Bag It

March 31, 2013

If you are one of the two regular readers of the Thornapple blog, you will recall that last week I wrote about the proper way to serve watermelon. To wit, with the rind on. This comment immediately attracted the attention of leading food safety advocates, who disputed the point vociferously. Actually, this is not strictly true. Leading food safety advocates are pretty much oblivious to the Thornapple blog. But I was able to reconstruct the way that they would have responded to the blog if they thought that it had even one scintilla of influence on public opinion, and I can assure you that it would have been vociferously.

The problem with serving watermelon with the rind on from the perspective of a leading food safety advocate is that the rind is where the poo is. Microsoft WordTM is telling me that “poo” is not technically a word at all, but I think you know what I mean. Sometime not long ago there was an outbreak of food poisoning associated with cantaloupe. It seems that people were buying the cantaloupe and slicing it up in their kitchens. In so doing, they were contaminating the fleshy tasty bits of the cantaloupe that people eat with microorganisms that had been living peacefully, minding their own business, on the outside of the melon. Those microorganisms (we used to call them “germs”) got on the outside of the cantaloupe because they were excreted either by a cow, pig or deer living in the vicinity of the melon field, or perchance by a farmworker handling melons. As distasteful as all this sounds, it makes fodder for all manner of modern social movement.

There is, for example, the movement to improve the working conditions of the workers handling the melons. We can blame the employer for not providing adequate sanitary facilities to his or her employees. More relevantly for this week’s blog, we can blame the industrial food system, which is bringing all manner of poo into our homes where it can be inadvertently sliced into fleshy bits that we like to eat. Now, I’m not sure I understand how this problem would not have applied to those melons I bought off the back of someone’s pick-up truck, or those melons that I picked out of a neighbor’s melon field down in South Georgia one time, for that matter. But we’ll just ignore that inconvenient bit of logic for the time being.

The poo problem is also showing up in those re-usable cloth bags that ecologically minded people are taking to grocery store. It seems that people are tossing chunks of shrink-wrapped meat into them at the check-out counter, then tossing the bags back into the trunk of the car after the meat has been transferred to the refrigerator when they get home. It takes but a dribble of juicy meat bits in the fibers of a reusable bag to make an inviting home for the microorganisms that got rubbed off a cantaloupe. They’ll sit there minding their business peacefully until some future grocery store trip gives them a chance to hitch a ride on an apple, a pear or a Cadbury bar. And that’s when the trouble starts.

However, nobody in the industrial food system really seems to care much about this problem in the abstract. The poo hits the fan (if you’ll permit me to morph a common expression for a family blog) when somebody in a social movement suggests that we should eliminate all those paper and plastic bags that they are loading groceries into at your local gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shop. You know what I mean. At this point, the innocent microorganisms minding their own business on cantaloupe rinds become a liability issue when they hitch a ride on somebody’s Cadbury bar. It’s not a big issue with your standard industrial issue plastic or paper bag, mainly because there are too few of them. But let them multiply up in a juicy meat bit that’s had the opportunity to fester in somebody’s car trunk for a week or two, and, well, there you have it. And if the gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shop hasn’t given you the opportunity to use a sanitary paper or plastic bag, then maybe it’s their problem, rather than yours. Or at least some food safety advocate with a law degree will say that it is.

Now there are differences between cantaloupe and watermelon rinds, the former being more likely to be cozy homes for microorganisms than the latter due to the relative smoothness of their skins. But this is all a matter of degree in the mind of an imaginary food safety advocate. So any blogger recommending serving watermelon with the rind on is very probably in league with the gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shops of the world. Or did I get that wrong, now. Maybe it’s the food safety advocate who is in league with the gigantic mega-market combination grocery, hardware, clothing, sundries and stationary shop. It’s actually kind of hard to tell in today’s world of battling social movements.

You get the picture. Maybe you should take that bag out of the trunk and throw it in the washer. Use hot water.

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

Straight to the Heart

March 24, 2013

Today’s topic in food ethics is the proper way to eat watermelon. I know this is out of season, but cut me some slack. I’m going to assume that the proper way to serve watermelon is with the rind on, cut in a semi-circle or some portion thereof. None of this salad-style stuff for us! How can you make watermelon teeth if there’s no rind?

Explaining watermelon teeth for the uninitiated would take me off on a tangent that truly is better saved for summertime. The driving food ethics question is: Do you work around the bits that are close to the rind, saving the tastier bits that came from the center of the watermelon for last? Or do you go straight to the heart (of the melon, that is)? I’ve always been one of those “Save the best for last types.” My Grandaddy Thompson and my father-in-law Paul Lanier always dug in for the richest, tastiest bites right out of the box. I think this may be one of the fundamental metaphysical divides in human nature.

Now some of you technical types may be saying to yourselves, “Now this isn’t really a question in food ethics at all. At most it’s a matter of aesthetics.” But again I say, cut me some slack here. That, too, is a tangent better served in a warmer season. And were it actually watermelon time in Michigan, I would be begging that watermelon rather than slack be cut. But as you will note from the date atop the page (whenever it is you happen to be reading this), it is late March as I’m writing it. It’s the time of the year that the only watermelon you’re going to get will be at some lousy hotel or cafeteria buffet. And for that kind of watermelon the questions I’m pondering today are pretty much irrelevant.

