Of Plants and Plant Tours

I passed a theater in my town that was advertising a production clearly intended for kids: Jack and the Jelly Beanstalk. Talk about a literal sign of the times. Having not seen the show, I may be jumping to conclusions, but the substitution of Jelly Beans for Beans seems to express our present reality succinctly.

Wasn’t it perhaps felt that modern children would have little or no familiarity with a bean, let alone a beanstalk. But Jelly Beans would immediately ring a bell. And a positive one. It would get the little lads and lasses salivating to see such a play. Of course an edible stalk festooned with jelly beans would also make for a nifty prop.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a bag of jelly beans not far from where I presently sit. And Ronald He-Who-Could-Do-No-Wrong Reagan was crazy for them. I am not an organic food, no additives, no GMOs, brown rice, macrobiotic, vegan, locavore zealot. If is tastes good, I’ll eat it.

But it surely is true that a lot of packaged foods are obesity in a bag, the fast track to hypertension, diabetes and lots of other unhappy endings. In a taste test an actual fruit or vegetable just out of the field or fresh from the orchard is likely to trump something engineered to survive a 6,000 mile trip in a shipping container.

But even more troubling, perhaps, is the complete divorce of modern life from the reality of its underpinnings. We shop in gleaming, air-conditioned, controlled environments for food products that look like art objects or the sculptures on an auto showroom floor. Few pause to consider that silvery iPad comes from working conditions resembling those of medieval serfs or the shirtwaist factory where great grandma toiled.

As suggested above, these days relatively few urban or suburban kids have ever seen a beanstalk or planted one or picked the beans it produced. How many have hands-on knowledge (so to speak) of the source of that glass of milk? Or that hot dog or hamburger?

When I was twelve or thirteen, I got to tour a slaughterhouse and see dead cows hanging by a hind legs from an overhead conveyor belt. They came in one end and left deconstructed into vendible parts. It didn’t turn me into a vegetarian, but it did forcibly connect the burger on my bun to its living, breathing origins.

Presumably for legal reasons, the plant tour has gone out of fashion, but I loved them as a kid. I got to see steel being made, autos being assembled, but also Kellogg’s corn flakes being toasted in large revolving ovens resembling cement mixers, La Choy bean spouts being lifted from swimming pool size ponds by steam shovels, pickles being aged, bread being baked, milk being bottled all in industrial quantities. I was crazy for such field trips or roadside vacation stops,

Kids ought to know where the stuff they consume comes from, partly to appreciate how much labor and ingenuity lies behind every bite of dinner, the plate its served on and the device they play with while digesting. But also because connecting stuff with its origins gives them a just appreciation of how the world works.

A beanstalk is a kind of magic, but the actual cultivating, harvesting, getting to market and cooking of what it produces is the result of a vast web of economic forces, agricultural techniques, industrial innovations and culinary traditions. The humblest succotash or sauce pan reminds us men have taken the raw materials of the world and turned them into civilization.

In such contemplation a kid just might learn not just where lunch came from but some of the many fascinating things he might do with his time on earth. Grow things, transport them, manufacture the needed tools to do it or buy, sell and finance the process, cook things and invent better ways to do any or all of it. For my part, I wouldn’t mind taking a tour of a jell ybean plant. If only for the free sample at the end of the conveyor belt.

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