Best Meals of Oh Ten

December 26, 2010

How many bloggers are writing something like this? My guess would be dozens, at least. Dragging out the year’s “best of” is a pretty hackneyed trope for anyone who had to write something (anything) for a deadline anytime in the past thirty days. The creation of the blogosphere only multiplies the cliché rate exponentially. Yet I must confess that I’m addicted to reading every “top X’s of the year” I come upon. I’ve certainly wasted hours reading up on the top athletes, the top new music releases and the top fiction releases of 2010 despite the cold fact that I couldn’t care less about any of them. I might actually put some of the top 10 films in my Netflix queue, but in truth I could probably do without most of the other exercises in remembering the year.

In comparison to these relatively public “best of” lists, a best meals list has to be pretty narcissistic. Still, one of my themes is temporality, the way that growing, preparing and eating involves the lived-experience of time passing. The real sense in which “you are what you eat” has less to do with the substances that your body is made of than with the way that the time of one’s life consists in seasonally reproduced cycles of food. So in that spirit I press ahead with my original thought.

In truth, I had memorable meals in abundance. There was a Bulgarian feast in Sofia, and shopping at a grocery store for bread, wine, cheese and sausages in Madrid. That meal came back to the apartment that Diane and I had booked with four friends from college days, where we stayed up until 2:00 am eating and laughing. That’s what makes a meal worth talking about–the conviviality as much as the food.

The Thornapple blog has celebrated a lot of specific foods, but only a few specific meals. One of them was the MSU Student Organic Farm’s big gala fundraiser back in September, and another was the chili I cooked for a Thornapple fundraiser last January. The chili was especially significant for me because it marked the first time in many years that I got back to an art to which I had dedicated quite a bit of myself in younger days. My particular chili involves both pork roast and ground beef, and it takes three kinds of beans: pinto, kidney and lima. The last bean will surprise many chili aficionados but don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. In January, it also involved canned tomatoes and copious amounts of frozen peppers that Diane had frozen from the previous year’s cache. The peppers (many kinds) were accumulated from our participation in both the Thornapple and the Giving Tree CSA. Oddly, we did not freeze any peppers this year so I don’t know what will happen when the chili fever seizes me some cold winter’s day in 2011.

But of course the real culinary highlights of the year revolve not around canned tomatoes, but fresh heirlooms, which provide the primary gustatory rationale for Thornapple CSA, in the first place. One can find repeated references to them in the Thornapple blog, and I would expect this trend to continue. It’s always that first dish of tomatoes and cottage cheese that’s the best one. Yet I confess that I can’t necessarily recall the specific episode during which this memorable meal occurred. Oh, feeble and fervid neurons! Peaches are right behind tomatoes, and I can recall that giant box of organic white peaches Diane brought in last August. Not one of them was lacking for a bruise or a blemish, so  it was advisable to stand over the sink or in the yard with a knife in one hand and the oozing peach in the other. (Does that count as a meal?) One could get a backache bending over to keep peach juice from staining one’s shirt, but it would be worth it.

As an inveterate but accidental tourist, I also eat lots of meals out. One particularly memorable one was squid in its own ink at the Metro Moya Restaurante. That’s a Basque specialty I had to try while I was in Bilbao. It was exquisitely prepared and very tasty. Very black, I must say. Yet’ I’m not sure this is one I’d do again. A more repeatable meal would be tapas (called pinxtos in Bilbao). I would head to Casa Victor Montes on Plaza Nueva. I guess it just reflects my bias for the ordinary day-to-day over the exquisite and cosmopolitan.  There was a nice Chicago dog on the floor of the McCormick Place Convention Center, and there was exotic take-out (lobster roll) from Faneuil Hall in Boston. On the chic side I also had a very nice bouillabaisse, but not in the Basque country. This one was in the restaurant of the Hotel Dupont back in Washington, DC. Our group was eating with Walter Willett, and the obvious pick is “Whatever he’s having.”

