In the 1989 movie "Say Anything," pure-hearted teenager Lloyd Dobler doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, but he knows he doesn't "want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed."
It was a manifesto then, and it is only more so today, bolstered by Eric Schlosser's fascinating article on the $1.4 billion US flavor business in the January Atlantic Monthly, which shucks away any remaining shred of illusion that the foods we eat are anything other than industrial products.
It shouldn't be upsetting, because anyone who has read a supermarket label knows how many inedible-sounding ingredients go into almost every can and carton, but it is upsetting nevertheless, which certainly is a testament to Schlosser's reporting and writing.
When he writes that "the New Jersey Turnpike runs through the heart of the flavor industry" and then ticks off plant after plant with names such as Flavor Dynamics and Frutarom, he begins deftly to sketch out how far food has come from simple freshness.
He reports from the laboratories, which is not to say kitchens, of IFF, the world's largest flavor faker, noting that the confectionary lab not only tinkers with cookies and candies, but also with toothpastes and antacids. He relates that the same stuff that colors food colors lipstick and mascara; it's all the same to them.
By the time foods have been frozen or dehydrated, many offer "a blank palette: whatever chemicals are added to them will give them specific tastes." We might as well be eating cardboard.
Still, it is hardly news that practically every bite of food - Schlosser says that $9 out of every $10 spent on food buys something processed - is chemically altered, so why the upset? Perhaps because it is another example of how, even though it is obvious that so many facets of modernity are fake, somehow it's possible to glide through this life thinking everything is real.
The spirit moves
What's real and what isn't is at the heart of another Atlantic piece as well. Charlotte Allen illuminates the Goddess movement, also known as Wicca, and argues that in all probability, not a single element of Wiccan lore is true.
The article is interesting and informative - it tells us that Wiccan services have been held on at least 15 US military installations, for example - and seems to assay the body of scholarship that debunks the religion's underpinnings.
But it doesn't come down hard enough on a couple of important points: How much fact underlies any religion, and does it matter, compared with how faith of any origin helps make life livable?
Harper's Magazine also appears to delve into the realm of earth motherhood with Elizabeth Nickson's visit to Salt Spring Island in the Pacific Northwest, which came to be considered, in the early '90s, a "female island," rumored to be populated by eight women to every man.
I can only say "appears" because the article's device, some sort of faux-Middle English styling, is off-putting, if not all but impenetrable.
Lloyd Dobler would no doubt have strong feelings about a coup-let of features on photography appearing in the latest issues of Vanity Fair and George.
Vanity Fair's approach is simple, elegant, and inspired. The genesis of the project, editor Graydon Carter writes, was "the realization that an astonishing number of great photographers of the last century are still alive." So VF went to visit Karch, Capa, Cartier-Bresson, et al., and found them still to be quite lively.
The piece is composed largely of one of each photographer's signature photos, alongside a portrait of him or her from today and a bit of copy about each. Henri Cartier-Bresson, 92, is not only a subject; he also took the portraits of three of his colleagues. All of the photographers, even 98-year-old Leni Riefenstahl, appear to continue to age well, and their photos remain ageless.
The December/January George features a photo essay as well, but it is from an entirely different era. The subject matter is the last days of the presidential campaign, and the photos are, give or take, very nice - basically what you would expect.
What's surprising, and dismaying, is that it is essentially a four- page ad for a certain camera manufacturer, whose logo appears on each page, and whose ad for its "professional total imaging system" completes page No. 4.
George calls it a "promotion," because if the magazine called it what it is - a rank sellout of journalistic principles - it would call attention to yet one more compromise of purity, although these days, it's not so much the compromises that wound, but those brief moments when the illusions they seek to create are laid bare.
How a writer writes
Terry McMillan, whose fifth novel, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short," comes out this month, gives this glimpse of her process during an interview by Patrik Henry Bass in the January Essence magazine.
"I take my characters and stories very seriously. I do extensive profiles of my characters before I write the stories. Sometimes their voices will come to me. But mostly I have to find out who these people are. Before I write, I ask my characters questions: Do you lie? Do you have a secret? If so, what is it? Do you pay your bills on time? If you could change something about yourself, what would it be, and why? I ask them about their education, the car they drive, everything. By the time I'm finished, I have a four- or five-page original employment application, if you will."