That’s It for 2011

December 25, 2011

It might be time to finish out 2011 by cleaning up the blog a bit, correcting errors and passing along the random bit of mail. I’m not sure I can make a whole blog out of it, but here goes.

The big error in last week’s blog was the song lyric from “Christmas in Jail” which was both misquoted and mis-attributed. I’d like to say that Ray Benson called me personally in order to complain, and why shouldn’t I? I did remind readers that not everything you read in the Thornapple blog is strictly true.

As for mail, my dad e-mailed to remind me not to complain about traveling too much, as it’s always my own fault when I do, and then I’ve had a few of these viral links sent. The only one I’ll pass on was from a loyal reader who may prefer that others do not know he was Moo-ved by the U-Tube video at the following Link. I have the usual comments from robots, but the gems were already reported back at the end of September.

And I guess that’s about it for 2011.

Talk about going out with a whimper! But hey, it’s Christmas Day, and the stockings are hung by chimney with care. Santa Claus is back in town, and he ain’t got no sleigh with reindeer, ain’t got no pack on his back. This year he’s coming in a big black Cadillac.

Enjoy some good local food this holiday season. The blog will be back next year.

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

Shameless Commerce

December 18, 2011

Still looking for that perfect gift this Christmas? Every kid wants The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics. Shop for it at Amazing dot com right cheah. Just imagine the joy on those cherubic faces next Sunday when they shred the wrapping paper from that package ‘neath the tree to discover their own personal copy of this scintillating, entertaining and (of course) edifying book. It’s the Kewpie doll, the Barbie, the Cabbage Patch Kid, the Pet Rock, the Tickle Me Elmo of the Oh Teens. I promise. And unlike Elmo, The Agrarian Vision does not require batteries! That is, unless you get the Kindle version, which is in fact available. For a limited time only, the author will be offering to personally autograph your copy at no additional charge (try that with a Kindle). Nothing will please your tots and toddlers (not to mention those from nine to ninety) than the gift that keeps on giving: a lifetime of personal enlightenment about the deep philosophical significance of the CSA way!

Well, maybe not. There was that bonehead Santa that brought my daughter a copy of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web back when she was about seven or eight years old. I’ll never forget the disappointment on her face that Christmas morning. And “some pig” The Agrarian Vision ain’t. So here’s an idea: make a donation to the Thornapple CSA in your child’s name! There’s a link right on this very webpage where you can find the information you need. Just imagine their excitement when they learn that this important social institution in mid-Michigan has gotten the boost it needs, and that they are being personally commemorated by your gift. And just think about how much they will respect you for making a charitable gift to an organization that is not even a recognized charity, and that therefore lacks the attendant tax advantages. If you think the subtleties of tax policy are lost on the younger generation, well all I can say is “Don’t sell the children short, my friend.”

On the other hand, a charitable donation is a bit abstract. Even I admit that it takes up too little room under the tree. So maybe you should give your teenager his or her very own subscription to the Thornapple CSA. They will enjoy a good seven to eight months of healthy and delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. And in accordance with our philosophy (see The Agrarian Vision above) these little buds and bodices are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. They aren’t technically organic, but that’s because the United States Department of Agriculture (in its infinite wisdom) requires expensive certification procedures for all fruits and vegetables that are represented as “organic”. And we’re just a poor Community Supported Agriculture, not for profit but too preoccupied with doing good works to have completed the forms for non-profit status with the Eye Are Ess, so we pinch our pennies and we don’t pay for organic certification. If this bothers you, see “charitable donation” in the above paragraph. Yes, nothing soothes the adolescent soul more than a big box of homegrown tomatoes! It’s the perfect gift for those of you considering the ubiquitous “gift card”.

Except that nothing happens until at least April, and not much of a serious nature until late May. And we can all recall how good we were at delayed gratification in our own adolescent years. So what’s left? Well, looking back to 2009’s Thornapple Blog, we might suggest egg nog. In the words of Jerry Jeff Walker (from his beloved holiday classic “Christmas in Jail”): “Egg nog? Egg nog! Yeah, I’ll have some egg nog.”

I just haven’t figured out how to make a buck on it.

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

Say Grace Before Eating

December 11, 2011

I had lunch last Tuesday at a place called Baan Thai. This is not the one in Waltham, Mass, or the fancy wine bar in San Francisco. It’s not the Baan Thai in Indiana, the Baan Thai in Newport, VT or the Baan Thai in Leavenworth, KS. I can’t speak for the others, but the Baan Thai on Broadway in southwest Portland is one of those shacky kind of places where you go up a flight of stairs and then you find yourself in what was once the living room or dining room of a house that’s been half-heartedly converted to commercial use. The tongue-and-groove on the walls has been painted pink and there are a few random posters of vaguely Asian locales to get you in mood. Lots of these places are pretty good, even when they are run by Phillipinos rather than Thai. The mere fact that there is a Thai restaurant in Leavenworth, KS is pretty clear evidence that the world has changed, but that’s not what I wanted to blog about.

What set me to thinking was the two guys sitting at opposite sides of the table across from me. These are two relatively big men dressed neatly but quite unobtrusively in dark trousers and still wearing the storm jackets that seem to be ubiquitous in Portland about this time of the year. It was pretty chilly in Portland on Tuesday, and the fog really penetrates the bones. But this is all atmospheric mumbo jumbo so far, because what’s notable about these guys is that they are not speaking a word to one another. Both of them have their heads bowed as if they are peering intently into their cupped hands resting on the table below. And I’m noticing that this intense silence is going on for a long time. Of course, I’m waiting on my order of Pad Kee Moa and maybe I’m just impatient, but I’m inclined to think that the meditative trance behavior I was observing continued for five or ten minutes. Maybe more.