Back in Lansing there are always visits to SanSu, and the occasional take-out, but my most memorable meals are probably two visits to Golden Harvest. They buy heirlooms from Thornapple at the Allen St. market, by the way. I’d go there frequently but for the fact that one can easily have a wait of thirty minutes to an hour to get one of the tables in this absolutely fantastic and hard to describe eatery. I haven’t written about it because its against the rules. It’s become one of those places that’s gotten too popular. As Yogi once said, “No one goes there. It’s too crowded.”

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


December 19, 2010

The last few weeks of the Thornapple blog have taken a reflective turn, focused more on process than outcome, and as a result they have drifted away from food ethics. Occasioned by the anniversary of the blog, I’ve been thinking and writing a bit on blogging. This began with the Keyblog after Thanksgiving, which harkened back to the very first Thornapple blog in 2009. In the process of writing the Keyblog, I spent some time going back over the previous year’s efforts. While doing so, I made an effort to use tags and categories that can help the occasional surfer find those entries that they might find interesting. My son Walker advises me that he finds some of the blogs funny, some of them thought-provoking and some of them just plain weird.

By which, I presume, he means that they are obtuse and inscrutable. A good example would be the Ooops! blog and its references to sea lice. There was a point buried deep there, and it was something like “Sea lice are people, too!” but that’s almost as obscure as the original blog, so perhaps I should just give this up and get on to the subject at hand.

I went through the past year’s blogs and put many of them into the category of “Funny” or “Serious” in some sort of effort to enable people who come here with the idea of reading those thought-provoking tidbits to actually find them amidst the chaff and sarcasm. The sarcasm got stuck into “Funny”. I know that they will not strike everyone as funny any more than the “Serious” ones strike everyone as thought-provoking (see “Mail Call” for the evidence). But as the cliché goes, it is what it is. There are also a few blogs I’ve written with the thought that actual members of the Thornapple CSA might be reading them. This would be about thirty people, max, and in reality it’s probably five or six, not all of whom read every week. I don’t treat this as a newsletter. These entries are intended to be somewhat reflective and informative about what it means to be a member of a CSA in general, and of the Thornapple CSA, in particular. I’ve clumped them under the category “CSA Beeswax”. Also obtuse, I know: Il est ce qu’il est.

And as for the obtuse and weird, I’ve mostly left those “Uncategorized,” along with a bunch that are just kind of boring. There are a few blogs that celebrate particular foods: coffee, peanut butter, ice cream. I don’t really know what to do with these except in the rare case that they are also kind of funny, like “Gravy”. Maybe in a year I’ll get enthused enough to have a new category. My Dad, who reads this blog seemingly rather regularly, comments that I write with a “walking fingers” style: I just start out writing and the thoughts take me wherever they go. That may be true in a few cases, like when Shakespeare gets connected to Joan Didion in a bikini. But generally, no. That’s not how I approach my blog.

The fact is, I just love wide turns and seemingly discontinuous juxtapositions. I spend a lot of time thinking about them, too, though I surely wouldn’t claim that all of them do the work they are intended to do. Sometimes the wide turn works for humor: My ruminations on chili remain my favorite Thornapple blog. Other times its serious business.  Josiah Royce is now somewhat unjustly obscure, but he wrote an insightful (but also deeply problematic) book in which he suggested that loyalty is at the core of ethics. And food ethics tests one’s loyalties mightily. One week I’m in there with small family farmers or migrant workers and the next week I’m hanging out with gargantutarians and VPs from Wal-Mart. People need to eat, and other things equal, eating cheaply is especially attractive from the egalitarian perspective. Spending less on food becomes more and more important the poorer you are. And many environmental calculations turn out to favor highly efficient industrial-scale production and distribution, too. There are, in short, really good ethical rationales behind what works in the industrial food system.

On the opposite side of the equation, other things rarely are equal.  People in the alternative food movement are struggling to right what’s wrong about the industrial food system. Some of them have watched loved-ones die from cancer or diabetes, and they see eating differently as part of their own personal salvation. Others are more politically motivated. They see the erosion of community that occurs as eating becomes pure consumption, and they mistrust those VPs who live very comfortably on the proceeds of a cheap food system.

