April 27, 2014

I have a robot on my phone that buzzes me once a day to deliver a word. I don’t mean that the robot offers an update on happenings around or some message of prospects & aspirations such as one might get from a human being in response to the question “What’s the word?” I do have robots who give me updates on happenings, of course. One of them sends me sporting news and the robot from the Lansing State Journal will let me know if there is a fire in town or a big accident on 127. But the robot I’m blogging about this morning does nothing like that. What this robot delivers is literally a word. To be fair, it’s a word and a link, so if I click on the link it will take me to a definition of the word, and if I’m in a particularly clicking mood I can go on to an audio recording of some pleasant authoritative speaker of American English where I can hear how this word is pronounced by those of us on this side of the pond.

All of which is offered in something of confessional modality, admitting that this week’s blog entry was stimulated by an automaton. I suppose that any of my regular readers who have the same robot got this delivery, too, so I might as well fess up here at the outset rather than trying to pretend that it was my erudition that brought me here this morning. This particular word is a big one, a massive ideogram and a real sesquipedalian treat. It refers to what we might colloquially call “the aha moment”.  It’s the point in a story where one of the characters learns something that will shift the entire drift, leading to a significant turn of events. But what does this have to do with food, the more relevance-obsessed of my readers are asking?

Now here I could wax poetic. I could talk about how we seem to be shifting in our approach to food. We have gone on for a long while being fairly content to slurp down any old garbage put in front of us, but then we have that aha moment. Maybe it involves the final stage in a slow recognition that we will one day regret what we have been doing and that now it’s time to shape up. Maybe it is just the awakening of long dormant taste buds. Home grown tomatoes often have something to do with that kind of anagnorisis, and frankly any line of thought that gets us to mention home grown tomatoes is self-justifying in the context of the Thornapple blog.  But actually it was hearing Ezra Klein explain to Charlie Rose how easy it is to underestimate both the intelligence of people and also their background knowledge.

Which is why we try to ‘splain it all here at the Thornapple blog. But I confess (second time in a single blog) that while I’m going to be ironic (even sarcastic) when I use a word like sesquipedalian and then I’m going to go on and provide some pretty obvious clues for the inquiring minds who want to know, I’m probably going to drop a mot on confessional modality without batting an eye. I’m not really trying to show off or adopt an exhibitionist modality. Dropping words like ‘modality’ is just my manner of acting. Sorry about that. Blame this one on the robots among us.

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

Fun Size

April 19, 2014

This week we take up another food riddle for the ages. I’m sure both of my regular readers have had the occasion to snack on one of those miniature brand-name candy bars once in a while. You know what I’m talking about. I think that they introduced these things back in the 60s especially for Halloween. Back in the stone age when I was a kid roaming around south Denver neighborhoods trick or treating, people gave out un-wrapped handfuls of candy corn and homemade candied apples. Every third house or so there would be something more exotic like handfuls of M&Ms or homemade marshmallow Rice Krispies™treats. And then when you got home after having been to, say, 273 houses, you find that one incredibly generous family had given you a Snickers bar. And I mean a full size Snickers bar, which in those days was 3-4 inches long and cost a nickel.

Well what with the decline of Western civilization and all, those days were already on the wane by the time I was about ten or twelve years old. People didn’t have patience to stir up a bath of homemade divinity for the neighbor kids, and what with the urban myths about evil doers and such, parents didn’t care much for those unwrapped, artisanal treats that people were cooking up their own selves. So being the return-on-capital opportunists that they are folks in the food industry said to themselves “Carpe diem, Chucko!” It was at this point that they started selling bags of them miniature brand-name candy bars,which were about a third of a regular nickel candy bar.  And speaking for the boomer kids of the sixties, we could not have been more pleased! No more stale popcorn balls. And even if lots of folks were too cheap to spring for even miniature Snickers bars and bought unrecognizable tasteless sugar pellets that came as fake name candies that seemed to appear only at Halloween, we would still wind up with the equivalent of a dozen or more real brand name candy bars just like you buy for a nickel a piece right off the candy counter at Hatch’s drugstore.

But of course now one of my regular readers is scratching his head and thinking, “Hey! Why are you blogging about Halloween candy here in the middle of April?” Meanwhile my other regular reader (more attuned to the epochal questions of eschatology) is asking “So what could any of this have to do with any of the major food riddles?” And this reader is growing increasingly skeptical that this blog will actually take on any quandaries of major socio-cultural import. So perhaps it is time to come to the point. This extended foray into what has evolved into one of the major food holidays of the late-capitalist era was launched mainly to get your attention fixed on those little candy bars that are, by now, virtually ubiquitous. You still can’t buy them at a candy counter, but the point seems to be that folks will put them out in little bowls. They lie there like the wee cakes that Alice encountered down the rabbithole, crying out “Eat me!”

If you can restrain the urge to tear off the wrapper in a fit of eagerness you will notice that they bear the label “fun size”. Not all of them, mind you. Some are “bite size” and the old Hershey’s version that has been around longer than I can recall are just called miniatures. But it’s the fun size that is of interest here today. I mean, in one sense it’s obvious where the fun is coming from. It’s candy, stupid. But what is it about this size that connotes fun? Wouldn’t a regular size candy bar be more fun? I mean, if you are really diligent and deeply engaged with delayed gratification, you can parse a fun size bar out into about four bites. They are tiny, however.

There is no mystery about other entities in the candy universe. There is the “giant size” which is fit for giants, and the “family size” which you break off into little pieces and share around. But whence comes the fun size? It’s not like a good old fashioned 4 oz candy bar was supposed to serve as a meal (even if they do have almost as many calories). That would make the niblet version fit for fun, I guess, as in “not to be taken seriously.”

