A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.


October 11, 2015

All joking aside, I am still thinking about the revelation that agricultural scientists were sending e-mails that were supportive of the food industry point of view on several sensitive issues. In all serious I want to suggest that this is less nefarious than it has made out to be. At the same time, it’s more troubling.

In my experience, here’s how the “industry ties” thing works. It’s certainly true that rich people and rich organizations (like major food companies) have the wherewithal to commission research that is of interest to them. They also have the means to generate studies that are skewed in a manner that supports their commercial or political agenda. In the former case, they genuinely want to understand something, and it is not in their interest to spend money on biased research. This is not to say that there are no ethical issues. There are ethical issues encountered in any and every research project, but it is not necessarily the case that industry wants those issues resolved in such a way that the researcher just becomes a high priced “yes man.”

Of course, in the latter case that is exactly what they want, and the presumption that critics are making is that corrupt researchers shill for industry. It’s more like this: Those of us with university appointments are publishing our ideas and findings on a constant basis. (Witness the fact that you are reading the Thornapple Blog, and that it’s been coming out every Sunday for almost six years.) It’s pretty easy for industry to cherry pick the researchers that they like and then drive up to their office door with a truckload of money. The researchers themselves may not be doing anything different from what they would do if some neutral party—the National Science Foundation or the Gates Foundation—drove up with a truckload of money. From the researcher’s perspective, it’s totally objective research. It’s just happenstance that this research chooses framing assumptions (what to look for, what to compare it against) that lead eventually to a pattern of findings that some person or group (like a major food company) wants to promulgate.

In some of the more blatant cases, a company or a trade-group that represents a bunch of companies will find a scientist whose views suit their agenda to a tee. They will then start flying that individual all over to hell and gone, attending conferences, public hearings and giving lectures. They will put their substantial financial clout behand getting that scientist’s message out. But this doesn’t mean that the scientist in question is saying anything different than they would have said in the absence of all those plane tickets. In my experience, he or she is totally committed to their message, and has in no way been induced to say it because they wanted to fly all over hell and gone. Speaking of myself for a moment, I fly too much and am usually looking for ways to cut back my travel. What’s seductive is when someone thinks you are important enough that they want to hear what you have to say.

Of course in the cases were talking about, the industry wants other people to hear what these scientists have to say, and the fact that they are saying some particular thing is the reason why industry thinks they are important. Which is my way of circling back around to that “more troubling” thought we started with way back in the first paragraph. Academic researchers do seem to have a need for a certain amount of ego-stroking, and there may indeed be subtle forces that drive people to construct their studies along certain lines because doing it that way has led to strokes in the past. I have a friend named Jonathan Marks at Penn State who calls this “institutional corruption.” That and the fact that there is a systematic bias in the kind of research that gets done in the first place: lots of dollars for research that might lead to a new product, very few dollars to investigate its possible risks. So I’m not saying that there is no corruption here; just that it may not be nefarious in quite the way that some newspaper reporters seem to think.

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

Teeth of a Hydra

October 4, 2015

“Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’…”

We spent all of September doing food films, but a few things happened that could have been good fodder for the Thornapple blog. One of the big ones was a story that broke when some New York Times reporters did a FOIA request on e-mails from a number of agricultural scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at land grant universities (like mine, for example). They were shocked to discover that these government employees had been offering advice to various farm organizations and food industry firms with respect to a number of issues: GMO labeling and state initiatives to regulate the welfare of poultry and livestock being among them.

So when this story broke last month I’m thinking, “She’s in the mood; no need to break it.” I’ll just keep on with the food flics and then come back to it in October. Well October it is and so I Google the phrase at the top of page (“Meanwhile I’m still thinking”) and then I am shocked to discover that the Internet thinks that this comes from Marc Bolan’s Get It On (circa 1971). One site even references Santana and Bang a Gong which is, of course Carlos Santana’s cover of the Bolan tune. There are some other references to songs by Johnathan Richman and OutKast, but the closest that anyone gets to the truth is the Rolling Stones Little Queenie.

