigrants had perhaps receded in the public mind, the idea that Chinese would add something unhealthful to keep your business was accepted too easily to be completely new and original. The runaway car of current racial fear always thunders down tracks of suspicion laid down long ago. Signs began appearing in the windows of restaurants run by the inscrutable yellow race: MSG not used here.
It was all objective scientific inquiry, my rightist cousin might say. What does it have to do with race?
I might answer with a hypothetical possibility: let us say many diners serving apple pie had been discovered to add MSG to their pies, would the scare have sold among news editors? Would it have caught on among people? Would there have even been investigations in the first place? And as to the idea of race itself, it was originally a bit of colonial quackery dressed up in solemnly scientific clothing. Respected members of national anthropological academies strode into Afghan or Rwandan villages with pith helmets and knee socks and lined people up to measure their skulls. These scientists were looking, earnestly looking, for statistical physical evidence that such a thing as race – which they were quite sure existed, existed.
Just out of college I shipped myself off to Indonesia for 2 years. In those simple warungs MSG was sold straight, like heroine in scandalous little packets hung from the bamboo roof posts. I was shocked to see it hawked on TV – under the suspiciously Japanese-sounding name “aji-no-moto” -- and even more concerned to see unsuspecting matrons dropping teaspoons of it in their peanut sauce before serving it to me. But after 2 years I was pretty damn healthy, and I began to suspect the gravity of this apparently pan-East Asian movement to undermine our health.
Since then, I recall seeing an article in some mainstream (ie, right wing) magazine like Reader’s Digest, questioning whether MSG was indeed as dangerous as once thought, and I duly reported this likely corporate-funded research to my friends: only old people with kidney trouble might have problems, apparently. Now I am in Taiwan, 12 years after taking wing to Indonesia, here to patch things up with my honey and to do anthropology research on consumer culture.
Taiwan, for those not in the know, is snack food heaven. And, perhaps in keeping with its racial makeup (Chinese), MSG seems to be heavily used. I know whether it was used, only in the middle of the night when I wake to piss and my tongue feels like a loofah left 2 days in the sun. I have taken a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards this phenomena. In any case, I am not going to let loofah tongue get in the way of enjoying Taiwan’s cultural pleasures, especially the kind that melts on the tongue, or burns the belly, or cools the brow, or clears the sinus. No, MSG may make my tongue feel like a tire bald after 2 days straight on Interstate 80, in the summer, in Nebraska, but if I have to give up even one serving of luscious mi fen, or the tempting chang fen, or even the succulent ban tiao, with succulent pig intestines on the side, how would I go on? Will I curtail my indulgence in the octopus balls, in the Japanese creme puffs, in the oily but stubborn ba wan, in the shewarmas (how did they get here??), in the deep fried sweet potatoes or the chicken butts, in Gaoxiong-style lu wei (especially, please God no, the crystal dumplings)?? Absolutely not.
I did not leave America and come all this way to stay a suburban-style food prude, delicately staying within the boundaries of well-chaperoned (and deadly dull) processed foods. I did not leave America to eat McDonald’s pancakes reheated in the microwave 2 days later. I did not leave America to eat home cookin’ fresh from the oven like grandma (Sara Lee) used to make (in the factory). Nor did I leave America only to let my delicate eyes tell me I’d better not eat duck head or chicken foot because it doesn’t look as pretty as a digitally-enhanced Taco Bell ad for Exxtreme Kkrunch Chalupas. No. the duck stops there, at least for me. My jury is still in on that, no need for it to deliberate any further on the matter. I came here to go food-native, food-Casanova, to have culinary one-night stands of unprotected eating, and if that means waking up at 2:38 am with a badly worn basketball shoe sole in place of a tongue, because of MSG, then so be it. I am going food-native not because I am “anti-American,” but because I am most interested in enjoying the native food, and who knows this better than native people? And my goal is to enjoy it, to lose myself in it, to wallow in it shamelessly. Suburban food prudery is not for me.
