A Quick One, While I’m Away

November 22, 2015

Nothing about Ivan the Engine Driver this week, just a few random thoughts as we round the corner into Thanksgiving weekend.

I’m eating breakfast in a distant city (again) this week and I’m sitting there sipping my coffee with a copy of my book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone sitting on the table in front of me. A woman at the adjacent table asks me, “Is that a good book?” Well, I should have assured her that it is probably the best book I have read since Thornton W. Burgess’s The Adventures of Grandfather Frog. But instead I was taken aback and just told her that I probably wouldn’t be a very good judge of that because of my deep personal involvement in the book’s creation. To which she replied, “A friend had told me about it, and I was just curious.”

This has certainly never happened to me before, a total stranger NOT at some kind of arcane philosophers’ meeting mentioning that she had actually heard of something I’ve written. Frankly, I’m a bit skeptical. Perhaps she confused “from field to fork” with From Farm to Fortune by Horatio Alger. Or maybe it was From Abundance to Scarcity by Kenneth Boulding. Still I decided to enjoy the moment.

I can also comfort my self with the elliptical ontological observation that if you happen to be reading the Thornapple Blog right at this moment, you too may have heard of something I’ve written.

Next week is the anniversary for the Thornapple Blog.

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

Overheard at Ellyington’s

November 15, 2015

It’s hard to avoid a little inadvertent eavesdropping when you are waiting for breakfast by yourself at a quiet restaurant. The two guys at the adjacent table are also waiting for their food, but they are engaged in an intense conversation over things like “core samples” and some sort of foibles that have occurred of late that will require them or their partners to redo something not done properly. The conversation seems to be about drilling of some kind, but I don’t think they are dentists. They drone on. I’m not really trying to listen, and my coffee is much more interesting in any case. After my oatmeal shows up and I have creamed and sugared it to my taste, I’m working through my daily regimen of morning medicine and happen to catch a few more snippets of their exchange. Now things have moved on and the topic has turned to Peyton Manning and last week’s loss to the Colts. It’s something else I’m not deeply inclined to listen in on, but at least I can make a little more sense of the apparent concern being expressed about whether the Broncos are really as good as their record would suggest.

Next morning I’m seated in a different area of the same restaurant near a table with two women, both younger than me, but between 35 and 50. I overhear something about a rehearsal dinner and am trying to tune them out, but the topic segues into shopping for dresses and the pair are quite animated, if certainly well within the range of decorum one would expect at a place with white tablecloths. The detail on colors, styles and how they make them look is a little embarrassing to listen to, but strangely compelling, too. Eventually my coffee is enough of a distraction and I am able to tune out this conversation at least until my bran muffin shows up. Their food has arrived as well and just like the morning before I catch a few more lines of the conversation, which has now turned to contracts, expectations and foibles. One says, “I see that I did not ask the right question.”

So both of these couples are conducting business over breakfast—something I do very rarely. The men apparently got right down to it, finishing all the tough stuff about digging holes over their coffee and juice, leaving plenty of time for exchanging sports-talk once the omelets arrived. The women might have been friends or relatives planning an event at the hotel I was staying at given their OJ and coffee talk, but that turned out to be pleasantries that were being exchanged until the serious food arrived, at which point they got down to business. And clearly one of them had a pointed message that she wanted to get across to the other.

Now, I’m just sayin’, but do you think there was some kind of gender/food thing going on here?

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


Whatever Will Bee, Will Bee

November 8, 2015

I warned you last week that I was heading to a meeting about the difficulties of industry-generated science, so you shouldn’t be too surprised that I am following up on that this morning. Here’s the context: we just don’t trust claims made by representatives of the food industry, even when those claims are putatively backed up by science. And even if the claims are made by nominally disinterested parties (like university scientists), we still don’t trust them if the putatively disinterested party was paid to do the research by the food industry. Most people who have been looking at this have come to the conclusion that the problem is actually quite subtle. On the one hand, there are obvious cases where for-profit firms have perpetrated frauds: they have effectively been lying to us. Volkswagen came up in this connection, as did the very recent allegations that Exxon perpetrated a disinformation campaign on climate change that was directly contrary to what their own scientists’ were reporting in internal documents.