The Rolling Stones? Well, yeah, the Stones did cover this iconic Chuck Berry song from 1959. The reason I’m letting this tangent run on so long is that I’m beginning to sniff a point here. The point is that our Internet soaked crowd is so out of touch that they haven’t figured out that all of these songwriters, including Bolan, are quoting Chuck Berry. And speaking of being out of touch, the younger generation is apparently so out of touch that they think discovering a close tie between agricultural researchers and bureaucrats, on the one hand, and farmers or the food industry, on the other, is newsworthy.

I blame Abraham Lincoln. Coincidentally, like Berry’s release of Little Queenie, this also happened way back in ’59, though of course now we’re talking about 1859. Speaking at the Wisconsin Agricultural Fair, Lincoln praises farmers, saying “their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated — that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.” In short, when those scientists and bureaucrats are pimping food producers, they are only doing their job, which is of course, to pursue the national interest. Lincoln goes on in this address to argue for applying steam power to agriculture and supporting agricultural research that would “raise up the soil to its full potential.” When he became President, he delivered on this by creating the USDA, which he referred to as “the People’s department.”

Of course things have changed a bit since 1859, when most Americans were farmers, and poor to boot. I’d like to give Lincoln some credit for those changes, and also for noting that the agriculture of his own day had some moral problems (a little thing called race slavery). Today we are down to less than 1% of our population in farming, and it’s not clear that Lincoln would still be saying that farm interests are the ones “most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated.” Maybe the folks who had their e-mails FOIAed didn’t get the memo.

Still and all, the shock and dismay expressed by those Times reporters tells me that they are living in a different world than I inhabit, for sure. Chuck Berry his own self will be 89 later this month (the 18th, for readers who are counting). I wonder if he would have been shocked by all those e-mail revelations. I wonder if he’s still thinking to himself, “If it’s a slow song, then we’ll omit it. If it’s a rocker, son, that’ll get it”?

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

Babette’s Feast

September 27, 2015

We’ll finish up “food flics month” with the film I take to be the granddaddy of them all: Babette’s Feast. It came out way back in in 1987, before food was cool. Unlike the other three films we’ve mentioned, it is not a documentary. It’s based on a story by Karen Blixen set in 19th century Berlevåg, Norway, though the film relocates events to the austere coast of Jutland. A young Frenchwoman (Babette) appears on the doorstep of an austere religious sect seeking asylum. After working for them as a cook and servant for some years, Babette wins the lottery and proposes to treat this group accustomed to an austere diet of gruel (or some such) to “a real French dinner”. Some of the plotting concerns whether the group can permit itself to break from the austere conventions that are required by piety to accept this offer, but eventually, they agree to the feast out of consideration for Babette, (who, they presume, will be leaving them now that she is rich).

In case it wasn’t clear from the previous paragraph, the key theme here is austerity.

I saw this movie when it came out, and haven’t seen it since, so I may be misremembering a few points. As I recall it, the main part of the film concerns the collection of the diverse ingredients for the meal, Babette’s loving and meticulous preparations, the sumptuousness of the feast itself and the pleasure of the usually abstemious diners. As the story winds up, we learn that in Babette’s former life she was a great chef, and that having spent her entire lottery winnings on the meal, is not rich. Hence she will be remaining among the sect as a chambermaid. There’s also a bit about Babette revealing that her artistry in cooking is her true wealth—presumably a point against the somber asceticism of the religious sect—but the obvious food ethics dimension notwithstanding, I’m not going there. I will note that the Wikipedia article on Babette’s Feast claims that it is Pope Francis’ favorite film.

The movie inspired many to replicate the menu of the feast (also on the Wikipedia site), and spawned a flurry of interest in the idea that culinary arts can rise to the same aesthetic heights as classical forms: music, painting, literature or sculpture. Viewers of Babette’s Feast could fashion themselves as adventurers whose quest for an exquisite meal was on a cultural par with that of someone who attends a symphony concert or spends weekends at art museums. Could the Food Network be far behind? In fact, it wasn’t; founded in 1993.

