Sumptuary Law

May 26, 2013

My mother used to tell me to clean my plate (green beans, as I recall it) because there were starving children in China. Her mother used to say the same thing. I don’t think either of them thought that the starving Chinese children really provided a convincing reason against leaving food uneaten. My mother was being sarcastic, while my grandmother was being sardonic. This would be a great opportunity for an extended Thornapple Blog tangent exploring the difference between sarcasm and sardonic cynicism, but since there’s already an entire webpage dedicated to that question, I’ll forego the temptation.

I suppose there could be a lot of reasons why mothers would want their kids to clean the plate. When green beans are the point of contention, it’s just another way to say “Eat your vegetables.” The message I took from it was that is morally wrong to waste your food, and the fact that there are hungry people in the world who would dearly love to have those green beans was supposed to reinforce this message with a sense of guilt. Somehow, it’s your fault that those Chinese children are starving—never mind the fact that it was Mom who snatched those green beans out of their mouths and put them on your plate. The only way to expiate that guilt is through the Christian virtue of frugality. Clean your plate!

In fact, choosing the Chinese to underline this point was particularly unapt. The Chinese have a custom of placing more food on the table than can possibly be eaten. If you are the guest of a Chinese host, you need to leave at least a bit of uneaten food on your plate to relieve them of any sense that that they have been ungenerous or stingy hosts. There needs to be even more uneaten food lying around in the numerous serving bowls that crowd the table of a ceremonial dinner. And any dinner where you are entertaining a guest is a ceremonial dinner. I don’t know what goes when a Chinese peasant family is eating together at home. It’s hard for me to believe that this custom pertains there, too. But it is widespread enough that over-ordering is pervasive at restaurants in China.

So much so that Vege-Tiger on Shuanqing Road in Beijing has instituted an incentive program for customers who order only what they can eat at any given setting. Vege-Tiger is operated according to strict Buddhist principles. It’s all vegan, all the time. Their business card has a little box on the back which you can get stamped when you eat there, pretty much like a U.S. coffee shop that gives you a free cup after ten visits. Except that you can’t get the stamp at Vege-Tiger if you order more than you can eat. Once you’ve collected six stamps, you get a discount applicable on future visits. I guess that’s the Buddhist way to frown on the Chinese custom of wasting food when you eat out, combined with a little bit of capitalist economics.

All in all, the whole thing is reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman laws that were intended to promote frugality. Montesquieu tells us that civic virtue is essential in a republican form of government, and that nothing undercuts virtue in a republic faster than luxury. Luxury is a necessity in monarchies, he thinks, where endless ranks and distinctions of honor reinforce loyalty to the sovereign. But in a republic, only love of one’s homeland holds the society together. Under those conditions, a communal ethic of self-sacrifice and personal discipline breeds a strong sense of community. I suppose if you are generally poor, it’s fine for that once in lifetime wedding banquet to be associated with excess and uneaten food. But once people get to be wealthy enough that they are going out to a restaurant once or twice a week, the ethic of excess becomes an ethic of waste. Then next thing you know, the republic goes to pot.

Hats off to Vege-Tiger. Next time you are near the Wudaoku Subway stop, drop in and give them a look.

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

Dump Ling

May 19, 2013

I’ve been in China visiting my son the last week or so. The other day I saw a sign in both Chinese and English (not that unusual). The Chinese said: 蒸饺 and below it the English said: “Dump Ling”. Naturally I took this to be sign of a growing tolerance for dissent in China’s public forum. Like everyone, I’ve read that an arts and culture scene that has space for people like Ai-Weiwei has resulted in greater and greater opportunity for street level expression of opinions that run counter to the status quo.

Of course I had no idea who Ling was. I could only infer that someone wanted to dump him. I was reasonably comfortable attributing a male gender to this execrable Ling—after all is it usually a man that people want to dump, whatever culture we’re talking about. Well, maybe not. This is the former land of Soong May-ling, better known to Westerners as Madame Chang Kai-shek, who was a political figure in her own right. She died in 2003, and it’s doubtful that my students would have any idea who I would be talking about. So frankly, it didn’t occur to me that Soong-May could possibly have been the Ling that someone wanted to dump.

