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

Have Some Pie

September 14, 2014

Back when my kids were really kids we used to play this dinky little cassette tape with a bunch of songs geared to Thanksgiving. You might think that this would be a good source for some food songs. Except when I think about it, most of those songs didn’t really say much about food. “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,”: Well, you may imagine yourself sitting there, head bowed over a table spread with steaming sumptuous, but in fact, there are no direct references to food. “Over the river and through the woods,” ends with a “Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!” but it’s mostly about horses, snow and cold noses. There was “When I first came to this land, I was not a wealthy man,” which goes on to talk about farming and a cow called “No milk now,” always to come around to a refrain, “But the land was pure and good, and I did what I could.” Close, but not really a food song.

Let’s consider a new possibility: It’s not so much that there are very few food songs, it’s just that the food songs out there are not very memorable. If we stick with the Thanksgiving theme we come immediately to Adam Sandler’s “I like turkey,” from a random little thing he cooked up for a Thanksgiving weekend Saturday Night Live way back in ancient times. More recently we get Nicole Westbrook singing about turkey and mashed potatoes in the Patrice Wilson song “It’s Thanksgiving.” I’m not providing any links because I took the trouble to listen to these for you. There’s no reason why everyone should suffer.

More generally (but still following a thread) there’s “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie” from Jay and the Techniques. It’s one of the amazing aspects of cyber culture that there is actually a Wikipedia entry on this group, where I learned that they also released another song called “Strawberry Shortcake”. Nope. Don’t remember that. And that’s my point.

There is a song that’s called “Pumpkin Pie” by Evan Taubenfeld, but following yet another thread we’ve chased down in the Thronapple blog before, it’s really about sex, rather than food. If you scroll back through the food songs blogs from 2012 and 2013 you will discover that lots of songs that are putatively about food are actually about sex. And some of the songs that are actually about food are also about sex. No harm there, I say, but we are chasing down the actual food songs this month, so “Pumpkin Pie” doesn’t count on that criterion, memorable or not. There must be 137 songs called “Cherry Pie,” and 1037 songs that reference cherry pie, but none of them are actually about cherry pie.

What set me off some three years back was a quest for food songs you might actually want to hear at a food party. And so far aside from the “Hit List” we ended with last year, I’d say we’re still looking.

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

Another Cup

September 7, 2014

Passing through an indiscernible hiatus our cruise vessel steams quietly into the safe harbor of routine activity. Yes, folks, it’s September. If you didn’t notice any major change of key it’s probably because the start of any month is kind of arbitrary. It’s the job of bloggers everywhere to chronicle these passages, holding them out for everyone’s attention just for a moment so that we can savor them, battle against them. If they generally fail to notice these transitions explicitly that’s just because they are appropriately engaged with the natural shifts in subject matter that go along for the ride.

Which is why I probably should have just launched into a discussion of an Iriving Berlin song from the 1932 Broadway musical Face the Music. It winds up with this refrain:

Mister Herbert Hoover
Says that now’s the time to buy
So let’s have another cup o’ coffee
And let’s have another piece o’ pie!

Both of my regular readers can probably remember another President who offered similar advice in the face of an economic collapse second only to the one that dear Irving was having his cast sing about in 1932. But that would be a tangent, and we never indulge ourselves with tangents in the Thornapple blog.

No, the point is that we have rolled around to that month of the year when we consider songs that celebrate food. I’ll admit that this theme may be getting a bit long in the tooth. I gave some serious thought to abandoning the whole idea this time around. Okay, okay—the thought crossed my mind as I was sitting in an airport lounge yesterday after having been prevented from getting home on Friday as planned due to the round of thunderstorms that swept through mid-Michigan. I was finishing a cup of coffee when the fact that I would need to be writing a blog today crossed my mind. Of course since this was yesterday, what crossed my mind was not the thought that I would need to be writing a blog today, but that I would need to be writing a blog tomorrow. But as there is virtually any time that you, dear reader, might be working your way through this temporally tortuous labyrinth of logic, I can’t speculate on what sense you will make of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow was the title of a wonderful Vittorio de Sica movie from the 60s. Yesterday and Today (but no tomorrow) was the title of a compilation album of Beatles songs released exclusively in the U.S., also in the 60s, but later. Neither of them had anything to do with food, so there really wouldn’t be any reason to mention them in today’s blog even if you are reading it at some time tomorrow. We are masters of space and time here in the Thornapple Blog.

So after finishing my coffee (or my pumpkin spice macchiato, as the case may be) I was wondering whether I should have another one, and “Bingo!” I had the topic for yet another blog on food songs. I Googled the song and found out it was by Berlin, and that it was set in an automat based on the Horn & Hardart chains of yore. I’ve never seen a production of Face the Music but I have eaten at a Horn & Hardart’s (which is just another way of saying “I’m as old as dirt,” I’m afraid). Horn & Hardart’s once had iconic status amongst foodies, so this is not really as tangential as it might appear at first. But more pertinent to the thread of our cruise into autumn, we will in plain fact be doing another month of food songs this September. More to come.