Equally important, filmmaker Gabriel Axel demonstrated the cinematic qualities of food so convincingly that an impressive line of film’s celebrating the production and consumption of foods was to follow: Like Water for Chocolate; Eat Drink Man Woman; and just last year, The Hundred-Foot Journey. This would be a very long list. Films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover should also be on it, though here the themes of pleasure and seduction are troubled. Beyond these films where food is central to the plot, there are many, many more where a meal is affectionately presented in opulent detail either to advance some other theme, or simply to provide viewers with a momentary bit of eye candy. I ask you, would we be having a food movement today without this sequence of films? It’s always hard to answer the chicken/egg dilemma with phenomena like this, but whether symptom or cause, I assert that Babette’s Feast marks a milestone for the enthusiasm with foods are celebrated in the first two decades of the 21st century. It’s definitely worth a look in “food flics” month.

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

Searching for General Tso

September 20, 2015

We had an opportunity to mention “Werewolves of London” back when we were celebrating the blue moon in July. We didn’t quote the verse that makes it a “food song”. Warren Zevon reports, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand. He was walking through the streets of Soho in the rain. He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fooks. Gonna’ get himself a big dish of beef Chow Mein.”

“Whoa, there! Slow down, bucko,” both of the astute regular readers of the blog are saying to themselves, if not perhaps exclaiming loudly to the other patrons of the coffee shop where they have opened the Thornapple CSA webpage to read this week’s installment. “We’re not supposed to be doing food songs this year. In 2015, September is food films month.

So I turn immediately to Zevon’s reference to beef Chow Mein. Like Chop Suey before it and almond chicken afterwards, one would have a very difficult time getting a big dish of Chow Mein anywhere in China. This is a thoroughly Westernized dish, served in putatively Chinese restaurants, but having only a very weak connection to actual Chinese cuisine. That connection resides largely in the fact that the ingredients of Chow Mein are chopped prior to being cooked and served, obviating the need to place a knife in the table setting. The dish is probably cooked in a wok at Lee Ho Fooks. The chopping allows for a rapid stove-top cooking process that is common but not universal in some Asian culinary traditions, but one can just as readily use a flat-bottomed Western-style frying pan.

Should your interest be piqued by this, you can explore the history of so-called Chinese food outside China (and mainly in the U.S.A.) in the recent documentary “Searching for General Tso”. General Tso is an actual historical figure from Hunan province, but it is doubtful that he ever enjoyed a dish of the now ubiquitous General Tso’s Chicken. Like Chow Mein, General Tso’s Chicken is a dish that cannot be found in China, though as the filmmaker shows, the dish was developed by a chef from Hunan who wanted to commemorate his native culture while working at a restaurant in Taipai. The dish moved rapidly to some high end Chinese restaurants in New York City, from whence it has spread across America and further abroad. Most of the Western renditions of General Tso’s Chicken bear little similarity to the Taiwanese version, having been transmogrified into something like Chicken McNuggets with a somewhat more tangy version of the sticky “sweet-and-sour” (but mostly sweet) sauce that is also a thoroughly Western adaptation of the pre-chopped cooking style imported into the West when Chinese immigrants flooded into San Francisco during the 19th Century.

My friend Lisa Heldke has written a very nice book that explores the exploitative dimension of this, as the assumption that these dishes actually are Chinese becomes part and parcel of the way that non-White others come to be viewed through stereotypes that ultimately create prejudice and racial profiling. Exotic Appetites goes even deeper when Lisa discusses how the “food adventurer” who seeks “authentic” versions of so-called “foreign foods” also participates in an exclusionary practice that essentializes racial identities. Of course, the verb “essentialize” is much too heavy for the Thornapple blog, so I think we’d better bring this particular tangent to a close right now.

The movie, however, is funny. It conveys quite a bit of information about the history of Asians in America while frequently portraying it through laugh-out-loud ironies, like when the filmmakers go to Hunan province in search of some “authentic” General Tso’s Chicken. My personal favorite is the segment that explores Springfield almond chicken. You can get almond chicken lots of places, but it was created in my birthplace, Springfield, MO. It is, in effect, chicken nuggets covered with gravy. And speaking of choice ironies, I love the Yelp! review of Huapei, my favorite Lansing location for Chinese food, which complains that their version of almond chicken is not authentic.

Not that I would be caught eating almond chicken at Huapei, mind you, so how would I know better?