It seemed more likely that Ling was some kind of minor local official—maybe someone who works for the bus company, or who manages the KFC down at the mall. Or maybe this unfortunate Ling was a college professor known for giving particularly pedantic and boring lectures on food ethics and animal welfare. Who would not want to dump Ling, if that were the case?

Except that, as those among my two regular readers who happen to read simplified Chinese characters have already figured out, this sign did not really have anything to do with dissent or protest at all. I realize how exceedingly unlikely it is that either of my two regular readers actually does read simplified Chinese characters, but still I can’t exclude the possibility that maybe somebody out there is going “Chuff, chuff,” up their sleeve right now, taking delight in the way that people are being strung along by this week’s entry in the Thornapple blog.

Because if you copy 蒸饺 and put it into Google translate, you will see what I did not recognize walking along the lake at the Summer Palace. You will see that there actually is a food connection to this week’s Thornapple blog, and that when we went inside to try some of the 蒸饺 (along with a nice cold Tsing-Tao beer), we discovered that they were delicious!

Given the high level of brilliance I associate with both of my regular readers, I’m sure you have already figured out what we had, if you hadn’t done so by seeing the title alone. Still and all, I’m not going to spell it out for you. Who is brave enough to enjoy the chuckle without trying the Google translation?

Go ahead. And don’t think I meant 转储市长. This was not intended to be another Virg Bernaro blog.

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

The Buffet Table

May 12, 2013

One remarkable thing about intensive pig production: Those gestating sows lined up in “crates”? They don’t typically exhibit the most obvious signs of stress, frustration or reduced welfare. Now before backfilling this storyline just a bit I want to ward off the suggestion that I think this observation goes very far toward justifying this particular production practice on ethical grounds. In fact, as will become clear for those who persevere through today’s twisted pathway of tangents, irrelevancies and feigned ignorance, I’m not here on the second Sunday of May to write about pigs or animal welfare at all. So don’t write me any angry letters, at least not yet. I’m fully aware of “stereotypies” and behavioral abnormalities observed in gestation crates, and (I repeat) I’m not here to defend industrial pork production, in any case. There were a few blogs about that two years ago, so go back and look at them.

No. First I’ll explain for the uninitiated that the gestation crate is actually a very narrow pen built to hold one sow while embryos develop into little piglets. It’s so narrow that she can’t turn around. She can stand up to the feed and drink the water that is delivered to the front of the pen, and she can lie down. In Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) the pens are lined up in long rows, but you’ll see these crates one or two at a time even on some small farms. More typical is the farrowing crate, which is for after the piglets’ birth, and though it looks similar, it’s designed to prevent the little piggies from being crushed. But enough on explaining things for the uninitiated.  I said I wasn’t here to write about pigs this May morning.

No. I’m curious about the relative lack of any sign that these sows are unhappy with this arrangement, which looks incredibly boring at the least, and intolerably cruel to most casual observers. Pigs are smart, after all, and how would you feel penned up like that? Now notice I said relative lack just now, because (like I said above) I’m not here to recommend this treatment. The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that if you are a pig, one of the big stressors in your life is a lack of surety about where that next meal is coming from. Or if that seems a bit too abstract for a creature that, smart as she is, may not be able to conceptualize states of affairs in the optative mood of the future tense, maybe she’s stressed by the fear that some other pig is going to beat her to the tasty bits. Is this a dismissive way to understand a pig?

No. Arguably, these sows are being quite rational. My son tells me that his school cafeteria opens up at 5:00pm and that almost everybody shows up right at five on the dot. And why? Because it’s all gone by 5:30, even if the cafeteria is nominally open until 8:00. And when I went down for my “free breakfast” yesterday at 9:30 there was no more milk for my cereal. So I went down this morning at 7:02, right after it opened up. The place was packed. Indeed, there was cold milk for my cereal, but there was no place to sit. It seems that humans quite rationally adapt their behavior according to the possibility that some other pig is going to beat them to the tasty bits. Wouldn’t it be much more stressful to just have an endless supply of the stuff out there so that nobody would have to worry about having access to some tasty bits?