I must confess that I take “save the best for last” to ridiculous extremes. I have favorite dishes, and by this I don’t mean favorite recipes, but favorite plates and bowls from which my porridge or cottage cheese to eat. Being of the male persuasion, my expectation is that I will gradually use all the plates and bowls in the cupboard before loading them in the dishwasher. No use wasting water, I say. Accordingly, “saving the best for last” means that I use my least preferred bowls and plates first, expecting that I will get around to the pleasure of eating my Grape Nuts from that special blue bowl sometime later in the week when the sink is clogged with all the un-favored dirty bowls awaiting the weekly (or was it monthly?) wash. Trouble is, I live with someone obsessed by a bizarre fixation on tidiness, or maybe it is cleanliness (which, after all, is next to Godliness). She’s always snatching up those dirty beige bowls almost as quickly as I can soil them, rinsing them out and running the dishwasher. I go back to the cupboard expecting that I’ll reap the rewards of my abstemiousness. The best is now available to be had, I’m thinking, but there are heaps of beige bowls still in line for use before I have my chance at the favorite blue one.

So now I’m rethinking my lifelong commitment to saving the best for last. I’m thinking that the next time watermelon season rolls around, I’m going straight to the heart. I think I’ll be a better person for it.

You see, there was a food ethics theme here after all.

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

Old Haunts

March 17, 2013

I’m going down the road feeling bad. Goin’ down the ro-oh’d feeling bad. I’m going down the road, (feeling bad) lawd lawd. Do’n wanna be treated this-a way.

Ahhh! Now I’m feeling better already. I survived my encounter with the GPS robot who wanted me to drive the rent-a-car right through a very large and heavily padlocked chain-link gate, and I am now safely ensconced within the Atlanta airport, waiting for my flight to Detroit. I’ve got my weak coffee (but who’s complaining) to my side and I have about forty five minutes to post the blog this morning.

I went to college in Atlanta, and I was here back in 1971 when a radical new pizza shop called Everybody’s opened up. I arrived here last week to learn that it is closing. Sad news, but ample opportunity to regale my friends and a few total strangers who were attending the Public Philosophy Network meeting at Emory University about how great it was to get beyond the saltine cracker crust with bland tomato paste toppings of the 1960s and have a tasty, fresh dough rising crust pizza with decent toppings from Everybody’s. I mean it’s also great to regale friends and total strangers at these conferences about how great it was to hear the Jefferson Airplane playing live at the University of Colorado field house back in the sixties, but if we were to be totally honest we would have to admit that not absolutely everything about the sixties was great. And one thing that was not so great was the pizza.

One of the locals was puncturing my stories, talking about how the pizza at Everybody’s wasn’t all that good. Well maybe not by the wood-fired artisanal organic crust pizzas of the present age, but in 1971 Everybody’s was a revelation, I tell you. Ahh! How soon we forget.

I was also able to regale people with stories about how I used to ride my bicycle to school every day, down one big hill and up another one. Since the conference center was at the top of one of those hills, I found many opportunities to reminisce about how I actually could not steam down one hill to build up momentum for the ascent (whichever way I was traveling) because the road is curvy and you can’t see very far in advance, and there was a railroad crossing dead center at the very bottom, and you needed to be prepared to stop. A great story that I’m sure everyone thought to be exceedingly amusing.

Except that when I drove down the hill on Clifton Road this morning, I discovered that there is no railroad crossing, nor is there any sign that there ever has been a railroad track at the bottom of the hill. There is a stop light, which would, in fact, entail much the same caution as a railroad track, but frankly it’s just not such a good story. And this my friends is just one more reason why you should suspect that not everything we read in the Thornapple Blog is true. Aside from the pizza thing, I’m not entirely sure what the food ethics connection in this blog is, so just chalk it up to your friendly blogger’s mental confusion and vexation at living in a world where only robots have reliable memories—so reliable that they are inflexible (it seems) when it comes to new entrance ramps for the Atlanta Rental Car center. As for the rest of us, how soon we forget.

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

Behold the Bean

March 10, 2013

I awoke this morning to the smell of black beans that had been cooking overnight in the crock pot. If you are reading the blog on Sunday, March 10, 2013, it may not be too late for you to enjoy some bean soup and a classical guitar recital from Thornapple CSA Core Group member Ryan Apple this evening at Diane Thompson’s house. The blog is not a newsletter, or I would have been mentioning this pending event for the last several weeks. Nevertheless, we do CSA beeswax now and then, mainly because I’ve made the determination that exploring the CSA way is a legitimate theme in food ethics. And one way to explore the CSA way is to blog occasionally on the various activities and machinations of the Thornapple CSA.

