"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Brady Bunche And The Impact Entoleter

Brady Bunche was no relation to Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Prize-winning black statesman of the 50s; and anyone who understood the South and heard his syrupy Mississippi accent knew immediately that no quadroon, octoroon, poltroon, or any other kind of ‘troon blood coursed through his veins.  Far from it, for he was named after Colonel Lycurgus G. Brady who commanded the 11th Regiment of the Connecticut militia in the Revolutionary War, and was the great-great grandson of Lucius P. Brady who served with distinction under Maj.Genl. Theophilus Holmes of the Aquia District of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Confederate cause.  Few people had any knowledge of either the first or second great American wars, so assumed that either he was related to Ralph Bunche, or later on in his life that he had something to do with the TV show.

Brady was an ordinary plain brown wrapper middle-American who went to India to do good and became Children are Life’s Director of Food Programs in 1970.  His main job was to administer the School Feeding Program, a government boondoggle that purchased surplus agricultural commodities, hired food processing companies to mill the grains into edible flour, contracted Great Lakes shippers to haul the product to East Coast ports, hired New York longshoremen to offload the cargo and reload it onto US freighters bound for India.

It was a great deal for everyone.  The farmers sold their surplus grain to the Government for a price way above market value.  The processing companies, shippers, stevedores, and all their accounting, personnel, inventory, and legal departments took a healthy cut; the US Congress could crow about all the lives they were saving; and people like Brady Bunche could make a good living. 

The largesse did not stop in the US.  There were Indian longshoremen, truckers, warehouse companies and their legions of babus, accountants, and clerks who also made out.  The only people who didn’t benefit were the ‘beneficiaries’ of the program – the starving children who would receive at least one nutritious meal a day.  The children who ate the school lunch, however, were from well-off families who could afford to send them to school and not carry water or firewood or tend the cows.  Since the children ate at school, the parents could eliminate dinner and thus saved on two meals.  Cold rice and dhal, left over from the family’s evening meal, was the children’s very cheap breakfast.

Brady Bunche had a great idea.  He knew that insect infestation was a big problem in the School Feeding Program, and tons of food were thrown out each year because weevils, beetles, fly larvae, and all other possible pests got into the fifty-pound bags of processed food.  The bags usually made the journey from New York to India relatively intact, but once they hit the Bombay docks, the damage began.  Longshoremen used their grappling hooks to gouge huge holes in every fifth bag, scooped up the loose grain and loaded it into wicker baskets to carry home to their wives.  The bags that made it through the first joust of the gantlet, were pierced, stabbed, and pricked at every turn.  By the time they had travelled in the back of ancient Tata trucks, hauled onward in motor- or cycle-rickshaws, and left to the vermin of District godowns half the food was gone and the other half was infested.  In the monsoon, torrential rains would leak through the roofs of the warehouses and soak the corn meal, which the next day was cooked by the brutal heat of the sun on the zinc roofs.  The result was a gooey, gummy polenta which quickly began to smell like bad sour mash.  This is where Brady Bunche came in. 

He had heard of the Impact Entoleter, a genius of an invention into which infested corn meal was dumped, and a giant fan blasted insects, larva, weevils, rat hairs and droppings – everything that had infested the grain – into smithereens.  The corn meal blend, blasted insect parts and all, was repackaged and sent on its way to the Indian children in the nearby villages. 

The fan was not just a Godrej super-cooler for household use, but an industrial exhaust fan – a huge thing with blades as big as a jet rotor and an engine as powerful.  When the entoleter was turned on, it felt and sounded like one of the March tornadoes that swept across Mississippi and ripped down roofs and flipped double-wides from Columbus to Tuscaloosa.  The roar was deafening.  The tin roof shook and swayed, the benches and chairs bounced across the littered floor, and the door to the warehouse flew open.  It was like Armageddon.

In any case, the entoleter did its job.  When you cooked up the battered blend, you could taste no difference from the original.  The entoleter was so efficient, and the bits and pieces of roach wings and insect bits so finely powdered, not even a gourmet tongue would be able to detect anything funny. 

These were the days before transparency, informed consent, and all the rest of the bureaucratic tangles that were soon and inevitably to come.  American bureaucrats had no problem whatsoever rebagging the blasted food and feeding it to children.  They had been assured that with this nuclear-level treatment no side effects could possibly occur.

In point of fact, Brady’s American handlers could have cared less about his scheme and the food saved from the garbage dump.  Actually, they would have been happier – as would have their Washington patrons – if even more food was lost, wasted, bug-ridden, or destroyed; because then they could order more, and the farmers, processors, shippers, and everyone else up and down the logistics chain, would be happy.  They agreed to finance his project because even at its most indifferent to the foreign aid program, Congress occasionally did look at numbers, and filling in the line item labeled “Number of Tons of Food Saved” made them look good.

Brady Bunche was on a roll.  Not only did he import Impact Entoleters but the Clay Cooker, another ingenious device which enabled School Feeding Programs to centralize their cooking, thus ensuring a greater degree of control over a program in which 2 percent of schools at any given time actually cooked and fed their pupils.  The Clay Cooker was a giant pressure cooker – a gleaming, polished steel affair that glinted and shone in the sunshine.  In minutes the corn meal blend, mixed with oil and spices, was done and the result was a perfectly-cooked, fragrant, tasty mix that could be loaded onto rickshaws and delivered to nearby schools. 

This, of course, was how it was supposed to work.  Most of the time school districts which managed the program had no funds, so they could not hire rickshaws, and the tasty mix just sat in the Clay Cooker until it too fermented.  When the clerk finally got around to opening it, a foul, rancid and putrid smell poured out.  It was not the clerk’s job to clean the mess, so by the time he found the proper caste-vetted sweeper, it had become a vile, swarming, maggot infested mess.

Brady Bunche gave up after than.  Actually, like the government bureaucrats, he had no interest in product, just in process.  He was proud that he had brought two innovative, cost-saving inventions to India; and if they didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to, so what?  The bureaucrats were interested in getting the food to schools, regardless of how or with what result.

He went back to the States and got a job with the Animal Remains Association.  That is probably not be the exact name, but they were responsible for promoting the interest of all companies that processed cows, pigs, and chickens after all the edible parts had been dealt with, shipped off for human or animal consumption.  There is more to animals than legs, thighs, kidneys, shanks, and filets. There are hooves, beaks, and feathers among other useful bits and pieces.  Little children learn early on that old horses end up at the glue factory, and while they don’t ask why, it is because hooves are processed into adhesives.  Chicken feathers, when put through something like an impact entoleter are an important ingredient in foot powder.

Brady Bunche took to this job like he did that in India, and stayed with the Association for decades.  While his travel was not as exciting as that in India where he visited every state from Himachal Pradesh to Kerala, supervising his entoleters and cookers, it did take him to Tulsa, Dubuque, and Grand Rapids among other places.  He was able to wangle a few trips back to North Mississippi to see his parents.  He grew up on the prairies in the Golden Triangle area of the state, large tracts of pasture land that had not yet been encroached upon, and he liked to take a slow drive from Columbus to the west, windows down, breathing Southern air.

Bunche told me proudly after his retirement that he was the longest serving employee that the Association had ever had – less to do with him, he said modestly, than the staying power of meat-eaters.  “There will always be Prime Angus, pork sirloin, and grilled chicken”, he said, “and there has to be someone to assure that all their body parts are used”.

That would be a good epitaph, I thought.  “Here lies Brady Bunche. He assured that all animal body parts were used”.

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