December 27, 2009

Food figures big-time in the holiday mentality, whether it’s Christmas, Hanukah or Kwanza being celebrated around this time of the year or Ramadan, Thanksgiving or Chinese New Year at some other time. The centerpiece for the Thompson family feast this week was a turkey raised by FFA students at Springport High School. Only three of the five of us ate turkey, as two are vegetarians. We try to blend some tradition (which calls for turkey or ham) with the needs and values that each of us bring to the table as individuals. In fact, preparation and clean-up are just as important as the eating, and in those phases we are especially mindful of not putting our vegetarian family members in direct contact with the roasted bird.

I have to admit being weak on clean-up. My personal style would be to let the mess sit for an hour or two while we enjoy the afterglow of a satisfying meal, but Diane is just not built that way. Our dinner is followed almost immediately by a cleaning and dish-doing frenzy in which I do well merely to get a few things from the table into the kitchen. But I’m definitely involved in preparation. Like lots of men, I usually carve the turkey, but I’m in there on the cooking, too. My specialties are mashed potatoes and turkey gravy. I was always self-appointed chair of the mashed potato committee when our church in Texas sponsored Thanksgiving dinners for A&M students and young faculty who were spending the holiday far from their usual family connections. (I should probably have that on my resume.) This year’s family edition was whipped up from Thornapple new potatoes that came in well before season’s end. As members know, they are too small to peel, but we’ve grown to like mashed potatoes with the peels whipped right in. The vegetarians in the crowd forget all about turkey when they have my peel-enhanced mashed potatoes to chew on.

Of course the traditionalists expect some gravy, too. I learned to make gravy from my Nana, and I do it pretty darn well if I say so myself. You start out by mixing a couple of tablespoons of flour in with about a third of a cup of milk with a fork. If you whip it vigorously, you will not have lumpy gravy. Then you add a couple more cups of milk (buttermilk or water, if that’s your taste), stir well and pour it into a frying pan where you have put the drippings from the turkey. This year’s turkey was not overly fat, but if you buy one that has had butter or vegetable oil injected into it, you will need to separate the actual drippings from the excess fat that will be in the bottom of the roasting pan, not to mention coating the ceiling and every other surface in the kitchen. I must say, an FFA turkey has quite a bit going for it, even if it is not quite as moist as the proverbial butterball. The drippings go into that ordinary frying pan with the milk and flour mixture, where they are cooked on a medium high heat. Add some salt and pepper to taste, but don’t stop stirring the mixture even for a second.

This takes patience. Also, a fork with a long handle. You could well be stirring for four or five minutes before the gravy starts to thicken. Then all of a sudden the two liquids will start to bind, and instead of having two distinct substances streaked through one another, you will have one, and it will be some very good gravy. If it gets too thick, you can add water, but not too much. And (again I stress) don’t stop stirring while you do it. It will take a little practice to get the proportions of flour, water/milk and drippings just right, and since if you are like me you don’t do this but once or twice a year, you may be forty five before you get it right. But as I head into advanced age this has gotten to be almost second nature for me. Except that at this year’s Thanksgiving my technique was complicated by the presence of diners who need a gluten and lactose free diet. The flour is thus obviously a problem, and so is the milk. So I am cajoled into making my famous turkey gravy with lactose-free milk and with corn starch instead of flour.

Now friends I must tell you, it just ain’t the same. You can stand there and stir drippings, lactose-free milk and corn starch until hell freezes over, but those drippings are never going to bind. The corn starch will make the milk as thick as grade school paste, but the grease will just float on top like an oil slick from the Exxon Valdez. Now what am I, as a professor of food and community ethics, supposed to make of this? Here’s my conclusion: Food works for community. Cooking together, eating together and cleaning up together builds togetherness, as much through the nuisances as through the pleasurable moments. We shouldn’t let that power for community become something that divides us, so we need to figure out a way to configure those meals so that vegetarians, as well as lactose and gluten intolerant individuals can be participants. But that doesn’t mean that they should expect to eat every dish that’s set on the table, and it damn sure means that they should not expect to be eating any gravy.

Thankfully, by Christmas things were back to normal and the gravy turned out fine. Community needs to cut both ways, and while we traditionalists shouldn’t be intolerant of those with different values and different needs, there also needs to be some tolerance for special foods that our grandparents taught us how to cook. At least once or twice a year.

