August 25, 2013

Thornapple CSA members have been getting e-mails about an unexpected crop of “organic” apples out at Appleschram Orchard. We had a picking party a couple of weeks back. Members were invited to harvest these tasty little boys at the bargain rate of $10/bushel. Thanks to the generosity of Jane Bush, proceeds were applied to the Thornapple CSA financial deficit that we were blogging about in July. Jane had no plans to sell these apples, so why not?

Both regular readers of the Thornapple blog know that a simple statement like this is usually a set up for a long tangential discussion that eventually treads into the vagaries of food ethics. And who am I to disappoint expectations? So I might pick up on the little quotation marks around the word ‘organic’ up above. In the world of technical writing, the use of single quotation marks (like the ones in the previous sentence) indicate that you are talking about the word, rather than using to mean what it would ordinarily mean in a grammatical sentence. Double quotation marks around a word (like in the first sentence of the blog) are called “scare quotes” and they indicate non-standard usage. Sometimes its irony or sarcasm, but we don’t do irony or sarcasm in the Thornapple blog, (he wrote sarcastically). But often scare quotes are a tip off to the reader that the word shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Which would be the case here, because according to the U.S. Federal Code, you can’t actually call something ‘organic’ unless the production process has been inspected by a certifier and deemed to comply with United States Department of Agriculture (that’s You Ess Dee Hay to the insiders out there) organic standard. Now Jane’s apple orchards were certified organic at one time. I’m told that they were the first apple orchards to be certified organic in the State of Michigan, which is kind of a big deal and one of the reasons Jane made the rockstar farmer list we did back in the dead of winter. But Jane stopped doing apples a number of years ago because she was having pest problems she couldn’t control organically and she wasn’t making enough money from it. She hasn’t ever used any chemicals on the apples since they were certified, but if you don’t pay that certifier every year, you are kind of back to square one when it comes to getting your apples certified. It’s not something that you can just wait until you have a great crop and then decide that it’s worth the money to pay a recognized You Ess Dee Hay certifier to come out and look at them, expecting to be able to get that premium price for organic apple cider.

So maybe there’s a food ethics point in here somewhere and if not maybe there’s some of that irony that we never indulge in here in the Thornapple blog. In the meantime, Thornapple CSA members are enjoying these apples that it’s not worth the trouble to pick and sell because they are kind of small and they aren’t USDA Organic, just “organic”. You’ll run into those farmers at markets all over the You Ess of Hay who hold up two fingers on each hand to do the scare quotes dance when you ask them if their produce is organic.

Well, you’ll just have to decide for yourself, I think.

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


August 18, 2013

Michigan summer seems to be hitting a crescendo this weekend, and if you are on the Michigan State University campus the signs that autumn is around the corner are visible everywhere. The international students are showing up and the construction barriers are coming down. I woke up this morning and made migas for a whole houseful of company. As Madeline Kahn once sang, “I’m tired. Tired of coming and going and going and coming.” So instead of putting a lot of energy in the blog this week, I’m going to tell you how you can make migas almost entirely from stuff you have gotten through Thornapple CSA. This would especially be true if you have added some Grazing Fields eggs to your weekly share pick-up, because basically, migas is an egg dish.

If I was making migas, (and I just did a couple of hours earlier this morning) I would start by cutting up some tomatillos into roughly ½ inch chunks, and then I would sauté them in olive oil with some crushed and minced garlic until they just barely start to liquify. And then I would turn off the heat, put a lid on it and set it aside. I would have all the chopped peppers, onions and tomatoes that I planned to use handy. I used all three pepper varieties we have gotten from the Thornapple CSA this year, and I have to say that the poblanos are a pretty luxurious and sensational add for migas. You can add jalapenos, if you like, but I didn’t have any this morning. I used some of the romas for tomato, but that was only because we’ve been feasting on all the other tomatoes this week like there was not tomorrow. But romas work fine for migas, chopped into any bite-sized chunk.

