From Seat 2-B

October 31, 2010

I’ve decided to go as Hamlet this Halloween.  That’s because I’m writing this blog from Seat 2-B on Delta 1123 from Salt Lake City to Detroit. (2-B or Not 2-B… Get it? Yuk, yuk…). Apologies to Thornapple CSA readers who tire of the travelogue nature that this blog takes at times, but it is a major component of the reality that I live from day to day. I was awakened this morning at 4:00am by a telephone call from a robot telling me that my flight scheduled for 7:00 am was delayed until 10:00, but that Delta had thoughtfully rebooked me on a flight leaving at 8:40. Then at 4:45 I got a call from another robot thanking me for staying at the Salt Lake City Marriott and advising me that this was the wake-up call I had booked the night before when I thought that I needed to be at the airport by a quarter to six. So by this time, I was pretty much awake and  when my traveling companion called at 5:00 we decided we might as well go on out to the airport and eat breakfast. And maybe even have a little interaction with real human beings.

After receiving my order from the delightful and assuredly non-robotic Coco, I sat at Dick Clark’s  eating my French toast surrounded by Dick Clark’s memorabilia, listening to Steppenwolf, Van Morrison and Brian Hyland. I was sitting next to a platinum record presented to American Bandstand for Bruce Springsteen’s Born In the USA album. (Don’t ask me why American Bandstand got a platinum record for Born in the USA.) I was thinking to myself that it can’t be very long before no one will know what any of this means. Diane and I went to hear Bob Dylan last week at MSU and a casual remark to one of my students revealed that she had never heard of Bob Dylan. And for those of you sitting there wondering who in the heck Brian Hyland was, I’ll clue you in. Brian Hyland was the one who sang these immortal words:

It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini

That she wore for the first time to today

My god! What a terrible thing to hear before coffee! But it reminded me of a Joan Didion essay where she writes about being thrown out of a grocery store called Ralph’s Market in L.A. during the early sixties because she was wearing a bikini . It led me to try a Google search on my in-flight wireless connection to see if I could turn up a picture of Joan Didion in a bikini, but no luck.  Joan, if you read this blog, see if there is anything you can do about that.

So I’ll admit that the food thread here is pretty thin: French toast…coffee…grocery store.  Then there’s the bowl of Corn Chex, and the cup of “light” yogurt they gave me on the flight this morning.  Since it’s already noon in Detroit, I’m going to eat this and call it lunch. And I’m glad to get it.

In fact, I’ve been waist deep in the industrial food system all weekend. I was at a project meeting where Dan Sumner, an economist from the University of California at Davis reminded me that the most generous estimates for U.S. consumption of foods that would fit the various “local” or “alternative”  classifications suggest that they are something between 2% and 4% of the total. Although we might dream about the entire population of Detroit eating a hot breakfast of eggs from backyard chickens, we should remember that the stars may lie but the numbers never do.

I guess it’s too soon to question whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or abandon working with mainstream agriculture to try and edge the food system just a few degrees closer to sustainability. Terroirifying as it may be …

Trick or treat, Horatio!

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

Fast Food

Oct. 24, 2010

So is there any fast food worth eating?

I want to consider this question in a fairly straightforward way. Yeah, I know that pulling into the drive through is just another mindless way to participate in giant killing complex that causes death and destruction in untold numbers. I know that the major fast food franchises are contributing to the burning of the rain forest, tightening of the grip of the military industrial complex and exploiting the credulity of the American taxpayer who must subsidize the cost of ingredients in those happy meals, then pay again to support the emergency room health care of the minimum wage workers who are paid part time so that the franchisee can avoid the burden of health insurance. I know all those things, but I didn’t sit down in front of my computer on one of the last semi-sunny Sunday afternoons in Michigan October to launch myself into yet another downer blog on how unfortunate it is that we humans are so freakishly obsessed with this thing called eating. Just give it up and join the social movement, I say.

No, no! Wait a minute… Don’t give it up, and don’t give up the idea that growing, cooking and eating can be, in addition to good politics, enjoyable. So bracket all your worries about endorsing the violence implicit in the industrial food system for about five or six minutes. Have a brief episode of amnesia about your desire to trouble the complex of actors and machines that conspires to configure the consuming public as a willing sewer pit. Just for millisecond stifle your rage over the way we are treated as stooges who will pay for the privilege of allowing corporate sleazeballs and bean counters to deposit sludge and slime into our up-turned and eager mouths… Now damn it! There I a go again.

