Places that Do Not Change

August 28, 2011

I’m traveling this week, visiting Penn State in my capacity is as a roving academic and professor of food ethics. (Here’s a link to my gig.) Aside from the places where I have actually been a student (Northern Colorado, Georgia Tech, Emory and Stony Brook) on the faculty (Texas A&M, Purdue and Michigan State) or done a stint a visiting scholar (Yale and Wageningen), I think I’ve spent more time on the Penn State campus than any place else.

I could wax eloquently on the food joints that I frequented at those locales: Jose’s Pizza in Greeley, the Varsity and Everybody’s in Atlanta, la Tacqueria in College Station or the Triple XXX in West Lafayette. Many of them are still there, though sadly not the Taq (and I can’t vouch for Jose’s). State College has “The Corner” which boasts that it has been there since 1926. But Diane rightly notes that nobody cares about where we’ve been eating lately, and takes me to task for producing a series of blogs that make too much of some random sandwich I enjoyed in a northwest Alabama strip mall. I want to stress how strongly I’m committed to enjoying every sandwich. But I hope both of my regular readers could see through the verbiage over the last two weeks to see that I was not so vain as to think that you needed to hear about them, too.

No, I was after something else. A brief revisitation of the “matter of time” perhaps, and I’ll wrap that up today.

University administrators have a certain stake in creating the impression that the campus does not change. Many campuses have a quad or (in the case of MSU) a circle with buildings arranged around a big open area. That becomes sacred space. Alumni and former students (in the case of Texas A&M) like to come back and recognize the place. They like the idea that something connects them with the current students, a common experience, a memory of being in a place that endures over the seasons, and over the years.

Penn State had a lot invested in a longish quad-like walk with gigantic elm trees on either side. This was an extremely impressive experience the first time I was here in the 1970s, and endured through several visits in the 1980s. But by the 80s, it was doubtful that the trees themselves would long endure. The threat then was Dutch elm disease, but it has apparently been something called yellow wilt that has finally been doing them in over the last decade. Doesn’t quite look the same, despite the grounds staff’s effort at replanting with different varieties. (And my sympathies to people at Auburn who are losing a couple of oaks from more nefarious causes).

It was Heraclitus who gave us the metaphysical dictum “Everything flows”, translated by some as “All is water.” I personally like a rendering from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker: Everything must go.

Talk about your major pain and suffering
Now our self-esteem is shattered
Show the world our mighty hidey-ho face
As we go sliding down the ladder
It was sweet up at the top
‘Til that ill wind started blowing
Now it’s cozy down below
‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business
Everything must go

It’s tough times in America when U.P. hangouts go belly up and the elm trees are gone, but pluck up. The beauty of that breakfast at The Corner was profoundly dependent on its luminous transience.

We gave it our best shot
But keep in mind we got a lot
The sky the moon good food and the weather
First-run movies — does anybody get lucky twice?
Wouldn’t it be nice…

Places that do not change? Those are places that do not exist.

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

Places that Do Not Exist

August 21, 2011

The Sunday LSJ this morning is chock full of food stories. I was sort of partial to the item on huitlacoche that was tucked back a bit, because I virtually lived on tamales made with it when I was down in Oxaca for real a number of years ago. But the main thing is the front page item that is part of series on diet and health. Yesterday’s LSJ had some rather weird advice on food safety that I would probably ignore (like buying pasteurized eggs). But today’s story, which explores the still uncertain relationships between food access and better diets was right on the beam for the readership of the Thornapple blog.

The LSJ talks about food deserts and has a map showing which neighborhoods in Lansing qualify. Mine doesn’t, and I’m not sure why. Unless I head due west for about four miles on neighborhood streets, I have to drive through one of the food desert neighborhoods in order to get to a grocery store. And if it’s an income thing, all I can say is while there are indeed a few college professors and lawyers who live in Westside, we are outnumbered 10 to 1 by families that struggle. Which maybe just goes to show that the situation is probably quite a bit worse than even the LSJ thinks it is.

At any rate, the main theme is hand-wringing about the fact that there is very flimsy evidence for thinking living close to a grocery store actually leads people to make better food choices, in the first place.

Well, duh!

I remember the year I lived in an apartment complex on the eastern Colorado prairie with five other single guys in their early twenties. We were fifteen miles from anything except a) an IBM plant that was surrounded by high fences patrolled by humorless androids (not that we wanted to get in there, anyway); b) prairie dogs; and c) a 24-hour King Soopers grocery store. Need I say that the proximity to this establishment only encouraged us to wait until we got really hungry at around 2 am (people my age will remember what made you really hungry at 2 am),  then stroll over to King Soopers for frozen pizza, potato chips or some other equally unhealthy munchies. I assure you that we did not head over there for Belgian endive or bok choy.

