Plastic Houses

November 23, 2014

There’s an old saying to the effect that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Good advice for bloggers, I think. If you are “out there” and visible, you should think twice about digging in to someone for something that you could be dug into yourself. There’s also a variation on the adage that has something to do with grass houses and ends with the admonition “…shouldn’t stow thrones.” Figuring out what that has to do with a food ethics blog would be a fine tangent for this week, don’t you think?

But as has become my custom of late, I resist the temptation to make sense of that to get right along with the main theme for the week, which has nothing to do with bloggers who expose their own vulnerabilities (not that I would ever do that) or glass houses, for that matter (though here we are getting nearer to the point). The point such as it is being not glass but plastic houses.

Thanks to my friend John Biernbaum plastic houses are all the rage among sustainable agriculture types here in Michigan. Of course no self-respecting hippie farmer would refer to them as plastic houses. They’re high tunnels or low tunnels (depending on whether they are high or low) or maybe it’s the hippie farmer who’s high or low. They’re also hoop houses. This would not need explanation if you have actually seen one of these babies. A bunch of my students and I went up to the UP earlier this summer to help John build a particularly big one, and I was caught on film (well maybe it was pixels) with a sledgehammer in my hand putting up the support for one of those hoops. I wish I could put that photo in my annual report.

So even though us calloused hands, sledge-hammer swinging, hard-working, dirt on the face sustainable farmer types wouldn’t literally live in one of these plastic houses, the whole routine about not throwing stones would still be highly relevant. Holes are a bad thing. They kind of screw up the whole convection heating phenomenon that allows Michigan farmers to grow spinach or broccoli well into this time of the year. Maybe not this year, because it has been so damn cold, but you know what I mean.

But stones thrown, thrones stowed or what have you, a hoop house is going to occasionally need some first-order maintenance. Which basically means another plastic sheet big enough to cover the whole damn thing. Not cheap, mind you, but also something that requires a whole raft of people just to maneuver around and actually get on top of the skeleton so that it can be fastened down to keep the little budlings toasty when it’s freezing outside. And that whole raft of people thing brings me to my true and honest reason for posting a Thornapple blog (aside from the fact that it’s Sunday). Which is that it’s time for the hoophouse out at Appleschram farm where we grow veggies for the Thornapple CSA to get a new sheet of plastic.

The big event is scheduled on Wednesday from 3 to 4 in the afternoon, assuming the wind is not blowing too hard. Cold will not deter us, but wind well might. If you’ve longed to be part of barn-raising on the day before Thanksgiving, this may be as close as you’re going to get this year. Call Diane (you know the number) if you have any questions, and bring your own sledgehammer if you are in it for the photo op.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.

 

Embarrassing Behavior

November 16, 2014

I made one of my contributions to the food movement this week stopping by McDonald’s for my once-a-year Big Mac. This observation could provoke a tangent on the “once-a-year” theme and whether or not my need to point that out reflects some sort of guilt feelings about frequenting such an icon of the industrial food system. But I don’t think I’ll head in that direction this morning. Take note of it, though because that thought is definitely worth a blog or two sometime in the future. I might have had a thought about the political implications of eating that Big Mac down on Grand River in East Lansing, and I generally do take a quick inventory of “what have I been eating lately” that’s roughly health-related before I decide what to do for lunch. But I wasn’t deeply worried about being seen at McDonald’s, or what people would say when they saw me carrying my McDonald’s cup down the hall of the Natural Resources Building after lunch. Or in full disclosure, it would have been the “industrial food system” thing that would have been on my mind had one of my garbology colleagues encountered the McDonald’s cup in my trash bin, rather than some deep indicator of my class identity. Perhaps they might think I’m not showing a proper commitment to “sticking it to The Man”.

