September 28, 2014

So pardon me for rambling on, but the title of last week’s blog was in fact derived from a blues song by Mississippi Joe Callicott that goes under several names including “Leaving Town Blues” and “Plow Hand Blues.” There are pretty similar lines in blues sung by Big Bill Broonzey and Leadbelly, though in those instances the blues seem to be an ingredient rather than a consumer of bread. I’m a poor philosophy professor and in no sense anything more than the most amateur of musicologists, so who am I to say who gets definitive credit. All of them are quite a bit less well known than “That’s Alright, Mama,” but in the spirit of last week’s blog, I think any of these blues could get sung during food songs month in Michigan.

Which is another way of saying that my obsession with sorting out what is and what is not a food song has gotten out of hand, I think. I mean who cares about the ontological commitments of song lyrics, anyway? I just got into that thread by accident, and if you want to sing Marvin and Johnny’s version of “Cherry Pie,” or Skip and Flip’s version of “Cherry Pie” or even Warrant’s version of “Cherry Pie,” during your own food songs festival, well go right on ahead and don’t let me stop you.

And while we’re in the “passing references to food” category, let’s give a shout out to Gary P. Nunn’s answer to “What I Like about Texas”:

It’s another burrito, it’s a cold Lone Star in my hand
It’s a quarter for the jukebox boys
Play the Sons of the Mother Lovin’ Bunkhouse Band

There’s also a reference to Mi Tierra in the song, which used to be a 24 hour joint where farmer’s would catch a quick bite to eat after unloading at the adjacent San Antonio farmers’ market at 5:00 am. It’s now surrounded by tourist-oriented shops selling a blend of crap, works by local artists and genuinely interesting crafts imported from Mexico. Mi Tierra has made the transition along with them, and it may have become a bit too tourist friendly. It’s been too long since I was there, but on my last visit it was 6:00am, well before most of the tourists were awake but not too early for a table full of honkies to be wrestling with the meaning of “huevos rancheros”. One of them was getting cross because the waitress had failed to bring enough menus for everyone. If you know the drill, you can still order chilaquiles and fresh-squeezed orange juice just like in the old days, even though neither is on the new menu. So I did.

My waitperson took my order without skipping a beat, after which the Latino gentlemen (a total stranger) sitting near me tipped his head toward the table where the out-of-towners were still trying make sense of things with the patient Latino waitress. He gave me a smile and wink and then he said, “We don’t need no stinking menus.” One of my all-time greatest moments in food.

I also wanted to say something about another Trout Fishing in America song before letting another food songs month pass us by. You’ll recall that their “Pico De Gallo” sits atop the all-time food songs list, and I wouldn’t want to displace that. But they also have

All I want is a proper cup of coffee
Made in a proper copper coffee pot
I may be off my dot but I want a proper coffee
In a proper copper pot”

Iron coffee pots and tin coffee pots
They are no use to me
If I can’t have a proper cup of coffee
In a proper copper coffee pot, I’ll have a cup of tea

We don’t need no stinking pumpkin-spice macchiato!

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

Blues Ate My Bread

September 21, 2014

So picking up right where we left off last week, and switching directions 180° there are reasons why I decided to do another month of food songs this year. I often sit in front of my computer on Sunday mornings listening to songs from my music collection on i-Tunes. I’ve had to struggle with the i-Tunes robot in order to get i-Tunes to cycle through my entire library, but I have figured out a way to get through pretty much everything on there once in a year. This means that I’m periodically reminded of some song that could putatively put forward as a food song, and then I say to myself “Oh, make a note of that. We’ll do a blog on that one when it’s “food songs” month.”

Of course then I don’t make a note of it, and then when food songs month rolls around, I can’t remember any of these songs. I do remember the Robert Johnson classic “Come on into my kitchen because it is going to be raining outside,” but as we’ve said in a number of cases, it’s not entirely clear that this really is a food song, even if I think you could creditably sing it at a “food songs fest”, should you ever decide to have one. And why shouldn’t you. In the same vein but a bit closer to incorporating some legitimate references to food, we could note another blues classic, “That’s Alright, Mama,” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. The version that Paul McCartney recorded for a Sun Records tribute a few years back has this verse:

You snuck up in my kitchen;
Ate up all my bread.
Baby when my back is turned,
You’re diddlin’ in my bed.

It’s possible that Sir Paul improvised this verse with a little inspiration from Lightnin’ Hopkins, because you won’t find it in the classic Elvis Presley version of “That’s Alright, Mama.” I can also attest that you won’t find in 15 or 20 minutes of excruciatingly thorough and painstaking Internet research, so it’s possible that you are finding out that this blues classic is actually a food song for the first time here on the Thornapple Blog. In fact, you won’t even find it in the U-Tube video of McCartney doing “That’s Alright” with Scotty Moore on guitar. Maybe when Sir Paul reads the blog he will add a comment to settle this matter once and for all. Now I can accept the contrary point of view, to wit: this ain’t no food song even with the bread reference. At best it’s a passing reference. But I can tell you that if I were playing in a blues band and it was “food songs” night down at The Green Door, we would certainly include “That’s Alright, ama” in our set, and we would damn sure be singing about bread.