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

Christmas Letter

December 20, 2009

Our daughter Dory and her husband Skip came into town yesterday afternoon from Texas, so I’m not keen to be investing a lot of my scarce time with them on blogging this week. My solution is to recycle, always a winner in the CSA mindset. What I’m recycling is some verbiage developed for this year’s Thompson family Christmas letter, with a bit of editing and revision. It occurs to me that Christmas letters may be about to go the way of fruitcakes. They became increasingly common over the last few decades, as Xerox and computers made ready duplication of text easy and cheap, but over the last few years the tendency to either brag too much or overburden readers with excessive detail has made them the butt of seasonal jokes. Apologies to Thornapple members who really didn’t need another Christmas letter to read, especially one that talks about a bunch of stuff you already know.

So I’m cruising down I-496 (the local connecter) on December 11 at about 60. We’ve had snow but the road is clear and dry. I’m still 10 miles under the limit because other surface roads are not so clear, and lots of the other morning commuters are going even slower. I normally don’t get out during rush hour but I have to give a talk this morning. I’m edging by a guy in a Suburban on my right when out of the corner of my eye he starts to fidget like he dropped his cell phone. A few seconds later, kablam! and I’m spinning down the road, taking up all three lanes. I finally come to rest on the right shoulder. Amazingly, I’m fine and the car can be driven to the body shop. However, my precious ’04 Jetta was declared a total loss by the insurance adjuster, so in addition to other holiday business I’m shopping for a new car. All this comes after emergency outpatient surgery in early October and two and half months of tests following my dermatologist taking a mole off my back that turns up melanoma. I’m clear for now, and taking no anti-cancer drugs at least until the next round of tests next March. So I have plenty to be thankful for this Christmas, like just being here to write this.

As noted above, Dory and Skip came in on December 19 for a week-long visit that we have been looking forward to with great anticipation. We haven’t seen them in 2009. Both seem to doing fine. Dory is still in her crazy job with the wildcat oil company in San Antonio, TX, and Skip is working his way through exams and training to reach certified financial advisor status. We also get good reports on Francis (their dog). The main problem with them is that they just don’t do enough funny stuff to mock sarcastically in the annual Christmas letter. That situation was relieved slightly when they arrived yesterday to several inches of new fallen snow, something neither had seen for years. We were able to convince them that shoveling the walk would be great fun, and that we would let them do it if Skip would be willing to pay for dinner at SanSu last night. Our walks are clear and the sushi was fantastic.

Diane (local food advocate) is another case. We don’t worry about funny stuff in her case; she is hilarious. Diane has given up pestering the mayor over the condemnation of our Lansing City Market and has decided to become a farmer herself. As Thornapple Readers know, she’s starting her own CSA. (Technically Diane is just “core group coordinator” but as far as the in-laws are concerned, this is “Diane’s CSA”.) That’s CSA as in “community supported agriculture,” not communist society of America. A CSA is a co-op partnership with a farmer to supply fresh fruits and vegetables over the growing season, while members pay up front and share the risk. Diane’s CSA involves a work commitment, which she has taken to heart, going out almost every day. This has meant that I am regaled constantly with tales of hoeing and weeding, worries about the chickens, and complaints about how Tractor Supply Company won’t put their seed in less than 50 pound bags. During the summer I’m entertained with stories about her troubles on distribution days at the Allen Street Farmer’s Market on Wednesday afternoon. Apparently some of the farmer/venders are less than enthusiastic about sharing space with a CSA. If you don’t know what a CSA is, you should, and you can learn lots more by exploring other parts of the Thornapple website. Lately Diane’s stories have turned to sheep. They run to meet her when she arrives (not that the bucket of food in her hand has anything to do with that). And as they say, I’m not making any of this up.

The news with Walker has been all about expecting a grand-baby, which was finally delivered on Dec. 8. We are overjoyed by this new arrival, and Walker has spent almost all his time since the delivery playing with her. She is a reconditioned 1908 Steinway Model A, “Martha Washington”. Oh did I say ‘grand baby’? I meant baby grand, but technically there is nothing baby about this grand. James Reeder, who performed the delivery, tells us that she qualifies as a “parlor grand”. Go to Wikipedia and look up “piano” if you really want to know what this means. At any rate, Walker and Martha are making beautiful music together. He’s even agreed to learn some Christmas songs, which, if you know Walker, is unprecedented.

Well, that’s it from the Christmas letter. Merry Christmas from the Thompson family 2009.