But I wouldn’t have worried about them thinking that I was tainted by a lower-class value system. Maybe that’s because I still hang out with old hippies for whom being pegged as having lower-class values is a badge of distinction. Yet it was not like I was actually hoping that someone would see me flouting my déclassé McDonald’s cup, either. In fact, the only reason I become conscious that this little episode in my week might be blogworthy came later when I was listening to Marketplace on NPR. They were discussing how Pizza Hut was trying to “rebrand” itself as a more upscale place, and expressing doubts that it would work. They noted that all the trendy hipsters frequenting my classroom are heading to Chipotle in search of that “fast casual” vibe. Restaurant chains like Red Lobster or Olive Garden are really sucking wind in the current economic environment because they are too expensive for their former customers (who have seen too many years of stagnant growth in wages) and not hip enough for the fast casual crowd. You can read more about this take on food and identity in Forbes Magazine.

The radio analysts were saying that McDonald’s had already tried a rebranding strategy by upgrading their coffee and offering salads, but that it hadn’t really worked. It seems that the people who go to McDonald’s are still pretty much focused on getting the most for their food dollar. And it was then that I realized how embarrassing it is for my friends when I show up with that McDonald’s cup. I mean it’s not just my own image I have to worry about if I’m going to be a beacon of food ethics, don’t you know. Every parent experiences a phenomenon explained by Erving Goffman back in the late fifties: you have to be sensitive to the way that your everyday self is a performance in multiple little overlapping dramas. As far as your kids are concerned, you are expected to be “uncool” but there are limits, after all, and you need to learn what it is that will cause them to lose face in that pressure cooker of identity construction we know as the junior high or middle school.

So I’m writing this week to apologize to all my friends and colleagues in the Natural Resources building at MSU. Next year when I go to McDonald’s for my annual Big Mac, I’ll take off my socks and put one over the McDonald’s cup. Walking down the hall in a coat and tie with no socks won’t be a problem, will it?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

 

The Movement

November 9, 2014

Last week I watched an old BBC documentary about Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting “The Death of Marat.” (Since this puts us in late 18th century France, it will help if you silently pronounce David as Dah-VEED and Marat as Mah-RAH throughout the rest of this blog.) Simon Schama was prattling on about how Marat was whipping up enthusiasm not only against the royals but also a growing number of counter-revolutionaries. You have to be literate in the battle between Jacobins and Girondists to follow this story in its details and if you are like me you have trouble telling the difference between a radical revolutionary and a white-collared hummingbird. Let’s just say that as the Jacobins held power during a brief interval during the 1790s, being thought moderate was not a particularly laudable (or for that matter, healthy) form of repute. Those advocating moderation were likely to lose their heads. Marat had been something of a hero among the radicals, hiding out in the sewers of Paris in order to escape the authorities during the waning years of the monarchy. When the Jacobins came to power he became one of the most vociferous in calling for purity of revolutionary zeal. Schama, who has argued that violence was inherent in the very origins of the French Revolution, agrees with many others who now regard Marat as the very paradigm of irresponsible radicalism.

But I digress. The film was about this painting by David, which Schama regards as a masterpiece despite his (Schama’s, that is) revulsion at its message. David, who was (I learned) right in there with Marat, Robespierre and the other white-collared hummingbirds, painted it to memorialize Marat after his assassination by one Charlotte Courday. “The Death of Marat” was, if we believe Schama, a singular example of art’s ability to galvanize public opinion and motivate action. You probably know this painting even if you don’t have any recollection of David or Marat. Marat had been stabbed in his bath and is depicted holding an apparently fictionalized note from Courday in which she pleads for his assistance. Schama’s film made me recall another even older art documentary where Robert Hughes prattled on about the way that art could mobilize the emotions, but not in any particularly justifiable direction. The same tropes were used by fascists and communists in the 1930s with opposite messages but equally effective results.

But the French Revolution hit me because it is, after all, the granddaddy of all social movements. And if you are at all active in the food world these days, you are consistently being hit over the head by the putatively rising “food movement.” This is, I think, what lots of people would presume that food ethics is predominantly about. I hasten to add that I didn’t get up on a chilly November morning to diss the activism of my friends and comments, but maybe “The Death of Marat” helps me make some sense of that little chill that runs up and down my spine when someone starts talking about how to promote the food movement.