It is unfortunate that people like myself, referred to falsely as “anti-Americans,” are painted as people who just can’t loosen up and enjoy our freedoms – including, I suppose, the freedom to eat factory food. But in fact, people like me are the relaxed ones, the enjoying ones. We are the ones having fun, not forever obsessing over boundaries, over “us” and “them.” We are not like those PC flag wavers afraid of losing their “Americanness,” like a person weighing himself every morning terrified of gaining 4 pounds – as if one could ever really lose one’s past. We are not religious about our country; America is not a religion, and nowhere does the word America appear in the Bible as a God to be worshipped.
Would you not suggest a Chinese visitor to New Haven go food-native? For only if said visitor were to do so would he find the joys of Louie’s Lunch, or Pepe’s Pizza. If he did not go food native he would spend his days in New Haven, forlornly, at the China Garden, 2 doors down from Louie’s, eating egg foo young without MSG. Which is perhaps the only thing worse than egg foo young with MSG. If he did not go food native he would be as pitiful as the American visitor to Hsinchu hunched over a parental advisory Exxxtreme™ Crunch Chicken Sandwich at KFC, a mere 100 second walk from the food joys of the City God Temple.
To cut back to the chase, as much as there is one, back when Chinese cooks were the boogeyman, there were no scientific studies showing how innocuous MSG was. In any case, at least since the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880’s and the pogroms in California before that, Chinese have been tainted with an aura of taint not too unlike that ascribed to other poor immigrants: with the exception that the Irish “race” slowly disappeared, and that of a “Chinese” or a “Yellow” race has not. Their writing, which is seen as the ultimate unreadable system, adds to this history of hatred, disgust, and suspicion. (Perhaps it is this very suspect opaqueness that is making Chinese characters one of the hottest recent fashion trends among urban lower classes.) If America is mythologized as the land of transparency and openness, how can people clinging to hieroglyphic writing possibly assimilate? It is intriguing that the Chinese ticket to America, like for Mexicans through the stomach, was the very center of the MSG scare of the 1980’s.
It is only when corporations need a particular scientific result that such results appear in an uncontested way in the public domain. If this were not so, then how is it that the fact of global warming is still disputed by cadres of well-paid experts? It is only because corporate power has not figured out yet how to make money from such a fact, so it remains a fact damningly “uncertain” (at least on network news), even as ice shelves the size of Louisiana collapse into the sea. I don’t suppose ice shelves could break up because it was getting colder, . . .? But no doubt an army of GM rent-a-scientists is trying to prove such a possibility as we speak, and making 10 times what I make for their heroic efforts on behalf of truth.
When Frito-Lays and Pringles and Doritoes decided MSG was the way to go for increased profits, a concerted campaign was mobilized. The poor Chinese, taping signs wistfully to their restaurant windows, had nothing to do with this campaign. They were just a bump on the corporate highway. The news corporations had decided “bad MSG” findings could boost their ratings, especially if it involved an immigrant group of another race. Now Pringles, another corporation, decided that “good MSG” findings could boost its sales. And the Chinese, despite their fearsome martial arts skills, could do little to buy up research institutions to promote MSG. In their foolishness they felt that their own business health could not possibly be seen as harming the health of ordinary Americans. They dumped their MSG containers in the trash and told their cooks to brush up on their orange duck sauce. But this is not the Pringles way. At Pringles, a healthy business means getting people to buy whatever we can convince them to buy, whatever the health effects. And part of that convincing is in the so-called “marketplace of ideas,” where ideas are freely exchanged and research institutions are freely bought and paid for – by ordinary Americans, like you, me, and General Foods! We are all in this together, even the Chinese business owner who has closed his restaurant and come back to Taiwan to open a KFC franchise. Well, maybe we are all in this together except for him.
It is curious that there is not a peep from the press about MSG in every other chip – and now Ranch Dressing – in the supermarket. It could not be about racism, could it? It could not be about corporate ownership of the media, could it? After all, any journalist is free to tell the truth, and free to get fired. No one is stopping him. Go ahead, Mr. Journalist! Fight the corporate PC police! I am sure all those Chinese cooks you slimed in the 80s for your courageous reporting will be there to back you up. They know the American way, which is this: buy up the facts if you have the money. If you don’t, duck and wait till it blows over. As for me, I will be here in Taiwan, loving the food, living it up, and waking up at night with the occasional case of loofah tongue.