Taken to the Gleaners

September 26, 2010

So here’s a recurring theme: tomatoes. It’s getting near the end of tomato season in Michigan. I just finished a wonderful meal of whole wheat pasta covered with some fresh tomatoes lightly sautéed with green peppers, garlic and onion in olive oil. Add a little organic mozzarella, open a bottle of Italian Valpolicella  and enjoy. For dessert, I made a special trip for cottage cheese to go along with one of the three heirloom tomatoes we have left. See “Fat Elvis” for the details.

Tomato distributions for the Thornapple CSA have probably ended, though diligent (or in my case desperate) members can still come out to Appleschram Farm and do a little gleaning. (I must say, I’ve loved that word for a long time. I look for occasions in which I can mention gleaning in casual conversation. I’ll talk about gleaning discarded manuscripts I’ve written for forgotten gems (not that I ever find any), or I’ll dig deep in the produce drawer of the refrigerator gleaning for soup fixings. Unfortunately, most of them are already a bit moldy, thus not fit for gleaning. And when I’m in the mood for a real stretch, it’s “gleaning on the everlasting arms,” or “Look at all that mold in the refrigerator produce drawer! It needs a good gleaning.”)

Actually “The Gleaners” is a famous painting by Jean-François Millet. It depicts three peasant women doing stoop labor in a harvested wheat field. They are going through the stubble looking for grains of wheat that fell from shaft as the stalk was scythed and bound into fagots or loaded onto wagons. I seem to have fallen into an “art” thing over the last couple of weeks, but I promise to avoid deep existential messages in this particular case. This is a beautiful picture, allegedly an inspiration to Vincent Van Gogh, and pretty straightforward in it’s depiction of a classic farming scene that was probably repeated every autumn throughout Europe for several centuries.

However, Millet’s painting is ambiguous about who actually benefits from the gleaning. I always thought that the peasant women were scrambling for little bits of usable food that were missed by the official harvest. And I suppose that I used to think that they were like the farm families of the American Midwest that I knew well: Pa had done the main harvest and was probably busy doing the threshing before bagging the grain and hauling it into town to sell. Ma, on the other hand, was out there gleaning because these family farmers are hard workers who would not want any least little bit of grain to be wasted. And like a lot of mid-century farmers, I tended to assume that bits of grain eaten by the crows or field mice would indeed be wasted.

A lot of my youthful assumptions about this scene are questionable. First of all, it doesn’t actually look nearly so bucolic to me today. As an environmentally sensitive guy, I’m ready to leave a little for the crows and mice. My use of the phrase “stoop labor” above is another tip-off: this is not joyful harmony with nature.  Neither of these thoughts would have occurred to me in looking at reproductions of this painting when I was growing up. What’s more, it’s not at all clear that these women are working on their own land. It’s quite likely that they are working for a landlord. They may get to keep a share of the crop, but their share will be determined from what’s left after all the other bills are paid. And what about that gleaning, anyway? Is there any chance that these women will be able to keep the meager pickings they manage to salvage from the harvested field? There are a bunch of wagons being loaded in the background of Millet’s picture, and this suggests that gleanings and all will be part of the landlord’s take.

A websearch on gleaning turned up this definition: Harvesting for free distribution to the needy, or for donation to a nonprofit organization for ultimate distribution to the needy, an agricultural crop that has been donated by the owner. But as my musings above indicate, it’s questionable that the gleaner’s of yore were engaged in a charitable pursuit. Agriculture has changed a lot since Millet worked in 1857, and not all of those changes are to be regretted. These are some things to keep in mind when you make the trek out Appleschram this week in a gleaning quest.

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

Time to Eat

September 19, 2010

I spent yesterday afternoon wandering around the Guggenheim Bilbao. The museum is dedicated to large-scale modern art. The building by architect Frank Gehry is itself a fantastic piece of modern art, both inside and out. Although I was blown away by the whole experience, I’ll concentrate on a permanent installation in the museum by sculptor Richard Serra that’s entitled “The Matter of Time.” It consists of eight to twelve giant 2” thick sheets of carbon steel about twenty feet across that stand on edge. They range from about 60’ to perhaps a couple of hundred feet in length, but most of them are coiled and twisted so that they create tunnels, rooms and spirals that you can walk through and around. The steel itself has a simple but amazing surface texture created by the natural rolling process and occasional rivulets of rust and oxidation. It’s big enough that it would have to be outdoors anywhere else, but the pieces sit in a giant and oddly shaped room with giant skylights that create shadows and rainbows as one wanders among these giant metal sculptures.