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

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

September 13, 2015

This is another one of those Sundays where I am entrusting the blog to robots at WordPress. If things have gone according to plan, I am actually on my way home from Japan this Sunday. I’ve been in Japan giving an invited lecture at a big soil science conference. I’ve been excited about this for some time. On the one hand, it’s an honor to be invited to give this kind of an address, and an opportunity to do some travel that is a bit out of the ordinary. On the other hand, it’s intimidating to think about standing up in front of an audience of highly trained scientific specialists. And in fact the trip is too short to really provide much opportunity for sightseeing.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. I thought I might promote this nice little documentary about a tiny sushi shop in Tokyo that has one of the very few Michelin three star ratings (or at least it did when the film came out in 2011). I might start by saying that although there is absolutely no doubt that this is a food flic, it’s quite different than Food Inc. which we were talking about last week. Although it was very popular, it’s a lot less likely that you’ve seen it, for one thing. I saw it during a theatrical run at the Living Room Theater in Portland, OR. I could go on about the Living Room Theater itself for a while. There are starting to be more and more places like this where you have big, comfortable seats, can get real food (rather than just popcorn and candy), and where there is a place to put your nosh while you are watching the movie. Just like your living room. The food at this particular spot is good enough that they operate a bistro out front for people who have no intention of seeing a movie. Oh yes, and you can usually get a glass of beer or wine at places like this. I want to strongly endorse this trend as fully consistent with the broad contours of food ethics.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. Jiro Dreams of Sushi eventually aired as an episode of the PBS Independent Lens series. So there is a fair chance that if you missed the opportunity to catch it in Portland, you might have seen it in your own living room. Of course, this would not have been available for me, because Diane has absolutely forbidden a television set in our living room. We do have one in the kitchen, and I have prevailed upon her for a comfortable chair, where I could indeed watch Independent Lens while sipping my beer or wine.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. You don’t need the Thornapple Blog to get a synopsis of Jiro Dreams of Sushi in the event that this would help you make a decision about whether or not to watch it. The Internet is now full of sites where every film ever made has been summarized, dissected and resected by helpful bloggers, critics and literary types. You should just Google it if that’s what you’re looking for. And if by some weird coincidence you did Google Jiro Dreams of Sushi and wound up here at the Thornapple Blog, my sincere apologies. I don’t typically write film summaries or reviews in the blog. September 2015 happens to be some kind of exception due to the confluence of cosmic forces that are beyond human ken.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. I partly picked this movie (it’s true) because of the Japan thing we started out with. But enough about me…. However, even before I made this connection I was thinking that this could be one of the films on my list. First of all, it is a very nice little film. Probably not the sort of thing my MSU students are used to seeing, to be sure. No blood and gore (at least if you discount the scene with the tuna buyer down at the Tokyo fish market). No sex that I can recall. “Tuna” is not a euphemism in this film. It does have a little bit of family drama, as Jiro’s sons are, perhaps, not given credit where credit is due. (This less by Jiro than by those who celebrate him, which would, oddly, include the filmmakers themselves. Literary types love little ironies like that.)

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. The film also does document what it takes to run a three star sushi shop, and it’s pretty interesting. There are some ties to food ethics in here I think, but it looks like I’m getting to the end of the blog without getting around to them. Make them up for yourself, I say, or complain to the robots who are in charge this week.

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

Food Inc.

September 6, 2015

“Well 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.”

This would be Gary P. Nunn explaining “What I Like about Texas”. He goes on to mention Mi Tierra, which has come up once before in the Thornapple Blog. As both of my regular readers know, this is enough to qualify “What I Like about Texas” as an official “food song.” When you scroll up and take a gander at the date, you see that it is officially September, and if you are one of my two regular readers, you are thinking to your own self “Well, I guess it’s “food songs” month again.” Being one of the cognoscente, you would know that for most of the Blog’s history we have taken two months a year to do themed entries. In January we do “food ethics icons”—people like Norman Borlaug, Wendell Berry or Jane Bush. In September we do “food songs”. But you may have also noted that what it takes to actually be a food song has been diluted a bit over the years. We started out with songs like “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House.” This is a song that is not only very clearly about food; the lyrics are largely just a list of foods. But next thing you know, we’re doing “House of Blue Light” which clearly mentions fryers, broilers and Detroit barbeque ribs, but which, in truth, is much more about dancing than eating. And then there is that problematic category including dozens of blues standards that discuss the importance of jelly in various bluesmen’s lives. But we know what they are really talking about, and it ain’t food.

