Labor Day Weekend

August 31, 2014

I dreamed I saw Charles Bukowski eating carrot cake from a clear plastic clamshell at the corner bakery in Chelsea. He was drinking fresh orange juice and chatting up Carolyn Cassady. I think he was hoping to ply her with baba ganoush and get her to give up her secret recipe for garlic-parmesan kale chips. Famous Neal was nowhere to be seen but Sonny Barger was sitting at a back table with a one-eyed Bob Creeley. Ralph was eating a curry-chicken salad with dried cherries and fennel on a croissant with arugula and heirloom black krims. He was laughing with his elbow on the table and his hand poised limply over the chicken-sal croissant, and the kerchief tied around his head had faint traces of thimbleberry jam. Creeley was sucking steadily on some pink concoction, a strawberry frappe topped with whipped cream, maybe, or a huckleberry infused banana smoothie ensconced beneath a dollop of Cool Whip and garnished with tiny leaves of fresh mint. Creeley was hard for me to read, but Barger was laughing easily, and toying absent-mindedly with the house-made sweet potato kettle chips with sea salt sitting next to his sandwich.

Meanwhile behind the counter Jimmy Baldwin was dipping ice cream and barista Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell was standing behind the La Pavani 3 BarL making making one pumpkin-spiced macchiato after another. Baldwin was trying to explain why the shop was out of pistachio almond gelato to Lester Young, encouraging him to try some fiore di latte instead. “You know I steered you true on that blood orange granita when you were in last week,” he said. Lester was not convinced. “Fiore di latte!” he exclaimed. “I don’t want no gelato made from cheese!” Anaïs was just putting her trademarked “delta of venus” froth on the macchiato, and overheard this exchange. “C’mon, Lester,” she exclaimed. “You know we only serve mozzarella di bufala campana, while mozzarella fior di latte is made from unpasteurized cow’s milk.” She was not letting on about the problems people are having getting unpasteurized fresh cheeses past the Michigan artisanal foods law. Jimmy was back in by now, too: “Nah, man! Fior di latte is just generic Italian for anything made from fresh milk!”

By this time John Arthur Johnson had come in through the old screen door that faces the corner of Main and Middle Streets. Jack is fluent in Italian, but he was not about to be drawn into this fracas. “You got panna cotta today, Jimmy?” he asked. “Sure I do. You want that with the raspberry coulis?” asks Baldwin. But this gets Bukowski’s attention. “Raspberry coulis?” he shouts. “Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted raspberry coulis with my carrot cake?” I’m wondering if a poet looped on cream-cheese icing and fresh orange juice can maintain a sugar-high that’s strong enough for him to take on the Galveston Giant over some thickened Rubus idaeus. I mean, Bukowski was known as a brawler, but that was back in the day, well before alienated aesthetes began to appreciate the virtues of organic tomatillos and were still drinking whiskey, smoking pot and shooting heroin. That was when the real punks in the world were out riding Vincent Black Shadows up and down CA Route 25, not sipping rooibos chai from a Dart cup as they steered their hybrids down MI 52 outside of Pinckney.

Wake up and smell the pumpkin spice macchiato, say I.

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


Going to Mexico

August 24, 2014

Is there a robot out there who can help me with one of my more importunate research problems? Some time ago—maybe four or five years back—there was a particular aphorism that was circulating in sustainability studies. I wouldn’t say that it had gone viral, but I must have heard a half dozen different speakers recite it during the course of talking about sustainability. It went something like this: “If you are heading to Canada and you are driving 100 miles an hour in the direction of Mexico, slowing down to 20 miles an hour won’t help.”

When I heard this, I used to think, “Well that’s not right. Have you ever tried to execute a 180° turn at 100 miles an hour?” Not that I have tried to do this, but you get the idea. However, the point (I think) that people were trying to make with this was a good one. A lot of work in sustainability just focuses on increasing efficiencies that would slow the rate of resource depletion, but that “stuff” (water, soil, energy, rare earths) is going to be gone sooner or later in any case. It’s better to think of sustainability by identifying the appropriate “living space” for the human species and then aiming to work within those limits. I’ve tried to get at this by talking about people who think that sustainability is about “resource sufficiency” as opposed to people who understand “functional integrity,” but perhaps that’s just a symptom of my own peculiar Asperger’s disorder.

So maybe this Mexico aphorism makes the point better. I’m reasonably sure that half the speakers I heard reciting this little tidbit had no idea what it meant. They just thought it was sounded cool and was mildly thought provoking. Or they thought it was just a generic criticism of stupidity. Of course, it could be the case that they just disagreed with me, and that I was wrong. But this is my blog, so we’re certainly not going to take that possibility seriously here.

