Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Broccoli from China

Hey Guys,

This is Cornelia, who happily just turned in the manuscript of her third novel tonight, July 1st--374 pages, slightly upwards of 77,000 words, only one deadline extension. It's tentatively titled Invisible Boy, and could well be available within the next decade, depending how fast I can get my edits done.

In the meantime, I'd like to introduce all of you to fabulous author Michelle Gagnon, guest-blogging here just before she sets off on tour for her SUPER fabulous second novel, The Bone Yard.

We just got to hang out in person at the most excellent Book Passage Mystery Writer's Conference in fashionable Corte Madera, California. If you missed this year's extravaganza, I urge you to sign up for the one they'll be hosting next July. It's an amazing, exciting, inspiring experience for writers of all things mystery.

Have a great week, and I'll be back blogging in person forthwith.

Please give Michelle a big round of applause, and comment below to make her feel welcome here among the Nakeds.

With no further ado:

I give you Michelle Gagnon

So I was out to dinner with friends last night, discussing a book we’d all recently read (Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.) We’d each come away with a newfound resolve to consume only fresh organic local produce, most of which we’d be growing ourselves.

Speaking for myself, at least, these aspirations lasted less than a week. I did manage to buy a bowl of basil plants, which are currently withering on my back porch. But as for my plan to plant tomatoes and green beans in our yard, my husband reminded me that our crazy neighbor has over a dozen cats who treat our garden as their personal litter box. He added that I haven’t watered our plants in over six months, and that raising vegetables involves weeding, tilling, and a number of other gerunds that currently escape me. That went a long way toward killing my appetite for green beans chez Gagnon.

So my new game plan was to frequent farmer’s markets. Farmers in Virginia, where Kingsolver lives, apparently don’t price gouge. She claims that organic produce costs her a fraction of what it would in a store, but tell that to someone hawking corn in front of the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I swear, a bar of pure gold would be cheaper. On top of which, it’s a significant drive from my house to any of those markets, while I can walk to our little corner store. And those farmers keep insane hours, I suppose so they can be in bed by 4PM and wake up bright and early the next morning to milk carrots or whatever it is they do.

I, on the other hand, prefer to start my day at the crack of nine, spend some time writing, then deal with dinner when the clock is edging toward 8PM. Carbon imprint concerns aside, the markets just didn’t fit my schedule. (Mind you, I only make it to that corner store when the rest of the family starts looking gaunt and hollow-eyed. When we’ve been reduced to eating old mustard spread on scallions for dinner, I realize it’s time to go grocery shopping again.)

So one of my friends says, “Hey, did you hear about Whole Foods?” which instantly pricks up my ears. I’d been feeling fairly proud of myself, I know Whole Foods isn’t exactly a farm stand but hey, it’s not Walmart either. And they have dozens of little “California-grown!!” and “support local farmers!” signs scattered about those zen-like aisles with their oddly muted light. So I was secure in the knowledge that by spending food dollars there, I was doing my part.

Apparently I was mistaken. My friend claims that those packages of frozen vegetables that I’ve been stuffing into my daughter, you know, the ones stamped “California Blend” on the outside? Are actually being imported from China. That’s right, China. If they’ve been putting lead into the toys, can you even imagine what they’ve done to the food?

When shopping, I look for the Made in America label, but I was raised by a die-hard bargain hunter. When you ask where I got that great shirt, more likely than not I’ll say, “H & M! And it was only ten dollars!” And stuff that was made here? Generally not so cheap. So I’m as guilty as anyone else.

But on the list of Chinese-produced items I’ll happily fork over cash for, food is absolutely not among them, at least not after the recent news stories. Anyone remember the antifreeze-in-toothpaste episode? Or how about the tainted pet food scare? Ninety-six percent of last year’s recalled toys harkened from China. And now they’re responsible for what I thought was health food?!

Here’s a fun statistic from the Washington Post:

“By value, China is the world's No. 1 exporter of fruits and vegetables, and a major exporter of other food and food products, which vary widely, from apple juice to sausage casings and garlic. China's agricultural exports to the United States surged to $2.26 billion last year, according to U.S. figures -- more than 20 times the $133 million of 1980. The United States subjects only a small fraction of its food imports to close inspection, but each month rejects about 200 shipments from China, mostly because of concerns about pesticides and antibiotics and about misleading labeling. In February, border inspectors for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked peas tainted by pesticides, dried white plums containing banned additives, pepper contaminated with salmonella and frozen crawfish that were filthy.”

Now I’d argue that crawfish are filthy bottom-feeders regardless, but that’s beside the point. I had no idea that a good chunk of the food on my dinner plate came by boat from Shanghai.

My friend’s father does quality control for a handbag company in Hong Kong, and he is apparently a busy, busy man. He cycles through 12 factories making surprise visits, and at each and every stop finds that things have gone horribly awry. Rather than the glue he sent them, they’re using something that causes workers to break out in rashes. There’s corruption on every level, misuse of resources, dangerous work environments…and mind you, this is with purses. I’m not afraid to own a purse that failed quality control, the handle might fall off but chances are that won’t be life-threatening. But broccoli, on the other hand: that could kill you.

