Comida Auténtico

October 27, 2013

Some blogs back (actually it was 2012) I posted a particularly obscure blog about Jean-Paul Sartre’s waiter. Sooo concerned about playing the role of the waiter to a tee, he was, in Jean-Paul’s existential lingo, trying to be a thing. And in doing THAT he was denying his authentic self, which is to be in process, to be as a project, as an action verb. Well, I know for a sure-nuff fact that the timing of that particular blog set at least one reader off the Thornapple mainline once and for all. Intellectual BS was the diagnosis.

Well I was making fun, ya know, but there really is a pretty robust line of jack in the food world on authenticity. And it’s not all that obscure, I assure you. I mean, hasn’t everyone been lured by that snazzy joint that promises authentic Italian? And you can be sure we aren’t talkin’ Chef Boiardi—Ettore Boiardi that is. Ettore Boiardi was a serious guy. Head chef at the Plaza before he started his own line of sauces. He rechristened his Americanized pasta dishes under the brand name Chef Boyardee mainly so all the good folks who were new to Eye-talian food would get the pronunciation right. Ettore Boiardi helped popularize pasta dishes in America, but it was not long before aesthetes started hankering for something more authentic.

By which they meant, more like one would be likely to get in Italy.

I’m not stupid enough to weigh in on the difference between Chef Boyardee Beefaroni and something you might get in Italy. I mean, I’ve been to Italy a couple of times, and I’ve certainly never had anything even remotely like Beefaroni when I was there. Yet I’d also be pretty hard pressed to condense all the variety of dishes I’ve had while actually inside the geographical boundaries of the Italian Republic into some archetype that I could call authentic Italian food. And this, to finally meander around to the point, is the rub when it comes to authentic food.

The fact of the matter is that most cooks don’t make anything the same way twice. When it comes to cooking, Heraclitus rules: You can’t step in the same river even once. Forget about twice. Sameness just ain’t the thing in food world. Difference, and then appreciating all fifty (or fifty thousand) shades of Grey Poupon. Everyone’s going to do things just a wee bit differently, and even the weather is going to make a difference. But while it doesn’t make any sense at all to obsess about the authentic bouillabaisse (does it have saffron, or not?) you can kind of get what people who want something a little more like they might actually get in Italy (or France or Germany or Mexico or China or Thailand—notice that no one ever talks about authentic Dutch food—are itching for.

So I’m not saying “Forget about that one off little diner or café claiming to do “authentic” whatever.” They probably are going to be as different from your average national chain as the gnocchi they serve every Wednesday in the cafeteria at the FAO down on Viale delle Terme di Caracalla is from Chef Boyardee.  No, what I’m saying is, cut ‘em a little slack. Don’t judge them against any idea you have about what is and isn’t authentic. Just worry about whether it’s good.

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

3 D Food Ethics

October 20, 2013

Here’s Wendell Berry on “How to Be a Poet (to Remind Myself”:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

At the risk of running into some copyright issues, I’m going to keep quoting, because it’s really the next few lines that make a connection to Wendell Berry’s status as a hero for the Thornapple blog.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.

Now chances are pretty good that if you are reading the Thornapple blog right now (and how could it NOT be the case that you are reading the Thornapple blog right now—that’s what you should ask yourself), then it’s also pretty darn likely that you are ignoring the poet’s advice to “stay away from screens.” It’s advice that your Thornapple blogger ignores pretty routinely. I do most of my writing on screens. As a teacher and public speaker I spend a lot of time in front of screens working on presentations, too. (Well, maybe we can call that writing, but it sure ain’t poetry.) And then I find myself sitting in front of a screen amusing myself with some inane game like “Fruit Ninja”. Contrary to any free association you might be making, there’s really no connection between food ethics and “Fruit Ninja.”

In deference to copyright, I’ve not given you the totality of this wonderful little poem from Wendell Berry, so I’ll provide a link to the Poetry Magazine website where I found it right here. Go finish reading it on your own. Then maybe think about absenting yourself from screens for awhile. Go out in the garden and see if there are any tomatoes worth picking. It’s been too cold for them to ripen up, but we have yet to have a hard freeze here in Central Michigan (though that may not last long given the weather report), so there might still be a green one out there that will ripen up if you put in a paper bag with a banana. Or do something else 3 dimensional, like cooking chili. That’s actually one of the most important things about food ethics, you know. At least for now, food is still 3-D.

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


October 13, 2013

I’m not sure who it was who said, “Standards! The young folks today just ain’t got no standards!” But the thrusts of today’s blog is to assert that in the world of food at least, people today have more standards than at any time in history. There are ‘fair trade’ standards, good agricultural practice (GAP) standards, ‘fair food’ standards focus on farmworkers, nutrition standards (as exemplified by RDAs or recommended daily allowances) and a bunch of environmental standards that range from Wal-Mart’s standards for sustainable packaging to (my personal favorite) bird-friendly coffee. The U.S. FDA (see last week’s blog) has standards for fat, moisture and sorbic acid content that bear on the difference between cheese and cheese food. They also have standards for defining an edible portion and the minimum amount of solid content in a can of corn. And we haven’t gotten to the USDA standards that determine whether an apple is “Extra Fancy”, “No. 1” or plain old “Utility”, much less the standard that probably means the most to an average reader of the Thornapple blog, to wit, the USDA organic standard. It’s tempting to go off on a tangent about whether there are  any “average readers” of the Thornapple blog, but just this once I’ll stay on track.