(Did I get across the point that these things are really, really big, as in “giant”?)

There’s a video with Serra explaining his work to Charlie Rose. He’s trying to get across a point that John Dewey made in his book Art as Experience. The point is this: the work of art is actually the experience that someone has in viewing or otherwise encountering it. This means that art is never completely in the control of the artist; the person experiencing the work is part of the work; different people will have different experiences and artists best think of themselves as stimulating and collaborating with all the various “experiencers” who will encounter the work.

In the case of this particular sculpture, Serra points out that part of the idea was to create a work that had to be experienced over a period of time. There’s no vantage point to grasp the work as a snapshot. A visitor to the exhibit wanders through or around the sculptures, experiencing the shifting planes of surfaces that curve and bend, leaning first this way and that, sometimes open at the top and sometimes coming so close together that only a narrow shaft of light can penetrate. The experience one has of this work is a temporal experience, and that’s the point. Some viewers will get all Freudian about it, thinking about the way that experience itself emerges and develops over time. Others will just play with the shifting shapes as they move through the maze. Still others may be bored, but boredom is also a deeply temporal experience in which one is made keenly aware of the slow and un-engaging passage of time.

Eating is also a temporal thing. Eating a meal or snack unfolds in time. It is experiential. It happens. Even for the hungriest and most food insecure person, taking sustenance occurs as a temporal experience, and as such the act becomes part of the time that constitutes a given individual’s life. Even a bare meal can be an enriching experience, and even a lavish, calorie laden spread can be demeaning and disrespectful of the person whose time is given to eating it. This is a crucial meaning of food, and anyone engaged in the food system who loses sight of this denies one of the existential facts most crucial to food ethics. People who produce, prepare or otherwise manage food or food policy must understand that they, like artists, are in the business of creating experiences for the people who eat. These experiences deserve our respect.

Unfortunately, I heard a bunch of talks at the European Society for Agriculture and Food Ethics this week from people obsessing about facts and figures and the imperatives of increasing population and the need to produce more food. The talks were unfortunate precisely because the speakers—sadly typical of our agri-science community—had completely lost sight of the fact that food has an experiential meaning, that eating constitutes a temporal period of a given person’s life. Food security is indeed a key theme for food ethics, but we should never adopt a notion of security that reduces only to calories and nutrients.  Food is experience, experience is being and any ethical response to hunger must find some way to acknowledge that.

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

Hoophouse Gala

September 12, 2010

Diane and I just got back from the annual Michigan State University Student Organic Farm Hoophouse Gala Dinner. The organic farm is a teaching and research effort at MSU that has been going for a little over a decade. They offer a certificate program that provides  people with no farming experience excellent training in methods of organic production. The hoophouse mentioned above is kind of a Michigan (well at least Northern) thing. It’s a plastic covered greenhouse that allows significant season extension for vegetable production. The Student Organic Farm is kind of second cousin to the Thornapple CSA, so it really is a party to hang out with the foodies for an evening.

The gala dinner has been possible in part due to leadership from Vennie Gore, the Assistant Vice President for Residential and Hospitality Services at MSU. Gore came to campus in 2007, and has been very supportive of programs that raise the profile of good quality, healthy food on campus. Chefs at the State Room in the MSU Kellogg Center plan and execute the dinner using all local, all Michigan ingredients, with the vegetables and pork being produced right on the Student Organic Farm. Residential and Hospitality Services is the key sponsor for the Gala dinner. Here’s the menu:


Wedge of Black Star Farms Raclette

By Chef Tom Stavischeck and Chef Matthew Wilson


Gathered MSU Student Organic Farm Greens

ByChef Patrick Merz and Chef Rajeev Patgaonkar


Tuscan-Poached Salmon

By Chef David Brown


Michigan Peach Sorbet

By Chef Gerhard Steiner


MSU Student Organic Farm Pasture-Raised Pork

By Chef Eric Batten, Chef Mike Clyne, Chef Brad Curlee, Chef Kurt Kwaitkowski and Chef Matthew Wilson

Sweet Potato Dauphinoise

By Chef Rob Trufant


Michigan Bluberry Bread and Butter Pudding

By Chef Mike Clyne

MSU Student Organic Farm Honey Vanilla Ice Cream

By Chef Kurt Kwiatdowski

Alls I kin say is “Wow!”

