Memorial Day Salute

May 29, 2011

I’m going to take a time-out from food and philosophy this Memorial Day weekend to honor those who serve in the United States Armed Services, past and present. I was attending the Society for Philosophy and Technology meetings this week and I heard several fascinating presentations on the way that technology is changing the nature of war. Speakers included Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institute, Brad Allenby of Arizona State, George Lucas of the U.S. Naval Academy and Patrick Lin of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. All of them were talking military ethics, so this is not totally a vacation from the philosophy side of this blog.

One point that all of them made in different ways relates to the way automated weapons systems—weapons like the Predator drones currently being used in Afghanistan—may be changing the meaning of military honor. I was especially impressed with a point made forcefully by Lucas and Singer: A major part of the past success of the U.S. military fighting in foreign wars has been that non-combatants in these theaters have been able to discern the way that U.S. service personnel conduct themselves in a principled manner. Even when the enemies that U.S. forces are fighting have been more closely related to civilian populations in culture, language and custom, over time local populations have tended to respect and often support our servicemen precisely because it becomes evident that they are committed to an ideal of service, and that their actions are tempered by moral principles such as proportionality of response and limiting “collateral damage.”

There are inevitable lapses, of course, and there are mistakes. But service men and women who put themselves in jeopardy and show evidence of commitment to ethical principles eventually win respect. Singer and Lucas argued that this is and is perceived by local populations to be an important difference between American forces and the enemies they face, especially in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they believe that cultivating such perceptions of honor are materially tied to the chances of military success.

Machines under remote control do not provoke this reaction from local populations. They are more likely to be perceived as evidence that the U.S. has unleashed supernatural powers—that we are literally in league with the devil. Even when such metaphysical interpretations are absent, it is evident that U.S. personnel are not placing themselves at risk in service to principle, however principled the use of advanced technology is.

And there are ethically compelling reasons to use it. How can a President knowingly place the lives of American soldiers at risk when a machine might accomplish the tactical objective just as effectively? And there are also arguments that these machines are much less likely to commit mistakes resulting from fatigue, stress or more serious failings in human nature. American soldiers have been known to exploit civilians, and they are not immune from the temptations of thievery and rape that have attended military conquest since time immemorial. Perhaps robots can do better, and if they could, wouldn’t it be unethical not to use them?

I don’t have answers to these questions but Allenby made another point I agreed with wholeheartedly: Too many people in my line of work (e.g. college professors) are so thoroughly opposed to the military mission that they fail to show any respect for ideas like military honor at all. That kind of cynicism does no service to the aims of military ethics.

So at the risk of disappointing readers who were hoping for an amusing meditation on hot dog cookouts or some other Memorial Day tradition, I’m cataloging this week’s blog as “Serious.”

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

Still Here

May 22, 2011

Can’t resist a jibe this week. The headline from the Nation/World section of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser this morning reads: “Planet Earth survives ‘Judgment Day’.” I’m sure both of my regular readers are much more hip to this jive than I am. Everyone from Doonesbury to David Letterman has been joking about the predictions of a Southern California preacher who was expecting the rapture yesterday. For all I know he was right, but the newspaper article attests that some who were expecting to be gone are still here.

However, eschatology was never my strong suit, so I leave this topic. I was always much more comfortable with plain old scatology. Burning question: Is scatology to eschatology as cargo is to escargot?

I’m eating pancakes this morning at a place called Cheeseburger in Paradise. They are pretty good, but the ambiance is sensational, from the breeze blowing in off of the Pacific to the sound of a hyped-up-tempo Beach Boys style rendition of the tune “Handy Man” by Jimmy Jones and Otis Blackwell. Most people probably know the laconic version made popular by James Taylor, but this one rocks. I don’t know who does it. Comments, anyone? And then there is the eighty-year old hostess in her grass mini-skirt that really completes the picture. All the wait staff wear grass mini-skirts regardless of gender or, as my affable hostess proves, general sex appeal. But she’s friendly and seats me at a table by the open window where the sea breeze is especially nice.

Thankfully, this place has absolutely no connection to Jimmy Buffet. My occasional references to Buffet songs aside, the man’s commercial presence is becoming oppressive. Buffet does not even have the best cheeseburger reference in rock music (kudos to the Steve Miller Band for “Livin’ in the U.S.A.”). My son Walker and I did have some volcano nachos at the Waikiki version of the Margaritaville Café earlier in the week, and we enjoyed looking at the classic surfboards on display. But from a giant gift shop to the signature rums and tequilas, the marketing division has run amok. Give it a rest, man.

It’s been a heaving dip into commercial culture this week, though we did enjoy one unassuming luau meal with poi, steamed rice and roast pork courtesy of the food service people at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Perhaps consistent with my double letter theme and the exit of food, Hawaii does not seem to be riding the wave of artisanal food and local production. All those planeloads of tourists and those container ships full of iceberg lettuce and Spam just knock it back, I guess.