No. Or at least maybe not.  It’s not entirely clear that the “plenty” solution doesn’t just induce greedy pigs—err, people—to eat too much. And “greedy” here connotes no moral judgment. It’s just a function of a natural competitive drive. The behavior I witnessed this morning had all the marks of a feeding frenzy. I didn’t actually need to eat that sugar doughnut out there on the buffet table after I’d finished my cold cereal (even if it did go well with my second cup of coffee). It might have been more relaxing if everyone had just the right amount of cereal and cold milk placed in front of them in a situation where it was just dead obvious that no other greedy person could get to it. Would that be a bad thing?

No. My idea would relieve a lot of stress around breakfast time, I think. People are like that. Or at least sometimes they are.

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

Hold the Mayo

May 5, 2013

If you have checked the date of today’s entry, you know that it’s past time to fire up the charcoal. Presumably you’ve already got the cabrito soaking in marinade, and you’ve put the Pacifico or the Negra Modello on ice. You’ve just taken a quick break to check out the Thornapple blog before heading out to the back yard (or the back forty, if you’re from Tejas) to start the party. I’ve already referenced one of the greatest food songs in this blog twice already, so I’m loathe to follow that path again. But now here in 2013 when it actually is Cinco de Mayo on blog day, I’m kind of at a loss as to what I should do. Perhaps, as one of my commentators suggested last fall, “Ha llegado el momento para que usted pueda escribir acerca de tequila.”

On the other hand, perhaps like the Jamestown settlers that were in the news this week, you are fresh out of both cabrito and tequila. Perhaps you saw Doug Owlsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution posing with the macquette of a 14 year old girl named “Jane”. The name appeared on the manifest of an ill fated supply ship that happened to arrive at Jamestown just as the colony was beginning it’s “starving time” over the winter of 1609 and 1610. Not to suggest that being out of cabrito and tequila would be in any ethically relevant way similar to the situation of the household where Jane’s abraded remains were discovered, but what do you do with a week when the lead story on food ethics has to do with cannibalism?

I guess you could point out that this is not generally recommended by any of the major philosophical traditions. On the other hand, one could take the other route and follow Cora Diamond’s observation from the classic 1978 paper “Eating Meat and Eating People,” that there are not really any compelling reasons not to eat people as long as they are already dead (as would appear from the evidence currently extant to have been the case for the unfortunate Jane). Diamond was not really aiming to endorse the ethics of cannibalism so much as she was making the point that our beliefs about what is and is not food do not rest solidly on an ethical basis in the first place. Still and all, if you are inclined to be rationalistic about things, and if you were in the middle of the starving time or, for that matter, inclined to reflect on it, noticing the irrationality that runs through our food practices might be a reason for digging up and utilizing a generally frowned upon and unarguably unaesthetic source of nutrients. Diamond writes that there might be some tasty bits there, but I take this claim to be hyperbole.

If you are disposed  to amuse yourself by reading philosophy rather than eating cabrito this May 5th, I’ll report that Diamond’s paper is available all over the internet from various people who taken it upon themselves to download the PDF from J-STOR and put it on some random website. You can GOOGLE it or you can get it legally by signing up for J-STOR’s “Register and Read” program at this link. There are ethical issues here, too, but unless you are into eating paper copies of philosophy articles—also not recommended, mainly because of the ink—I don’t see much of a connection to the main themes of the Thornapple Blog. As for myself, I’m going to treat this as a tangent and get right on back to cannibalism.

Not to be squeamish, but I truly don’t see much humor in the fate of Jane, not to mention the other Jamestown colonists, so I’ll take a 90-degree turn to synthetic meat. This is a meat-like stuff that’s ginned up from tissue culture. Tissue culture has nothing to do with Kleenex and everything to do with Petri dishes, which, in the case of synthetic meat, are scaled up to the vat size so that we can have meat-like stuff (maybe we’ll call it “processed meat food”) to eat. It’s not here yet, but hang on. I’m curious. I’d genuinely like to know what my two regular readers think about this idea. The general consensus among philosophers is that “Hey, this is GREAT! No more animals!” But what about real people?

As for myself, I think it’s kind of creepy. Afterall, there’s no limit to the kind of animal tissue you can start with. Maybe the Smithsonian can regenerate some stem cells from Jane’s DNA and there can be little dishes next to the macquette where you can experience what the starving time survivors did. After all, who’s the worse for it?

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