O.K. maybe the salmon didn’t come from Michigan. And all right, there are no cows on the student organic farm so I’m not at all sure how Chef Kurt managed to make ice cream. MSU does have an organic dairy, but it’s down at the Kellogg Biological Station near Battle Creek. Maybe the students do have some organic bees that make organic honey. At any rate, I’m not going to pick nits after a dinner like that. I hope everyone will support the student organic farm by buying a ticket around this time next year.

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

September Song

September 5, 2010

There’s an old pop song from the ’60s that goes something like this:

They say that all good things must end some day.

Autumn leaves must fall.

It’s Chad and Jeremy, I think, and it’s a guy saying farewell to a summer love. There were a number of these in the ’60s. Did all of us go and live on a lake somewhere over the summer, or stay for weeks or months with our grandparents? Why was it that we were saying goodbye to summer flings? It doesn’t seem to be such a part of the present day rhythm.

But it’s a rhythm that has stayed with me my whole life. It’s a consequence of working the college circuit. September has marked a major transition in my daily activities every year of my life. It’s going back to school time, leaving aside summer diversions, and since I turned pro in the mid ’70s, it means going back to work.

Well, that’s not exactly right. I’ve been busting my butt all summer long, in some respects working harder than I do during the year. But the pace is quite different. From mid-May to August, I’m trying to wrap up projects, knock out papers that need to get written, and get geared up for my classes. Come September, I’m having these long meandering talks with my students about technology over coffee, explaining to a woman who just finished her undergraduate degree what graduate school would actually prepare her to do, having these jarring discontinuities as I bounce back and forth between the occasional new student who has read something I wrote and is impressed by the fact that they are talking to someone that they had heard of before they met them, and the more typical new student who does not know me from Adam’s off ox (and why should they?). All of this seems casual, but there is also that background pace of needing to have lecture notes, class presentations and assignments ready on an unrelenting schedule. And in all these conversations, I still have that urge to get back to the unfinished projects still lingering from the summer, but it’s an urge I have to stifle. Talking to students is my job.

And then there’s a relatively new pop song by Bruce Springsteen. It goes:

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

This song captures the September mood for a late fifties guy sitting on Grand River across from the MSU campus drinking coffee during the days that students trickle back to campus pretty nicely. Look it up if you don’t know it. But in some respects, it’s just the echoes of Chad and Jeremy all over again.

For foodies, this means that fresh tomatoes and peaches are coming to an end. We’ve been eating an obscenely expensive box of white organic peaches in a mad race to savor as much of that bliss as we can before it rots. And although tomatoes will still be around for a few weeks, the dark red heirlooms are pretty much done. We still have the high points of harvest time ahead of us: root crops and winter squash in particular, and probably some of those late season greens, too. But it’s coming around and winter will be staring us in the face before we know it.

Calendars are cycles that endow the present tense with meanings it might otherwise lack. Modern folks live calendars through the school cycle, and as my musings here indicate, some of us live their whole life that way. There are also the holidays, of course, and I’m sure that lots of folks are enjoying the long weekend that marks the official end of summer. Food is a major part of that calendar. Eating in season and taking note of it with a casual remark (or a blog) is the fun side of food ethics, recompense for our responsibility to think about the hungry or bad eggs. As for me, I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport lounge on my way to Bulgaria for a project meeting on transgenic animals. It’s another symptom of the restart that’s happening, putting me back on the academic time clock. It was great to spend the summer in Michigan, I’ll say. It would have been a tragedy to miss those tomatoes and peaches.

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