So while I think I’ve already said enough for this week to qualify as a sure-nuff food songs blog, I should probably get around to the perplexing title of this blog, which is not “Another Burrito”, but a reference to the 2008 documentary from Robert Kenner. While I think it improbable that anyone who stumbles on this blog would not have already seen Food Inc. I thought I would take just a few pixels this morning to say something about it. In the event that you haven’t seen it, I’ll note that you can now watch a preview online at your leisure and at no cost other than your time. As for watching the film itself, well that might cost you something.

Food Inc. deserves something like iconic status in the world of food ethics itself. The film built on a growing interest in “the industrial food system” and achieved a wide audience. Kenner collaborated with Eric Schlosser and food ethics icon Michael Pollan on the project. It consists of a series of vignettes that I think we can safely say are intended to expose various forms of injustice or unsustainable practice in the American food industry. There’s also a bit with Joel Salatin slaughtering a free-range chicken that is stuck in there to give us the sense that there is a better way to do things. The film ends with a segment on an Indiana farmer who is being prosecuted for conspiring to encourage violation of the Monsanto Co.’s intellectual property rights. The stunned reaction of this particular farmer was, for me, the most emotionally engaging part of the whole movie.

The Wikipedia article on Food Inc. is not very forthcoming on what the film is actually about, but it does include a nice discussion of the film’s reception, including critical reactions from major food industry players. I can attest that mainstream farm organizations hated the film. Yet food and farm input companies (the Inc.s of the title) seemed not to be so strongly irked. Maybe it was just what they had come to expect. The film was actually kind of helpful to them in laying out some of the concerns of their customer base in an obvious place where everyone could see it. My personal reaction was that the film could be characterized as misleading, but only if you thought that Kenner, Schlosser and Pollan set out to create a dispassionate and balanced overview of difficult issues in the food system, a film that would help people think more critically about both policy and their individual dietary choices. It’s pretty obvious to me that this was never the intention; Food Inc. is about consciousness raising. Given that orientation, I would argue that only one early segment where Kenner filmed inside a broiler production facility that was being “dropped” by whichever of the big broiler meat companies the farmer was working with (I forget which) was truly specious. I don’t doubt that what we saw was the reality in that barn, but I rather suspect that some of what we saw was actually the reason that farmer was being dropped.

But this is not a defense of the status quo on my part. If you somehow missed Food Inc. on its frequent airings between 2009 and 2012, go up to the link and take a look for yourself. And by the way, take this as signal that in 2015, September will be “food flics” month. Hang up your guitar and renew your Netflix account.

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


August 30, 2015

Terry Link is an occasional reader of the Thornapple Blog who never posts comments, but he will occasionally send an e-mail or make a comment when I see him in person. This week he passed along a link to an article by Sheldon Krimsky that has just been published in Science, Technology and Human Values. Shelly uses an analysis of two key case studies to argue against the claim that there is a strong and wide scientific consensus about the safety of genetically engineered food crops, or GMOs. Now, I can’t possibly say much about what those are and stay within my self-imposed word limit, so I’m just going to assume that everyone knows what Shelly is talking about and steam right on ahead. I’m guessing that Terry passed this along mainly because he knows I’m interested in GMOs, but I suspect that he is especially impressed by peer-reviewed research that gives us some reason to question the boosterism that we hear from many scientists—including many from MSU.

As it happens, I was one of the anonymous peer reviewers for this article. Ooops! I guess that I just blew my anonymity! Lest blog readers question my own ethics for revealing this, I’ll say that there is a weaker compunction against maintaining confidentiality with respect to papers that successfully negotiate the peer review process than for those that don’t. Journal editors shouldn’t reveal the identity of reviewers in any case, and they might prefer that reviewers themselves abstain from such disclosures as a way to protect the overall integrity of the process. But I’m coming out, anyway. If there is anyone out there who wants to take a swipe at the “idiots” who recommended that this piece be published, now you know where to come.

