Día de los Muertos

October 30, 2011

It was very nearly 15 years ago to the day that I was wandering around in a field near Tlachihualtepetl in Cholula, Puebla with Laura Westra. Tlachihualtepetl is a story in its own right, up there with the Nebra Sky Disc and an obscure reference well worth Googling for those of you who are casual surfers. But it’s less central to my theme this week than the simple fact that Laura and I were in Mexico just as the locals were ramping up for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Laura Westra is a pretty famous Canadian environmental philosopher who has written on dozens of topics. Though it’s not so much what she’s known for, she attacks genetically engineered crops with an assertiveness that is remarkable, and she has also written that agriculture should be thought of as a buffer zone between wild nature and industrial areas. This latter point is my launching pad this week, because Laura and I were standing out in a field of cempasúchil flowers.

It was, in fact, a pretty stunning day. Bright blue skies and a sea of bright orange. The cempasúchil is apparently a marigold, but I tend to think of marigolds as petite little buds that we plant around the edges of the garden to keep away bugs. These bad boys are between 24” and 36” tall and the blossoms are ginormous. All of which leads Laura to make the innocent conversational remark “Isn’t it great to be out in wild nature?”

I could have responded with some bland and polite response like “It’s beautiful,” because it was. I still recall the day pretty vividly. But back in Puebla City we had been inspecting some of the memorial alters that had been built in tribute to the deceased. These things are pretty amazing, many occupying as much space as the typical farmers’ market stall and they are crammed full with photographs, sugar skulls, and mementos like favorite foods that recall the person being honored. And they are also covered with cempasúchil flowers. A single alter will have dozens, and there are hundreds and hundreds of these altars in Puebla alone.

And being the aggie freak that I am, I’m alert to the thought that when people need that many plants of a given kind all on a given day, they are very likely to be farming them. Indeed, that field out in the shadow of Tlachihualtepetl was full of plants that were all the same height, and all flowering at exactly the right time. Being the aggie freak that I am, it occurs to me that this is probably not an accident. So instead of simply saying “It’s beautiful,” my response to Laura’s happiness at being out in wild nature was: “Uh, actually this is a cultivated field.”

I don’t recall that Laura made any reply to this at all. I’ve occasionally told this story to make the point that even pretty famous environmental philosophers don’t necessarily know much about agriculture, and I do think that it’s a fair point. But it may not be fair to Laura, so when I tell this story to make that point, I usually leave her name out of it. A better point may simply be that one person’s cultivated field is another person’s wild nature. Laura was born and raised in Italy, where a walk in the country typically is a walk through farmers’ fields. On the one hand, she certainly would not have confused the typical Illinois soybean field for wild nature, and on the other hand, I had to agree that this particular field of cempasúchil flowers was a very nice place for a walk.

Is a day at Appleschram a day in wild nature? Americans are not very likely to put that adjective “wild” in there, but neither are we likely to call this “tame nature”. We’ve been socialized to think of wildness in terms of forests and mountains. But most of the Michigan “wild” is second growth, and its been pretty dramatically affected by the lumbering of the previous two centuries. Does the fact that it’s less managed than a typical farm field make it “wild”? Could a farm that scores well in our nature aesthetics test qualify for that status, too?

Hey! I’m just here to ask the questions. Maybe it’s up to the economists to answer them.

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

Eet Smakelijk

October 23, 2011

It’s been a good eight to ten weeks since we had anything to say about tomatoes in the Thornapple blog, and as both regular readers know, tomatoes are not only a personal obsession, they are the driving value behind the entire local food movement in the United States. I won’t speak for Europe or Japan, but here in America, resistance to the industrial food system is predicated 96.3% on tomatoes that have been developed to withstand a 30 mile impact, then be gassed with ethylene before they sit on grocery shelves for 14-17 years before actually being sliced into pale pink discs or wedges to accompany iceberg lettuce in what the industrial food system refers to euphemistically as a “salad”.