Or maybe it’s something less noble. Maybe it’s the way that the phrase “food movement” seems to spontaneously evoke an association with my bowels. I’m fearful that when someone starts trying to enroll me in the food movement, I’ll lose my head and end up shat out into the toilet.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Fun Size Redux

Nov. 2, 2014

So here it is just two days after Halloween night, and I’m thinking that both readers of the blog are probably sitting there munching on little tiny candy bars as they peruse the blog this Sunday. Of course there’s the chance that you aren’t reading the blog on it’s posting date, but if that’s the case, just pretend and go along with the “tiny candy bars” theme. As this week’s title suggests, we’ve hit this theme before, but that was mostly for comic effect. This time I’m going to exploit your guilt feelings over eating all those tiny little candy bars that you either pilfered from your kids Halloween treat bag or, in my case, failed to distribute to the neighbor kids who came around for Trick or Treat. Of course there’s the chance that you don’t feel any guilt, but if that’s the case, just pretend and go along with the “I feel bad about stuffing my face with tiny candy bars” theme.

You are not going to find very many nutrition experts who will step forward to assuage your guilt. It was a couple of years ago that I blogged about having dinner with Walter Willet from Harvard’s School of Public Health. It’s possible that Willet would forgive a once a year splurge on tiny candy bars, but I’m betting we are way past that now, seeing as how it’s pretty likely that you had a few of these bad boys right on Halloween night as you were dishing them out to the little ghosts and goblins that were ringing your doorbell. You might have been nibbling on them for over a week now. And since it’s the second day after Halloweeen, you probably had a face full yesterday, didn’t you? So we’re well beyond the “once a year” forgiveness policy. Those candy bars are “bad for you” because they are full of “empty calories”. They’re full of refined sugar and they very likely have a fair amount of fat, as well.

So to link this up with the last couple of blogs on nutritional science, these tiny little candy bars are, in the mindset of nutritional reductionism, bad, bad, bad because of their nutrient structure, or to put it another way, their “nutrient density.” I should probably step forward and confess that I got onto this stream of nutrition related consciousness because I was reading Gyorgy Scrinis’ book Nutritionism. It put forward lots of ideas (which we noted on October 19), and then I felt obligated to hit another lick last week by explaining what Scrinis was talking about when he referred all this to a problem in “reductionist philosophy of science”. We did a short and probably quite obscure bit on “socially relevant philosophy of science” two years ago at about this time, so I’m just taking an opportunity to knit multiple themes together this morning by pointing out that there really was a “take-home ethics” point to these philosophically obscure musings. To wit: deep connections in how we do science can come back to bite us in the butt when they become embedded in our practical mindset, not to mention public policy.

Of course, I’m not at all sure how this relates to tiny little candy bars. It’s not like Scrinis’s revelations about the reductionism in nutrition is going to excuse this kind of dietary excess, especially when it continues for more than a week. If either of my regular readers decides to plow through Nutritionism, they’ll discover that he probably would complain about the fact that tiny little candy bars are examples of highly refined and processed food. They are “miscellaneous edible objects.” The point of nutritionism is that it actually provides a number of ways that you could work your way to exonerating tiny little candy bars because, for instance, they actually don’t do all that bad when you are focused on the glycemic index. Tiny little candy bars are “gluten-free.” Or maybe you could add some vitamins or Omega 3 fatty acids and claim that they are functional foods! Scrinis wants to tell us that a focus on nutrients and food components gives the food industry too many “outs”, too many ways to divert our attention from the way that tiny little candy bars are not really food at all. I’m sorry if this spoils your morning, but don’t worry. Those leftover Halloween treats won’t last forever.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Reductionism

October 26, 2014

One of the things that I had to learn in order to become a certified Doctor of Philosophy in the discipline of epismetology was how to use the word “reductionism” in utterly confounding and totally obscure ways. Like, “Reductionism is a program of research dating back to the 17th century where the goal was to ultimately explain all human behavior in terms of brain processes and physiology, to explain such biological activity in terms of chemical reactions and finally to explain chemistry in terms of physical laws.” E.g. and for example, making everything (including aspects of our own lives that we think of as totally voluntary or a result of “free will”) totally deterministic causal regularities. This is a fair enough characterization of what the word “reductionism” means in some contexts but neither regular reader of the Thornapple blog will be particularly surprised to learn that it really doesn’t have too much to do with what I sat down to write about this morning.