On the other hand, these incidents don’t speak to the heart of the problem. It would be rare for university scientists or other disinterested parties to be enrolled in this kind of deceit. The problem resides more in the way that certain research methods can be predictably associated with certain kinds of results, and that though it might be scientifically valid to do research of that sort, there may be unasked questions (to which other methods might have been amenable). As I intimated a couple of weeks back, it’s easy enough to identify the university scientists who are going to do stuff you like, and then to give the money to them, rather than someone who is doing stuff you might not like. We don’t trust the industry or the scientists who work for them not because we think they are lying to us, but because we suspect that they are just not asking the questions that really matter.

As it happens, there were a couple of bee papers at this conference. You may have read that our bees are in trouble. The technical name for this is colony collapse disorder, and the leading hypothesis is that it is caused by a relatively new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. In this connection, the discussion took up some industry funded research that did not involve collaboration with university scientists or even disinterested parties. It was a collaboration between a company that makes neonicotinoid pesticides and does not want them banned (and hence has an interest in disproving this hypothesis) and beekeepers who have an interest in regulating neonicotinoids, if the hypothesis is shown to be true.

One paper by Sainath Suryanarayanan from the University of Wisconsin claimed that industry research in cooperation with beekeepers had used methodologies that skewed results by limiting the timeframe in which observations would be collected and by discounting beekeeper observations that were out of the mainstream. They got away with this, Suryanarayanan claimed, because they were able to assert an authority for Science (with a capital S) that the claims of working beekeepers lacked. He then sketched an alternative method that accords more epistemic authority for the knowledge claims of beekeepers.

Now here would be an excellent opportunity for the obligatory Thornapple Blog tangent to discuss “epistemic authority”, but instead I’ll just say that it’s a term that is intended to convey whether or not some person or group’s claim to know something should be taken seriously. If, for example, you think that I am a trusted source of knowledge about neonicotinoids just because I can spell the word, you have seriously overestimated my epistemic authority.

There was also a paper by Iain Kelly who works for Bayer CropScience, a company that is a major supplier of neonicotinoids. Kelly claimed that the evidence for “the leading hypothesis” is not so clear and that one of the difficulties that his company had in conducting research with beekeepers is that they would say one thing the first week and something entirely different the next. Frankly, I’m not really sure that there was a deep logical contradiction between the way that Kelly described this research with beekeepers and the way that Suryanarayanan described it. These two papers did not get us to the point where we could ask ourselves, “Should the EPA ban neonicotinoids just because beekeepers don’t like them?” or even to “How should the evidence provided by beekeepers be weighed in making regulatory decisions about neonicotinoids?” Kelly did say that he (and we can presume Bayer CropScience) did learn some things that will influence future research from their collaboration with beekeepers. He didn’t say exactly what it was, but it might have had something to do with epistemic authority.

I can’t entirely bee sure. Que sera, sera.

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



November 1, 2015

A few weeks back I did a blog about academics and their relationships with big players in the food industry. My point was that we really shouldn’t be shocked, shocked (quoting Captain Louis Renault from Casablanca) when we learn that university scientists share the values and perspectives of major food industry firms. It was, in a twisted sense perhaps, just what Abraham Lincoln had in mind. I’m headed to a philosophy conference on industry/university science relationships down in South Bend, IN later this week, so the story is on my mind.

As it happens, I talked to a reporter named Brooke Borel about this, and she sent me a link to the story that she eventually wrote for Buzzfeed. It’s pretty interesting and I recommend following the link that I embedded in the date text above. For some unexplained reason, the robots at WordPress aren’t letting me embed a link in the right place when I work on my Mac. Must be one of those Cupertino rivalry things.

In a nutshell, a University of Florida plant scientist named Kevin Folta had been running a podcast under the penname “ Vern Blazek.” In one episode, Blazek interviewed Folta. Borel wonders if this is deceptive. There’s also the point about the Borel/Folta “interview” being rather positive (that’s putting it mildly, I think) about GMOs. Then Folta denies any relationship with industry, but it turns out (according to Borel) that Monsanto had given him an unrestricted grant of $25,000. Borel wonders if this, too, is deceptive.