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

Labor Day Weekend

August 31, 2014

I dreamed I saw Charles Bukowski eating carrot cake from a clear plastic clamshell at the corner bakery in Chelsea. He was drinking fresh orange juice and chatting up Carolyn Cassady. I think he was hoping to ply her with baba ganoush and get her to give up her secret recipe for garlic-parmesan kale chips. Famous Neal was nowhere to be seen but Sonny Barger was sitting at a back table with a one-eyed Bob Creeley. Ralph was eating a curry-chicken salad with dried cherries and fennel on a croissant with arugula and heirloom black krims. He was laughing with his elbow on the table and his hand poised limply over the chicken-sal croissant, and the kerchief tied around his head had faint traces of thimbleberry jam. Creeley was sucking steadily on some pink concoction, a strawberry frappe topped with whipped cream, maybe, or a huckleberry infused banana smoothie ensconced beneath a dollop of Cool Whip and garnished with tiny leaves of fresh mint. Creeley was hard for me to read, but Barger was laughing easily, and toying absent-mindedly with the house-made sweet potato kettle chips with sea salt sitting next to his sandwich.

Meanwhile behind the counter Jimmy Baldwin was dipping ice cream and barista Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell was standing behind the La Pavani 3 BarL making making one pumpkin-spiced macchiato after another. Baldwin was trying to explain why the shop was out of pistachio almond gelato to Lester Young, encouraging him to try some fiore di latte instead. “You know I steered you true on that blood orange granita when you were in last week,” he said. Lester was not convinced. “Fiore di latte!” he exclaimed. “I don’t want no gelato made from cheese!” Anaïs was just putting her trademarked “delta of venus” froth on the macchiato, and overheard this exchange. “C’mon, Lester,” she exclaimed. “You know we only serve mozzarella di bufala campana, while mozzarella fior di latte is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk.” She was not letting on about the problems people are having getting unpasteurized fresh cheeses past the Michigan artisanal foods law. Jimmy was back in by now, too: “Nah, man! Fior di latte is just generic Italian for anything made from fresh milk!”

By this time John Arthur Johnson had come in through the old screen door that faces the corner of Main and Middle Streets. Jack is fluent in Italian, but he was not about to be drawn into this fracas. “You got panna cotta today, Jimmy?” he asked. “Sure I do. You want that with the raspberry coulis?” asks Baldwin. But this gets Bukowski’s attention. “Raspberry coulis?” he shouts. “Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted raspberry coulis with my carrot cake?” I’m wondering if a poet looped on cream-cheese icing and fresh orange juice can maintain a sugar-high that’s strong enough for him to take on the Galveston Giant over some thickened Rubus idaeus. I mean, Bukowski was known as a brawler, but that was back in the day, well before alienated aesthetes began to appreciate the virtues of organic tomatillos and were still drinking whiskey, smoking pot and shooting heroin. That was when the real punks in the world were out riding Vincent Black Shadows up and down CA Route 25, not sipping rooibos chai from a Dart cup as they steered their hybrids down MI 52 outside of Pinckney.

Wake up and smell the pumpkin spice macchiato, say I.

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

Going to Mexico

August 24, 2014

Is there a robot out there who can help me with one of my more importunate research problems? Some time ago—maybe four or five years back—there was a particular aphorism that was circulating in sustainability studies. I wouldn’t say that it had gone viral, but I must have heard a half dozen different speakers recite it during the course of talking about sustainability. It went something like this: “If you are heading to Canada and you are driving 100 miles an hour in the direction of Mexico, slowing down to 20 miles an hour won’t help.”

When I heard this, I used to think, “Well that’s not right. Have you ever tried to execute a 180° turn at 100 miles an hour?” Not that I have tried to do this, but you get the idea. However, the point (I think) that people were trying to make with this was a good one. A lot of work in sustainability just focuses on increasing efficiencies that would slow the rate of resource depletion, but that “stuff” (water, soil, energy, rare earths) is going to be gone sooner or later in any case. It’s better to think of sustainability by identifying the appropriate “living space” for the human species and then aiming to work within those limits. I’ve tried to get at this by talking about people who think that sustainability is about “resource sufficiency” as opposed to people who understand “functional integrity,” but perhaps that’s just a symptom of my own peculiar Asperger’s disorder.

So maybe this Mexico aphorism makes the point better. I’m reasonably sure that half the speakers I heard reciting this little tidbit had no idea what it meant. They just thought it was sounded cool and was mildly thought provoking. Or they thought it was just a generic criticism of stupidity. Of course, it could be the case that they just disagreed with me, and that I was wrong. But this is my blog, so we’re certainly not going to take that possibility seriously here.

So for some time now (at least twenty minutes) I’ve been trying to figure out the original source of this heading to Mexico thing. And don’t tell me that it was Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs (Pack my bags; don’t be too slow. I should of quit you baby a long time ago) or James Taylor (Wo-oh, down in Mexico, I never really been so I don’t really know). I might have been William McDonough, but the robots have not really been much help. McDonough is the guy who came up with “Waste = Food” and cradle-to-cradle. The robots keep directing me to things about immigration or they presume that (like Miller and Scaggs) I’m actually thinking about going to Mexico myself. If it was McDonough who coined this idea he should have put his little meme into a song lyric or ring tone so that commercially motivated search robots would have some incentive to find it. What is a lazy researcher to do in cases like this?

At this point I’m about to resort to actual human beings. And don’t forget, the tomatoes are finally in in Michigan.

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