Some academic types and a few ordinary people will say that something is “reductionistic” when key value judgments are either omitted or deliberately obscured. Like when some people in medical science will say that “health” is a purely objective term, as if nature really cared whether an organism was alive or dead, and it was possible to derive an account of “health” without placing a positive value on certain biophysical states we think of as “good functioning” or disvaluing other states we think of as diseased. What this mainly goes to show is that you can expect pretty long sentences whenever some fool steps forward and declares that they will tell you what reductionism is.

But some time ago (or maybe it was just last week) we were blogging about the reductionist turn in nutrition science. In this context, reductionism means the scientific practice of assuming that all questions in nutrition can be answered by research that isolates particular components of food and that uses the methods of statistical correlation to verify causal relationships between the consumption of these components and states of bodily health. Reductionist nutrition scientists might also commit the aforementioned fallacy of presuming that they can define health apart from making some value judgments, but this particular kind of nutritional reductionism doesn’t necessarily imply that. We might derive our accounts of “health” by making some pretty non-controversial value judgments (e.g. it’s better to be alive than dead), and then go forward from there to quantify nutrition by researching how consumption of this nutrient or that one contributes being alive, rather than dead.

Of course, if we are going to use a word like “reductionism” we very likely don’t approve of this practice. I’ve run into more than a couple of scientists who were proud to say that they were being reductionistic in their work, but more often than not, reductionism implies some kind of mistake. In the case of nutrition, the mistake would not be in thinking that certain components—nutrients—can cause good or ill health. I mean the discovery that certain states of disease—rickets and scurvy come to mind—are the result of vitamin deficiencies would pretty much refute that hypothesis. No, it’s the broader claim that everything worth knowing about nutrition can be discovered by research on the presence, absence or appropriate amounts of “nutrients” that Gyorgy Scrinis had in mind when he coined the term “nutritionism.”

It’s not clear that any nutritionists ever endorse a claim quite this broad, so let’s just call that an extreme view that we introduce just to make a point. A more realistic discussion of reductionism in nutritional science might take a step back from the precipice. We could say that reductionism is or at least was evident in the research programs that dominated nutrition for five or six decades. Whatever nutrition scientists might have wanted to say about whether foods in combination or whether the quality of foods played any role in health, the only thing they were really looking at in their research was specific single components. And if Scrinis is right in his history of nutrition science, that might be a fair indictment.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Connectedness

October 19, 2014

I met Gyorgy Scrinis in Melbourne a couple of years ago. He was complaining more than a little bit about Michael Pollan’s appropriation of the word “nutritionism” and with it some of Scrinis’s key ideas in Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. At the time I met him, all I knew of Scrinis’s work was a chapter that he had contributed to David Kaplan’s book Food and Philosophy. There Scrinis was using tools from the philosophy of science to notice a few interesting things about trends in nutritional science and its applications in dietary advice.

And there are oh so many directions we can go from here! There’s the straight up message that Scrinis wanted to get across: Nutritional science took a classically reductionist turn relatively early in the 20th century from which it has never recovered. We could talk about what that means, or we could just assume that both of my regular readers already know that and go straight for the way it has encouraged a series of narrow and fallacious messages about healthy eating habits. Or entirely different from that, but very much in line with some of Scrinis’s other messages, we could talk about how the food industry has been able to surf deftly along the intersecting waves of this advice. That’s a line that would connect a bit too neatly with the last two blogs, and “neat connections” being something that we imbibe in moderation here at the Thornapple blog, I suppose that one has already been effectively ruled out by tradition, if not policy.

Another rather different direction would be to unpack Scrinis’s complaints about Michael Pollan. This came up in a conversation I was having with Don Thompson earlier this week. Of course, there’s no way either reader of the blog would have any way of knowing who Don Thompson is, so here I go introducing yet another tangent. Let me just cut this one off at the knees by saying that Don is not related to me (identical last names notwithstanding) and that he has a longstanding and well-informed interest in the ethics of nutrition and nutrition policy. Of course I can’t really expect that this phrase “nutrition policy” is particularly meaningful either, so here we go on yet another tangent. Which I will cut off by saying that governments have long been involved in making official dietary recommendations (such as the fondly recalled “food pyramid”) and being rather “hands on” in terms of structuring what kids will eat in public school lunchrooms. Nuff’ said.