I’m on both sides, living the discontinuous juxtaposition. I have to be.

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

Other Voices

December 12, 2010

Back in 1971 Robby Krieger, John Densmore and Ray Manzarak were in the recording studio laying down tracks for some songs while their band-mate Jim Morrison was “on holiday” in France. I leave it to pop era historians to debate whether or not Morrison had any intention of rejoining the trio. In any event, Big Jim died in Paris of what is now widely believed to be an overdose of heroin on July 3. The three remaining Doors released an eight-track album with vocals contributed by each (as I recall) the following October under the title “Other Voices.” Apparently, they later came to the view that The Doors oeuvre should be confined to their collaborations with Morrison, so this album has become rather obscure in the intervening four decades.

It was actually a pretty good album. One song that has stuck with me is Robby Krieger’s “Variety Is the Spice of Life”, which has the following refrain:

Variety is the spice of life; that’s what the judge is gonna’ tell my wife.

It is a jokey, up-tempo pop song very untypical of The Doors, as is “I’m Horny. I’m Stoned.” another Krieger song from the album. As I remember it, the other six tracks would be well worth the effort to locate and take a listen for anyone who appreciates the moody and subtly orchestrated music that made The Doors into rock icons. My copy is in a box stored somewhere in the attic, which means that it is somewhere between 10 and 20 years since I have listened to it, so I could be wrong.

But I’m actually writing about this album because of the silly Krieger lyric, which also includes the immortal line:

I’m watching six different televisions all at one time.

This may have been an elliptical reference to the habit of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who famously had three television sets installed in the Oval Office so that he could watch all three network’s version of the nightly news simultaneously. As interesting as this tangent is in its own right, the main point of all this for today’s blog is actually pretty much captured by the title of Krieger’s song.

Jason Gollan offered a comment to the key blog posted two weeks ago in which he asked whether Thornapple CSA had ever considered having more people contribute to the Thronapple Blog. I had written that I might not write every week in the future, so I presume that Jason’s comment was offered as an idea on how to keep the blog fresh while taking some of the burden to do so off my shoulders. It’s possible he’s just sick of reading what I have to say, but there are more effective remedies to that problem.

As I wrote two weeks ago, anyone writing a blog in 2010 is probably behind the curve. The blogosphere was hot four to six years ago, when ordinary people were attracting widespread readership by providing intimate details of their sex lives. Other models for blogging involved usually quite brief comment-reaction blurbs that might be posted at random moments. Today it seems like other forms of social media may be a better way to go for that kind of thing. But there are still lots of writers contributing blogs, often on a somewhat regularized basis and with some kind of thematic orientation to subject matter, and that’s the model I’ve tried to emulate in my year of writing the Thornapple Blog. Although it has occasionally degenerated into a travel-blog, almost all my travel is in some way or another related to my job. My job is “food ethicist” at Michigan State University. Since this blog is tied to a Community Supported Agriculture group in Lansing, MI, it seemed reasonable to use this space for brief, generally not too serious, think-pieces on food and agriculture. Writing about what I was working on was fair game, and my travels suggested topics.

Some of the best blogs I’ve encountered have multiple authors. One that readers of the Thornapple blog might take a gander at is The Ethicurian, which is written by a bunch of foodies that seem to have a West Coast orientation. Following Jason’s suggestion would move the Thornapple blog in that direction. The core group will take up that possibility soon. So this is your opportunity to have some input into that discussion. If you have a view on the question, and especially if you would be interested in contributing to the blog, post a comment below. The feedback I’ve gotten so far from the core group is that they are not keen on making this into a totally open forum; they want some sort of tie to Thornapple CSA. But I think any opinions to inform their discussion would be welcome.

