Robert’s Stories

May 25, 2014

A bunch of us were sitting around in a circle this week talking about food sovereignty. A lot of the talk was about legal rights and obligations, but one person had something different to say. He was a big man, at least fifty and maybe older. It’s often hard to tell with someone whose daily toil makes them strong and fit. His name tag said Robert Shimek of the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Callaway, Minnesota. I hope that he won’t object to my naming him in here in the blog, because I didn’t think to follow up with him personally when our circle broke up, but I found his story be especially compelling and insightful. I’d like to think that he would want me to give him full credit for it.

Robert started out by saying that he is just now seeing the early signs of spring up north where he comes from. It’s not the full green there that it is in Detroit where we were meeting. And yet, he’s saying that he looked around at early morning and noticed the root crops, the shallots and wild onions. He may have mentioned chicory (edible in the early spring, but not so much in summertime), but I may be making that up. He said that if he would go down to the river and catch a nice fish to go with them, he could make himself a pretty nice feast at this time of the year, despite what would otherwise appear to be pretty slim pickings.

From here he went on to notice that every one of these foods has a story among his people. Some foods are linking to particular animals. And there is generally some story about how these foods were discovered or how they are provided. Sometimes the story conveys lore about when it should be eaten and how it is supposed to be prepared. Robert’s overall point is that food sovereignty means that one’s foods come equipped and accompanied by all these different levels of meaning. One couldn’t really claim to realize any true sense of food sovereignty without knowing the stories that are supposed to go along with each food.

In his tribal language even the very names of these foods is rich with meaning. Indeed, sometimes the story tells us how that particular food got its name. Robert said that he is sure there must be some connection between mushrooms and muskrat because of the etymological similarity of their names in his language. He pronounced both of these names, but I won’t even attempt to reproduce a phoneme here. He keeps asking, yet no one has been able to tell him the story that would connect these meanings for him. Food sovereignty means that one eats these foods so rich with multiple levels of meaning, so assuring food sovereignty takes much more than just insuring someone’s legal rights or treaty obligations. It means knowing the stories, and being sure that they are handed down from one generation to the next.

As it happens, I had also been e-mailing back and forth with my MSU colleague Gretel Van Wieren about a project she is developing to explore how people in fields like history, poetry, literature and linguistics could help in promoting food ethics. I think Robert told us.

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


Eat and Get Out

May 18, 2014

CHOW is one of many food themed websites, and if you follow this link you will find a 2006 entry on environmental psychology discussing a perennial problem for restaraunteurs: Clearing the tables so that new paying customers can get in. A joint in Chicago named Ed Debevic’s has incorporated the idea into the cultivated surliness they use to create a hip retro ambiance. I’ve never been to Ed Debevic’s, but it looks like my kind of place—even if the cheeseburgers aren’t quite ordinary enough for my taste. Spinning off onto another riff on the contemporary food culture’s tendency to mash-up ‘50s trade-dress and the late ‘90s fad for reinventing comfort foods with ever more exotic treatments would be too much of a tangent even for me. So I’ll just stick to the environmental psychology thing that we started out with today and ponder this need for speed in customer turnover from an ethics perspective.

I don’t think there’s much doubt about the idea that lots of restaurant operators would really like you to get out as quickly as possible. Putting an ironic face on it only enrolls you into their subtext in an explicit way. To be sure, there are many occasions for eating quickly and gettting back to business in our world, so maybe there’s no harm in taking it good naturedly. You can even incorporate the environmental psychology of turnover into your decor.

There is a contrary food philosophy: You should take as much time to enjoy your food as you like, and definitely more than you absolutely need. Food is something to loll over in a relaxed and convivial manner, and especially so whenever you have the occasion to be eating out of the house. This (we might say) would be a more European or possibly just French way of looking at things. Even the daily cafeteria lunch in many workplaces is going to be budgeted for at least an hour and a half. A light repast at the local bistro will run through three distinct courses, and you will be asked if you’d like one of those ridiculously tiny coffees afterwards, even if they can’t possibly be adding anything to the proprietor’s bottom line. You will probably not be presented with a bill for all this unless you ask for it, though one shouldn’t take this as a disinterest in being compensated for the food and service. The French are as capitalist as anyone. They just have a different understanding of what it is that you are paying for in the restaurant experience.

So maybe we can provide an alternative hermeneutical frame for the title of this week’s blog. Let’s forget about the whole idea of hurrying through lunch so that the surly wait staff can have another shot at earning a tip. Never mind the greedy ownership interest in maximizing the flow of paying customers. Let’s take this as a friendly recommendation to take a pause from the pace of work or household chores and get out once in a while. Take a break, in other words. Don’t feel compelled to scarf down something from a paper bag, or to scramble up some perfunctory edibles come dinner time. Go out the door and down the block (preferably on foot, as we said last week) and have yourself a little bite to eat. Relax and meander down to the fountain for a shake or some meatloaf.

Eat and get out.

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


The Flâneur

May 11, 2014

I confess to actually enjoying nice little essays on aspects of daily life. The New York Times has one this weekend by Henry Alford who writes about a farm-stay vacation he took in Italy a couple of years back. Alford chucks in lots of ironic self-mockery about his attempts to shirk the farm chores and his lack of enthusiasm for digging postholes. It’s a literary form that Nathaniel Hawthorne utilized in The Blythedale Romance, a roman à clef about his time at Brook Farm in Massachusetts. But now there I go again (as Ronald Reagan would have said, were he—against all expectations—a reader of the Thornapple blog). Using an expression like ‘roman à clef’ as if it were as common as dirty laundry. I’m reasonably confident that both of my regular readers know what a roman à clef is, but it’s utterly irrelevant to this week’s blog. Anyone with the least bit of sensitivity toward the screen-intensive generation would balk at throwing something so likely to confuse and alienate into an otherwise informative sentence.

