Mas Masumoto

January 13, 2013

I’ve been reading a new book called Grounded Vision by an English professor named William Major. He sees agrarianism as a theory of criticism. What criticism itself is I’m not entirely sure. It seems to have come down to us from “literary criticism,” which Red Warren putatively defined as “jus’ a bunch o’ smaht people sittin’ roun’ tawkin’ ‘bout littature.” I don’t have a source for this quotation, and it may be completely spurious. I do have a link to a picture of Warren from the Vanderbilt University Library, and he looks like someone who would say such thing to me. Apparently English professors got tired of talking about literature sometime in the 1980s and realized “Hey! We’ve got tenure. We don’t have to talk about literature. We can talk about anything we damn well please!” Which turned literary criticism into “cultural studies”. When an English professor muses on the basis for criticizing culture (e.g. anything he or she feels like talking about that day), it becomes a theory of criticism. At least that’s as near as I can come to figuring out what Major’s book is about.

So Major thinks that agrarianism is as good a basis as any for talking about whatever you feel like talking about on any given Sunday. Hmm. Sounds suspiciously like the operative principle behind the Thronapple Blog, don’t it?

But of course THAT’s not what I sat down to write about this morning. What set me off was the people that Major keeps bringing up in his book. Maybe, I thought, I can get some ideas for my next “Food Ethics Icon”. Not surprisingly, Major is mostly talking about Wendell Berry, who has the virtue of being both an agrarian and an English professor, so if anybody would know how to use agrarianism as a theory of criticism, you would expect that Wendell Berry would be the guy. But we’ve already celebrated Berry’s iconic status in the Thornapple Blog, so he’s out.

There are certainly other candidates that keep coming up in Major’s book, however. The one I’m drawn to this morning is David Mas Masumoto. Mas is a real live rock star farmer who is very well known in California for his efforts on behalf of family farming. He also writes. A lot. Major is mostly focused on his first book Epitaph for a Peach, which describes Mas’s devotion to the Sun Crest peach variety, despite the difficulties that is causes him as a peach grower. It’s apparently finicky and difficult to market. But its all-too-brief moment of peak flavor is, if we take Mas at his word, to die for. I’m kind of a Georgia peach man myself, and I don’t really know my varieties. I do know you can get some pretty sensational Michigan peaches (though not last year), even if the ubiquity of great peaches that I experienced during my time in Georgia during the late sixties and early seventies seems to be a thing of the past. Major (remember him?) keeps pointing out the way Mas talks about proper farming as being very far from having any sense of control over the environment. Rather, it’s a matter of subverting your ego and recognizing that the environment is controlling you.

And I think this is a bang-up message for an agrarian food ethic, so I’m quite willing to go along with Major and declare that Mas Masumoto is a true food ethics icon. I’ve run into Mas a few times over the years, and was able to have a pretty lengthy conversation with him when I was on the faculty at Purdue and he spent a week or two there as a scholar in residence. He thought it curious that a philosophy professor would a) be working on food and farming or b) want to talk to him. But he seems to be a really nice guy who both farms and writes reasonably well. His most recent book is The Wisdom of the Last Farmer. It’s about the transition he experienced in taking over the orchard from his father, and then coming to terms with his father’s passing. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to have these rockstars who both farm and write. It’s definitely a good thing when English professors assign books like Epitaph for a Peach or Wendell Berry’s Another Turn of the Crank, and if they need some sort of rationale for talking about them, I suppose agrarianism as a theory of criticism is as good as any.

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

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