Be warned that it is actually something of a pain to post a comment if you’ve never done so. You have to register yourself with WordPress, and this will certainly take a minute or two. You will directed to the means to do that when you try to post a comment, so the best way to start is to write something like “Blah, blah, blah,” in the comment space, then come back and write what you really want to say once you are registered. I’ll get around to “approving” all the comments that are materially addressed to this topic over the next week, so you can see what others think, too. That is, if any real human being bothers to post.

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

Why Thornapple?

December 5, 2010

File this one in the “Questions you never thought to ask” category: Where did Thornapple CSA get its name? The true answer to this question lays buried deep in the synapses of Jane Bush’s brain. Which is another way of saying it was Jane’s idea. But others in the Thornapple CSA immediately liked the suggestion. It provided a subtle link to AppleSchram, which is the name of Jane’s farm. You know, Thornapple; AppleSchram. It’s got that “apple” thing going. And then there’s Ryan Apple, who serves on the CSA core group. I think it’s a trend.

Almost all of the fruits and veggies for the Thornapple CSA distributions come from garden plots and hoop-houses on the AppleSchram premises. As members know well, Thornapple is a member-organized outfit, as distinct from a farmer-organized CSA. In the latter model, one or more farmers solicit subscriptions for the crops they are planning to grow. In a member-organized CSA it is the subscription holders who organize everything, including finding a place to farm and someone to do the farming. In the Thornapple case, we have been contracting with a different farmer every season, and soon the core group will be taking up that task for the 2011 growing season. The stable factor has been that we work off of Jane’s land.

AppleSchram farm is near Thornapple Creek, which begins in Eaton County, not all that far from where the Grand River takes a northward course heading into Lansing. It (we assume) eventually becomes the Thornapple River, which in turn flows mostly from east to west emptying into the Grand River over in the general vicinity of Grand Rapids. There’s actually a very informative article on the Thornapple River on Wikipedia.  If all of this is true (and, hey, I’m just the blogger here; don’t expect me to do geography), the AppleSchram Farm is in the Thornapple watershed. Which is a good enough reason to call this the Thornapple CSA, especially since it is such a cool name and it definitely has that “apple” thing going for it.

The core group is, as the name suggests, a group of volunteers at the core of this apple. While most members donate time and labor to do farm work, and everyone donates time in one way or another, members of the core group are donating extra time to meet, discuss and occasionally execute the key steering functions that keep the CSA functional. You could call it the steering committee, but that wouldn’t have the “apple” thing going for it. Which, I think you can probably tell by now, is absolutely the most important driving value of the Thornapple CSA.

Say hey, readers, if any of you are so deeply into apples that you have been yearning to be part of a core, this may be your chance. You do have to be a member of the Thornapple CSA, but what’s not to like about that? You should soon be able to find information about volunteering for the core group elsewhere on this website. (That is, if the core group gets its act together. If they haven’t yet as you read this, that’s all the more reason for you, dear reader, as a webhead competent enough to have found this obscure blog, might want to consider volunteering to help out!)

There are a lot of important decisions facing the core group. They are working on a mission statement, and spent some time yesterday sharing the life experiences that motivated them to be part of a CSA. They have to sort out some issues with distribution. My spouse and personal tie to the core, Diane Thompson is tired of giving up all her Wednesday afternoons as a volunteer who sits out in the elements at the Allen Street Market during distribution season. (Actually, this is not how Diane would put it. She would stress that distribution at Allen Street involves 5 hours out in all kinds of weather that is taking a toll on her spirit. But it’s my blog, and she’s just going to have to live with my sarcasm and verbal lassitude.)

The members of the core are thinking about what crops people actually want to get in their weekly distributions because it is time to get a seed order ready. There are also things that need to be happening out on the farm. Here’s a snippet from last year’s entry on that topic:

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 Wikipedia, Pliny the Elder is dismissive of rye, writing that it “is a very poor food and only serves to avert starvation”. 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.

But there’s currently no farmer, which is another task. As for me, I just blog about this stuff. I’m not a member of the core. I’ve always been more of an orange man.

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