As I recall, one of Scrinis’ complaints about In Defense of Food is that Pollan both “borrowed” some Scrinis’ ideas about reductionist nutrition science, but basically ignored Scrinis’ main point, which is to see how it was implicated in misbegotten government policies. But then, Pollan his own self goes on to fill up a large percentage of In Defense of Food by offering dietary advice that was based pretty much on the same science that the “nutritionism” critique was intended to expose! It was a little hard to tell whether he (Scrinis) was more peeved that Pollan had twisted his message or that he (Pollan, now) had failed to give him (Scrinis) adequate credit for coming up with the ideas in the first place. This could, of course, be the basis for a pretty good 600 word Thornapple blog in its own right (or write, as the case may be), but at this point we are already approaching 590 words this week, so it’s probably too late to make yet another turn in direction.

So I’ll just wrap up by saying that it all goes to show how food is able to connect and tie together so many different ethical themes. And we didn’t’ even say a word about farming this week. It’s amazing, and it promises to keep self-appointed food ethicists in business for a long time.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Why Make Exploitation Easy?

October 12, 2014

Whenever either of my regular readers sees that I end the Thornapple blog with a question like I did last week, they halfway expect me to come back and answer the question in the next blog. Or maybe that’s going a little far. It’s not like we ever answer very many questions here. But maybe it signals that there’s more to come.

So of course my lefty friends are steaming about the flippancy with which we dismissed the food industry’s ability to turn resistance to its advantage last week. And when I say, “Am I missing something?” they are right there with “Of course, you dolt! You’re missing the systemic nature of this distortion and it’s grounding in the power relationships that structure a capitalist food system.”

Now I must confess that I’m strongly inclined to go off on a tangent on how pleasing it is to write a blog where you get to use the word “dolt”, or perhaps riffing on its 16th century origins. That would take me back to the bread riots in England, where villagers were protesting what they took to be exorbitant increases in the price of grain. They were missing something, too. The usual reason for a good old fashioned peasant riot owed to an unexpected and unjustified exertion of manorial power. Like the landlord showing up with a giant-size basket to collect his share of the crop, and then showing up with peasant sized baskets when it was time to dispense alms for the poor. It reminds me of my daughter Dory’s outsized Christmas stocking, save for the fact that Santa was wise to this trick, and not vulnerable to the power exerted by 16th century landlords.

But unlike the usual outrage perpetrated by landlords, the bread riots were due to what we today would blithely call a “market-based” rise in the cost of grain. It seems that there were some key elements of trade even in the manorial system, and what the peasants did with their own share of a crop after filling the landlord’s basket was one of them. In the old days, they had been confined pretty much to the local village marketplace—often a single miller and baker. This was mainly because the roads were so bad that they simply couldn’t take a heavy load of grain someplace else. But better roads and canals coming along in the 16th century made it possible to haul grain to the next village in search of a better price. And with that kind of flexibility, prices might go up. Sometimes by a lot.

It took a while, but it gradually began to dawn on people that their outrage needed to be diverted from their landlords (who were, it must be admitted, quite capable of exploiting the new system to their advantage, even if there was some plausible story suggesting that they weren’t responsible for the soaring price of food) and toward “the system,” “the marketplace” “the merchants” and hence toward capitalism as a vague generic Dark Tower that needed to be overthrown on moral grounds. So I guess this isn’t as much of a tangent as I thought.

I guess I should confess that as a college professor I don’t necessarily define my role in life as one of creating a general consciousness of system abuses among my undergraduates. Nor do I presume that I should be encouraging them to define their role as one of resistance to the injustice inherent in the system. It’s not because I don’t see the injustice in the system, mind you. I just expect that a goodly portion of the smiling faces out there are anxious to take their place in that system. So teaching them how any form of resistance can be turned to benefit the powers-that-be is just making it too easy for them. If that makes me a dolt, so be it.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Hedgehogs

October 5, 2014

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin popularized this aphorism from Archilochus in his discussion of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. I’m going to borrow from Berlin, but if you want to follow that tangent, you’ll have to fire up Google, because this is the Thornapple blog, where allusions to BIG THEMES are conscientiously left obscure. We’re here to talk about food.