Now to put this in perspective, $25,000 is, on the one hand, not an awfully lot of money in the world of grants. It costs us almost $40,000 to support a graduate student for a year, and this is before we spend a dime on any of the research that they would be doing. On the other hand, any kind of unrestricted grant is rather rare, and $25,000 unrestricted dollars can be paired with other more restricted funds in a manner that benefits a researcher pretty substantially. So I’m at something of a loss to make any sense of how Folta could have denied having a relationship with industry. It’s pretty clear to me that Monsanto was telling him, “Hey, we like you,” and given that, it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that Folta’s use of his alter ego Blazek was a way of saying “Hey, I like you back.”

What about that penname thing? Some time back, a University of Colorado political scientist named Ward Churchill was charged with misconduct because (among other things) he had actually written some of the essays that appeared with other author’s names in books he had (nominally) edited. Churchhill was a) a very controversial activist in support of Native Americans and other marginalized groups and b) eventually fired. Now the Churchill story is pretty convoluted so Google him if you want the background. I mention him as a contrast case to Folta primarily to show that academics with very different political leanings produce written work that they prefer to have attributed to some identity other than themselves.

I’ve thought about it. I once entertained fantasies of writing a book I would call How to Cheat at College. It would in fact recount some of the cheating techniques I’ve actually seen, but it also would have had a subliminal argument that would have led readers to think through whether cheating on class assignments and examinations wasn’t really just a way of cheating themselves. Of course, such a book might have caused me some embarrassment, because you can be sure that the average TV or radio journalist would not have been able to figure out what I was really up to. And there was also the chance that I might actually make some serious money (like more than $25,000) off such an effort. How could an ethics professor stand that kind of publicity? I wasn’t about to do something like that under my own name!

Well, I never got around to it, in any case. Eventually I did think about writing something that would have a life beyond just being a tickbox on my annual report. That was about six years ago when I started writing the Thornapple Blog on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2009. I suppose if I had been really smart, I would have used a false name and asked Monsanto for an unrestricted grant so I could keep doing it. What do you think they would have said?

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

Breakdown Lane

October 25, 2015

I’m writing on the bus from Xitou to Taipai City, and the traffic is heavy on Sunday evening. Things run in a smooth and orderly way here in Taiwan, unlike the roads around Beijing. Still and all, I see quite a few drivers zipping past on the right in the breakdown lane at about 70 mph. I’d hate to have a flat tire here.

And speaking of which, we’ve kind of had a flat tire year in the Thornapple CSA, haven’t we? We’re ten days or so past the last distribution day, and maybe it’s a good moment to reflect on the past. I always have to be careful with this, because Diane is afraid that Thornapple members reading the blog—she’s crazy to think there are any—might think I’m speaking for her. Well for the record, Diane and I are on opposite sides of the globe. My e-mail is not working, and I can’t get cell service here. Meanwhile she doesn’t have an internet connection. So I’m speaking just for myself.

Looking back on seven seasons, I’d say we’ve done well for the members on five of them. We had a rocky year some time back, but memories are short. This year there were a number of things that members were hoping for that never materialized in the weekly baskets. Hopefully next year will be better.

But there’s another side to this and that’s how things work out for our farmers. As both long-time readers and most local Thornapple members probably know, we have a “core group” of members that takes on responsibility for steering things on behalf of the entire membership. Unlike farmer-organized CSAs, we hire a farmer at Thornapple. Often it’s a relatively young and idealistic person or couple hoping to get a start in small-scale organic farming. In fact, I can’t think of an exception to the “young and idealistic” part of that, but maybe the fact that it seems that way to me reflects more on me being old and cynical than them being young and idealistic.

I’m not going to do a tally, but I will say that more often than not, the main thing these young and idealistic types learn is that this small organic farming life is not really everything that it had been cracked up to be. Many of them would not like to hear me say that. They have often remained idealistic even as they have confronted some disappointments. And there’s no single failure mode here. Sometimes the physical labor has just been too much, and at other times the ability to build extra income through sales at farmers’ markets or the like has just not proven to be as lucrative as it needed to be in order to make being the Thornapple farmer into a viable lifestyle. Sometimes it was just that a more attractive alternative beckoned. For many of those years we would have been happy to have a farmer come back, but wound up searching for a new farmer over the winter months.