And unfortunately, I’m not making any of this up. The big revolution occurred in the 1970s when those pesky scientists at the University of California collaborated with companies developing mechanical tomato harvesters. The harvesters (see one here) roll through the field ripping the vines out of the ground. They blow the leafy bits one direction and hurl the tomatoes into a waiting truck. Hence the need for a) all the tomatoes to be ready for picking at one time and b) the ability to with stand the impact of getting hurled into a truck. Breeding a tomato that does that was paid for by your tax dollars at work.

Even after the input of pesky plant breeders, green tomatoes are still better for this, but goofy nerds that that U.S. consumers are, they won’t buy green tomatoes. Hence the need for ethylene, which causes them to redden up. Or at least the skins redden up. One difference between a Thornapple tomato and one that has survived a 30 mile impact at some time in it’s life cycle is that our tomatoes look just as good on the inside as they do on the outside.

That part about multi-year shelf-life, however, may not be strictly true.

But it seems that many Thornapplists are very much like ordinary U.S. goofy nerd Meijer shoppers who pass on the green tomatoes. At least I have heard that baskets of green tomatoes have been languishing at the weekly Thornapple CSA pick-up stations. Well phooey on you because all those green tomatoes that were picked in late-August early September to avoid the killing frost have now pretty much gassed themselves. They may not have the succulence of a vine-ripened tomato, but they are most certainly red, inside and out. Red inside and out except for the Black Krim, which are not quite as black as they would have been, but still pretty obviously a different kettle of fish entirely.

(Note Well: The metaphor in the above paragraph is not intended to imply that Thornapple tomatoes contain fish genes. That’s a different kettle of fish [which is to say a different blog topic] entirely. We’re not going there, but this parenthetical comment satisfies my contractual obligation to supply at least one obscure reference in every blog that sends people scrambling to Google in order to figure out what the heck Thompson is talking about.)

So I’ve gotten those last tomato and cottage cheese season-ending treats here in October (or at least I have done so when I’ve been able to plant my feet in Michigan for a day or two). I’m also told that people have inexplicably passed on the poblano peppers. Poblanos are the prince of peppers, folks. Wonderful and subtle, and not really all that hot. They are the only proper way to make a chili relleno. I lack the temerity to provide a recipe, because I haven’t actually made a chili relleno in a long, long time. But it ain’t that tough and the Internet is replete with advice. Back to Google, my foodie compatriots! Learn to enjoy the bounty while it lasts.

Herb Magidson and Carl Sigman wrote it and Guy Lombardo had the hit. And I’m repeating a thought from last February’s Warren Zevon tribute, in any case. But our own Jen Sygit does a bang up version. I don’t recall whether she does this verse, but I’m going to close with it, in any case.

You worry when the weather’s cold, You worry when it’s hot. You worry when you’re doing well, You worry when you’re doing not. It’s worry, worry all of the time, You don’t know how to laugh. They’ll think of something funny When they write your epitaph.

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink. The years go by, as quickly as wink. Enjoy yourself, Enjoy yourself It’s later than you think.

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

تحتل الشوارع

October 16, 2011

Sometimes my peripatetic ways give me an interesting angle on things. I was overseas a couple of weeks ago and during a few of the inevitable hours I spent in my room at the century-old Rôtes Ross hotel in Halle I explored the 100+ channels available on the television set. Only three were broadcasting in English, and all were news channels. There was a Euro channel coming out of Paris, with lots of news about France, and there was a channel sponsored by the Chinese that was available in three or four languages including English. And then there was Al Jazeera broadcasting in Arabic and English. Most of the coverage was about the United Nations debate over recognizing statehood for Palestine, but Al Jazeera did have some coverage on the U.S.

What they were covering was the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations. They compared these demonstrations to the “Arab spring” protests that have led to dramatic changes in Egypt and Libya, and that are the source of ongoing unrest in Syria. The Al Jazeera reporters also made a special point of the fact that the U.S. press had chosen NOT to cover the rally. I believe that the coverage suggested that the story was being “repressed” in the United States, though I may not remember that correctly. I do recall them pointing out the way when mainstream press sources did write about the Occupy Wall Street protestors, they described them as desultory and without a clear agenda. And from Al Jazeerah’s perspective this was (as we said last week) déjà vu all over again. It was, in other words, very much like the way that media controlled by Mubarak and Gaddafi had covered demonstrations in their countries.

