Saturday, February 4, 2012

What Your Church can Learn from Crisco
(and how Tina Fey can help)



So yesterday Annie and I are driving into the city late afternoon to pick up burritos for dinner when I catch this fascinating story on NPR.  It's the story of lard and why we no longer use it.  The piece - entitled, 'Who Killed Lard?'-  explores how this thing that everybody cooked with for thousands of years was abruptly and summarily ushered from our kitchens, ingloriously replaced by alternatives like Crisco.

The obvious answer is health - all those saturated fats - but it turns out that the obvious answer only paints half the picture:
  • In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote his famous novel The Jungle in which grim he depicts workers falling into tanks of boiling lard.  Nobody notices the falling workers, until they find their bones mixed in with the lard.  This had people thinking twice about Grandma's homemade pie crust.
  • Then, in 1907, a chemist working for William Proctor and James Gamble solved a problem that had threatened the viability of their business.  Proctor and Gamble had, to this point, made a fortune on cottonseed oils for use in soaps and candles, but electricity was fast relegating candles to the archives of history.  Enter E.C. Kayser, who invents hydrogenated oil.  You know, for cooking.
A little fine-tuning, marketing (thank you, Upton Sinclair!), and voila!  Crisco.

To top it off, hindsight tells us that the original Crisco wasn't healthier than lard: Crisco simply traded in those saturated fats for trans fats (which it not longer has).

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I think I find the story of Crisco so incredibly fascinating because it reveals the economic biases of most people with respect to supply and demand.  Most of us, as habitual consumers - trained to know that "the customer is always right" - therefore assume that products are supplied because we demand them.  The reality, of course, is more complicated.  And history is rife with examples like Crisco in which creative entrepreneurs literally create the market so that demand will follow supply.

Another example that has received increased attention of late is the story of corn after World War II:

"After World War II, the government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America's forests with the surplus chemical, to help the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on the poison gases developed for war) is the product of the government's effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, 'We're still eating the leftovers of World War II.'" (1)

Demand follows supply - at least some of the time.  And suppliers' motivations range are - not surprisingly - largely economic.

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At this point, you could make the case that purely economic motivations have societal inefficiencies, that these are exhibits A and B, respectively, and that this is a major flaw of western capitalism.  I won't argue that, but today I'm interested in something else: I want to look at the stories of Crisco and corn through the lens of what the theater calls improvisation; what Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Sam Wells call the importance of "yes AND..."  Say what we want to about the economic efficiencies, today I want to talk about the learning of possibilities.


"Yes and..." is the fundamental unit of improvisational comedy and all good story telling.  In theater, it's what makes room for unexpected twists that no one sees coming: like candle makers turned cooks because of the rise in popularity of electricity.

"Yes and..." is what Sam Wells calls the acceptance of givens.  You don't choose your story.  It comes to you.  You can block it or accept it.  To block is to say "no."  To accept is to say "yes."  But to say "yes and..." is to receive the story you've been given and re-imagine it in a way that makes a unique contribution to the story.  "Yes and..." is to say, "I might have started with something else if the choice had been given to me, but it wasn't.  These are my givens.  And these givens have possibilities."

My wife's friend has four children and another one the way.  Her way of saying "yes and..." is this: "What are my strengths in this moment?  How can I play to them?"  One day she was confined to the bed because of a bad back.  That was her given.  Her "yes and..."?  An afternoon of sheets and story time with the children.  They were delighted. 

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As a priest and pastor, I find that we Christians perpetually struggle to believe that we've been given all that we need to do God's work in the world.  There's never enough.  Of course, the Gospel's message is this: We have been given all that we need.  We have more than enough.  So we find ourselves at a fork in the road, needing to answer a question.  What if we have been given all that we need?  This of course, requires a prerequisite question of reflection: What have we been given?   What have you been given?  Faithfulness means asking this question often, as well as offering its compliment: "Thank you."

Christian faithfulness is a bedfast mother saying to herself, "Here is where I am.  And I have been given enough.  What are my strengths in this moment?"  "Yes AND..."  "Yes and..." This is the beating heart of faith, the moment of Christian courage; it's the work of the unpredictable Spirit, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, living and breathing and moving in you. 

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(1) Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/presence-jul06.html#ixzz1lQO1esmQ

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