Take Out Season

December 13, 2009

So what do you eat at this mid-point between feasting holidays and attendant family gatherings? We managed to scrape together two meals this week that approximate the community ideal. I cooked some chili with the last of the late season tomatoes, the last of the CSA onions and a bag of Carson Arbrogast 9 bean mix. One batch was veggie, the other was seasoned with a couple of Appleschram bratwursts. No fresh peppers. Seasoned with some Fiesta brand paprika and some store-bought cumin and cayenne. I still have plenty of local garlic, and used that liberally, too. The next night Diane put together a whole-wheat pasta topped with home-canned CSA tomatoes and stirred up some kale in olive oil and garlic. The cheese on top came out of a bag with the Kraft logo, but still and all I count that meal as a win. More importantly, we managed to pretty much all sit down at the table for both those meals, including our son Walker.

But this only got us to Monday and things went downhill dramatically after that. Tuesday we were on our own and scrambling, piecing together bits of leftovers and other things. I think I wound up cutting up a Nathan’s hot dog and making my own “beanie weenie”, with some frozen fries on the side. No one else in the family would touch that stuff. Wednesday (or maybe it was Thursday—none of this was memorable) was another cobbled-together everyone on their own night. The great black chaotic maw of daily life caught up with us by the middle of the week and we were reduced to take out. Now there’s nothing wrong with a little take out now and then. When our kids were growing up, almost every Friday was take-out and it was regarded as kind of a treat. Admittedly the treat for the parents was partly in not having to cook, but everyone looked forward to it. We were in Texas then, and our choices oscillated between pretty mediocre pizza and some pretty darned good Tex-Mex fast food from Taco Cabana. Not meaning to overstate it here, but Michiganders don’t have anything that compares with Taco Cabana.

The pizza got a lot better when we migrated as far north as West Lafayette, Indiana. A rather bizarre place called Bruno’s Swiss Inn makes very, very good pizza, which they slice in a distinctive pattern with wallpaper shears. Bruno’s is less bizarre today than when we arrived, having moved to new digs in the late nineties, but it’s still worth a visit if you are in that neck of the woods. Here in Michigan, our pizza choices alternate between Deluca’s and Harry’s. Deluca’s is a Westside institution that probably needs no introduction to local readers, though I’m amazed that so many people from my work life at MSU have never heard of it. Harry’s is a local bar on Verlinden, across the street from the now-demolished GM plant and literally just around the corner from our house. Actually we probably do 4 or 5 Harry’s pizzas for every one we get from Deluca’s. As folks probably know, you almost always have a long wait for one of those Deluca’s pizzas, especially on Friday nights.

So forget the locally grown, healthy stuff, and forget holding out till Friday for a “special treat.” By mid-week we were calling Harry’s and ordering up one 14” with olives and another with tomatoes, onions and mushrooms (pepperoni on one side only). You have to kind of work yourself up for the ambiance at Harry’s. It’s always friendly enough, but sometimes it’s packed with seeming regulars while other times it’s almost empty. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason I can discern. And whether the joint is full or empty, they do like to smoke. So while I don’t think we’ve ever gone down there to eat as a family group, they do a credible job with the food. The pizza is surprisingly good, especially when it’s hot. Harry’s is so close that it’s always the first option for take out when nobody in the Thompson household wants to cook. And that’s definitely where our mindset was by whatever unmemorable night it was that we resorted to the telephone.

I’d like to say that it was a temporary thing, but Diane was on the phone to me again Saturday. I was working on campus, and she wanted me to bring something home. The first choice from that locale is Taste of Thai on Grand River, just east of Bogue Street. This is another one of those places that people who care probably already know about. It may not be the best Thai food in town, but other shops around have tended to be rather inconsistent over the years. I usually head over to the Quality Dairy store next door while they are fixing the order, but this time that’s where I got in trouble. By special request, I’m picking up a Dr. Pepper for Diane and I also grab a Diet Dr. Pepper for myself. And there is this big cooler in the front of the store with bottles of QD Eggnog buried in the ice. (I’m sucker for anything on ice.) Eggnog is probably worth a blog of its own. One can wax poetic, nostalgic and vitriolic contemplating the wide variety of viscous substances that parade under this banner in our industrial food society. I wouldn’t rate QD’s brand as the best, but it’s far from the worst. And as I hope is clear by now, an acceptable level of expedient mediocrity is the overriding theme for this week’s cuisine at the Thompson household.

