June 12, 2011
I was sitting in the Missoula airport this morning at about 4:45 AM waiting for my flight home from the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society meeting when I saw this headline flash across the video screen: “Famous wiener caught in a hot dog war.” My first thought was to assume that this was some sort of bad joke about Congressman Anthony Weiner, but of course ‘wiener’ ain’t ‘weiner’, and the word should have been capitalized if it were a proper name. Even bad puns deserve proper grammar.
My MSU colleagues who had been attending AFHVS with me immediately assumed that the ‘famous wiener’ had to be Oscar Meyer. It was the only famous wiener they could think of. And indeed, when I got home and did a web search to figure out what this was all about, one of the first things I turned up was a reference to the Congressman’s “fully exposed Oscar Meyer.” Great minds work alike, apparently.
AFHVS meets every year about this time. It’s a confab mostly for academic types who study food and farming from a social and political angle. I helped form this organization about 25 years ago along with Richard Haynes, Kate Clancy, Larry Busch, Fred Buttel and a few other friends, some of whom still come to the meeting. Kate was there. Richard and Larry were unable to travel this year, and we lost Fred a few years back. These people are true heroes of the food wars.
In the early days, it was a great place for people who came at the topic from a different perspective to hang out and learn from one another. Kate is a nutritionist. Larry and Fred represent rural sociology. Richard and I are philosophers. We learned a lot from one another and I continue to refer to work from all of them in my day job as a food ethicist. Nowadays the meeting has gotten a lot more disciplinary. By that I mean the sociologists talk mostly to other sociologists, historians to other historians and geographers to other geographers.
In those days, we needed each other because we were basically clueless. We were all trying to figure out what to think about things happening in food and farming. It was helpful to consult possible ethical framings to see if they could give us a critical angle on the growth of industrial farming, but those of us in ethics relied on people like Fred, Kate and Larry to get a handle on what was going down in the real world. Now that there is a social movement to reform food and agriculture, people don’t really need to think very hard about what direction to take. New faces are pouring in but sometimes it feels like “Find a bunch of guys that dress alike and follow them around” at AFHVS these days. What a bunch of wieners!
Maybe I’m just grumpy because the young people are ignoring the senior citizens, but it looks like they are ignoring us because they’ve got their noses buried too deeply in the peer reviewed journals of their own discipline. And that’s not good. Just like food needs lots of spice and variety, food studies need lots of cross over from multiple perspectives. Still, I like to support the meeting. It’s been quite a while since I missed one. Last year I was able to drive down to the meeting in Bloomington, IN with one of my own Ph.D. students.
Coming out of Lansing last year we got turned around by the road construction and some heavy rain and wound up driving all the way to Route 23 before we figured it out. So I decided just to take a right and pretend like it had always been my intention to expose my student to some authentic American food culture: Tony Packo’s in Toledo. My vegetarian daughter loves Tony Packo’s Pickles and Peppers, while I like the Sweet Hots. I send her a care package every time I’m through Toledo, and I usually stick one of those giant gallon jars in my trunk. Like most people, my student Bill was more impressed with the hot dogs, served smothered with chili. Lansing to Bloomington by way of Toledo? For a true wiener wonk, you don’t need to ask.
So a year later I get home from AFHVS and guess what? The famous wiener is not Oscar Meyer’s. It’s Tony Packo’s. Apparently two branches of the family are battling over the fate of the franchise. I hope they sort it out. Without Packo’s pickles, I’d feel fully exposed.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Human Values at Michigan State University