This is not to say that Shelly and I are in lock-step agreement about the two cases that he discusses. I do think that the article successfully shows that there is substantial disagreement within the scientific community about how these dissenters are treated. I agree totally with the part of his paper that criticizes the treatment given to Arpad Pusztai in the 1980s and to Gils-Eric Seralini more recently after both announced results from preliminary toxicological studies that some view as evidence for the riskiness of eating GMOs. Shelly also thinks that a) the studies themselves and b) the knee-jerk over-the-top defensiveness of mainstream science provide reasons to doubt the safety of GMOs. I disagree flatly on both points, though I have myself argued (in my book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone) that drawing the inference from b) is perfectly reasonable. You’ll have to lay out the twenty-five bucks or make a trip to your library to get my views on this latter point, because I just don’t have the energy to go over that point again.

What I would have said on point a) if I had been writing this paper is that the science community has done an exceedingly poor job of explaining why they did not interpret Pusztai’s and Seralini’s results as evidence for an unacceptable risk. If I were inclined to be forgiving, I would note that explaining this is actually kind of hard. It couldn’t be done in a single entry of the Thornapple Blog, for sure. Doing a decent job drags you into thinking about what “unacceptable risk” means in the context of food safety. John Kreb’s little book Food: A Very Short Introduction explains that many foods contain natural toxicants that would prevent them from being approved if the substances had been added artificially. Potatoes are his example. It’s not unusual for potato breeders who are just doing ordinary cross breeding to accidently activate those toxicants, creating a potato that will make you very sick. It may be significant that Pusztai was testing a particular potato variety that had been genetically engineered. It may well have had some nasty bits in it, but Pusztai had no reason to think that they got there as a result of the genetic engineering.

Seralini was replicating an experiment described in published literature that is designed to test for “acute toxicity”—something that makes you sick right away. It’s what we might normally call “poison”. He didn’t find anything, but decided to extend the experiment for a longer time period than would normally be used for testing acute toxicity. This is not standard toxicological practice. The idea is that you would already be sick or dead, so why drag things out? Lo and behold, his rats started to develop tumors. What Shelly doesn’t tell you in his article is that the rats Seralini was using are considered to be good models for testing acute toxicity, but not for long term studies because they are known to have a genetic tendency to develop tumors as they get older. Whoops!

What’s amazing and depressing to me is that you can plow through many pages of tedious peer reviewed literature, not to mention “letters to the editor” without having either of these points explained to you. That, I think, is a problem in food ethics.

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

Amik Minis

August 23, 2015

Just in from a weekend at Beaver Island. I was up there with my friend and colleague Kyle Whyte, and my student Zach Piso. Kyle is scoping out the possibility of a workshop/retreat focused on environmental philosophy, and he has the idea the Beaver Island might be a good location for it. There are some major plus points. We spent a good 15-20 minutes watching a bald eagle that was lording it over Miller’s Marsh, then when came back by the marsh that evening, there were four sand hill cranes standing within a car-length of the road. In short, it more than passes the test for scenic beauty and opportunity to experience nature.

Of course, we’re post-postmodern hipsters here in the blog, so we’re a little put off with the whole idea of experiencing nature. Nature, after all, would be a social construction, wouldn’t it? Maybe we’re better off just saying that we enjoyed seeing a marsh populated by some sensationally large birds. Yet we could go the full hog and push the line that what’s what on Beaver Island is not exclusively the wildlife and relatively untrammeled ecosystems. It’s the overwhelming sense of place.

And there are many things of human origin that contribute to the sense of place. Michiganders typically know about this guy James Strang, at one point in contention with Brigham Young for leadership of the Mormans following the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844. Strang wound up on Beaver Island with a contingent of disaffected Mormons, where he eventually declared something rather like the ISIL caliphate that is dominating the nightly news (albeit without the beheadings). There is pretty good stuff on Strang to be found at Wikipedia, so there’s really not much point in going on and on about him here.