But let’s face it members. We have a tendency to wear out farmers. Making all the pieces fit in terms of matching work expectations,  meshing a communication style with the needs of our members and then jibing with the facilities at Appleshram is just not a trivially simple affair. It’s kind of amazing that on 5 out of seven tries, the membership has come away with warm and fuzzy feelings about the CSA way, even when on three or four of those occasions the farmers have concluded that it is an experience they don’t need to repeat. Coming to appreciate that complexity is one of the lessons that the whole CSA experience is designed to teach us urbanites, disconnected from our food systems as we tend to be. Let’s not forget that as we start planning for a more satisfying year in 2016. I hope all the members who do read this can see their way clear to shaking off that flat tire and giving it one more try.

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

A Rose Is Actually Not a Rose, Afterall

October 18, 2015

In a rare and uncharacteristic mood of timeliness, I note that the Senate Agriculture Committee is supposed to hold hearings on GMO labeling this week. “Supposed” rather than “will” because a) who knows what they will actually do? I’m not omniscient, and b) I’m too lazy to dig into their calendar and figure out whether there has been a change since the last time I knew anything about this (which was, truthfully, a couple of weeks ago). So with both readers forewarned and my contractual obligation to pursue irrelevant tangents fulfilled, I plow ahead.

I have advocated some form of GMO labeling since 1997, when doing so was exceedingly unpopular. However, I have also argued that the best case would be for the food industry to figure out how to do this voluntarily. We have lots of voluntary labels in the food world: fair-trade, gluten-free, Red Delicious. You don’t have to tell customers that this apple is a Red Delicious variety. All the Government cares about is whether or not once you’ve made these claims, they are in actual fact true. But before you can decide whether the claim is true there is also a bit of sticky philosophical business to sort out in terms of what the claim means. I’ve always presumed that a “GMO free” label means that the labeled product is neither itself GMO (e.g. its genetics are a product of gene transfer) nor does it contain GMOs in the case of a processed food.

We would also expect the label to imply that some reasonable steps have been taken to assure this, and in the world of voluntary labels that usually means there is some third party that attests to this. So just to be clear, you the buyer and the person or company marketing the product are the first two parties (don’t get me started on who is first and who is second). The “third party” is a mediator who satisfies that the product is “GMO free” in a manner that is putatively satisfactory to both of you. Now if you’ve been paying attention to the food world, you are probably aware that you can in fact buy GMO-free products these days, and you might think that products labeled GMO-free are (just as I said) neither GMOs nor contain GMOs. But while this is the case, the GMO-free label typically means more than this.

Specifically, the groups that promote and certify GMO-free labels interpret this as a moral claim. Not only does a person or company that labels their product as GMO-free have to speak the truth, they must also be philosophically opposed to any GMOs in the food system. They must be enrolled in a social movement that aims to prevent those people who either want GMOs or alternatively just don’t give a hoot from having any opportunity to use them. From a practical standpoint, this means that if I own a tortilla factory and I want to label my truthfully non-GMO tortillas as non-GMO, that’s not enough. I can’t also be making or marketing another line of tortillas that are made from Bt maize. That would be regarded as an insufficient commitment to the cause by the main groups that are certifying products as non-GMO or GMO-free.

However this commitment to moral purity is also kind of half-assed, if I can permit that expression in a family oriented blog, because the rules don’t extend into the supply chain. I can buy the non-GMO maize for my certified GMO-free tortillas from a guy that grows or sells both GMO and non-GMO maize, even if he or she can’t label the non-GMO maize as such because of their insufficient philosophical commitment to a non-GMO food system. Now to be sure, I can’t use his GMO maize for my GMO-free tortillas because my claim that they are GMO-free would then be false. You are, in a strict sense, getting what you pay for. But if you thought you were buying ideological purity along with that tortilla, I’m sorry to report that the purity is only skin deep. If I had my druthers, we’d drop the moral purity thing altogether, and I could sell both GMO-free tortillas and standard non-labeled tortillas (and who knows what is in them—but maybe you don’t care).

Not so simple as you thought, eh, Chucko! Is it any wonder that Senate Agriculture Committee has become convinced that there are tough questions to sort out? Stay tuned (or maybe not!).

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



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