Before you get ready to cook, aggressively stir up as many eggs as you plan to cook in a bowl. I usually add a dash of buttermilk, but if you are trying to stay close to the Thornapple share box, call that optional. Ditto the dash of hot sauce in the egg mix. Now you are ready to start heating up that skillet.

You are going to have to use some cooking oil, and that, I’m afraid, is simply not in the share box. I always have a few different oils in the cabinet and this morning I pulled down the olive oil. Begin with the peppers on a medium high heat, and when you are satisfied that they are cooked, throw in the onion. When the onions start to get glassy, turn down the heat. At this point you can also use some of that fine cilantro we’ve been getting, if you like. Now you pour in the eggs. They are best if they cook slowly, and if you continue to lift them off the bottom of the skillet as they first start to firm up, kind of like you were cooking a very gently scrambled egg or an omelet. When a little more than half of the egg blend has started to get firm, you add the tomatillos and garlic that you set aside a little earlier, and just before the mixture is firming up you will add the tomato chunks. Obviously, you’re going to be thoroughly stirring and mixing when you add all these things.

You are now getting close enough to call people to the table. After you added the tomatoes, the whole glop will get a little liquidy again, and that’s when to toss in a handful or two of broken up tortilla chips. If you are into the local thing, you are going to be buying a bag from the Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory, because we don’t have very good chips here in Lansing. I suppose I would use some leftovers from Alicia’s if I needed to, but actually AATF chips hold up to migas pretty well. I use “original” which just means they are not bogged down with garlic or lime or such, but each to his own taste, I suppose. You are going to stir these in too, which will take a bit of dexterity to insure that the chips are getting coated with what’s left of the egg mixture. If you add the chips too soon, you will just have a soggy mess, and if you add them too late, it will taste like you threw scrambled eggs on top of your nachos. In neither case do you have migas.

The last step is to throw in a handful or two of shredded cheese—also not a Thornapple item, but hey cut me some slack. Mix it in quickly, turn of the heat and put the lid on for only a minute or two. You can serve them on a plate or taco-style. Some beans go nice on the side, too. I realize I haven’t been too effusive about the proportions, but what can you expect from a blogger who uses words like “effusive” in a recipe? Do what Cole Porter recommends: Experiment. Be curious. Though interfering friends may frown, get furious at each attempt to hold you down. If this advice you’ll only employ the future can offer you infinite joy. And merriment. Experiment and you’ll see.

There’s really only one serious question to ask here, and that’s for what distinguishes migas from chilaquiles. I’m not talking.

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


Technology, Self & Society

August 11, 2013

I woke up this morning a little after five and decided to have some coffee and read for awhile. I wound up with an essay that Wendell Berry wrote back in 1969 called “A Native Hill.” He would have been in his mid-thirties then, and relatively recently returned to his native Kentucky farm after a stint on the faculty at New York University. Anything written by Wendell Berry is fair game for commentary in the Thornapple blog, so if you are wondering what the connection to food ethics is, just suck it up and deal with it.

There’s something profoundly right about reading Wendell Berry before sun-up on Sunday morning.  In this particular essay he is ruminating on the significance of place. He takes due note of the fact that he can call these Kentucky hills home only because of the violence his forbearers  inflicted on native peoples, on their slaves and on the land itself. But then he lavishes words on what it feels like to be in those Kentucky woods. I wouldn’t presume to summarize these passages, but I was struck by the way he concludes his description of standing on a riverbank in a particular spot and in a particular mood. “It was as though I was not necessarily myself at all. I could have been my grandfather, in his time, standing there watching, as I knew he had.”

Here is a passage near the beginning of the essay where Berry is describing his Kentucky boyhood on the farm:

Having a boy’s usual desire to play at what he sees men working at, I learned to harness and work a team. I felt distinguished by that, and took the same pride that other boys my age took in their knowledge of automobiles. I seem to have been born with an aptitude for a way of life that was doomed, although I did not understand that at the time. …

That knowledge, and the men who gave it to me, influenced me deeply. It entered my imagination, and gave its substance and tone to my mind. It fashioned in me possibilities and limits, desires and frustrations, that I do not expect to live to the end of. And it is strange to think how barely in the nick of time it came to me. If I had been born five years later I would have begun in a different world, and would no doubt have been a different man.