Then I spent a few days in Washington DC where I emerged from the Metro at McPherson Square, site of the “Occupy DC” activities. I gather that momentum has built considerably since I was there, but indeed, stuff was happening. And The Washington Post chose to cover it mainly by talking about how the unemployed and under-employed protestors who were encamped there had been able to persist mainly because two nearby Starbucks locations had been relatively lax about enforcing their “Customers Only” rule for use of the restrooms.

Meanwhile, back in Lansing my brother-in-law was visiting from Boston, where he was among those arrested during the “Occupy Boston” protests. Although I missed his visit, he inspired his sister (and Thornapple CSA members know who that is) to turn out for the “Occupy Lansing” rally that was held at the Capital yesterday. If you watched the news or checked the paper, you know that event did get some notice, though it ran second billing to the Spartan’s fourth consecutive victory over the Downstate Regional College boys.

The protests are deliberately vague because a) they want to be inclusive; and b) the point is to make an unmistakable expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo that also avoids the reactionary bias that dominates the so-called Tea Party movement. Lots of people are pissed, in other words, but that shouldn’t just be a default open-door for changes that roll back progress on healthcare, progress on environmental quality and decades-old progress on labor. Is there a food connection here? Well, obviously there is. One of the Capital speakers decried the use of GMOs, for example.

Too late in the blog to take up that issue, I’m afraid. I respect your attention span, dear readers. More generally, economic justice clearly has to take up food access. The Community Supported Agriculture movement has always (at least partly) been about taking back control of the food supply. It’s worth thinking about turning out for the next “Occupy X” activity, even if it does turn out to be another simple desultory philippic.

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


L’ete Indienne

October 9, 2011

Had a balky internet server yesterday that kept me from posting on Sunday (as is my wont). Or maybe I should blame it on the balmy weather. Yes, folks, it’s October, but you could hardly tell it from being outdoors. And outdoors is where anyone should be on a Sunday afternoon like yesterday. Like last week in Berlin, it was a day for basking and ambling thoughtlessly, though unlike last week in Berlin, I was able to both bask and amble. Which I did.

According to Wikipedia, the term “Indian Summer” appears first in the writings of John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, who was describing the North American climate for a European audience. A contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, de Crèvecœur was the author of Letters from an American Farmer, a work that gets a passing reference in my own book, The Agrarian Vision. He was one of the first authors to write down the thought that the North American landscape was especially well suited to a particular style of farming that was conducive to egalitarian polities rich in liberty and self-reliance.

de Crèvecœur farmed in what is now New York State. The hills and valleys there frustrated attempts to effect centrally-organized and bureaucratically managed farming systems such as had been characteristic of Egypt or China. The climate was neither so mean as to preclude a harvest sufficient for both sustaining the local populace and the gradual accumulation of wealth, nor so forgiving as to make industriousness and careful management unnecessary. These observations were the premise for an argument that American farmers are more likely to develop the virtues needed for governance of a republic.

Also according to Wikipedia, the term Indian summer “is also used metaphorically to refer to a late blooming of something, often unexpectedly, or after it has lost relevance.” Whoa! Déjà vu all over again, as the great French yogi Monsieur Berrá once commented. Too late, too late we attend the agrarian message. Is the farm de Crèvecœur celebrated one of those places that do not exist?

And speaking of balky servers that arrive too late, who among us hasn’t waited in vain for the waitperson to come back with your creditcard so that you can sign the chit and make haste for greener pastures? Or show up with the chit (in the first place)? Or to bring the food? Or to show up with drinks so we can order the food? Or to show up with the freakin’ menu (in the first place)?

