Sweet Sixteen

June 24, 2012

I was in an airport last week (not that unusual, I’m afraid), where I passed an advertisement encouraging me to “Get a sweet fix”. Seemingly in answer to the question I posed at the conclusion of last week’s blog, the billboard was promulgating a “special”. It turns out that the “special” is two Krispy-Kreme donuts and a 20 ounce bottle of Coke. “Now, that just ain’t right,” I catch myself saying. Of course I suppose that if you happen to be a cyclist who is just preparing to launch into one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France, the 640 calories you would get from two Krispy-Kreme donuts and a 20 oz. Coke might come in handy. And it’s not like all those calories are coming from sugar. According to Krispy-Kreme, 220 calories from the donuts would be coming from fat. But then, if you were a cyclist preparing to launch into one of the mountain stages of the Tour de France, you probably wouldn’t be walking through an airport. But perhaps I’m just obsessing over a minor detail on that point.

All of which got me thinking about that unforgettable tune from my youth:

What happened to that funny face
My little tomboy now wears satin and lace
I can’t believe my eyes you’re just a teenage dream
Happy birthday sweet sixteen

That was Neil Sedaka, but I was actually thinking about another New Yorker, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has proposed a regulation that would limit the size of sugared beverages sold in New York City to sixteen ounces. A 16 oz. Coke still has 194 calories, all from sugar, so I think that this still pretty well qualifies as a sweet sixteen. But the Mayor’s idea is that the limitation would nudge residents toward more healthy diets.

Of course, this eminently reasonable suggestion was met with outrage on the part of the Great Satan otherwise known as “the food industry”. According to them hinting to people that maybe 16 oz. of liquid sugar might be enough for one meal by requiring that those who absolutely insist on consuming a diet guaranteed to bring on the early onset of Type II diabetes purchase a second serving is obviously a violation of rights secured for American citizens by the original Founding Fathers in our Constitution. And I’m talking about the original Founding Fathers here, not that knock-off group of posers currently inhabiting the sacred halls of Congress.

I’ll be off to Washington DC later this week to give those buffoons a good piece of my mind. And maybe I can score some donuts and a Coke, too.

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

Wait, Wait

June 17, 2012

So we ended last week on the theme of waiting. In case you are not into maintaining a thought over such a long pause, I’ll provide a handy link to last week’s blog here. Last week I concluded with the thought “I guess we’ll just have to wait.” Not skipping a beat, we move directly to the activity of waiting as memorialized by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his book Being and Nothingness.

As Thornapple Blog readers are all fully apprised in the details of the postmodern movement and its forebears, I need hardly mention that Sartre’s interest was fixated on the performance of one particular waiter who was attending him at a nameless Parisian bistro. In Jean-Paul’s accounting, the waiter’s consciousness was fully occupied by the act and process of waiting, a performance dictated by the formal role that waiters in fine eating establishments were expected to instantiate in their very being.

We could at this point launch into a tangent on the distinction between a waiter, who literally stands by to handle trivial needs, and the maître d‘, who takes the food order and is actually in charge of the dining experience. It’s a point worth noticing, but I will press on.

Sartre’s waiter is occupied with creating an appearance of deference and efficiency, executing stylized movements in the performance of such quotidian acts as pouring a glass of wine, removing the soiled tableware or helping madam into her seat. Sartre recounts the episode at some length in establishing his idea of inauthentic being. The waiter is so occupied with the form and appearance of his activity that he must create a kind of divided consciousness in which the role of waiting table is an essentialized ideal to which his own embodied activity aspires. The waiter, in short, wants to be in the sense of being a thing, a being whose existence is fully determined in advance of the human being’s creative encounter with being through the act of becoming oneself. Oneself as another, as the philosopher Paul Ricour would later put it.

European philosophy became obsessed with alterity—the encounter with the other—in the years after Sartre published Being and Nothingness. But the waiter is not so much encountering others (the people at table, for example) as he is placing this stylized activity of waiting between himself and others. And this is what makes waiting “inauthentic” in Sartre’s view.

Of course, few of us in mid-Michigan ever encounter a waitperson so preoccupied with their activity as a professionalized performance. We are lucky if they show up and treat us with any degree of courtesy at all. “My name is Mindy and I’ll be your server.”

Well, my name is Lono, and I’ll be your customer, Mindy!

This is not to say that they are more authentic in Sartre’s sense. His point about the way that people live in a fog that actually prevents them from encountering others around them as human beings seems as valid as ever.

So, what’s the special, Mindy?

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


June 10, 2012

Not that it has much to do with food and farming, but I caught three or four minutes of the transit of Venus last Wednesday. It seems worth a mention for posterity’s sake. I was walking across campus at Charles Sturt University and a small group was gathered around a telescope that someone had set up on the sidewalk. The telescope was pointed at the sun and one fellow was holding a sheet of white paper below the eyepiece. And there in circle of bright light was an unmistakable black dot: the shadow of Venus as she made her way between our planet and the sun. You had to be fairly patient to see any movement, but movement was certainly there to be seen. Any real fan of the transit of Venus would have sat there all day, watching the dot zigzag across the white circle. But being a typical astrological boob, I was pretty much ready to chalk the whole thing up as a “Been there, done that,” after just one short look.