But I do have some friends who teach about food who are hedgehogs.

And not to be entirely obscure, this means that no matter what the subject matter of “today’s lecture” there is always one take-home message. You want to talk about “going local,” or “eating organic” or “fair trade” or “gluten-free” or “sustainable” or “food safety” or “humane” or “anti-GMO” or whatever-hyphenated-anti/free-food-flavor-de jour? Well take your pick because for hedgehogs, the point of having this conversation is always the same. Now to be sure, the message that is the same may vary a bit from one hedgehog to another. Thank God for that little bit of novelty in the food movement. But if pressed I bet I could name at least a half dozen hedgehogs for whom the central message is remarkably similar.

So here’s one variety of that message: All of these adjectives that get introduced for discriminating between the good foods that we should be growing, purchasing and eating can be re-interpreted, twisted and re-deployed in support of powerful economic interests. No matter what scheme you come up with for sticking it to The Man, resisting oppression and saving the environment, the big boys of the industrial food system will find some way to profit from it. Are you pledging to buy only those “alternative” brands that are committed to healthy diets and fair treatment of their workforce? Well not so fast, Chucko, because Coca-Cola or General Mills will just find a way to buy them out. You can’t resist it. The power of the industrial food system is so pervasive that they will always find a way to pervert and control every strategy that arises to combat their domination.

Now lest I be misunderstood, my hedgehog friends are not endorsing this, much less trying to play Darth Vader: “Give up, Luke. Your anger only brings you closer to the Dark Side!” No, they believe that they are telling our impressionable undergraduates something that they did not already know. Heck, they think that they are telling me something that I don’t already know. I have to confess that I may not get it. My reaction to this kind of message is, “Well, duh! Doesn’t everyone who lives in an advertising rich social environment already know that?”

But au contraire, being informed of the pervasive nature of capital in our current milieu or its ability to shapeshift in response to every superficial trend in popular culture is supposed to be news. What I am compelled to take from this is that one of the following things must be true. It’s possible that my hedgehog friends have so little faith in their fellow human beings that they suppose them to be spectacularly stupid. And I must confess that there is depressing confirmatory evidence to be found for such a hypothesis, so how can I blame them? The alternative is that the hedgehogs themselves have had some transformational experience in which they were awakened from a prior state of naiveté, and they want to share that with all of us. I can relate to that, too, being awakened from a prior state of naiveté almost daily after my third cup of (industrially controlled and morally compromised) coffee.

But after I’m awake, I tend to be foxy. Did I miss something?

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Badges?

September 28, 2014

So pardon me for rambling on, but the title of last week’s blog was in fact derived from a blues song by Mississippi Joe Callicott that goes under several names including “Leaving Town Blues” and “Plow Hand Blues.” There are pretty similar lines in blues sung by Big Bill Broonzey and Leadbelly, though in those instances the blues seem to be an ingredient rather than a consumer of bread. I’m a poor philosophy professor and in no sense anything more than the most amateur of musicologists, so who am I to say who gets definitive credit. All of them are quite a bit less well known than “That’s Alright, Mama,” but in the spirit of last week’s blog, I think any of these blues could get sung during food songs month in Michigan.

Which is another way of saying that my obsession with sorting out what is and what is not a food song has gotten out of hand, I think. I mean who cares about the ontological commitments of song lyrics, anyway? I just got into that thread by accident, and if you want to sing Marvin and Johnny’s version of “Cherry Pie,” or Skip and Flip’s version of “Cherry Pie” or even Warrant’s version of “Cherry Pie,” during your own food songs festival, well go right on ahead and don’t let me stop you.

