More Food Songs

September 30, 2012

Maybe you braved the early autumn elements at the Lansing Blues Festival down in Old Town last weekend, but I enjoyed a competing blues festival at the Walter P. Hall pavilion down in League City, TX. It was about 95 down Houston way last Saturday, and the ozone was ripe enough in the atmosphere that they issued an air quality alert. But by the time Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton and Jimmie Vaughn took the stage there was a pleasant breeze blowing in off the gulf. The Shiner bock was coming right off the keg, the mosquitoes were tolerable and it was, in short, one of life’s finer moments. There were at least 1000 spread out there on the grass, and the majority of us probably qualify for the senior discount.

But advancing age doesn’t seem to faze Marcia Ball. She kicked the evening off singing “I got my red beans cookin’,” and the band was rocking right from the get go. Since today is the fifth Sunday in a short month of blogs about songs that discuss food, it seems appropriate to make it a complete set by paying tribute to Ms. Ball, who is certainly a strong candidate for the all time Queen of food songs. As I said last week, some of these references to food don’t necessarily imply that the song is about food. When Billy Eckstine sings that “Jelly stays on my mind,” he’s not necessarily thinking about the concord grape. And similarly when Marcia Ball says she’s got her red beans cooking and that she needs to head down to New Orleans to find some hambone to go with them, well, you’re just unsure that she’s actually talking about food.

But long tall Marcia Ball has plenty of other numbers where it’s pretty darn clear that we are just straight up celebrating a wonderful food experience. Take “Watermelon Time” as a case in point.

Sweet as candy, sugar on the vine

Fine and dandy. It’s watermelon time!

Amazingly to anyone who spent some time in the South, it’s actually not long past watermelon time here in Michigan. No offense to our brave and sturdy farmer Melissa, but the melons that came in with the Thornapple share during September were more like curiosities compared to the big, red and seedy honkers that we got three for a dollar at the farmers market down in Columbus, GA during my youth. I still long for one of those wonders when summer rolls around. Takes one back to that classic from Lefty Frizzel:

Thank you, Detroit, you treated me good
But I’ve been here longer than I should
I enjoyed the money, but I miss my honey so
One thing on my mind, it’s watermelon time in Georgia

Of course when Lefty says he misses his honey and his Georgia peach, then goes on to say that there’s just one thing on his mind, to wit: that it’s watermelon time in Georgia, well, I gotta admit that I’m a wee bit confused. Isn’t this at least two things that are on your mind, Lefty?

Maybe Doug was right. There aren’t any straight up food songs after all.

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

Food Songs

September 23, 2012

When I was on leave last year I took a little trip up Tacoma way to hang out with a bunch of my friends. Erin McKenna, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, had organized a day-long food and philosophy festival, and part of her idea was to have Doug Anderson, who teaches at Southern Illinois University, lead us in a few food songs. The obviously ideological bias placed in evidence by a bunch of philosophers proposing to sing food songs set to the side (or maybe it was something else entirely), Doug was kind of stumped. After Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” he was reduced to lots of songs about beer and whiskey, which are not (last time I checked) actual foods.

Now readers with a long memory may recall that I have praised beer as more nutritious than many manufactured items purporting to be food, but that is neither here nor there in the present moment. When it comes to song, a beer lyric is as foreign to the spirit of a proper food lyric as can be. Doug was quite right to classify the beer song and whiskey song as closely related. What I wanted to talk about this week, if I can get beyond the obligatory tangential thread, is the fact that there actually are enough high quality food songs to fully occupy an evening’s musical entertainment. Since “song lyrics” is one of the thematic links you can use to sort entries in the Thornapple Blog, you would expect that I have written about some of them.

And I have. There was indeed a cheeseburger entry that showed up in connection with my Hawaii trip last year. Note that I gave the kudos for “best cheeseburger song” not to Buffet but to the Steve Miller Band for “Living in the USA”–which is actually not really a food song, the maestro’s plaintive call for “Somebody give me a cheeseburger!” to the contrary. In fact, lots of the songs that will pop up under the song lyrics tab don’t even mention food. The Beatles‘ “Birthday” is not about birthday cake. There are also songs that clearly refer to food, even when it seems pretty undeniable that the lyricist had something altogether different on the brain. Witness “Chili or Jelly?” But there is a handful of very notable food songs that I have gotten around to during the three years that the Thornapple Blog has been under construction.

Aside from some entries earlier this month, I found two. Both of them are about tomatoes. Not that this should surprise anyone.

First, back in August of 2010 I brought up Guy Clark’s “Home Grown Tomatoes”. Not exactly a hit, and possibly not even one of Clark’s better songs, but still and all a perfectly respectable food song. Some of you may remember John Denver’s recording from the Higher Ground album.