So for some time now (at least twenty minutes) I’ve been trying to figure out the original source of this heading to Mexico thing. And don’t tell me that it was Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs (Pack my bags; don’t be too slow. I should of quit you baby a long time ago) or James Taylor (Wo-oh, down in Mexico, I never really been so I don’t really know). I might have been William McDonough, but the robots have not really been much help. McDonough is the guy who came up with “Waste = Food” and cradle-to-cradle. The robots keep directing me to things about immigration or they presume that (like Miller and Scaggs) I’m actually thinking about going to Mexico myself. If it was McDonough who coined this idea he should have put his little meme into a song lyric or ring tone so that commercially motivated search robots would have some incentive to find it. What is a lazy researcher to do in cases like this?

At this point I’m about to resort to actual human beings. And don’t forget, the tomatoes are finally in in Michigan.

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

The Blue Food

August 17, 2014

The late comedian George Carlin used to do a routine in which he feigned deep puzzlement in asking his audience “Where’s the blue food?” Of course folks in Michigan know blue food, and I’m here to tell you that even if they are “late” and even if, as some are saying, it isn’t a particularly good year, the blueberries are in. Diane and I were cruising the Oryana market last week and we found these big white boxes of organic blueberries sitting there. Ten pounds worth, to be exact. Pricey, to be sure but we decided to splurge. We had a bunch of company in and if there is ever a time when you can expect to consume ten pounds of fresh blueberries in a week, this was it.

And consume them we did. Blueberries with yogurt and granola, blueberries with ice cream and occasionally, just blueberries. No blueberry pie this year, but we did have several rounds of blueberry pancakes. We have a bit of a family dispute about exactly how many blueberries are supposed to be in a blueberry pancake. I’m of the persuasion that the entire middle of the pancake should be a pure mush of blue, while Diane is much more parsimonious. It’s the one time of the year when I prefer to cook my own pancakes.

I think it was last year when we did a blog on the nutritional attributes of blue food, so I’m going to skip that the second time around. I’m contractually obligated to do some blogs during the summertime extolling the virtues of fresh fruit and produce. Due to the aftermath of our polar vortex and the freezing of the Great Lakes, the fresh fruit and produce is coming in a bit late this year. The cold was really good for some of it, not so much for other bits. I’m told we shouldn’t expect much from our tomatoes this year. So in the spirit of the community supported agriculture, we just have to suck that up and celebrate what the season does bring us. If you follow the link above you will find that the blueberries were “in” for a blog on July 21 in 2013, so there does seem to be something to this polar vortex thing.

But maybe I should go back to Carlin, and quote him at more length:

Why is there no blue food? I can’t find blue food — I can’t find the flavor of blue! I mean, green is lime; yellow is lemon; orange is orange; red is cherry; what’s blue? There’s no blue! “Oh,” they say, “blueberries!” Uh-uh; blue on the vine, purple on the plate. There’s no blue food! Where is the blue food? We want the blue food! Probably bestows immortality! They’re keeping it from us!

There are already a number of blogs on this floating around in cyberspace, as well as links to the original 1975 performance on U-Tube. If you are deep into Carlin’s question, I would refer you to a 2011 blog from Cecil Adams, the world’s smartest human. He insists that blueberries are blue, and I agree. Adams wrote this informative post in December, but I’m writing in August. If you are in December (and especially if you are in Michigan) you might want to spend an afternoon researching the scientific basis for the relative dearth of blue foods. But if it’s August you can be outdoors enjoying a spectacular day (especially if you are in Michigan). And of course you could be eating blueberries.

We don’t grow blueberries as part of the Thornapple CSA, but our experience attests to the indisputable fact that you can get some. And I would advise that you do it.

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

Curitiba Declaration

August 10, 2014

I ran into a character named Philip Low this week at a conference organized by Carla Molento, who runs an important research group on animal welfare in Brazil. It was the kind of week that makes the otherwise humdrum life of the peripatetic academic interesting. Philip is a brilliant neuroscientist who is currently trying to make a go with a start-up called NeuroVigil, Inc. He also has sociopathic tendencies. Of course we could say that about a lot of us—sociopathic tendencies, I mean, not the “brilliant neuroscientist” part. There was, for example, a strange exchange with Adroaldo Zanella (formerly at MSU) in which the two wound up virtually shouting at each other despite the fact that they were in total agreement about the point under discussion.

You run into a lot of scientists in my line of work who have an inflated sense of their own importance, but it is rarer to encounter one who thinks that they can change the world. Philip is in that category, bless him. Aside from his own research and his inventions for non-invasive brain research, he is keen on “declarations”—statements signed by lots of people with an inflated sense of their own importance. He was instrumental in engineering one called “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness”. You might find it interesting to Google that, though don’t confuse it with the one calling on evangelicals to renew their commitment to confessional Christianity.

