Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast

An essay by RBM about whether American groceries and garden supplies should contain human hair appears in the spring issue of The Normal School. The story won third prize among research and reporting-based essays at the 2009 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in Grapevine, Texas. It also appears in the 2010 volume of Ten Spurs, the conference's journal. Here's an excerpt from "The Hair in Your Texas Garlic Toast":
"DOUGH CONDITIONERS" reads the fine print on a bright blue box of Texas Garlic Toast. It’s made by Great Value, or GV ("When Quality Counts"). Wal-Mart, the product's distributor, describes GV as the country’s largest food brand in both sales and volume, and in March, 2009 announced an expansion. "At a time when families need to make every penny count," explained a company press release, new GV product lines, including thin-crust pizza, would provide Americans "with affordable, high-quality grocery and household consumable options comparable to national brands." (The Hartman Group, a marketing research firm, has called GV a "likely to purchase" label that outperforms other generic brands marketed by Wal-Mart as well as Kroger, Target, Albertsons, and Safeway.)

One night ... my roommate grabbed GV's Texas Garlic Toast from the scores of vertical freezers that line Wal-Mart SuperCenter no. 2729. Minutes ago I heated a few slices in the microwave near my desk and began to eat lunch. And just now, the moist, salted crust has reminded me, with a twinge, that this is exactly the kind of bread long sought by commercial bakers. Peering closely at the ingredients listed under dough conditioners, just before sugar but after yeast, I spot a familiar term: "L-CYSTEINE." Later, in the Encyclopedia of Food and Color Additives (1997), I find an American manufacturing association’s designation for L-Cysteine, based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines: "status GRAS," or, generally recognized as safe.
To read free essays from the new issue by David Shields and Bob Shacochis, or (what else?) subscribe, visit the magazine's blog. For another excerpt from RBM's essay, check out this post.

Update (June 10, 2011) -- Journalist Scott Carney has just authored a 272-page investigation of the global human tissue trade, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers. Here's an excerpt from NPR's write-up:
In his book, Carney also delves into the marketplace for human hair, known as "black gold."

"It is amazingly valuable," he says. "The market is about $900 million around the world, and about 40 percent of [that] hair is sold for human extensions."

Many of those transactions take place at the Sri Tirumala Temple in southern India, where people give their hair to the god Vishnu as an act of humility.

"I went there about two years ago and had my head shaved with probably about 1,000 other people," Carney says. "These women came, swept up the hair and threw it into these giant steel vats. [The hair] eventually gets combed and sorted and sold at an auction, and shipped out to the international market."

Hair collected in a single cut from a person's head, known as "remy," is used all over the world for hair extensions. But the shorter hair, often shorn from men, serves a very different purpose.

"Most of the hair that gets shorn is from men," Carney says. "That gets sold to chemical companies and gets reduced to an amino acid called L-cystine, which is used as a leavening agent in baking goods."


  1. And to you, my friend, for a forthcoming piece in Brevity! Bravo!

  2. Hell, should be in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine!
    You'll be there sometime soon, Raul.