I have to teach a class called “Technology, Self and Society” this fall at Michigan State University. I expect I’ll read this passage to my students at some point. I wonder if it will make any sense at all to them?

Paul B. Thompson teaches philosophy and food systems at Michigan State University.

The passages from Wendell Berry were published originally in Recollected Essays 1965—1980 (New York: 1981, North Point Press)

Crave the Crema

August 4, 2013

There are supposedly three kinds of retail food consumers. One group just wants good food. Boooring! A much more interesting group is seeking some kind of unique or special eating experience. This group winds up being the prime target of marketing and research, because they offer something that retailers (we’re talking restaurants and grocery stores here) can focus on. Finally there is the third group. They are mostly interested in parking. Or more accurately, food is the last thing on their mind when they are thinking about spending money on eating. They might not be making their decision solely on parking but they want to know if there is a playground for the kids, or they might be worried about the wait. This group gives retailers something to focus on, too. It would be pretty evident that this group actually dominates the planning for a lot of chain restaurants and major grocery stores. But they don’t give you much to write about in a blog on food ethics, so we’re going to ignore them for the rest of the day.

My friend Lisa Heldke is the global food ethics guru when it comes to that middle group, which she calls “food adventurers”. Lisa is fully aware that the rest of the world may call them “food snobs”, and her book Exotic Appetites considers some reasons why that might be justified. But she’s trying to give them the benefit of the doubt at the outset, so I’ll go with that. The worry is that by obsessing over ever more elaborate and unusual turns in cooking and cuisine, the food adventurers are just egging retailers on. As they scour the world for that authentic and special taste, the taste-makers convert local cultures into commodities. The retailers market these commodities to comparatively well off developed world consumers who are oblivious to the exploitation that likes deep in the bowels of the global food system. And if this kind of consumption is not quite at the heart of the ethical issues in contemporary food production, these food adventurers are the reason why cynics regard efforts like “fair trade” or “bird friendly” coffee as just another form of elitism.

Which brings me to crema. “Crema” is not recognized by the spelling dictionary of MS Word® . That’s pretty good evidence that we’re in elitism territory, I think. Crema is the thin, frothy film on a cup of espresso. It’s produced by the pressurized brewing method that’s used to make espresso. You are not going to see any crema coming out of your Mr. Coffee drip pot on the kitchen counter. For coffee aficionados, it’s all about the crema. That’s where the flavor is most intense. It’s also where it can be most intensely screwed up by an incompetent or lazy barista. Frothing the crema with a little steamed milk is the secret behind a cappuccino, but in my humble opinion the peak experience is what you get with a properly made macchiato—which you are not going to get at any Starbucks, Bigby’s or Espresso Royale in Lansing. The crema tends to get washed out in latte, so you will hardly ever see a coffee snob—err, adventurer—ordering one unless it’s like two o’clock in the afternoon, they need a coffee fix and just can’t bring themselves to order a plain cup of brewed coffee.

When I was down in Australia last year I learned that you can hardly get a cup of ordinary brewed coffee. They do something called a “flat white”, which is kind of a cross between a cappuccino and a latte. It’s got a little less milk than the latter, and there’s an effort to retain a bit of the crema in the froth on top when it’s competently made. An entire subcontinent of food adventurers, those Aussies! They have nothing but disdain for the swill-drinking Americans, especially when they turn out in droves for an abomination like “pumpkin spice macchiato” (which has no more relation to true macchiato than Chef Boy-Ar-Dee canned pasta has to a proper al dente tortiglioni).

Ooops. Am I sounding like a food snob here? Just give me a tall dark-roast then, with room for cream.

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