It’s pretty rare to see people saying grace in a public restaurant these days, though there are parts of the lower Mid-West and South where family groups make a pretentious display of it. Two 30-ish males in a West Coast eatery is not typical, I assure you. But there are many things to recommend this activity, even if you are not religious in a conventional sense. It’s prudent to pause a bit before eating and put yourself in a more placid and receptive frame of mind. Helps the digestion. But there’s also an issue of moral character at stake. Recognizing that you are among the lucky ones every time you sit down to another meal… Taking note of the fact that someone has taken the time to prepare a plate of food for you, even if you do intend to pay them for it… Thinking for a moment that someone grew the rice, the soya, the cabbage, the chilies, that someone made the tofu and that countless others were part of the chain that got all these things down to Broadway on Dec. 6, 2011… Putting all this into a social context that celebrates the way that we depend upon the kindness of strangers…

And then there are all the ways in which natural piety involves acknowledging the place of humanity in a larger world. It’s good to be aware that in eating a meal, one is participating in a pretty fundamental dependence relationship. Without earth, sunshine and water, there would be no Pad Kee Moa. All the ingredients in my Pad Kee Moa are living organisms, and even if I happened to leave off the chicken or pork last Tuesday, there were animals—worms, field mice and voles—that perished when the soya was cultivated. Getting the stuff to Portland (not to mention getting me to Portland) also imposed a burden on living things. There is an Inuit saying sometimes attributed to the shaman Aua that goes like this:

The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.

That captures it, I think, and reminding oneself of that just before taking a meal should develop the natural piety that I am talking about. Just watching the two guys across from me has adjusted my own attitude, and when my Pad Kee Moa finally arrives, I’m more in the mood to relish it not only for its gustatory qualities, but in a spirit of thankfulness and humility. And as we sit in the hammock between Thanksgiving and Christmas feasting celebrations, when better to remind ourselves of our vulnerability and interconnectedness?

Warm thoughts swirling through my head as the heat from the chilies in the Pad Kee Moa warms my innards, I glance back to the table where the two gentlemen have barely moved. I notice a faint glow coming from the cupped hands of the man whose back is mostly turned toward me. A prayer candle. Now this is truly extreme!

But in fact, both of them were staring at smart phones.

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

Secret Code

December 4, 2011

Not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true.

I got bawled out this week for implying that the Thompson household does not know how to store pumpkins over the winter. Someone grabbed my collar and hoisted me down to the basement where there are tidy rows of cute little pie pumpkins all lined up, waiting for Christmas Day, I suppose. Meanwhile, as locals or readers of the New York Times know, we had a big snow in mid-Michigan this week, so the squirrels have really been enjoying the uncarved Jack o’ Lantern pumpkins that someone left out on the front porch. Just to be sure that I’m making full disclosure in this week’s edition of the blog, I should probably point out that the squirrely pumpkins aren’t actually on the front porch anymore. They are out back where the neighbors don’t have to look at their gnawed carcasses. And just in case one of my regular readers is wondering who it might have been who grabbed my collar or bawled me out, I point out again that not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true.

Which presents a dilemma. Because as Cephalus once said down at the Piraeus, what is justice but to speak the truth and to pay your debts? And if I’m supposed to be a food ethicist, what am I if not just? And if not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true, how can I represent myself as one who speaks the truth? Let’s not get into the paying your debts part here. I still owe Larry Huang the fifty bucks I borrowed back in 1973 to buy a guitar amplifier. Except that when I think back on it, there’s no way I could have been buying a guitar amplifier in 1973, so it must have been something else. Remember, not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true.

Piraeus is “a name which roughly means ‘the place over the passage’,” according to Wikipedia, though if you are into Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance you may recall a more creative translation that might have been material to a popular ‘70s author’s failure to impress un un-named figure that many have presumed to be Leo Strauss back at the University of Chicago. Strauss had a theory about the great philosophers, holding that they wrote in an elaborate code in order to ensure that that the great unwashed would not be able to understand what they were talking about. Today we refer to “the great unwashed” as the other 99%, but if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it. Not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true.

Owing to my acute intelligence and highly developed since of irony, I have myself developed a code that allows elite readers (some of whom may even be among the 99%) to decipher when they should take what is written here with a heavy dose of salt. The phrase “Give ‘im a dose ‘o salt & water” is often sung as a verse to the folk standard “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” Few people know that I actually wrote this song back when I was the bass player for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, though I cannot take credit for that particular verse. I was not, at that young age, the expert on food ethics (if we can presume salt and sobriety to have something to do with food ethics) that I am today. According to Billy J.’s website, he performed in New York City as recently as October 9, but as far as I know, he does not read the Thornapple Blog. Need I say that not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true?

And speaking of Thanksgiving dinner, I also coined the use of the word “Turkey” in reference to people who are generally clueless or obtuse, as in “How do you keep a turkey in suspense?” My code, which owes nothing to turkeys like Cephalus or Leo Strauss, is an extremely subtle use of the tagging function that is built into WordPress. Some of my regular readers may have noticed that in addition to the subject matter tags like “politics” and “song lyrics”, there are (at this writing) four categories for entries in the Thornapple Blog. Some of them are marked “Serious” and others are marked “Funny”. Still others are marked “CSA Beeswax” and if I don’t check anything, they get labeled “uncategorized”. I leave to elite readers with a highly developed sense of irony (not to say sarcasm) to discern the meaning of these categories.  As for the Monsanto thing (and for those of you who remember Lance Ritchlin and me entertaining gullible co-eds with tales about our days in the Dakotas): Not everything they say about me is strictly true.

Paul B. Thompson (Kellogg Professor at MSU) bends his elbow down at the Piraeus every Sunday. Join him some time.