And especially so given that what I wanted to get around to this morning was the flâneur—an English word if Mirriam-Webster is to be believed (though they leave off the circumflex). The robot who monitors my spelling is less supportive of this judgment, but we’ve said plenty about robots of late. I must confess that I had remained mostly innocent of this particular bit of language until I read an essay by Walter Benjamin celebrating the liberated and aesthetically appreciative consciousness of the flâneur in the late 19th-early 20th century. All of which was mainly just how great it was to stroll up and down the majestic boulevards of European cities, enjoying the blue skies, the breeze in the trees and the onlookers in the sidewalk cafes. It was Benjamin’s essay that got me off on that tangent about Hawthorne and Henry Alford.

I was chatting with my friend Larry Busch about the flâneurs passing by as we enjoyed a late afternoon coffee. Noting that the word derives from the French verb ‘Flânerie,’ we were asking ourselves whether there is any more common English word that captures the same thing. The dictionary would give you the verb ‘stroll’, but that would make the noun form into a word that we most commonly use in reference to a small carriage that parents use to carry infants. And though new parents treasure those moments when baby is napping, there’s only the most tenuous connection between such a conveyance and the peaceful receptiveness and conviviality that Benjamin was associating with the flâneur.

And so I came up with the word, “cruising”. Of course unlike Benjamin’s flâneurs, we typically cruise in our cars up and down Woodward Ave. or Colorado Blvd., as the case may be. In smaller towns, the cruise would typically be anchored by a hamburger or ice-cream drive in, whose parking lot would become clogged with vehicles making the u-turn to begin another circuit. At least once in the evening you would make a stop for a cheeseburger or a milkshake—a practice that links cruising forever to food and is the source of the venerable phrase ‘cruising for burgers’. Those of us who cruised for burgers in the 60s and 70s were unaware of the pollutants that we were releasing into the atmosphere, but I do think that we had the experience Benjamin was describing when he wrote about the flâneurs of a half century or more before us.

In recognition of a) how motor vehicles were polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases (not to mention lead and other toxins); and b) nonetheless how great it was to be footloose and on the move with—quoting Chuck Berry—no particular place to go, there has been a global push to promote “Cool Cities” of late. When Jennifer Granholm latched onto the idea here in Michigan it was largely misunderstood as meaning only cool in the sense of hip (as opposed to also cool in the sense of “not hot in reference to climate change”). By which she intended to say, “Turn off that motor and start walking when you cruise for burgers.” And what self-respecting post adolescent from Generation Any would take advice on hipness from a late-forties mom who also happened to be the Governor? Too bad. We could have learned a thing or two there.

But no, we should not give up those wonderful afternoons when we alternate between being part of the parade and watching it whilst enjoying a bit of nourishment. Especially with summer now coming on full bore.

Strolling for burgers, anyone?

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

Ordinary Good/Crazy Good

May 4, 2012

I was down at the Fleetwood Diner eating their turkey dinner this week. It’s not that I’m stuck in off-season mode (like when I was writing about Halloween candy two weeks back). I eat turkey dinner at the Fleetwood every other month or so. I was really enjoying the dressing, gravy and cranberry sauce when it occurred to me that it was not that good. It was the green beans that made this occur to me, because they had clearly been dumped out of a freezer bag not long before being served. They were kind of rubbery and definitely not that good. I also had another piece of evidence, as the waitress had shouted back to the cook when I inquired about the vegetable of the day, and even he was unsure. Apparently they often get deep into the afternoon before someone asks about the vegetable of the day at the Fleetwood.

I’ve had the green beans at the Fleetwood when they were not rubbery and actually okay. But all of this is pointing to the fact that the Fleetwood is what I would call “ordinary good”. It’s not dozens of people waiting outside in the rain good. I tried to eat brunch at Hudson’s in Detroit this morning (never been there before), but from the looks of the crowd milling around on Woodward Ave. on a Sunday noontime when the rest of downtown is dead Hudson’s is wait outside for forty-five minutes good. It had cleared up by the time we were out hunting down a place to eat so I can’t vouch for the rain part.

The fact that a place has cooks rather than chefs may be a telling piece of evidence. I can’t make a judgement about the Hudson. Maybe they do have a chef. But the Fleetwood? It’s definitely cooks. And generally speaking they do a very credible job.

But there are these joints that are so good that you are just always going to have a wait to get in there. While the Fleetwood is ordinary good, these places are crazy good. We have one of those crazy good places here in Lansing but insiders all know that we’re not supposed to talk about it. So “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” and I think I’ll move right along from that one. I have to admit that I get to the Fleetwood three or four times for every visit to the place you’re not supposed to talk about—even though “don’t talk about XXX” is closer to my house. Although the food is crazy good and the ambiance is unique, I’m just more likely to head down to the Fleetwood Diner. It’s certainly crowded at times, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to wait more than five minutes to get my table.

So “ordinary good” is better than “crazy good”? It defies logic, I’ll admit. My economist friends would start talking about “transaction costs,” but I’ve sworn that kind of obscurity off (at least for this week). It reminded me of a cheeseburger I ate about three years ago down on the beach at Waikiki. And friends, when you can bring back fond memories of an ordinary cheeseburger, that is crazy good, indeed.

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