No what I really wanted was to spend just a very brief time thinking about whether there is any food served by the major fast food chain restaurants that is actually any good to eat, that one could truthfully be said to savor or sincerely anticipate with anything more than the bland and joyless expectation that one’s hunger pangs will be satisfied after enduring only brief insults to one’s palate, one’s digestive tract and that with decent genes, a little luck and two hours on the treadmill will not permanently compromise one’s prospects for leading a reasonably healthy life beyond age 60. That’s what today’s blog is supposed to be about.

And my answer is, well, not really. BUT THERE USED TO BE! My idea is that the menus with which some of our most venerable fast food chains started their climb to the top of the industrial food chain were actually a lot better than what we tend to get there today. And I’m thinking about two items in particular. One is the original McDonald’s hamburger. Cooked with onions on the grill then served with a dollop of ketchup, mustard and sliced pickles, when this burger was still 15¢ it was also pretty good. It’s still what I eat when I go to McDonald’s (which, I must admit, I did once last week), but frankly I don’t think it’s what it used to be. Maybe this is just my own growing curmudgeonedness showing itself (When I was a boy, we walked 14 miles through blinding snow storms to get to and from school… And we LIKED it!).  But although I don’t discern great change in the ketchup, mustard and pickle, I do not think the bun and especially the burger are anywhere near as good as they used to be. I’d like to know if I’m alone in this.

But the thing I really miss is the Taco Bell burrito with green sauce. I don’t mean any of these fancy burrito-esque concoctions they are serving now. I’m talking about the days when you would go into Taco Bell and there were only five things on the menu, and each one had a pronunciation guide. Who recalls the taco (TAH-co), the tostado (toh-STAH-do), the burrito (burr-EEH-to), the pintos & cheese (PEEN-tohs) and the beverages (beh-ver-AHH-jays)?  Okay, I made that last part up. But in those days, only the TAH-co came with meat, and there were no choices like hard or soft, much less the plethora of layers and volcanoes you see today. Your burr-EEH-to was going to come in a big flour tortilla with beans, chopped onions and grated cheese. The only choice you had to make was whether the sauce was red or green.

Taco Bell’s beans were and still are pretty decent. No lard, by the way. The tortillas are nothing to brag about, but no one has as yet figured out a way to screw up chopped onions (the Vidalia and the 1016 notwithstanding) and the cheese was not a big taste item in the Taco Bell bean burrito, in any case. What made this into something you might actually savor was the tomatillo sauce, which was kept hot on a steam table and ladled out into the burrito as it was being assembled. Of course, given that Taco Bell felt it necessary to tell people how to pronounce “burrito”, they were not going to call it tomatillo sauce, so they just called it green sauce. Mmm, good.

I’m told that there are still some parts of the U.S.A. where the Taco Bells serve green sauce, though I haven’t been in one that had it in anything but little plastic squeeze packets in a couple of decades. Here in the Midwest, even the squeeze packets are nowhere to be found. If you mention green sauce in a Taco Bell, the counter attendants immediately do the small-mouth bass impersonation that I presume they are taught to perform if unruly customers engage in disruptive or threatening behavior. Not wanting to press my luck, I usually stop there and revert to the regular bean burrito (which comes with red sauce), which I order with extra onions. And out of the Southwest, I’ve stopped asking altogether for fear that the Homeland Security Police have determined that requesting green sauce is a key sign of someone who wants to resist the violence inherent in the system, trouble the authorities and rage against lives being lived in quiet desperation.

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

Dr. Paul’s Wunderkind Special and Extraordinary Unusual Exclusive Elixre (On Sale Here)

October 17, 2010

Out there again this week, riding on a smile and shoeshine, I attended Expo East, which is the East Coast trade show for the Organic Trade Association in Boston. It was my second trade show this year, and like the first one, I was hot on the trail of swag. However, while swag at BIO involves stuff like free USB drives, notepads and the occasional stuffed e-coli plush toy, swag at OTA is mostly consumable. There’s chicken teriyaki, freshly fried up, all the yogurt you could want in every possible form, reconstituted freeze dried fruit, spices and squid, chocolate covered nuts, beans and barley and all kinds of nut butters and healthy snacks. Lots to drink, too. Everybody and his uncle has started a company selling coconut water. And then there’s the flavored fish oil which comes in both mango and creamsicle, the anti-oxidant rich elixirs like Dr. Whoosits tonic-seed, non-GMO, no-high-fructose corn sweetener, gluten-free with extra-added-hyphenated-ingredients. If you are not careful, you can consume enough flaxseed oil and secret Asian health ingredients to either keep you bound up for a week or alternatively confined to the facilities until all the potions finally finish working their magic and your system has been thoroughly cleaned of poisons, toxins and other ineffable nasties, (probably like the extra extra electrolytes and vitamins you may have consumed in the special performance enhancing jelly beans you got at another booth).