No, the food deserts thing is but one small part of the picture. It’s probably more important for children than it is for already obese adults, in any case. I think it was last week I made a reference to David Kessler’s work on conditioned overeaters. Hit the button for “Places that Do Not Suck” and you can find the link. Kessler’s point is that it’s most important to eat healthy between the ages of 4 and 10, because important brain chemistry is being formed at that time. Of course if children between 4 and 10 live with adults who are eating frozen pizza and potato chips all the time, it’s hard to see how we’re going to work out of this mess as a society. But that’s too big a topic for one blog to take on.

It’s the lack of grocery stores that leads to food deserts, and the LSJ story mentions the still unfilled voids created by the collapse of the L&L chain collapse about a year ago. There were two L&L stores, each about a mile from my house in opposite directions, but both were closed during that time. Now I have to go about 1.5 miles farther in one direction, and 2 miles in the other whenever I want cottage cheese to go with my fresh heirloom tomatoes. I’m not asking for sympathy. I can still get frozen pizza more readily. Heck, I can get hot pizza more readily. But I’m beyond munchies at my age. I promise.

Last week in the UP Diane and I bounced around looking for the Sunny Shores café in Manistique and the Blaney Inn in Blaney Park.  Both were highly recommend in the 2003 edition of the Moon guide we had with us, but both were shuttered and up for sale. Later we drove up and down M-28  in Seney looking for a place called the Golden Grill that was even more highly recommend in the 2001 Fodor’s. It was supposed to be easy to find because it was next to the IGA. It wasn’t. We finally decided we had found the place where it had been, but not only was no restaurant there in 2011, neither was there a grocery store of any kind.

It’s tough to eat good food from places that do not exist.

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

Places that Do Not Suck

August 14, 2011

As we travel along life’s highway, it’s great to stop and have a good meal at a local eatery. You know the kind I’m talking about. The unassuming little shack off to the side of the road, a little bit rundown, with a parking lot full of pick-up trucks and Buick Park Avenues. Or maybe it’s down on Main Street, tucked in between the Salvation Army Thrift Shop and the store-front for an independent insurance agent. Or increasingly it’s occupying the most unattractive location in a strip-mall that has itself been superseded by bigger and brighter real estate developments out by the Interstate. And since traveling along life’s highway itself increasingly happens on the Interstate, these little jewels have gotten hard to find.

Which explains why 52,000 people descend on the Cracker Barrel in Murfreesboro, TN at around 11:30 in the morning every Friday in July. This even though (as already told here) Cracker Barrel is a simulacrum, despite the fact that they do a passable veggie plate with non-veggie green beans and turnip greens, and even though you can sit on the rockers while you wait for the 51,998 people in front of you to finish their pancakes, meatloaf and cheeseburgers. Though why anyone would go to Cracker Barrel for a cheeseburger is totally beyond me. But that’s another story entirely.

Although our search for little jewels along life’s highway has gone corporate in the Food Network era, the temptation to make your own discovery endures. Unfortunately, most of these places suck. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why all those people in pick-ups and Buick Park Avenues are eating there instead of the Cracker Barrel. Maybe they’ve just had an off day. Their regular cook called in sick after getting in late from the WWE SummerSlam in LA. They ran out of buttermilk and had to dip the fried chicken in Dean’s 2% cut with vinegar. Or maybe the folks in pick-ups are only there to buy lottery tickets and the Park Avenue drivers are using the restroom (though in the latter case it’s still hard to figure out why they’re there instead of the Cracker Barrel, which generally does have tidy restrooms). Most likely it’s that this actually is the best they can do with the delivery from Sysco, and the people wolfing it down are what David Kessler calls “conditioned overeaters”. But that, too, is another story altogether.

More charitably, not every jewel is going to be equally adept at every item on the menu. If the fried chicken is acceptable—not Deacon Burton’s, you understand—the fish and chips leave something to be desired. If the mashed potatoes and gravy pass muster, the fried okra started out life earlier in the day in the Sub Zero. Although they do not suck at everything, they do suck at some things. This is just life. If you doubt me, read through the back items in the Thornapple Blog. Some of them suck. And I’m not going for that transcendent cheeseburger, I hasten to add. I just want a little roadside café where the chairs do not stick to your butt and the food does not suck.