However, it seems I crossed the line with the QD Eggnog. Not only is it sweetened with high fructose corn sweeteners, it’s colored with yellow #247.6/[email protected]$37>, or some such thing. Of course we don’t look so carefully at the ingredients list for the Dr. Pepper. But I take the point. Dr. Pepper is what it is, but it’s certainly possible to find eggnog that matches our values a little better than what I brought home, and after all, the ELFCO main store was not that much farther east. In my defense, it was graduation weekend, and the traffic on Grand River was horrible. And I have no intention of drinking more than one glass of eggnog a week between now and Christmas, anyway. Maybe eggnog is one of those foods that really should be relegated to truly special treat status, rather being insinuated into the acceptable mediocrity that characterizes take out season.

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

What’s Happening on Thornapple’s Farm

December 6, 2009

We have finally had some cold weather in Michigan over the last week. Cold weather means frost and dormancy on the farm. The harvest is over and no food is coming in to the household. Well, almost none. Weekly deliveries have been over for almost six weeks now, yet the Thompson household has been the recipient of late-harvested green tomatoes from several hoop houses (not just Thornapple’s) in the region. We have had enough of these treats, which must be left to ripen for weeks by the windowsill, that I am cooking chili with the last remnants of them here in the twelfth month of the year. That’s going on downstairs in the kitchen as I write this, but my main focus is what’s happening out on the farm itself.

Diane’s conversation has turned mostly to sheep. Yesterday she and Jane Bush rigged up a metal hut and some hay bales to serve as shelter when the icy winds blow snow across the fields. Sheep don’t actually mind the cold itself (or so we’re told), but may seek respite from the bluster of inclement weather. They were apparently sheepish about actually going in to the makeshift structure yesterday, but we will see what happens when some serious weather finally comes our way. The other big news is that a ram is “visiting” the eight ewes that call Appleschram home. I leave the rest of this story to the reader’s imagination.

As for the fields that furnish weekly deliveries for Thornapple CSA, they have now been sown in a cover crop of winter rye. Cover crops are forms of “green manure” viewed as essential components of a sustainable agriculture. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, “A winter cover crop is planted in late summer or fall to provide soil cover during the winter. Often a legume is chosen for the added benefit of nitrogen fixation. In northern states, the plant selected needs to possess enough cold tolerance to survive hard winters. Hairy vetch and rye are among the few selections that meet this need.”

Clovers are used as cover crops in warmer climes, and their ability to fix free nitrogen in the soil helps build fertility for the succeeding spring farming season. But how does rye figure in this mix? Now you’ve hit my limits of technical farming expertise. I have no idea. I do know that rye will continue to grow throughout the winter, despite the cold. Rye has an admirable ability to convert even mid-Michigan’s meager amounts of winter sunshine into photosynthetic activity. It can grow while the plant tops stick up above the snow. In larger fields, rye can be harvested as a winter crop, but I don’t think that’s in the works at Thornapple. The output from our fields would hardly make a single bottle of good rye whiskey.

The idea at Appleschram is that a cover crop of rye will deter the growth of winter hardy weeds, which would become a problem in the spring. What’s more, the organic matter from the crop itself can be turned into the soil in the springtime. The theory is that this stimulates a spike in the activity of soil micro-organisms, and decomposing plant matter from the rye becomes available as nutrients for the stuff we’ll eat next spring and summer. The National Center for Appropriate Technology is somewhat unimpressed with the prospects for using this strategy as a way to build humus (the magic bullet of organic farming), but they do endorse it as a way to improve soil structure and to allow better penetration of water.

And here’s this week’s philosophy bit. According to Wikipedia, Pliny the Elder is dismissive of rye, writing that it “is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation” and wheat is mixed into it “to mitigate its bitter taste, and even then is most unpleasant to the stomach”. I guess Pliny never bit into a good Reuben sandwich. And then there’s ergot. Ergot is a rye fungus that can cause hallucinations. Scholars have speculated that ergot was the cause of dancing manias that occurred during the late Middle Ages. According to Robert Bartholomew, “During outbreaks many immodestly tore off their clothing and pranced naked through the streets. Some screamed and beckoned to be tossed into the air; others danced furiously in what observers described as strange, colorful attire. A few reportedly laughed or weeped to the point of death. Women howled and made obscene gestures while others squealed like animals. Some rolled themselves in the dirt or relished being struck on the soles of their feet.”

We expect this kind of behavior to be occurring at Thornapple by mid-March at the latest. Actually, Bartholomew disputes the view that ergot was the cause of these spectacles, so I guess we will have to look elsewhere for our fun.

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