I’m not sure who it was who said that “The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from,” but I’m personally used to hearing this said by my friend and colleague Larry Busch, who wrote the book on standards, (Standards: Recipes for Reality (Cambridge, MA: 2011, The MIT Press). Larry is fond of pointing out the difference between a standard and the test that certifies whether or not it has been met. Which leads him right on down the road to point out the difference between the standards developing organization, on the one hand, and the organization that certifies whether the standards have been met, on the other. Truth be told, Larry is fond of pointing out all manner of obscure detail, but once again we’ll ignore this eccentricity and stay on track. In the case of the USDA organic standard, it’s the Agricultural Marketing Service in conjunction with the National Organic Program Advisory Board who say what the standard for organic food actually is, but it’s a myriad of little companies hired by individual farmers who go out to the farm and certify whether the standards have been met. Paying the freight for those certifiers is one of the big reasons why organic produce is generally more expensive. I would make a comment on who is actually on the National Organic Program Advisory Board, but in case you have not heard, our federal government is out of buisness and the website where this information can be found is unavailable for the duration.

I’m not sure who it was who coined the phrase “ecological modernization”, but the general idea is that we can shop our way out of the environmental crisis if only we can get our standards and labels right. Folks can buy that bird-friendly coffee, and they can by that “Certified Humane” pork, or if they don’t like that they can “American Humane Certified” pork, and of course if they don’t like that they can buy some Niman Ranch natural pork, which is certified as “raised with care” and if you still don’t like that, there’s always Whole Foods 5-step Humane meat standards that let you choose how far down the ecological modernization slippery slope your conscience and your budget can take you. On the one hand, there’s the “shop our way out of the environmental crisis” theme, which holds that consumerism can be turned away from the dark side by appealing to people’s better instincts. On the other hand, there are all these different standards development organizations out there pedaling their own approach as the one that you can rely on. And in every case, there are a bunch more companies out there turning a buck by certifying that “Yep, the producers of this meat, coffee or punkin’ pie sure did go to a whole lot of trouble to ensure that their production process is in conformity that whatever it was that the standards developer said was the way to go.” We’re studying animal welfare standards in my class at MSU right now.

I’m not sure it was who originated the expression, “¡Ay, caramba!”, but why am I not surprised that my students are skeptical?

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

Grass List

October 6, 2013

Now that “food songs month” is behind us it’s time to get serious again in the Thornapple blog. And so to demonstrate just how serious we can be, we turn from the hit list to the grass list. This turn of mind was brought on by John’s comment to the last entry in food songs month. In the course of deconstructing Hank Williams’ reference to filé gumbo I happened to mention that sassafras has been banned by the FDA (or the Ef-Dee-Ayuh, if you are someone who has more than two partially used bottles of filé gumbo sitting in your spice cabinet as we speak). Those of you who have stumbled onto the blog because you were looking for knock-offs of famous-name women’s shoes or bridal wear will probably want to click back to “Hit List” in order to get the full gist of John’s comment, but in short he was questioning the acuity of my judgment with respect to Federal food safety policy. And I’m afraid that I will have to admit that he was right.

John’s comment gets right to the straight poop, and since his comment is already posted in front of God and everyone, I’m not going to rehash it. As John states, it’s safrole, not sassafras, that fell victim to the Delaney Clause, which requires FDA to prohibit anything shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals from being used in food. Safrole is found naturally in sassafras root, which led to a lot of the pretty fantastic root beers that I knew in my youth disappearing from the big, ice-water coolers in gas stations that I also knew in my youth, only to disappear themselves. Which could become the lead in for a tirade about how somebody has ruint Amarkha, but for the fact that there are so many candidates for the role that I’m completely at a loss for who it would be that I would want to launch a tirade against.

And so I’ll spend the rest of this morning’s blog writing about a subject that is always a topic of utter astonishment whenever I give serious lectures at serious places and the subject comes around to the regulation of foods. That subject would, of course, be the grass list. It’s actually the GRAS list, but knowing how sophisticated readers of the Thornapple blog would immediately be inclined to pronounce this “the graw list” (as in foie gras or mardi gras), my erroneous spelling is in service to a larger sense of truth. GRAS is “Generally Regarded As Safe”. It’s literally a list kept by the FDA that consists of foods and food ingredients that, though they may not have been scientifically tested, have been eaten by loads of people for who knows how long. Some of them may be killing some portion of people, but we haven’t figured that out yet. So why not just throw up your hands, look to the sky and regard them as safe?

And why not, say I? In fact, I think this is pretty good public policy. We eat so many different things, we eat them in so many different combinations and amounts, and we are ourselves so different in our genetic disposition to so many different possible chemical and biotic agents that it is, frankly, impossible even to collect meaningful data on real-world food consumption that would be of any use in a toxicological analysis. So instead, scientists run potentially misleading experiments on things they suspect are risky by feeding copious amounts to lab rats. People make fun of these studies, but when one of them shows that, say safrole, is mildly carcinogenic, the FDA duly and properly stops regarding it as safe. There’s also plenty of stuff that chemists are capable of cooking up that the FDA does not regard as safe, so the principle does, in fact, have real teeth. This does not stop people from being totally stunned and stupefied when I tell them that their government regulators are relying on something so prosaic as a GRAS list. But if you don’t believe me, take a gander at the mind-numbing bureaucratic prose your own self.

It’s too bad about the root beer, though.

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