Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Products of the Religious Life

No, I have not turned spiritual. I have not decided to be more receptive to either of my ancestral religions nor to join a cult. But I have become interested in the tradition of consumer products coming out of cloistered religious orders.

Someone gave us this rather strange gift, you see. I believe the gift-giver's relationship to this product is entirely serendipitous: she saw it, thought it sounded unique and intriguing, and bought a bunch to give various friends. And like her, I am intrigued. This product promises nutrition, weight loss, the reversal of a variety of middle-age-associated health problems, increased energy, digestive succor, and a sense of purpose in life. Here's the come-on on the outside of the package:
Those who eat at least half, but not more than one unit [of the product] for breakfast will be able to avoid lunch, restrict themselves to a vegetable salad with insignificant dressing in the evening and lose weight.

(Yes, Winnifred said. If I ate chocolate cake for breakfast, then fasted for nine days, I would lose weight too.)

This product, it seems, is made with hemp. Now, I am all for hemp seeds. I do believe they are a great protein option for people who don't eat red meat, and for people with allergies to more common sources of protein. I once met a vegetarian with an allergy to all nuts, beans, lentils, and most everything else that contains a complete protein. I wish I still knew her and could turn her on to hemp. But something about the packaging and typography, not to mention the expansive promises, made me think something else was going on; something non-scientific and possibly a bit fanatical.

Then I opened the package. Here is what I consider virtually proof positive:

The text of this flyer is reproduced here, but you don't need to read it to get my point. In my life as a shopper, I have frequently noted that products with too much verbiage--products that seem to not know when to shut up--are pretty much invariably tied to a strange religious way of life. There is, for example Dr. Bronner's soap products.

These bottles mingle existential messages ("Absolute cleanliness is Godliness! Who else but God gave man Love that can spark mere dust to life! Poetry, uniting All-One! All brave! All life! Who else but God! Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!") with more mundane advice about the use of the product ("Dilute! Dilute! Okay?"). Sad to say, while the screed-covered bottles remain for the original "magic soap" product line, new products are housed in tastefully simple wrappers. Dr. Bronner's family still owns the company, but none of them inherited his flair for ecstatic prose.

Then there is the Biblically-inspired bread. I am not kidding. We found this sprouted-wheat bread in Brooklyn and quite liked it. One day I noticed that the back of the package was covered with tiny print. I had thought is was a sort of patterned color, but it turned out the patterns was hundreds of words. Though not nearly as interesting as Dr. Bronner, it has a certain fervor:
Ezekiel 4:9® Sprouted Grain Bread is inspired by the Holy Scripture verse: "Take also unto thee Wheat, and Barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and Spelt, and put them in one vessel, and make bread of it..."Ez 4:9 We discovered when these six grains and legumes are sprouted and combined, an amazing thing happens. A complete protein is created that closely parallels the protein found in milk and eggs. In fact, the protein quality is so high, that it is 84.3% as efficient as the highest recognized source of protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. There are 18 amino acids present in this unique bread - from all vegetable sources - naturally balanced in nature.
[As a complete aside, I believe their recipe might be informed by a mistranslation. In my JPS Bible, the verse says "emmer" where they have "spelt." On the other hand, emmer is mighty hard to find, so the translation might be loose for practical purposes.]

Of course, there is a long and distinguished history of religious communities producing excellent items. In Canada we have the Oka cheese of the Trappist monks, traditionally used in tortiere, a pork pie (a treyf fun treyfland, we might say in Yiddish). And monasteries are famed for wine and beer. But while the orders selling these items may have wished that the purchasers would stick around for vespers and become better Catholics or drop something in the donation jar, there was absolutely nothing about the product itself that forced a sermon on consumers. There is just something about that urgency--that sense that they must impart these important life lessons and not allow you to wallow in ignorance for one moment longer than necessary--that they are seizing every opportunity to teach the unenlightened what they have only discovered through a long and possibly tortured road which others need not endure--which speaks to me of a proselytizing earnestness.

So, when I opened that hemp chocolate bar package (that's all it is, really), and that page of single-spaced type accordioned out in front of me, I thought, "cult." Googling up the company, I found lots of product information; several retail operations willing to send the chocolate bars to you; and this:
Rocky Mountain Grain Products (299614 Alberta Ltd) is a small Alberta company with about twenty employees situated in an irrigated, food producing area of rural Alberta. For the past thirty years we have worked with other local farmers to produce specialty crops on irrigated land. We have also designed, fabricated, installed and maintained the machines necessary to prepare a large variety of agricultural products for various markets.
This is far from proof of anything. But the evasiveness of this information (which is not in the package anywhere, their willingness to give lots of unsolicited health advice notwithstanding) somehow only convinces me further. A food-producing area of rural Alberta would be, let's see, anywhere in about 350,000 square kilometers? Twenty employees, thirty year old company, no web site? Hmm.

I promise to report further on the hemp chocolate bar (it's product name is "More Than a Square Meal"--I swear I could not make this stuff up), both after we've been brave enough to eat it and after I have consulted the business librarian at work about finding more company information. I will try eating at least half, but not more than one, unit for breakfast and see what happens.


Carolyn Jones said...

Dear Faith:
Hemp bars? Do you eat them or smoke them or what?

Javier Hernandez-Miyares said...

i love dr. bronners magic soap. he was a ferocious anti-communist and the new age mumbo jumbo is quaint, but the soap is luxurious. by the way, great post.

Carolyn said...

It's terrible when one's own daughter steals one's comments! (And you know who you are, Carolyn.)

Elaine said...

There has been a documentary made recently about Dr. Bronner
It does not seem to have gotten a general release yet -- and maybe never will -- but I'd be very curous to see it.