We’ve mentioned some now and then in the Thronapple blog, so here are two more places that do not suck, or at least do not suck from every angle. First would be T’s Unique Café, located in the aforementioned strip mall type of locale in Anniston Alabama, right at the intersection of the bypass and Choccolocco Road. A little too dark and decorated with artwork that was apparently acquired at the Starvin’ Artists Hotel/Motel Roadshow, the Unique Café offers a more than passable selection of cakes, which look better than their pies, but since I didn’t try the latter, I’ll withhold comment. They have pizza and a number of Italian entrées on the dinner menu and they smelled yummy, but I didn’t try them either. Diane and I did try the homemade chicken salad and tuna salad sandwiches and they do not suck. You might be inclined to pass up T’s Unique Café based on the amateurish lettering of the sign outside next to the Golden Springs Pharmacy, not to mention the conspicuous absence of pick-up trucks. But the Unique Café assuredly does not suck.

Our recent sojourn on life’s Interstate also took us to Zaharakos in Columbus, Indiana. This is the kind of joint you actually expect to turn up on the Food Channel. T’s has an apostrophe, bur Zaharakos has a website. It’s in a beautifully preserved location on Washington Street, and claims to have been there since 1900, though it did undergo a full restoration in 2009. It’s worth taking the kids just so that they can see what a real ice cream parlor used to look like. We didn’t try any food, though the coffee was much better than expected. Is the ice cream a transcendent experience? Well, no.

But it does not suck.

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


August 7, 2011

How ‘bout them jumbo squash we’re getting from the Thornapple CSA these days? I bet that’s even more evidence of diversity, don’t you?

See, here’s how evolution works in squashes: The normal ordinary garden squash has a deep-seated urge to realize it’s inherent (that is, God-given) potential for flourishing. It sits there in the garden all spring, too small to be visible to the human eye. All that time the teensy little squashlet is squirming, pumpin’ and a bumpin’, just trying to break loose from vine. Finally, the moment arrives. The squashlet summons the will to break off from the vine, and the traces that remain of the vine after this separation become the squash’s outer epidermal barrier, or OED. The OED gives the squash a unique identity, which is in turn the source of the squash’s intrinsic value. It is also where most of the flavor is, which is why peeling a squash is a sin against nature. Because the squash is now intrinsically valuable, it is capable of flourishing. From now on through summer, it will push and pull, creating a hydrologic flow that channels forces from the external environment into the OED. We humans know this process as “growth”.

Humans normally interrupt the hydrologic force field that is building the intrinsic value of the squash in order to make squash casserole or zucchini bread. However, if left to its own devices, and if the forces in the Einsteinian unified field line up accordingly, the squash will continue to realize its inherent capability for flourishing inside the OED (also known as the Oxford English Dictionary). Incidentally, few know that Einstein’s unified field theory was derived from a Wisconsin initiative intended to unify fragmented fields in order to achieve greater efficiencies in the use of large farm machinery. It seems that the large tractors and harvesters had difficulty turning in the small desultory patches characteristic of the Wisconsin rural landscape circa 1922.

Which brings us back to the Mexican maize farmers around Oxaca we were discussing last week. Both regular readers will recall that I gave detailed instructions about how to find last week’s blog in last week’s blog, but since you are currently in this week’s blog, these instructions will do you no good. Suffice it to say that if your browser is working properly the link to last week’s blog is in the upper right hand corner, just like it was last week. The link to next week’s blog is in the upper left hand corner, unless you are reading this week’s blog the week of August 7, 2011, in which case next week’s blog does not yet exist and there is no link in the upper left hand corner. Of course if it’s not the week of August 7, 2011 then this week’s blog is no longer this week’s blog. Philosophers are masters of time and space.

We root for these Mexican farmers for a plethora of crackpot reasons. They are among the last holdout of true humans left on earth: the genetic purity of most Americans has been forever polluted by the demon seed of alien races from the distant planet Zircon. They cultivate maize in one of the Vavilov centers of diversity, and as such we believe that the preservation of their land race varieties of corn contain far more genetic diversity than can be preserved in seed banks, such as the one in Svalbard, Norway. The maize they cultivate is the mystic essence, now lost in the deepening mists of ages past, that lies at the source of our word “amazing”. We admire the spirit with which these farmers have endured centuries of repression and countless attempts by European colonialists who would have eradicated their cultural ways along with their maize varieties. We believe them to have secret knowledge of teleportation that allows them to find hidden exits from indoor shopping malls. We are awed by the skill they display in actively managing their crops for multiple phenotypes. We value the financial contributions they make to the Small Business Association. They exhibit extraordinary dignity in the face of poverty.

I flew to Oxaca last week in order to discover why our squash were so big. One of these small artisan farmers told me that it was because we had been having too much rain, and the farmers could not get into the fields without doing unacceptable damage to soil tilth. So those bad boys just sat there soaking up water and boasting in their ability to flourish.

Smaller squash make better casseroles. Zucchini bread is still an option, but you have to remove the seeds.

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