Maybe this is one of those occasions. Some years back I learned that “occasional poetry” is a poem written to be recited at a particular occasion. We don’t do this much, and by “we” I mean not only you, me and Bob, but virtually all Americans. Sure, there is that performance by the Poet Laureate at Presidential Inauguration ceremonies. That’s how I learned what “occasional poetry” is. But in general we pass on almost every occasion for poesy. Is there anyone out there Tweeting poetry? Surely there is. I heard on the news that there are now 64 million people writing blogs. Somebody out there is posting every time they go the bathroom. In fact, I was so curious about this that I did a Google search to see if I could figure out who that was, but all I came up with was a rapture-oriented blog where someone was sharing, “I remember last year the Holy Spirit really opened my eyes to how lost the Jehovah’s Witnesses are.”

Of course in the Thornapple blog we try to avoid overt discussions of partisan politics. Even Tea Party Republicans enjoy a good bowl of black bean soup now and then. So I’ll just treat the rapture thing as this week’s tangent and get right on back to occasional poetry.

It got me thinking… Say, Ralph Waldo Emerson has nothing on me. After all it was Ralph himself who wrote “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” So I decided to write a poem for today’s Thornapple CSA soup and guitar recital event. In fact maybe I should just convert the whole weekly blog over to occasional food poetry! And as my enthusiasm for that swelled, here is the poem I came up with. Or perhaps it is the poem up with which I came. (Got to start parsing poetically now).

When I awoke I sensed the bean
Wafting warmly on the morn.
To wit, thought I, festivity
Waits thither to be born.
Gaiety plein air guitar—
En Francais we harmonize
More boldly—and so I
Brush away the flies
And comb my beard.
A meal to make
And welcome guests,
Our bread to break.

Perhaps I should note that it isn’t actually I my own self as a real and actual being embodied at the spatio-temporal vortex of Lansing, Michigan at the archival date of March 10, 2013 that is cooking this soup. My poem could indeed get me into domestic trouble if people took that particular inference from it. It’s poetic licence, don’t you know (as was that bit about the flies—there are no actual flies in Diane’s bean soup). Come to think of it, maybe this occasional poetry thing isn’t such a good idea.

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

Wearing a Tie

March 3, 2013

A couple of years back I posted a series of blogs about places. Thinking about the place you eat is on the lighter side of food ethics, so we should start out by thanking our lucky stars, or whoever and whatever it is that gives us the luxury to consider where and how we eat, rather than just scarfing down a meal wherever it becomes available. The fact that many people who could be a little more deliberate also scarf down chow wherever it becomes available shows why there’s any ethics point to be made at all. Another one of those “quiet desperation” things.

But I fear that we are getting entirely too serious on a weekend when the Federal government has provided ripe comic opportunities. If any self-respecting blogger is going to ignore the openings for satire and sarcasm that sequestration affords (and I plan to), then they had sho’ ‘nuff better find something else to talk about that’s at least nominally amusing. So I thought I would talk about my breakfast on Friday.

It seems that I found myself in Schilo’s Delicatessen down on Commerce St. in San Antonio ordering up a plate of their wonderful potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream. Now this sentence alone should be worth a few thrills on any March weekend. First of all, it gives me the opportunity to point out that Schilo is not pronounced like the name of the Civil War battlefield, but like the nickname Jennifer Lopez’s lesser know sister Sheila. (Hint for anyone over sixty: Jennifer’s nickname is J-Lo). But the deliciousness doesn’t stop thee.

There are, of course the potato pancakes themselves, a delicacy that seldom appears on contemporary gluten-free menus, and that is even more infrequently prepared with the simple skill and grace of the chefs (they probably call themselves “cooks”) at Schilo’s. We wouldn’t be bringing this episode up at all if there wasn’t something decidedly worth eating on the table. And then there is Schilo’s Deli itself, unpretentiously situated at street level just a couple of storefronts from the Commerce St. Bridge over the San Antonio Riverwalk. I mean there’s also just the fact that it’s on Commerce St. I find any city that has a “Commerce St.” to be strangely comforting in its willingness to orient both visitors and long time residents alike, but that’s probably a story for another time and place.

So it’s place that is so rich at Schilo’s Deli. The sign outside says “Since 1907” and it’s pretty easy to imagine that Teddy Roosevelt wandered the two or three blocks from the Menger Hotel for his potato pancakes, just like I did, though he probably did not pass a McDonald’s on the way.  In fact the menu says that Schilo’s has been operating out of this building only since the early forties, so that particular imaginary is a little off base. Still and all, things look old and profoundly right at Schilo’s and the place is supremely fit for knockwurst, corned beef or, if you happen to be there before eleven, potato pancakes.

Just as I was starting to enjoy my order a couple walked in and sat down at the table next to me. They could have come out of Texas central casting. The woman was wearing a stylish and probably expensive pants suit with heels. It set off the big hair and the loads of jewelry she managed to support on her frame. The man was rotund, balding and his ruddy complexion suggested that he had spent many years working outdoors. He was wearing a plaid shirt, blue jeans, boots and suspenders. Let me just say that you would not see this pair in Michigan. I looked around the joint and noticed that I was the only person wearing a tie.

Nobody seemed to care.

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