And as Dave Barry says, folks, I’m not making this up.

Aside from the stuff to put in or on your body, all the booths at this show have tote-bags to give away. I needed one, of course, which turned out to be from a company called “Nordic Naturals” which produces fish oil in a sustainable fashion. Of course, everyone at this show is producing in a sustainable fashion, which, of course, is why they are giving away all those totebags.

Of course, I’m only kidding. These totebags are all made either from organic cotton, recycled materials or belly-button lint and toe-jam harvested from a co-op of Fair Trade wheatgrass and açaí palmproducers in the Trobriand Islands and imported into the United States in the carry-on luggage of flight attendants on national airlines of non-WTO member countries. So you can feel good about taking these totebags to your local co-op, farmer’s market, health supplement or Whole Foods store, where you will be doing free advertising for Nordic Naturals, Dr. Whoosit or whoever of the 3000 exhibiters at the OTA whose totebag you happen to be schlepping around that day.

I did get one totebag I really liked, though. It was for bird-friendly coffee. It’s approved by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. I support the thought, but I mainly like the bag because it has a cool bird picture on it. And because I’ve tried that bird-aloof coffee (not to mention bird-churlish coffee) and I just can’t stand the bitter aftertaste.

People were friendly, though. When I would mention that I was a philosophy professor working on ethics issues at the Biotechnology Industry Organization trade show in May, people would stare at me open mouthed and slack-jawed. I might as well have told them that I was an açaí palm producer from the Trobriand Islands recruiting flight attendants who could smuggle belly-button lint and toe-jam in their carry-on luggage. I mean really. But at this meeting people were actually interested by the idea that there might be a professor around who was doing food ethics. They were interested, at least, as long as there was no one else to talk to who might actually help them make a buck. I was tempted to mention that if they would just give me a really cool sample, I would tout their product to thousands of eager 18-22 year-olds every year.

But I didn’t.

There’s one way that this meeting and the BIO meeting are remarkably alike, however. At both of these meetings, food sits in second place to healthcare products and applications. OTA is more into food than BIO, but health supplement and cosmetics outfits take up most of the space and get the best locations.


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

Small Farms

October 10, 2010

Back during the 1980s farm crisis my friend Gary Comstock put together a volume entitled Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm? The contributors to the book tended to avoid actually answering this question, but one could discern a general trend. Quite a few contributors suggested that the decline of relatively small farms was just the inevitable result of market forces. Small farmers can’t compete; they’re inefficient compared to larger ones. And what they didn’t actually say (but one suspects what they meant) was that this is really all there is to say about this. The market is always right. Whatever results from market forces has a moral logic behind it, and we should just suck it up and accept the result. Stepping in and trying to reverse this result would be unfair to the people who accepted the need to compete. I still hear this from relatively larger farmers in Michigan.

For me, the most decisive argument against this “fair competition” view is that the kind of farming we have today is hardly the result of market forces. The Federal government has put incredible subsidies into large scale farming, and I’m not talking about the subsidy programs that are paid out for corn, soybeans and other commodity crops every year. I’m talking about the way that the defense budget underwrote a massive expansion of the chemical industry’s ability to produce synthetic nitrogen and chemical pesticides. Much of the productive capacity to do this was built on the basis of defense contracts that guaranteed full cost recovery at zero risk. The country needed these technologies, first to fight two World Wars, and later to remain strong in military power. It was very easy for the chemical industry to “beat swords into plowshares” by converting this capacity to agricultural uses. And maybe it was appropriate for them to do so, but it sure as heck destroys the “fair competition” argument when your realize how unlikely it is that the capacity to deliver chemical farm inputs would have ever been built if the chemical industry had expected farmers to pay for it.

A few (and I’m talking about very few) defenders of industrial scale farming actually have given some thought to why this might be a good idea. They note that it is generally a good idea to make it possible for goods of any kind to be produced cheaply, because that allows consumers to spend their money on other things. They expand their basket of consumables, so to speak, and this is not only good for them as consumers, it also tends to spark economic growth in sectors other than agriculture. In philosophy, we call this a utilitarian argument. Efficiencies are good because they help promote “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If a few farmers go broke, the harm from that is offset by benefits to the majority. And there is an egalitarian kicker to this argument for farming, because the poor tend to spend more on food. So reducing the cost of food benefits the poor proportionally more than the rich (who might prefer a decline in the price of computers, air travel or diamonds).