At any rate, Philip gets a bee in his bonnet about having the illustrious figures at this conference (this would include yours truly, recall) to produce yet another declaration. So long story short, he, Carla and Daniel Braga Lourenço (another illustrious attendee) stay up until about about 1:00am on Thursday morning drafting a statement that says, in effect, “Animals are not objects and we should not treat them that way.” The actual text of the declaration was in Portuguese so I was not entirely sure of what it said, but a) I trust Carla and b) I could make out enough of it to be satisfied with it. So I signed it, along with a bunch of other speakers. Now just to be clear, despite what I’m about to say, I have no regrets about that. At least not until someone tells me that the Portuguese bits I couldn’t understand said something like “There were absolutely no sexual innuendos in the lyrics of Louie, Louie” or something else that I couldn’t possibly abide.

So we get down to the end of the conference after a very long day on Thursday and the declaration is read aloud, which gets a standing ovation. After which I beat it back to the bus with John Webster where we proceed to have a fascinating conversation about episodic memory (I told you it’s normally hum drum). Carla shows up on the bus looking for Philip and showing some agitation. Neither John nor I pick up on this too much, so we both congratulate her on a fine conference and continue our conversation. But then at dinner we get the details from Françoise Wemelsfelder. It seems that while the conference officials were congratulating one another, Philip has disappeared with the signed copy of the declaration.

He was eventually tracked down and he agreed to allow a Xerox copy. However, when Carla asked for the original (thinking quite reasonably by my lights that it should stay with the conference’s official sponsors), Philip says, “No. It’s mine.” And he walks off.

Françoise reports that Carla is deeply offended and shocked by this, and asks what can we do about it?  Françoise has confronted Philip in the elevator at our hotel and he has blown her off, too. It makes us wonder a bit about what Philip intends to do with this signed piece of paper, though again John and I agree that it seems unlikely that he could parlay it into something untoward. I guess John wasn’t too worried about that Louie, Louie thing, either. So I say that it’s the kind of thing that someone should write a blog about, just to let Carla know that we support her and also to get something into a somewhat public record, just in case.

So excuse my departure from the usual mid-summer foolishness, but that’s just what I’m doing.

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

Summer Cyborg Mailbag

August 3, 2014

Maybe it’s time for another Thornapple blog complaining about the robots in our midst.

As my many legions of irregular readers may have surmised, I have become somewhat reconciled to many robotic presences during the years that I’ve been writing the blog. Anyone who runs a website with an opportunity for “Comments” goes through a phase where they lose all faith in human nature. If you’re doing something kind of serious, all these nutcases show up to rant, expressing only the most extreme opinions and exhibiting the worst excesses of intolerance and crudity. Despite appearances sometimes, these are actually human beings. It’s not a problem that I have with the Thornapple blog, mainly because I’ve managed to remain incredibly obscure. And by “obscure” I’m referring both to the level of “hits” I get and also to the quality of my content.

The other problem with the “Comments” section is that occasionally you will turn on the computer and open up WordPress to discover that you have attracted 127 comments, all from “people” with different names, and all saying some variation of pretty much the same thing. Something like “ñïñ çà èíôó!!” The naïve blogger assumes that your site has gone viral in some foreign locale where an especially discriminating audience has appreciated your natural brilliance and responded with an unusual amount of enthusiasm in some language that you (unfortunately) do not understand.

Actually, ” ñïñ çà èíôó!!” is an expression in Urhobo dialect that (roughly translated) means “Your hot dogs are getting overly charred.” So it turns out that it does have something to do with food ethics in much the same way as our Bullwinkle blog of last month. But with 47 posts warning me about hot dogs on the grill I’m more inclined to think that another robot invasion has occurred. The consolation is that I do hear from human beings now and then. Sometimes they use the comment box, but they are more likely to wait until they see me. Then they will point out that that recording of “Handy Man” I referred to some months back was by Del Shannon. We could say more about Del Shannon, but that would be a tangent and we never indulge in tangents here in the Thornapple blog.

Other readers send me e-mail. Like Terry Link, who responded to my blog on the closing of Goodrich. He was concerned that I might be plumping the Meijer chain of grocery stores a bit too much. He writes: “there are any number of concerns I have with supporting Meier.”

They are privately held so we have less available information with which to judge them. Some of the concerns I would include (in no particular order of importance):

1)     Great wealth accumulation by the Meier family

2)      Illegal efforts to affect local development decisions (see Traverse City area case a few years back)

3)      Family and executive donations exclusively to Republican candidates

4)      Mislabeling produce as organic and or local/Michigan based

5)      Fighting the unit pricing regulation – I’ve caught them a few times running higher prices on items than shelf lists

6)      Not sure of their minimum wage/benefits for employees to know whether or not if they are better or worse than Walmart or approach a living wage.

Indeed, Terry, there are a few food ethics concerns in that list.

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