There are, however, more straight out food songs in the world. The Earthworks music collaborative did a whole album of them a few years back called “Something Fresh.” I couldn’t find it on the Earthworks website, so I assume it’s gone out of print, but here’s a link to an Oregon blogger who discovered the album and wrote about when it was something fresh. Unfortunately, while some of the songs on this album do justice to the foods they celebrate, some of them suck. I’m not here to hurt anybody’s feelings so you’ll just have to figure that one out for yourself.

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

Have Some Pie

September 14, 2014

Back when my kids were really kids we used to play this dinky little cassette tape with a bunch of songs geared to Thanksgiving. You might think that this would be a good source for some food songs. Except when I think about it, most of those songs didn’t really say much about food. “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,”: Well, you may imagine yourself sitting there, head bowed over a table spread with steaming sumptuous, but in fact, there are no direct references to food. “Over the river and through the woods,” ends with a “Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!” but it’s mostly about horses, snow and cold noses. There was “When I first came to this land, I was not a wealthy man,” which goes on to talk about farming and a cow called “No milk now,” always to come around to a refrain, “But the land was pure and good, and I did what I could.” Close, but not really a food song.

Let’s consider a new possibility: It’s not so much that there are very few food songs, it’s just that the food songs out there are not very memorable. If we stick with the Thanksgiving theme we come immediately to Adam Sandler’s “I like turkey,” from a random little thing he cooked up for a Thanksgiving weekend Saturday Night Live way back in ancient times. More recently we get Nicole Westbrook singing about turkey and mashed potatoes in the Patrice Wilson song “It’s Thanksgiving.” I’m not providing any links because I took the trouble to listen to these for you. There’s no reason why everyone should suffer.

More generally (but still following a thread) there’s “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie” from Jay and the Techniques. It’s one of the amazing aspects of cyber culture that there is actually a Wikipedia entry on this group, where I learned that they also released another song called “Strawberry Shortcake”. Nope. Don’t remember that. And that’s my point.

There is a song that’s called “Pumpkin Pie” by Evan Taubenfeld, but following yet another thread we’ve chased down in the Thronapple blog before, it’s really about sex, rather than food. If you scroll back through the food songs blogs from 2012 and 2013 you will discover that lots of songs that are putatively about food are actually about sex. And some of the songs that are actually about food are also about sex. No harm there, I say, but we are chasing down the actual food songs this month, so “Pumpkin Pie” doesn’t count on that criterion, memorable or not. There must be 137 songs called “Cherry Pie,” and 1037 songs that reference cherry pie, but none of them are actually about cherry pie.

What set me off some three years back was a quest for food songs you might actually want to hear at a food party. And so far aside from the “Hit List” we ended with last year, I’d say we’re still looking.

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

Another Cup

September 7, 2014

Passing through an indiscernible hiatus our cruise vessel steams quietly into the safe harbor of routine activity. Yes, folks, it’s September. If you didn’t notice any major change of key it’s probably because the start of any month is kind of arbitrary. It’s the job of bloggers everywhere to chronicle these passages, holding them out for everyone’s attention just for a moment so that we can savor them, battle against them. If they generally fail to notice these transitions explicitly that’s just because they are appropriately engaged with the natural shifts in subject matter that go along for the ride.

Which is why I probably should have just launched into a discussion of an Iriving Berlin song from the 1932 Broadway musical Face the Music. It winds up with this refrain:

Mister Herbert Hoover
Says that now’s the time to buy
So let’s have another cup o’ coffee
And let’s have another piece o’ pie!

Both of my regular readers can probably remember another President who offered similar advice in the face of an economic collapse second only to the one that dear Irving was having his cast sing about in 1932. But that would be a tangent, and we never indulge ourselves with tangents in the Thornapple blog.

No, the point is that we have rolled around to that month of the year when we consider songs that celebrate food. I’ll admit that this theme may be getting a bit long in the tooth. I gave some serious thought to abandoning the whole idea this time around. Okay, okay—the thought crossed my mind as I was sitting in an airport lounge yesterday after having been prevented from getting home on Friday as planned due to the round of thunderstorms that swept through mid-Michigan. I was finishing a cup of coffee when the fact that I would need to be writing a blog today crossed my mind. Of course since this was yesterday, what crossed my mind was not the thought that I would need to be writing a blog today, but that I would need to be writing a blog tomorrow. But as there is virtually any time that you, dear reader, might be working your way through this temporally tortuous labyrinth of logic, I can’t speculate on what sense you will make of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow was the title of a wonderful Vittorio de Sica movie from the 60s. Yesterday and Today (but no tomorrow) was the title of a compilation album of Beatles songs released exclusively in the U.S., also in the 60s, but later. Neither of them had anything to do with food, so there really wouldn’t be any reason to mention them in today’s blog even if you are reading it at some time tomorrow. We are masters of space and time here in the Thornapple Blog.

So after finishing my coffee (or my pumpkin spice macchiato, as the case may be) I was wondering whether I should have another one, and “Bingo!” I had the topic for yet another blog on food songs. I Googled the song and found out it was by Berlin, and that it was set in an automat based on the Horn & Hardart chains of yore. I’ve never seen a production of Face the Music but I have eaten at a Horn & Hardart’s (which is just another way of saying “I’m as old as dirt,” I’m afraid). Horn & Hardart’s once had iconic status amongst foodies, so this is not really as tangential as it might appear at first. But more pertinent to the thread of our cruise into autumn, we will in plain fact be doing another month of food songs this September. More to come.

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