I’m told that Captain Cook set off on his voyage of discovery in 1768 in order to observe the transit of Venus. This was not quite the happenstance that I experienced last week, as transcontinental travel (Cook was based in England) required a bit more advance planning. Ten years later Cook found himself at the site of what is now Anchorage, where a statue can be found at Resolution Point where Diane and I ended a pleasant bicycle ride last September. Things did not turn out so well for Cook, who later on that voyage found himself cooked by Hawaiian islanders.

This, however, is not the food connection for this week’s Thornapple Blog, as the cooking of Cook is believed to have been not a cannibalistic rite, but rather a funerary rite, intended primarily to remove flesh from his bones so that they could be preserved. One story holds that the Hawaiians had mistaken Cook for Lono, the god of fertility. Lono is in some incarnations associated with music and sexual pursuit, a kind of Polynesian Dionysus, while in others he is a god of agriculture and rainfall. There are numerous stories in which Lono is said to have taken a human form, generally sailing into the sunset with promises to return. Cook was killed during an altercation between his crew and the islanders. If you off Lono, it seems, you must at least show him the respect of a good funerary roasting.

Fortunately, I was not mistaken for Lono during my visit to the Hawaiian Islands about a year ago. This would distinguish me from a better-known Thompson, Hunter S., who chronicled himself as a drunken incarnation of Lono, pulling fish from the sea with his bare hands and beating them to death with an elegantly carved Samoan war club. More Dionysian than food-related, I think. I was inspired to become a philosophy professor by Hunter S. Thompson after reading his immortal aphorism “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”.

If I were to aspire to Lono-ness, it would certainly be in connection to the agriculture/rainfall incarnation. I’m sure that Venus has some sort of agricultural meaning. Maybe it’s even tied up in that Mayan calendar thing that I was blogging about during my trip to Hawaii, but aspirations to Lono-ness to the side, I’ll not pontificate on that point. If you look it up, you will learn that the transit of Venus works on a 243 year cycle. Paired transits occur 8 years apart, then not again for a quite a while. Look for it again in about 105 years. I guess we’ll just have to wait.

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


June 3, 2012

I was sorely tempted to write yet another weed blog this week. The question was going to be, “Do we blame our woes on GMOs?” Nice little rhyme, there, don’t ya think? At any rate, my friend Mardi Mellon (with her friend Jane Rissler) had predicted that herbicide tolerant Round-Up®Ready crops would lead to “super weeds.” These are not, to be sure, weeds with powers like Loki or Doc Oc; just weeds that can’t be controlled by spraying Round-Up. Marti and Jane said they would be a major nuisance. Well, as both regular readers of the blog know, the bad boys are here, and it seems Mardi and Jane were right.

At least they were right about them being a nuisance. There continues to be some debate as to whether we should blame herbicide tolerant pigweed on GMOs. The weed guys at the weed summit say not. They say it’s because farmers used too much Round-Up, creating a perfect opportunity for herbicide resistance to evolve. Farmers growing GMOs could have adopted better practices and avoided this result. Of course, farmers started using glyphosate (that’s Round-Up for you non-aggies) 24/7 mainly because of Round-Up®Ready GMOs, but still and all they did have a choice. It turns out weed guys are major defenders of the metaphysical existence of free-will.

I was going to blog about that, but three blogs would be overkill when it comes to herbicidal mania. So I thought I might talk about my friend Richard Bawden. I went to a dinner party at his house last night with nine other guests, but Richard had set the table for eight. Holy discrete charm of the bourgeoisie, Batman! We assumed that he was posing an epistemological puzzle for us, owing to the fact that Richard is fond of telling about an argument he had with an ichthyologist about some shrimp that grow in the temporary pools around and on top of Uluru  after a rain. It seems that the aboriginals claim that the shrimp come from dissolved pieces of Uluru, while the ichthyologist says they come from shrimp eggs carried to Uluru by the wind.

Richard told the ichthyologist that both explanations make equal sense, to which he responded, “Yeah, except one of ‘ems right and the other wrong.” So Richard says, “Who would you rather be stuck in the outback with, an aboriginal or me?” Even the ichthyologist knows that he’d rather be in the outback with the aboriginal, so Richard has his epistemological triumph, asserting, “But you just dissed their epistemic framework as faulty.” Now, I’m just sayin’ here. But what would you have done if you’d be invited to a dinner party with more guests than place settings by such a person?

What we did was just add a couple of extra settings to the ends of the table and squeeze around. So maybe a blog about Richard’s dinner party is not such a good idea, after all. After resolving his epistemological challenge we had a delicious meal. Which is what members of Thornapple CSA did this week, too, even if the arugula looked a little wilted. In my capacity as Thornapple CSA’s unofficial Master of Space and Time, I’m pleased to announce that we celebrated our first pick-up of the season last Wednesday. I’ll provide the ritual link to the first First Pick-up blog from back in 2010, then I’ll just quit without resolving the question of what this week’s blog is actually about.  Does this make me a relativist?

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