If I’s to change this life I lead
I’d be Johnny Tomato Seed
`Cause I know what this country needs
Homegrown tomatoes in every yard you see
When I die don’t bury me
In a box in a cemetary
Out in the garden would be much better
I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes

While that one is well worth a look on You Tube, I think the other one from the curiously obscure Texas duo Trout Fishing in America is truly one of the great food songs: “Pico de Gallo.” We hit that one back on Cinco de Mayo in 2011 in one of the few Thornapple blogs to mention not one but two songs (the other was, I confess, a beer song–but it was about how great a beer can taste).

It’s got jalapenos, I reckon y’all have seen those.
They’re kinda hot for gringos and probably flamingos.
Just add some tomatillos, onions and cilantro,
Lime juice and tomato, you got pico de gallo!

So tune up that guitar Doug. We’re waiting.

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

A Pickle

September 16, 2012

Buzzed on corn bread after last week’s blog, I was singing an old Cab Calloway song to myself earlier this week, getting all jazzed up to talk about it in this week’s blog. How many Thornapple blog readers remember the immortal line “Pass me a pancake, Mandrake”? How bout “Pasta fazoula, Tallulah?”

{Insert long pause here.}

On the other hand, you may well have a vague recollection of these:

Have a banana, Hannah,
Try the salami, Tommy,
Give with the gravy, Davy,
Everybody eats when they come to my house!

All of them are lyrics from Calloway’s rendition of “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House, recorded in 1947. You might have gotten a tingle from the Hannah banana and the salami Tommy rhymes because you heard them as recently as last Thursday on the National Public Radio Morning Edition broadcast. They were doing a story about a woman who was trying to recover her Grandma Minnie’s sour pickle recipe, and was being helped in the quest by “veteran pickler” Marisa McClellan. You can go to NPR’s website and either read or listen to this heartwarming tidbit of Americana, if you are so inclined. Or if you are more disposed to sarcasm and dada, you can switch to the Portlandia website where “artisan curators” Lisa and Bryce show that pretty much no matter what you’ve got lying around “We can pickle that!”

Veteran picklers? Artisan curators? Must be getting late in the season here at the Thronapple blog. NPR only did the first verse of “Everybody Eats at My House”, which is why Hannah and Tommy are more likely to ring a bell than Mandrake or Tallulah. Jeannie Burns’ lyric goes on and on, I might add.

Try a tomato, Plato,
Here’s cacciatore, Dory,
Taste the baloney, Tony,
Everybody eats when they come to my house!

It goes on in this spirit at some length. However, despite a mystifying reference to something that the robotic lyric transcribers call a “fendel” (and it’s definitely not a Reisling), there is not one single pickle in this song. Hence the burning food ethics question for this week’s blog: Why? Why, NPR, is this the theme for your segment on the lost pickle recipe?

A generic food song, I guess.

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

Hound, Horse & Turtledove

September 9, 2012

Here we are, still in the single digits of September and there’s already the distinctive snap of autumn in the Michigan air. I woke up this morning singing “Give ‘Em Cornbread” in the shower, and by the time my oatmeal was ready, I had learned a new word: catachresis. In deference to the readers who protest a little too loudly that they can’t understand all the big words in the Thornapple Blog, I move immediately to the two definitions offered for this massive ideogram. If you’re having trouble with ‘deference’ or ‘ideogram’, I provide the link to

Catachresis is, on the one hand, using a word incorrectly or inappropriately. On the other hand, catachresis is using a word to indicate some thing, point or idea that has no precise or literal name in ordinary language. Kind of like that frim-fram sauce we was talkin’ bout last week, I think. Lest you think that I throw around words simply to impress, I insist that I did not know this word (catachresis) while singing “La-la-lah; lala-la-lah” (this to the meter that similarly placed aging boomers will associate with the Banana Splits show) whilst merrily daubing my soap-on-a-rope this morning. I probably should have known about catachresis given it’s prominance in certain schools of philosophy, but if I knew it once, I had lost it so completely that I was unaware that I had lost it by this morning’s shower. I am also keenly aware that many Americans have no intrinsic interest in vocabulary; indeed, they are quite likely to react as if the strangeness or novelty of a given word is intended as a rebuke to the lassitude they exhibited as pupils in grammar school. If you’re having trouble with ‘lassitude’, here’s that link to again. If you’re having trouble with ‘grammar school’ or the Banana Splits Adventure Show, your problem has nothing at all to do with your intellect or your education. It owes entirely to your being either too young or too old to probe reference points that will be dead obvious to anyone whose experience is even roughly like my own. Wikipedia will probably be more helpful.

