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Just a Bowl of Nitrites


By Richard S. Weisman

...To paraphrase Justice Holmes, no one has the right to stand up in our perturbed and restless society and cry, without adequate cause, 'Cancer! Alarm! Cancer!'...So enjoy your food, and their [sic] additives, and get in the habit of eating a varied diet, and less as you grow older.

--Feedback, from Harvard University Food Services, Sept. 1977. Vol. II, No. 1, p. 1, quoting prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

SWELL JUST SWELL. Seven thousand dollars a year, and what do you get? Cold cereal in the morning (and don't forget the additives) served in plastic bowls, three bean salad, and, beginning last year, Feedback. And what, you rightfully ask, is Feedback? It would. I suppose, be too facile to simply answer, "Just what the name implies." It seems that the Food Services were recently bequeathed several million reams of top-quality 100 per cent rag content paper and have hired both a dead codfish and retired songstress Hildegard Knish (pronounced K'nish) to write their publicity releases. (Just how come the Harvard University Food Services saw fit to get into the one-page magazine business in the first place is totally beyond me.) Anyhow, it was all pretty noble when it started out (wasn't it called something humorous like "Between ME-N-U" --get it?--when it first appeared?): students--or at least what the Big Codfish claimed were students--would write in with questions like, "If you laid all the cholesterol in the world end to end, how far South would I-95 be backed up?". "Is there any cholesterol in those antlers that hang from the ceiling of the Union?," or "As a freshman with hardening of the arteries, are my chances of getting into law school at all diminished?" Questions like that. And answers that would make both Sir Walter Scott (Personalities on Parade) and Ann Landers quite proud, answers like "Yes," "Yes," "Yes," "No, not our lunchmeat," and "Eggplant." Rumors abounded that the Food Services considered the publication so successful (it seems that overzealous freshmen, mistaking them for Freshman Seminar applications, pirated scores of them from the Union at each meal) that they were thinking of renaming it "Cholesterol Quarterly" and buying out Harvard Magazine.

But hard times soon befell the kitchen brigade. Prices were skyrocketing on the Chicago commodities exchange, reflected, for example, in the one-week, hundredfold increase in the selling price of Polynesian Meatless Ball futures late last spring. Clearly, it just didn't pay to buy into semi-non-adulterated grains and lunchmeats anymore.

ON THE OTHER HAND. with all the clamoring from those damn-screaming-Naderites-or-worse-in-what-remains-of-the-New-Left about the "hazardous poisons" in our food, the price of additive futures plummeted and the Food Servicers made a monumental decision, followed by what was apparently the largest over-the-counter Sodium Nitrite deal in the history of organized chemicals. After all, a federal judge had given the Concorde the go-ahead to land in New York City, we could put a man on the moon, so why the phosphoric acid couldn't the University's team of Bocuse-trained, Michelin-three-star chefs get the green light on Walnut/Bac-o/Cyclamate burgers? They could put Tang and Xylitol in orbit, but why weren't they allowed to put them in the Union?

Ah, but I lapse. (Must have been something I ate.) Anyhow, last week witnessed the proverbial last straw. That friendly little Feedback had suddenly turned into a value-judgment spouting, semi-literate mouthpiece of the additive lobby. You've got to read it to believe it. It does everything from quoting the "prestigious New England Journal of Medicine" paraphrasing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes entirely out of context to in-pugning that "health faddist, Gloria Swanson, somewhat better known at that time (and before) for her dramatic abilities." It was people of Swanson's ilk, we are told, who had to spoil it for everybody: they lobbied for that silly Delaney Clause (banning any amount of known cancer producing additives from food consumed by American human beings) in 1958, and now look what they've done. Why, you can't even nosh on a sodium nitrite dog any more without coming down with a dose of what Feedback happily diagnoses as "cancerphobia...another serious and widespread ailment in America."

Well, I'll tell you...And to think that for all these years that we Americans were deluding ourselves with the notion that cancer was killing us, when it was cancerphobia instead!! Anyhow, when the Food Services were contacted last week and pressed to identify the author of this gratuitous swill, a spokesperson said, "No one wrote it." It seems that it was a slow summer in the Feedback mailroom, and so the Big Codfish and Ms. Knish were instructed to come up with a page of meaningful filler for the upcoming Registration Issue.

So there it is, staring you in the face at your happy, additive-filled meals every day, telling you to Eat Up! After all, people in "underdeveloped countries" would die to eat the additives you so cavalierly dismiss as "cancer-producing."(Oops!)

Anyhow, I really don't care what literature they put on the lunch lines anymore, but I suppose I do care if I know that I'm paying for it and that all I'm doing by eating lunch is paying for it again. I took Nat Sci 128 for a [decent] grade; I know that not all additives are bad. But I also know that most of the food served around here doesn't usually look or taste all that great, either. Why not eliminate the printing costs and serve french fries more often?

As for me: well, Mr. and Ms. Codfish, you can cat my additives for me. But, alas, upon sober reflection, I guess that in the balance, and for the moment, at least, I'm sold on Feedback in its present format. After all--it is good for something: as in their infinite wisdom the Cods have chosen to leave the backside blank, I was able to type this article on it. Also makes very decorative wallpaper for Spartan condominiums. But don't eat it: it may cause cancer.

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