That said, the cheeseburger I ate last night at Cheeseburger in Paradise was the best I’ve had in a decade. This may be less impressive than it seems. I haven’t eaten more than two or three cheeseburgers a year since the last millennium. But this one was very nice and here’s why: It was incredibly ordinary. The meat was good, but it was not Kobe beef or some gigantic hunk that dripped redness and soaked the bun. The bun itself was good old sesame seed white bread. The cheese was a fine Colby-jack, but it was an ordinary 4by4 square. The lettuce and tomato and slices of raw red onion set off the not too heavy dab of 1000 island dressing, and I was able to eat all but the last few bites. The guy next to me sent his back. It was not the fantastically singular experience he was hoping for.

The moral of our story? Cheeseburgers are not supposed to be fantastically singular experiences. If you flew to Hawaii and ordered a cheeseburger in paradise expecting the rapture, you may find yourself disappointed to still be here.

But I’m not.

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

Food: So 2009

May 15, 2011

In an effort to be au courant I’m devoting this week’s blog to a question of overriding social importance. No, it’s not “Oh, Lord, why won’t you buy me a Mercedez-Benz?” My friends have no Porsches, I have no need for amends. As important as that question might have been at one time it has now been superseded.  Dialing for Dollars is no longer trying to reach me.

The great debate of the 21st century: Is it UGGS or TOMS?

I’m told that UGGS are definitely out in California, though after more decades as the epi-center of hipness than anyone currently living can recall, California itself may be out. In the second decade of the third millennium places like Tennessee and Massachusetts are more in than anywhere on the West Coast. It seems the more sets of double letters you have in your state’s name, the inner you get, which of course puts places like Minnesota and Connecticut right up there with the Bay State (except that it’s a commonwealth). Although TOMS had enough cachet to get a shout out in last month’s Delta in-flight magazine feature on El-Lay, UGGS maybe winning out where it counts.

Of course, there’s one state we won’t even bother to mention because it’s so far in by this standard that everyone has already made up their own punch line. Here, what’s critical is simply that you wear shoes: See the feature story here. Of course it’s also possible that Converse will be making another of its periodic comebacks. I’m from the generation that was wearing Chuck Taylors before we even knew that they were Chuck Taylors. How far in can you get? One more thing, though: Watch out for pink.

“I’m sorry,” someone said, “isn’t this supposed to be a blog about food and farming? Where do you get off bringing up some lame question about shoes?”

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m flailing about just a bit here, trying to stay in fashion and up with the Joneses, even though nothing could be further behind the Joneses than an expression like “keeping up with the Joneses”. It’s become apparent to me that this whole food thing has run its course. Oh yeah, we read Michael Pollan and some of the incredibly swish among us even ate kale for a while. Or perhaps I should say we remember when our parents read Michael Pollan and made us eat kale. That whole Food Network thing was before we heard about how cool it is to dig through garbage or run a pawn shop. If there’s one constant, I figure it must be shoes. Jimmy Buffet sang “I’ve got my Hush Puppies on” to remark on how uncool he was, then he changed it to “hiking boots” and now it’s back to “Hush Puppies”. How cool is it to talk about how uncool you are by pointing out what kind of shoes you are wearing? And isn’t it even cooler when just as the old uncool got to be so old and uncool that no one even knew what you were talking about, some punks in Manhattan start wearing them again, and you can be cool by talking about how uncool you used to be, as if you still were. And its even cooler when it turns out to be a Michigan company, even if we don’t have any double letters in our name. So I think that foot sheathings will be a barometer of what matters for-ever.

But food? Food is out.

Tennessee, can you give Vermont the news?

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


May 8, 2011

Way back in the early eighties I settled into a noontime pattern of walking across the campus at Texas A&M with my colleagues Manuel Davenport and Dick Becka to eat at the cafeteria in the Memorial Student Center (MSC). I could wax eloquently on the mentoring, on the curiosities of the MSC and on the brightness of the Texas sun as we covered a couple of hundred yards past the Sullivan statue and the Rudder fountain. But this is a food blog, so I’m going to focus on lunch. Davenport and Becka must have eaten lunch together most days for at least 30 years. I joined them for about six or seven. It was meaningful enough to me to seek them out at Luby’s Cafeteria when I left A&M in 1997 for one last hurrah. The MSC cafeteria had gone the way of the trail drive by then, but Davenport and Becka were still at it. I have waxed eloquently on food and community in my book The Agrarian Vision, so here I’m going to stick to the actual food.

Today’s youth (by which I mean anyone under 40) may not have really experienced an old fashioned cafeteria lunch. Although I might have occasionally had the spaghetti or the roast beef, my standard fare was the veggie plate, which you could order with a three or four veggie option at the MSC. I would start with something filling: mashed potatoes or rice (with gravy—this is no vegetarian veggie plate), ranchero beans or mac and cheese (not a common pick). Whenever possible (which was usually in Texas) I would add some boiled greens: preferably collards or turnip greens, but spinach was acceptable. The next choice or two came from options such as green beans (cooked with bacon), fried okra, okra and tomatoes, peas and carrots, succotash or corn (off the cob or creamed). The veggie plate came with either cornbread or one of the MSC’s wonderful yeast roles. And I always chose real butter rather than margarine: I was not a total idiot, even then.