We might be slightly better advised to indulge a tangent on Protar. Protar’s house is on the National Register of Historic Places (or some such official designation), and we were able to drive up and walk around it without interference. Protar is a long story, but he is a revered figure up there because he served as the island’s only doctor prior to his death in 1925. He was, however, trained as an actor, leading me to think that he was the 19th century version of Marcus Welby (I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV). Tip of the Protar iceberg, these facts, but definitely part of the Beaver Island sense of place.

We did hear some of the Island’s distinctive Celtic music, which relates to the Irish on the Island. And we should also note that there were Odawa living on several of the islands in the Beaver Archipelago back in the days of Strang and Protar. They were excellent fishermen (as were the Irish) until a sudden collapse in the fisheries there in the 1940s. It occurred to me that Beaver Island is a lot less accessible today than it was in the 19th century, when there were hundreds of vessels plying the waters of Lake Michigan on a regular basis. These days you can fly in all year around (not something they did in Protar’s time) but the ferry that runs to Charlevoix is the main commercial ship going in and out on a regular basis.

I went up there looking for the North American home of Simone de Beauvoir, the prominent French existential feminist. I was thrown off by some work by a contemporary existential feminist who refers to de Beauvoir as “the Beaver.” I won’t speculate on the subliminal themes here, but Kyle informed me that the French would have referred to the place as l’île Castor. Food? Not so much in our brief experience. We did eat some local whitefish, but though I’d say the places we dined were just fine, I don’t think you’d go to Beaver Island for food culture. That’s generally true of the U. P., too. It’s a bet they’re missing so far.

And we didn’t actually see any beavers.

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


The Skitters

August 16, 2015

Longtime blog readers expect an entry on peaches about now, but sadly the peach crop in Michigan was not so good this year. In lieu of overpraising the Colorado peaches we’ve been vacuuming into our gullets for the last week, I think I’ll just segue right back to some food references in American literature. Here I’m thinking of a passage in The Grapes of Wrath where Ruthie and Winfield Joad endure a case of the skitters from eating too many peaches. (And I think we’ve visited this incident briefly once before).

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel The Grapes of Wrath would be an obvious choice for anyone interested in food ethics. As I’m sure at least a few blog-readers know, it begins (nominally) in Dust Bowl Oklahoma and ends with the Joad family suffering the indignities of migrant labor in the orchards of California. Steinbeck deftly combines the two big ethical issues of industrial agriculture—environmental devastation and social injustice—with this particular bit of plotting. I’ve written about this in my real-world life in my book The Agrarian Vision, so frankly I’m already bored with the prospect of probing Grapes on these counts. There is the minor point that the region of Oklahoma where Steinbeck situates the Joads during the chapters where they are being evicted from a dust-clogged and no longer productive family farm isn’t actually in the Oklahoma panhandle (where the Dust Bowl was a very real phenomenon), but I’m going to let that one pass this morning.

Although the links between a certain type of greed and the exploitation of Dust Bowl soils was a common enough theme in the 1930s, Steinbeck was always more interested in what happens to the Okies once they get to California. He was an advocate of the poor and downtrodden, though not necessarily an advocate of any particular social policy along these lines. The Joads bounce around from various Hooverville encampments to substandard housing being supplied to pickers at large scale California fruit and vegetable farms. They are generally (though not universally) cheated on these farms by being paid significantly less than the advertised rate for their unskilled labor. However, at one of the locations they are allowed to eat as much as they want. What they are picking at this farm is peaches, hence the link to Ruthie and Winfield’s fate.

Now at this point I’m obligated by my contract with the Thornapple CSA (which hosts this website) to indulge in one or two tangential interludes that take the theme of blog far off track, and instill a sense of befuddlement and stupification in my readers. I’ll start by noting that ‘stupification’ isn’t actually a word, though ‘stupefaction’ is. I think it should be stupification, don’t you? Then I might add that according to the Internet, skitters are functionally nocturnal and communicate using radio waves. You will also learn that they are able to use harnessed children to communicate with humans. If by some chance you were searching the Blogosphere for more up-to-date information on this particular alien life form, I’m now obligated to inform you of my suspicion that this really doesn’t have much to do with The Grapes of Wrath.