Just like we’re doing here.

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


Untitled Melody

April 13, 2014

Sing the following words softly to the tune of “I’m in the Mood for Love”:

I’m on the list for dinner

I feel like it makes me a sinner

One day I could be thinner

But I’m on the list for dinner

Honestly, I’m not on another bad poetry jag this week. I was just boring myself with blog after blog on depressing topics in food ethics, and something had to give. We (that is, the philosophy department) had a guest speaker in this week and we were planning to take him out to eat after his talk. I wasn’t sure whether I had replied to the e-mail inquiring who would be among the party for this event. It turns out I was on the list for dinner, at which point the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields ditty sprang into my head in an inspirational moment.

Which got me to pondering the thought behind the original lyric (which hardly needs repeating) “I’m in the mood for love simply because you’re near me.  Funny, but when you’re near me I’m in the mood for love.” It was premiered in 1935 by Frances Langford. You could have found out all of that on Wikipedia, but you needn’t overstress your fingers this week. I’ve given it to you here. (No need to comment below expressing your thanks.)

It’s Fields the lyricist who gave us the quaintly elliptical “I’m in the mood for love simply because you’re near me.” This part I understand. The thing that got me pondering last week was the “funny” business in Fields’ lyric. Is this supposed be “Ha Ha,” funny or “Strange” funny? I incline toward the “Strange” reading because frankly I don’t see anything “Ha Ha” funny about it. But then again, isn’t Fields’ basically saying what Cole Porter (with greater irony, I note) had suggested seven years earlier (They say in Boston even beans do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.)? If that’s right—and I mean, really, can there be any doubt about that?—then it poses a question for a protracted and meandering hermeneutical analysis. But here’s the quick version: In what sense is this in any way strange? It is, as Porter suggested, only natural. Birds do it. Bees do it. Even over-educated fleas do it.

And it’s McHugh I have to thank for the ditty that accompanied my dinnertime musings. The dinner was good and there wasn’t anything funny about that, either.

Strange, isn’t it?

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

Bad Seed

April 6, 2014

Let me set the festering minds of everyone who arrived at this website hoping to read up on supernatural horror flicks or prurient tales of some wayfaring maiden at rest immediately. This blog is about seeds, as in those little niblet things that grow into plants once they have been safely ensconced in soil and nurtured through their period of vulnerability. We are (if the calendar has not deceived me) in April, which depending on where you happen to reside may well be early in that aforesaid time of susceptibility to the vicissitudes of arbitrary climatic variation (or as some say, weather). Not so much here in Michigan, though some are starting little seedlings in the barn or basement.

Every so often we carry on in the Thornapple blog from one week right over into the next, and if you were with us on the last Sunday in March, you were apprised of the circumstance that farmers suffer from disreputable seed dealers, and especially so in the developing world. It can be ruinous when a subsistence farmers’ crop fails to come up. It’s definitely an ethical problem, and so it’s well worth an extra blog here in the first few weeks of official Spring (even if you can hardly tell it sometimes in the year of the polar vortex). {We are finally creeping up on average temperatures, but crimony!}

So the issue is that, of course, selling seeds as something they aren’t is ethically wrong, but that doesn’t exhaust the topic for a food ethicist. This phenomenon also skews the broader debate about food, farming and international development. Let me mention two skewerings.

Skew Number One Some seed company (maybe it’s even associated with the Great Satan Monsanto) or some international development agency introduces an improved variety in some developing country.  And word gets around that it doesn’t live up to farmers’ expectations. Heck it doesn’t even have to be a developing country—this could be Texas. This definitely can and does happen with authentic articles: Something got screwed up with the seed production. Seed developed for one ecological region (say where it’s wet in the Spring) accidently gets shipped someplace else (like where it’s dry). Farmers themselves don’t understand something important, like they better be out there weeding because this variety doesn’t compete well against other plants. A million and one things can go wrong and inevitably some of them do. So let’s be clear: I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture or develop a blanket defense of improved varieties here. But sometimes—and my point would be that this seems to be happening more and more frequently—what happens is that the novelty of the new variety becomes an opportunity for the unscrupulous seed dealers out there to screw people (Read last week’s blog for the backstory). And then what happens is the new variety gets a bad rap. And then what happens is that people who love to hate agricultural science and the Green Revolution start wagging their fingers and saying “I told you so!” Only in this case, at least, they’ve gotten it wrong and may well be further tarnishing the rep of a seed variety that could be doing poor farmers some good. There is a tie to the GMO theme here, but we’ll ignore it for now.

Skew Number Two Farmers are not stupid. They have learned to be wary of counterfeits out there. And in this case, this makes them understandably and even rationally reluctant to jump on the bandwagon with promising new varieties that (if they aren’t what they are represented to be) are going to be extremely disappointing when harvest season rolls around. So there is a rather slow uptake on these improved varieties in many parts of the world. If they could benefit poor farmers, the slowness of the uptake is itself an ethical problem—like adding insult to injury from the counterfeit problem. But it’s accompanied by another species of finger wagging from the anti-development, anti-technology, anti-Green Revolution types who are out there campaigning. Famers don’t want or need so-called improved varieties: Just look at their behaviror (the story goes). They aren’t buying them. And the people reciting this story (probably out of truly laudable motives but in ignorance of what’s really driving farmer behavior)  are putatively campaigning on behalf of the poor.

And that’s just tragic.

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