So what’s the moral to the story? I’m sucking it up, setting my alarm, opening my wallet and devoting a chunk of my writing time to cruising farmer’s markets. I might even grit my teeth and go water that basil plant. And as for you, Whole Foods—I feel so betrayed, you turned out to be just like my college boyfriend: good-looking and seemingly sincere, but sleeping with my friend on the side. Shame on you.

So, has a purse ever threatened your life? Where do you stand on Chinese pepper (and salmonella that adds a certain je ne sais quoi…)? And is anyone else in the mood to lead a torch-wielding mob to Whole Foods corporate headquarters? Best answer receives an autographed edition of my first book, The Tunnels. If you don’t win, console yourself by signing up for my newsletter at www.michellegagnon.com and I’ll toss your name in the hat for an Amazon Kindle, iPod Shuffle, Starbucks gift certificates, and other fabulous prizes that more likely than not arrived on our shores via cargo container.

Michelle Gagnon is a former modern dancer, bartender, dog walker, model, personal trainer, and Russian supper club performer. Her debut thriller THE TUNNELS was an IMBA bestseller. Her next book, BONEYARD, depicts a cat-and-mouse game between dueling serial killers. In her spare time she runs errands and wonders how crawfish got to China in the first place.


  1. While in Shanghai, I was considering a purchase of a like souvenir for the folks back home. I picked up something and turned it over to see where it was made. It read,"just around the corner."

    Always nice to have a guest blogger, but I know that myself, T.O., et al are hoping you'll stick around and share Perestroika pie with us.
    With such a glowing review from Cornelia, you're book just HAS TO BE GOOD.


  2. sorry for typo I meant little souvenir

  3. Welcome, Michele! And congrats on the new book. I'm still mourning the loss of tomatoes, which still have not returned to my local grocery store. Not China's fault this time, however.

  4. I wouldn't poo-poo the cat poo in the garden. For her science fair project in May, my daughter tested the pH balance in our garden and used five different organic materials to see how they affected the pH balance. One of them was cat poo from our cats' litter box. The cat poo was the best fertilizer out of the bunch, and our tomato plants are growing like crazy.

  5. Congratulatons, Miss Cornelia!

    And hi, Michelle! Nice to see you here.

    Farmers markets? Whole Paycheck? Not my scene. Safeway delivers, the pizza place delivers, it's all good.


  6. Congrats, Cornelia. And Welcome, Michelle!!

    I started growing herbs a few years ago. I had a miss or two with dead, underwatered plants early on. The past couple have been good herb years. This year, I decided I must start my own organic garden to reduce trips to the grocery store (saving gas) and for the quality of produce and as a sort of get us out of the war statement. Unbelievably, only one plant is struggling. The others are exceeding growing expectations. I'm already planning a bigger garden next year.

    I never thought I'd be able to grow anything. It's one of the most satisfying projects I've ever taken on. And I learned that the veggies (really fruit) grow where flowers have been. And some of the prettiest plants have prickly stems that almost sting when you touch them.

    I am heartbroken to hear that Whole Foods isn't what I thought. I'll have to look closer at what I buy.


  7. In our apartment, I have a tomato plant (which has so far produced two whole tomatoes) and my roommate has some basil. We could almost have a caprese salad, if only we could find somewhere to keep the cow.

  8. Way to go, Cornelia! Please hurry with the edits.

    Welcome, Michelle. How brave you are! I thought our Leader had issued instructions not to offend China....

    I have had a near-death experience with a purser who pursed his lips when he overheard me refer to him as a sissy, whereupon he hit me with his purse.

    I recently read that many, many food items are shipped from the U.S. to China for final processing, additives, and whatever, then shipped back here and are thus entitled to be labeled "Grown in U.S." and other such labels that infer assurance of U.S. "quality" (slipping a bit, though, isn't it?), wholesomeness, etc.

    Can't grow my own though--I'm the only person in the known world to have killed a Century Plant.

    I will join the peasants, farmers, and citizens at any time for a torchlit assault on Herr Frankenstein's Whole Food castle. Name the time and place.

    Come back and see us some time.

    Tom, T.O.

  9. YAY Cornelia! Way to go! And thanks for the great guest post, Michele.

  10. Cornelia, Congrats on the book.

    Michelle is a good writer and good sport. I had the pleasure of meeting her at last year's Thrillerfest.


  11. Yay, Cornelia!! I can't wait!

    Michelle, hello and welcome! I'd offer to bring you some of our homegrown rosemary when you come in to the shop, but knowing the lunatics at the airport, you'd get busted for a "controlled substance". Have fun at the market. I suspect you'll find treasures there you never expected to find.

    Now, back to this book I'm partway through and gonna review next week. Something about a bunch of bones along the Appalachian trail. . .

  12. I'm still confused.

    "Edits"? Woman-- if you would just write it right the FIRST time, you'd not need to go back and re-do stuff.

    And yes, I am Mary friggin Poppins on the keyboard-- practically perfect in every way.

    Hi, Michele. Ignore me. Everyone else does.
    B (needing beers by the bushel)

  13. Hi everyone! I've been internet free for a few days, celebrating yet another birthday in a location that has not yet been introduced to the wonders of the 21st century (such as wireless access). Oh well, probably good for me to cut the cord every once in awhile. Congrats to Cornelia- hope you took time to celebrate! And Tom, you're 100% right about the
    "grown in the USA" label. Appalling. This week we're staying with friends who grow a lot of their own food, so for these few days at least I feel pure...