October 23, 2002

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Look to the cookie

ON THE FERRY from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen (approximately Victoria to approximately Vancouver, British Columbia) we passed the time by eating cookies. The cookies were bought off the shelf for a few bucks at a corner market, but they tasted like the fancy kind that cost $1.50 each in our foofy dessert shops. Surely, I thought, there must be a secret ingredient, some miracle compound – one of those 2,4 disodium benzalkonium acetate formulations we try not to think about when eating processed food. I took the bag and read the list of ingredients and found the following: raisins, flour, butter, sugar, rolled oats, oat bran, fancy molasses, dried whole egg, salt, sodium bicarbonate, baking powder, natural vanilla flavor. It occurred to me that I have every one of those ingredients in my own, nonindustrial kitchen, though my eggs aren't dried and my vanilla is the fancy organic kind.

I grew up in a state near Canada, and for most of my life I believed that Canadians were basically Americans who spoke with an occasional, amusingly elongated vowel. But I don't believe that any more, because I have (per Jerry Seinfeld) looked to the cookie, and I have seen written there, on that apparently inconsequential bit of evidence, the different destinies of two civilizations – one dedicated to the well-being of its people, the other to the well-being of its businesses.

Butter in commercially produced cookies? Clearly a Canadian aberration. You'll find no butter in, say, Nabisco's Chips Ahoy!, one of the great American supermarket cookies; what you will find (if you dare to look) is partially hydrogenated soybean oil. And you will find that because it is far less expensive (hence, more profitable) than butter, and if its trans fats cause obesity and heart disease, it doesn't really matter, because American health care, or lack of same, is one of the last redoubts of rugged individualism. Nabisco doesn't care if consumers turn into blubber so long as they keep stuffing their faces with Chips Ahoy!, and our government cares only to the extent that the corporate health of Nabisco isn't compromised. Butter, incidentally, contains no trans fats; they are produced purely through the industrial manipulation of fats and oils.

I am not naive about Canada. It isn't paradise – it's too cold, for one thing. But the differences from the United States are stark and go far beyond having real butter in cookies to include an unswerving commitment to universal health care and a policy of encouraging people to live in city centers rather than sprawling suburbs. What kind of cookie monster wouldn't approve of all that?

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com