And while we’re in the “passing references to food” category, let’s give a shout out to Gary P. Nunn’s answer to “What I Like about Texas”:

It’s another burrito, it’s a cold Lone Star in my hand
It’s a quarter for the jukebox boys
Play the Sons of the Mother Lovin’ Bunkhouse Band

There’s also a reference to Mi Tierra in the song, which used to be a 24 hour joint where farmer’s would catch a quick bite to eat after unloading at the adjacent San Antonio farmers’ market at 5:00 am. It’s now surrounded by tourist-oriented shops selling a blend of crap, works by local artists and genuinely interesting crafts imported from Mexico. Mi Tierra has made the transition along with them, and it may have become a bit too tourist friendly. It’s been too long since I was there, but on my last visit it was 6:00am, well before most of the tourists were awake but not too early for a table full of honkies to be wrestling with the meaning of “huevos rancheros”. One of them was getting cross because the waitress had failed to bring enough menus for everyone. If you know the drill, you can still order chilaquiles and fresh-squeezed orange juice just like in the old days, even though neither is on the new menu. So I did.

My waitperson took my order without skipping a beat, after which the Latino gentlemen (a total stranger) sitting near me tipped his head toward the table where the out-of-towners were still trying make sense of things with the patient Latino waitress. He gave me a smile and wink and then he said, “We don’t need no stinking menus.” One of my all-time greatest moments in food.

I also wanted to say something about another Trout Fishing in America song before letting another food songs month pass us by. You’ll recall that their “Pico De Gallo” sits atop the all-time food songs list, and I wouldn’t want to displace that. But they also have

All I want is a proper cup of coffee
Made in a proper copper coffee pot
I may be off my dot but I want a proper coffee
In a proper copper pot”

Iron coffee pots and tin coffee pots
They are no use to me
If I can’t have a proper cup of coffee
In a proper copper coffee pot, I’ll have a cup of tea

We don’t need no stinking pumpkin-spice macchiato!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Blues Ate My Bread

September 21, 2014

So picking up right where we left off last week, and switching directions 180° there are reasons why I decided to do another month of food songs this year. I often sit in front of my computer on Sunday mornings listening to songs from my music collection on i-Tunes. I’ve had to struggle with the i-Tunes robot in order to get i-Tunes to cycle through my entire library, but I have figured out a way to get through pretty much everything on there once in a year. This means that I’m periodically reminded of some song that could putatively put forward as a food song, and then I say to myself “Oh, make a note of that. We’ll do a blog on that one when it’s “food songs” month.”

Of course then I don’t make a note of it, and then when food songs month rolls around, I can’t remember any of these songs. I do remember the Robert Johnson classic “Come on into my kitchen because it is going to be raining outside,” but as we’ve said in a number of cases, it’s not entirely clear that this really is a food song, even if I think you could creditably sing it at a “food songs fest”, should you ever decide to have one. And why shouldn’t you. In the same vein but a bit closer to incorporating some legitimate references to food, we could note another blues classic, “That’s Alright, Mama,” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. The version that Paul McCartney recorded for a Sun Records tribute a few years back has this verse:

You snuck up in my kitchen;
Ate up all my bread.
Baby when my back is turned,
You’re diddlin’ in my bed.

It’s possible that Sir Paul improvised this verse with a little inspiration from Lightnin’ Hopkins, because you won’t find it in the classic Elvis Presley version of “That’s Alright, Mama.” I can also attest that you won’t find in 15 or 20 minutes of excruciatingly thorough and painstaking Internet research, so it’s possible that you are finding out that this blues classic is actually a food song for the first time here on the Thornapple Blog. In fact, you won’t even find it in the U-Tube video of McCartney doing “That’s Alright” with Scotty Moore on guitar. Maybe when Sir Paul reads the blog he will add a comment to settle this matter once and for all. Now I can accept the contrary point of view, to wit: this ain’t no food song even with the bread reference. At best it’s a passing reference. But I can tell you that if I were playing in a blues band and it was “food songs” night down at The Green Door, we would certainly include “That’s Alright, ama” in our set, and we would damn sure be singing about bread.

There are, however, more straight out food songs in the world. The Earthworks music collaborative did a whole album of them a few years back called “Something Fresh.” I couldn’t find it on the Earthworks website, so I assume it’s gone out of print, but here’s a link to an Oregon blogger who discovered the album and wrote about when it was something fresh. Unfortunately, while some of the songs on this album do justice to the foods they celebrate, some of them suck. I’m not here to hurt anybody’s feelings so you’ll just have to figure that one out for yourself.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University