Indeed my friends, our food habits are hardly those of de Crèvecœur. Nonetheless, in the words of the great French yogi Monsieur Van Morrisón

Won’t you meet me
In the Indian summer
Well before
Those chilly winds do blow
Won’t you meet me
In the Indian summer
Take me way back
To what I know

Oh won’t you meet me
In the Indian summer
We’ll go walking
By the weeping willow tree
Oh won’t you meet me
In the Indian summer
We’ll go walking to eternity

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


Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Oct. 2, 2011

Bored out of my gizzard with icons, I decided to impose a bit more carbon debt on my children, their children and their chlidren’s children (not to mention their grandchildren and their grandchildren) so I could enjoy at least one more beer al fresco before the autumn gets here in earnest. Thinking why go halfway about such things, I wound up in Berlin on Friday enjoying a very fine German pilsner along with a bowl of potato soup. It was about 79° in Berlin on Friday and the sky was a particularly nice shade of blue. It might have been better in the Tiergarten than my hotel restaurant, but there is something to be said for have a nosh by the pool just a stroll from the opportunity for a good nap, should that strike your fancy.

This all being said, you understand, not in the form of a travelogue but solely in the Thornapple Blog’s spirit of finding particularly significant food experiences to celebrate from time to time. A fine German pilsner drank outdoors on a sunny day is certainly one of them, and especially (so I learned) when it accompanies a Berlin bowl of potato soup.  This is not the cream style soup I’ve come to expect, but a light broth flavored with what the Euros call rocket greens, onions and carrots. This (and the potatoes, of course) floats around a rather nice Wiener sausage.

We’ve covered wieners in the Thornapple blog recently, so I won’t go there. Nor will there be jokes about “The wurst is yet to come!” What I will point out is that in Berlin (or elsewhere in Europe) the capitalized Wiener is intended to convey meanings that never would have occurred to me as an all-American boy growing up in 1950s Colorado. Of course we would have been much more likely to call them “hotdogs”, and for us wiener was just another name for the same thing. No, on a warm late September afternoon sitting by the pool on and enjoying your pilsner, Wiener sausage means “in the style of Vienna”. This is nothing at all like what we mean when we talk about Vienna sausage (which I also like, but am mocked incessantly when I am caught with an empty can in the trash). No, it’s more like what we actually call a Vienna-style hotdog, or what, when you order a Chicago-style hotdog is referred to by the trade name of Vienna Beef. Not exactly, you understand. I rather thought this Wiener sausage in my potato soup was something a little more special, though it could have been the warm sun, the glint off the pool or the pilsner.

But to come back to the point, this is called a Wiener sausage (that’s what it said in the English menu I ordered from) rather than a Vienna hotdog because it is, after all, a sausage in the style of Wien, which is what the Germans and the Austrians call Vienna. Not that you could get a proper German sausage by ordering a Berliner instead of a Wiener. If you did that, they would bring you a jelly donut, which is, of course, a pastry in the style of Berlin.

Some of the more dust-laden readers of the Thornapple blog will remember when President John F. Kennedy voiced his support for the Germans isolated in West Berlin during the cold war by flying to Berlin not for a beer and potato soup but to deliver a stirring speech whose capstone line was “Ich bin ein Berliner”. History has since struggled with the question of why the Leader of the Free World would have thought it useful or appropriate to inform the rapt crowd (not to mention the international community following his address through the media) that he was a jelly donut.

Well, the Thornapple Blog is here to resolve this historical puzzle! The answer is to be found in in the Nebra Sky Disc, which I was able to consult during my visit to Halle (Salle), just a couple of hours from Berlin (and the true purpose of my trip). It’s worth Googling “Nebra Sky Disc” so you have some idea what I am talking about here. This meaning of this ancient artifact found on the Mittelberg mountain has been debated by scholars. Some think it is a calendar, others think it is the first recorded version of the ubiquitous “Smiley Face” icon.  I was able to definitively discern that this is actually the world’s earliest known example of lithographed advertising. The disc represents a cereal bowl being filled with a shower of cornflakes and banana. The large orb represents our friend Mr. Sun, who still appears on boxes of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran to this day.

Amazingly tuned in to the importance of a hearty breakfast for a man of his time, Kennedy was intuitively connected to the spirit of this important 3600 year old Germanic artifact. He expressed the deeper meaning of his mystical connection to the wider world by avowing solidarity with a breakfast food he took to be of especially deep significance for the people of the city he was visiting. I will be writing all this up for publication in an important scholarly journal over the coming months.

But you, dear readers, know today!

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