These are important arguments that I take very seriously. I think that they successfully establish the reason why Comstock’s question is actually an important one. Here are some of the arguments he offers to support small farms.

  • Small family farms are an important part of our history. They have symbolic value.
  • Smaller family farmers may be better stewards of the land because they plan to hand their farms down to children. They may, in other words, be better for the environment.
  • Smaller farmers may be better contributors to community values.

This last argument gets a bit of support from a famous study by Walter Goldschmidt published under the title As You Sow. Goldschmidt (who died recently) studied two towns in California. One was surrounded by many smaller scale farms, the other by fewer larger farms. The small farm community had better social services, a healthier local business community, better schools and a generally better quality of life. It may just be because there was a critical mass of population, but Goldschmidt did note that the larger farmers would travel farther to get better deals on equipment and inputs. They did not support the local businesses the way that smaller farmers did.

I’m not at all sure that these arguments for small farms trump the argument from efficiency. But as I note above, I’m also not at all sure that the way efficiencies are measured in a market environment are all that accurate. Other studies by John Brewster repeatedly showed that small farms are as efficient in producing food as larger ones; but it may be easier for food companies to contract with a smaller number of large farmers. This suggests that maybe we should look for ways other than low market prices to help those on low incomes get better access to quality food.

But it’s a tough nut to crack!

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

Bean Boy II

October 3, 2010

I had some great bean soup at Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, MN yesterday afternoon. I guess Mickey’s has been there for a long, long time. It’s a classic train-car diner—a real train car (but built to be a diner) as opposed to what you see more typically these days. The bean soup is made with navy beans and small bits of diced smoked ham. It’s a little salty but smoky and very tasty and it really hit the spot after getting of the airplane a little bit past the proper lunch hour.

If you do travel (and I’m not saying you should) I think it’s a good thing to suss out the local joints like Mickey’s—the ones that have been there forever and that have been part of defining the landmarks (physical and cultural) that make a locale into a genuine place. This trip to the twin cities will be memorable in part because of our quick trip to Mickey’s, and also because we stayed in the St. Paul Hotel and had dinner at the St. Paul Grill. The St. Paul Hotel is celebrating its centennial this year. Neither it nor the restaurant qualifies as quite the landmark that Mickey’s is. The hotel was closed in the 70s and the reopened in the mid-80s after a dramatic renovation. Nonetheless, I’m not going to quibble about the “centennial” thing. Both the hotel and the restaurant qualify as touchstones for local Twin Cities culture, even if there was a bit of a hiatus.

Some if the food that you will encounter in these local landmarks is actually not all that good. If you don’t know Cincinnati chili, for example, you really should sample some Skyline and some Gold Star just to get a bit of the local controversy (which is better?) for a half century or so. But I’m not sure that this needs to something you continue to do on your third or fourth trip to Cincy. In Buffalo, you might want to try a roast beef on weck, or a Texas Red Hot, but for many tastes once will be enough.

Any restaurant trying to convey a Minnesota food history will be serving some wild rice soup. The version Diane tried at the St. Paul Grill was pretty good. As for bean soup, there is a famous version that comes from the U.S. Senate cafeteria. I’m told Campbell’s Soup tried to copy it with their Bean and Bacon variety. Mickey’s version was a lot like the stuff my Mom used to make when I was growing up. Navy beans and ham was one of the “standards” at our house, and one of the things she did quite well. Despite all that, I used to drown my bowl in enough catsup to turn the whole thing into a vaguely tomatoish looking goulash. And I think I would inevitably scarf down two bowls.

Maybe that’s why I developed an alter ego called “Bean Boy II” during the rap era. A legend in my own mind, I’m always fronting some kind of air band in my daydreams, and strangely, several of them have a food connection. First there was “Bloody Gravy”, an actual band (with two, count ‘em, two paying gigs) in the 1970s. Then I toyed with a blues and bluegrass group that we thought we might call “The Spent Hens” when I lived in Texas. When my kids were teenagers, it never got farther than a three second recording on a little give-away key-chain memory device where I sang “They call me Bean Boy II”. Did the declining ambition and accomplishment of my musical alter-egos represent realism or a continuing delusional state?

Lucinda Williams sings:

I found the love I was lookin’ for…

It’s a true love, a real love.

Standin’ behind an electric guitar…

It’s a true love, a real love.

This week I’m in St. Peter, MN for the Gustavus Adolphus Nobel Conference. (You can watch it live on the Internet!) They say it’s the only place where college professors get treated like rock stars.

Rock on, Fat Elvis.

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