There’s probably a word for the distinctive meter that is exemplified by the theme song for the Banana Splits , but I don’t happen to know it. In the high-tech, multiple-linked world of the 21st century, you can just go directly to You Tube and watch a performance clip from Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers. (You can do the same thing for the Banana Splits, but it’s beside the point). I need not resort to catachresis, here. I can go straight to the corn bread. “Corn bread” is, in fact, almost the entire lyric of this marvelous musical composition from the 1980s, repeated first in a questioning tone by the Hi-Rollers (e.g. Corn bread?) during the interstices of the zydeco rhythm that follows the Banana-rama intro. Then Beau Jocque breaks into the more substantive lyric, which consists in repetition of the phrase “Give ‘em corn bread” for most of the four minutes and fifty-seven seconds that my particular recording of this musical masterpiece takes. There are also live versions of the song that run considerably longer. And by the way, if you’re having trouble with ‘interstices’ (and who wouldn’t?), here’s a handy link to

Now in the spirit of completeness, I should note that there is a bridge to this song where Beau Jocque is alleged to say “What you gonna give, em? A piece of corn bread”, though I must say that it sounds much more like “What you gonna give me for my piece of corn bread?” to me. This phrase, I note, is also repeated several times in call and response fashion, with the Hi-Rollers answering Beau Jocque’s timeless question with the equally timeless answer: “Corn bread!” If I were an English professor, I’d probably feel compelled to point out that the natural rhythm of the sentence “What you gonna give me for a piece of corn bread?” tracks the Zydeco beat perfectly. Although you probably wouldn’t normally have trouble with ‘bridge’ in any ordinary usage, you might miss the meaning here, which is the same as when James Brown shouts famously to his band “Take me to the bridge!” I’m too lazy to find a link for you, but you’re probably sitting at your computer as you read this, so you can Google it as easily as the next person.

I was singing “Corn bread!” in the shower because I was listening to it just the other day. I Googled “Beau Jocque, and discovered that he died from a heart attack while taking a shower in 1999. Fortunately, I survived this hazard on a chilly single-digit September morning in Michigan and I am here to write the Thornapple blog. In Googling “Beau Jocque” I turned up a website that purported to explain the meaning of the song (if you’re having trouble with ‘purported’, here’s that link to again). There is apparently quite a traffic in robotic websites dedicated to explaining the meaning of obscure pop songs. But when I clicked on the link, there was no satisfactory result: Although some accommodating robot had built this website and boosted its Google rating, no similarly accommodating web surfer had taken the time to post his or her distinctive theory about the true meaning of this infectious canticle (If you’re having trouble with ‘infectious’ or ‘canticle’ ). So I’m here with the Thornapple blog to offer the hermeneutically certified and definitive food ethics theory of what was on Beau Jocque’s mind when he coined this immortal verse:

Corn bread.

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

The Best Sauce

September 2, 2012

They say that “Hunger is the best sauce.” As a professional pedant, my kneejerk response is to point out how many different ways we talk about hunger. My wont has been to use the word gravely in connection with people who are seriously and continuously deprived. So, hunger is about a long, low ache in the gut at the very best. Authors who have investigated hunger note that this ache becomes overwhelming, but that once it has become so unbearable as to incline people towards the most desperate things, it dulls without ever completely disappearing. This allows the perpetually hungry to cope, even while their vulnerability to the diseases of hunger increases. The human species appears to be almost uniquely adapted to survive a long spell of extreme food deprivation.

All of which has made me scratch my head about The Hunger Games. Maybe I should just give in and read the book by Suzanne Collins, or at least go see the movie from director Gary Ross. Nothing in the description makes me want to, however. Here’s the blurb from the Internet Movie Data Base:

Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place for the latest match.

I’ve read enough dystopian literature and science to fiction to imagine how this teaser can set up opportunities for thoughtful reflections on society or human nature, and I know that the blurb is not really what the story is about in any case. Skilled writers and dramatists flesh out the sketch in ways that truly fascinate. I’m not here to knock a book I haven’t read or a movie I haven’t seen, but I have this lurking suspicion that the use of the word ‘hunger’ here is not material to anything that makes the book or the movie interesting. Commentators are, as usual, free to correct me on this point of vital cultural significance.

But grave matters to the side, we all get hungry now and then, and as the adage intimates, almost anything tastes better if you are hungry. Next time that happens, you can rely on Joe Ricardel and Redd Evans when you get ready to put in your order.

 I don’t want french fried potatoes,
Red ripe tomatoes,
I’m never satisfied.
I want the frim fram sauce with the ausen fay
With chafafa on the side

Nobody knows what the heck they were thinking about, but everyone from Nat King Cole to Diana Krall has made hay with it. And I’ll not let my well-known feelings about “red ripe tomatoes” interfere with the deep scholarly analysis on this occasion. The Wikipedia article cites a William Safire column which suggests that “frim fram” is a play on flim flam, while ussin-fay is pig latin for “fussin”. By that doesn’t explain chifafa, does it? Could be a play on the way epicures are more interested in tasting than eating, and for that, they say, hunger gets in the way.

The best sauce? I’m going with that frim fram stuff. If you don’t got none, waiter, just bring me a check for the water.

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