Setting aside the possibility that Ruthie and Winfield have been harnessed by an alien life form (there’s really nothing in the novel to support such a reading), Steinbeck is introducing the skitters incident to make a slightly more subtle point. The Joad kids have grown up poor in Oklahoma. As a result, they’ve never seen peaches. It’s their excitement over the rash abundance of what to them is a luxury commodity that induces their overconsumption. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether a case of the skitters is intended to suggest a form of divine revenge for such an indulgence.

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

Oysters, Anyone?

August 9, 2015

I spent a good seven nights (though not all at once) this summer a few blocks from the old location of the Reno House on Sacramento St. near Kearney in San Francisco. It’s where Van Vandover is living as he concludes his downward slide in Frank Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute, written in the 1890s but not published until 1914. I think of Frank Norris as a possible food ethics icon in virtue of the work he completed toward a trilogy he referred to as “The Epic of the Wheat.” The basic idea—which might actually be somewhat misleading given the components that Norris did get written—is that a capitalist food system is driven by soul-destroying greed, competitiveness and venality, only to end up delivering heroic blessings courtesy of the invisible hand. Sound familiar? Norris exemplified the first part of this theme in his two most influential novels, The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903). The former book is about wheat production in late 19th century Califorinia and the exploitation of industrial farmers by the railroad. Of course the farmers themselves were themselves exploiting both the land and their hired labor—competitiveness and venality, don’t you know. The latter volume is also about competitiveness and venality but this time at the Chicago Board of Trade, where wheat winds up after the railroads have gotten their hands on it.

Norris had reportedly planned a third volume where this wheat was going to end up feeding hungry people in the Ukraine (or some such exotic location—don’t quote me on this), redeeming all that soul-destroying venality and corruption. But he died of peritonitis at the tender age of 32, and he never got around to finishing “The Epic of the Wheat.” I guess that means that the capitalist industrial food system remains unredeemed to this day. I frankly don’t know whether Norris should be regarded as an apologist for the industrial food system, or one of its most effective critics.

Vandover and the Brute is not about food and farming, but I’m here to tell you that there are themes in food ethics that might be gleaned from it, nonetheless. If there are redemptive qualities to Norris’s first effort at the long form (and I think they are), they do not reside in the plotting. Vandover is the son of a wealthy San Francisco attorney. Right away we know that he’s a shiftless bum, more interested in his inflated dreams of painting a monumental battle scene than in actually doing any useful work. He ends up swabbing toilets and removing the rotting carcasses of vermin from the mill houses owned by his former Harvard chum Charlie Geary. It’s Charlie who is soulless, competitive and venal, while Van is a hapless boob consumed by the passions of the moment. But Norris is a writer who can strike just the right note in passages that recount the quotidian details of Vandover’s daily life—his ability to be deterred from his art by the pleasures of a bath or a cigar, for example.

And as any faithful reader of the Thornapple Blog would expect, food also shows up on the list of corrupting distractions. Welsh rabbits and oysters top the menu while Vandover still has enough of his family wealth to indulge himself. Meanwhile Charlie is downing steak after steak at the Imperial eating house. By the end Vandover is surviving on the crackers and sandwiches set out for taking for anyone who has a nickel for beer in the low-end barrooms of the late 19th century waterfront.

I’d like to go off on a typical Thornapple Blog tangent on the Welsh rabbit, which we typically render as “Welsh rarebit”, though Wikipedia tells me that “welsh rabbit” is, in fact, the original spelling. Norris uses both spellings, but it is always “welsh rabbit” when the reader is seeing the world through Vandover’s increasingly clouded perspective. Out here in the Great Midwest, we call this a “hot brown.” This nominally because something rather like it was served at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. As it happens, I was also at the Brown Hotel earlier this year, but I’m getting to the end of the blog this week, so I guess I’d better resist the tangent.

Unless I just did it. There are some random synapses lurking in my own debauched, corrupt and competitively venal brain suggesting that I should take up literary criticism and write about the food ethics themes in novels that are manifestly not about food, novels like Vandover and the Brute. But I doubt that I will ever put enough effort into that kind of thinking to pull it off. I would have enjoyed some oysters and a hot brown while in San Francisco, but the closest I came was some sushi from Bristol Farms.

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