March 27, 2011
Within about twenty minutes of posting the Thornapple Blog on March 13 I started to have second thoughts. I had been attending a philosophy conference where more than one speaker had commented on the way long dead American philosophers (William James, John Dewey, Mary Parker Follett) failed to comment on or become involved in what seem to us seminal events occurring in their lifetime. By the morning of the 13th, I had become aware that an earthquake and tsunami had very likely taken a huge toll of life in Japan. It took some time for the extent of this natural disaster to become clear, but I read in yesterday’s paper that the known death toll has now passed 10,000 and that over 17,000 are still counted as missing.
I went about my business two weeks ago dogged by the thought of this human catastrophe and by the fact that instead of noting it, I had whined about having to get up an hour earlier. I thought about posting something along the lines of what I’m writing now a week later, but by that time the headlines were awash with news of radiation clouds approaching the coast of California, as well as the mounting toll of lives in Gadhafi’s Libya. The developing stories of Fukushima Daiichi and war in the Middle East have dominated the news again this week. One has to delve deeply into the cacophony to find a mention of tsunami victims or survivors.
There is an “on the other hand…” to consider here. The Thornapple Blog is dedicated to the Thornapple CSA, conceived originally as a weekly delivery to tide members over during the barren months when there is no actual food coming off the Appleschram Orchard farm plot. It’s written with awareness that the blogosphere is a public space, that people outside of Central Michigan might find it and even follow it in a fashion. And I use it unapologetically to weigh in on agriculture and food issues for which I will never get around to doing a full-bore peer-reviewed analysis in my role as a professor of food ethics. Nonetheless, it’s not Paul Thompson’s Facebook page, where it might be totally appropriate to share a personal moment of shock or grief at things happening in the broader world. Hopefully I’m not veering perilously into Facebook territory with this week’s post.
I express this hope because the other story in this week’s news had significance in my purely personal world, though gauging by the extent and longevity of coverage it may have had resonance in the personal world of others as well. Elizabeth Taylor died following a long illness on March 23, 2011, the day after what would have been my mother’s birthday. My mother died after a long illness several years ago. She and Taylor were about the same age. My mother might have been shocked and dismayed if I had ever told her this, but I kind of associated her with Elizabeth Taylor in a strange and largely unconscious way. Kind of like on the one hand, I projected my mother’s personality onto the anything I heard or read about Taylor, and on the other hand if I had been the child of a public icon and movie star, it certainly would have been Elizabeth Taylor. The director Joseph L. Mankewicz was quoted comparing Taylor to Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. If those are the iconic choices for the 1950s, my mom was definitely Elizabeth Taylor.
I happened to pick up a copy of The New York Times on March 24, which contained three informative and well written eulogies. A lengthy one by Mel Gussow discusses Taylor’s struggle with addictive behavior, including weight problems. While this provides an ostensible food connection, I prefer to follow Taylor’s own dismissive response to the fat jokes cracked by comedienne Joan Rivers: “They didn’t get me where I live.” Instead I’ll associate Taylor’s blend of glamor and vulgarity with my mother’s cooking. Opulent Thanksgiving dinners with out-of-season vegetables like asparagus punctuated by more typical offerings of pretty tasty chili, which she taught her sons to make and then mainly had us do it, and the proverbial “balanced” meal of frozen fish sticks, canned spinach and macaroni and cheese from the famous blue box. Whether on the table or on the screen, it was a strange and heady concoction that today’s generation will never fully appreciate.
Screen and table came together in the Thompson household with the frozen TV dinner, which we really did eat from folding trays while watching Donna Reed or Barbara Billingsly set the standard for 1960s motherhood. To my knowledge, Elizabeth Taylor wisely resisted any offer to portray a TV mom, (and I’m sure my mother approved of that). I have clear memories of eating turkey, peas and mashed potatoes from the conveniently partitioned disposable packaging the dinners came in while watching Red Skelton, and Gary Moore. And then there was this bizarre juxtaposition of food and movie stars coming to us from Flatt and Scruggs:
Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)
Well the first thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire
Kin folk said Jed move away from there
Said California is the place you oughta be
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly
(Hills that is, swimming pools, movie stars)
It’s a bit depressing to recall how much I relished those occasions, but I don’t think my recollections are untypical of American food culture.
We don’t know what Dewey or James thought about Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes) or why Follett was not more involved in the suffrage movement. Neither do we know what they thought about their mom’s cooking, but it seems reasonable to me that mom’s cooking figured prominently in the meaning of food for all of them. We can’t know what future generations will think of our preoccupation with popular culture, either–food ethics and movie stars–or whether moving on too quickly from events that mark the end for thousands of people and the ruin of countless other lives will seem too insensitive for words.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University