I’ll leave it to the nutritionists out there to comment on the food value of this veggie plate. Its money price was a good 25-30% lower than an entrée with two veggie sides and the same choice of bread. The iced tea was extra in either case. I think I was paying around three bucks for this lunch thirty years ago, but it’s difficult to find anything comparable when I go for lunch around the MSU campus today, and certainly not unless I’m willing to blow a tenner. We’re undergoing a renaissance in our campus dining, with more fresh salad bars, more tempeh and the occasional sauté of kale and garlic, but I if anyone knows where I could get an old fashioned veggie plate in East Lansing—and by this I mean one where the veggies have not simply been dumped out of a can—please sign on and add a comment below. The current food service model is a one price buffet, which (as food service managers are coming to recognize) encourages waste and takes away that extra price incentive that reinforced my dietary leanings in the distant past.

Maybe this is just me whining again, showing myself to be the old fogy that I am. But I think there is a food ethics point buried somewhere in here. Sure, one can eat veggie in East Lansing, and the options are expanding. Mostly they involve menus with lentils, humus, falafel or baba ganoush (items you would not have seen at the MSC) and they involve Mediterranean or Indian cuisines. There’s also a surfeit of sushi and Korean menus that are pretty healthy, I think. I’m glad that the under-40s like this stuff, and I love to eat it occasionally myself. But I’d plug the historical and cultural connection that rides along with the old fashioned veggie plate, and I’d assert that it’s not only deeply and profoundly connectable to the localvore mentality, it can be pretty healthy eating, too.

One more remembrance: Mary Mac’s in Atlanta. Long before I got into the habit of braving the Texas sun for a plate of veggies Diane and I would make a treat of eating at Mary Mac’s Tearoom, where you did not go through a cafeteria line, but you generally did order a veggie plate by writing your choices from an extensive menu list (always augmented with eight or ten daily specials from the chalk board) on one of those little slips of paper that say “Thank-you!” at the top and have a place to itemize and total the cost of your goods. The best choice at Mary Mac’s Tearoom was the pot likker. For those who don’t know, pot likker is basically collards, turnip greens or kale cooked with a little bacon. But it’s served up with a fair bit of the broth in a bowl. When you break up one of Mary Mac’s corn muffins into the broth, it’s heaven. And I’m willing to venture that it’s healthy enough to make into a habit, too.

Mary Mac’s was a tough habit just because it was so busy when Diane and I were going there in the seventies. At lunch or dinner, there was generally a wait of ten to twenty minutes, and sometimes more. And it required getting into the car, which meant that even though the veggie plate at Mary Mac’s was very reasonably priced, and even though Diane could indeed get that sweet tea that makes your teeth hurt, we would only head there maybe every other week or so. The place is still there, but last I visited (several years ago now) it was but a shadow of its former self. Not all that busy, and not as good as I remember, either.

So here’s a shout out for maintaining a bit of American food culture amidst the tofu and raita. Things do not last and the center does not hold. I can be as existential as anybody. But losing the veggie plate and all those cafeterias or “family-style” establishments where you could get one is a food tragedy. Maybe this is just a Michigan problem, but I doubt it. The Cracker Barrel and the Country Kitchen are only simulacra, and I can’t walk to either one for lunch with my buddies, in any case. It’s an ethics thing, I promise.

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

Cinco de Mayo

May 1, 2011

This is your public service reminder that Cinco de Mayo is coming up this week. Here in Michigan our hold on Cinco de Mayo is a little tenuous, despite a fairly extensive Mexican population. I’ll certainly go out and drink a Corona con lima. If you’re in need of a little more inspiration for falling in with me on that, you can catch a You Tube video of Gary P. Nunn right here.

Cinco de Mayo is not, as I once foolishly thought, Mexico’s independence day. It is instead a regional holiday around the Puebla area of Mexico, but it has become ridiculously popular among los Nortenõs who are looking for an excuse to drink a beer and eat some nachos. Which is why I’m offering this public service announcement in the Thornapple blog.

Cinco de Mayo also features prominently in one of the great food songs of all time, written and performed by Trout Fishing in America. This is an under-appreciated duo in our neck of the woods, so if you are of the Northern persuasion, do yourself a big favor and download this particular number on i-tunes.  The song is “Pico de Gallo” and again in the spirit of public service, I quote the key verse:

It was Cinco de Mayo

And I was down on the Bayeux

With my good friend, Venus de Milo.

We we were watching Hawaii Five-O

She said “I want some pie-o”

“Or maybe some french fry-o”

But I said “Why oh why-o?”

We got pico de gallo.

The song handily includes a recipe for pico, which is idiotically simple to make. Onions, lime juice, jalapenos, tomatoes, cilantro, and tomatillo. Definitely has that “oh” thing going, don’t it? But just chop it coarsely, mix and let it sit for 15 minutes. The proportions are open to interpretation and improvisation. It’s tasty even with the sub-standard hothouse tomatoes we get here in Michigan about this time of the year. And then we have to put up with our substandard chips, too, but Tostitos Restaurant style, a cold Corona and a bowl of homemade pico can almost make one forget about the heinousness of the industrial food system. And it may hit 60 here in Lansing this week!

Get off your butts this Thursday and get munchin’, hombres.

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