Dark Roll

February 22, 2015

Here I am blogging from the KLM Crown lounge at Schiphol again. The robots in Cupertino think it’s still Saturday night, but here in Holland we are well on our way to Sunday morning. So it’s time to think about the Thornapple blog.

The night before last I checked in at Chino Latino in Nottingham where Yelp! informed me that I was at a “hipster” place. Back when everyone was drinking Sanka and listening to Hank Williams (see last week to uncode this obscure reference) it was hip to be hip. It was so hip that only the hipsters would talk that way. By the time we got to Hendrix it was no longer hip to be hip. The truly hip were making snarky comments about anyone who appeared to be hip. Hendrix himself was so hip that he was beyond all that and could do just about anything including being generous about wannabe hipsters. Still and all, even Hendrix would ask, “Are you experienced?”

So speaking of sushi (again, check last week) Chino Latino is taking sushi to new territories, as I suppose any truly hipster place would. I had a nice roll made with duck—not something you would probably get at the sushi stands circling the Tokyo fish market. The duck itself was cooked in a tangy sauce heavy on the chilies (hence the Latino in Chino Latino). Pretty good I must say. Next time you are in Nottingham, you might want to check it out. But I’m bringing this up in connection with hipster food. Back in the day when hipsters were digging John Coltrane (they were never into Hank all that much) a nice roll would not likely have been the topic of conversation. Or if so it would have been reefer or booty, rather than ancho glazed duck breast and jasmine rice. But that is (to keep a thread going to the point of ridiculousness) how we roll.

While the truly beat hipsters were  obtaining nutrition from cigarettes, sour coffee and booze they were focused on other more potent and less legally sanctioned comestibles. In our era hipsters are seeking a kind of experience where the food is more than a backdrop. Appearances to the contrary, food still may not be the main thing. I’m of the mind that it is the experience a contemporary hipster is after, no less than it was for the beat generation. But we can’t deny that some novel foodie twists (along with the appropriate lighting and décor) go a long way toward constituting the hipster experience in the present day.

And what do we want to make of this from a food ethics perspective?

We could, of course, be snide, alluding back (as I’ve done already) to the “true hipsters” as a way of undercutting the claims of the present. But I demur. Although I’m deeply into historical context setting (way too deep, my students say) the present day hipsters may be derived from the beats in some sense, but they are too keenly absorbed in the irony of their hipsterdom to be derivative. Let’s give them that much credit.

We could also note that there was a dark side to old-school hip that you are just not going to capture with an ancho chili duck roll, no matter how appropriate the lighting is. I think there is something philosophical to pursue here—a source of depth and looming tragedy that only pessimism can produce. William James explored it in his essay “The Sick Soul,” from Varieties of Religious Experience. But however much a moralist might be enthralled by dark thoughts, it’s the lot of ethics to discourage one from going there. The fast living and drug addictions of the beats brought too many of them to a premature end, while those that survived testify to the superficiality of the “depth” that absorption in demons of that ilk produced.

The age of sushi may have a certain flatness to it, but maybe that’s not a bad thing, after all.

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


From Sanka to Sushi

February 15, 2015

“From Hank to Hendrix, I’ve always been with you,” Neil Young once sang. This would have been some time ago, and by “some time” I mean about the same amount of time from today as the “Hank to Hendrix” interval Neil was singing about back then. I wonder, can we use food to mark time in the same way?

I was watching some movie or TV show set in the late 50s or early 60s recently (and by “recently” I mean the last week) where Sanka was on offer. It wasn’t a crucial plot point but one of those little period details that screenwriters use to create a sense of time and place. I’m not sure of the resonance for this particular little detail. I can imagine asking a roomful of my undergraduates, “How many of you have ever heard of Sanka?” and getting only two or three hands in the air. But I can remember a time when household guests or even restaurant patrons would have been offered Sanka instead of decaf. I suppose it was a marvel of the advertising age that some ad campaign had been so successful in fixing this particular brand name equation into people’s heads that it became part of the common vernacular for a time. I’m sure there are a few households where it’s still the term of art for decaffeinated coffee here in 2015.

If we take the “Hank to Hendrix” time span it would put us back into the mid 90s. That would have been about the time that I had my first sushi, though I’m sure that I was a relative latecomer to this particular food experience in comparison to many others. I moved from College Station, TX, where there was no sushi in the mid 90s, to West Lafayette, IN. The house across the street from me in West Lafayette was owned by Subaru and occupied by a succession of Japanese executives detailed to Northwest Indiana to serve as liaison to the home office for the assembly plant over on the East Side. The legend was that the company had also underwritten the operation of a very high quality Japanese restaurant in West Lafayette so that their executives would not refuse this posting altogether. Whether true or not, there were not one but two very good Japanese restaurants in town when I moved there in 1997. I don’t really recall when I first ate sushi, but it couldn’t have been long after that move.

We have more sushi places than I could possibly count here in the Lansing-East Lansing-Okemos metroplex. I’m sure there are more than several in College Station by now. So how was it that Americans gave up drinking Sanka and started eating sushi? What does that mean?

One thing it points to is the thrust for novelty in our diets. From what I read in the history books, a diverse diet was a privilege of the rich until well into the 20th century. The taste for novelty was, I think, rather slow in developing, and it was almost certainly hurried along by the food industry’s need for profits. We were trained to look for brand names during the early decades of the 20th century, and once habituated the competitive spirit led food processers to search for any possible edge they might get over their competition. Anything different would have been a natural thing to try, but not too different (a subject we’ve blogged about at least once before).

As the parade of new foods lengthens, we gain the ability to mark time by our food fads. We see both exploring new foods and then their mass consumption as a form of fashion. Changes in fashion would not be fashionable if there wasn’t something trivial about the whole shtick. But I’m down with the people who think that we should take fashion somewhat more seriously when it comes to thinking about culture and the day to day practices from which our lives are actually made.

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


February 8, 2015

It’s approaching thirty years ago that I made my one and only trip to India. Negotiating what you should and should not imbibe was an almost daily affair in those days. We drank beer because the water was a hazard for the unadapted Western gut. The bottled water at the fine hotels was reputed to be safe, but late in the trip I caught a steward refilling said bottles from the same outdoor tap that was being used to water the shrubbery. My friend Russ Freed (I don’t see enough of Russ, even though we are colleagues at MSU) was a veteran of dietary distress in India, and he spent the entire month eating nothing but plain rice. I, on the other hand, was curious and generally rewarded for partaking of the local cuisine.

But there were dilemmas. I recall one field visit where our guide (from the regional university) made a loud proclamation for all to hear urging me to try some dish that was being offered by our local host. But then he whispered “I don’t advise it,” as he brought the bowl close to my lips. On another field day, we visited a farm household where tea was rather proudly being made using gas collected from an anaerobic digester. Our guides told us it would be quite safe. As I recall it tasted rather foul to me, but nonetheless, I drank up.

I was negotiating some food ethics questions the entire month. On a previous trip I had made the mistake of eating a salad that had been loaded onto our Alitalia flight in Nairobi, and I had paid the price with a pretty severe bought of what would have been called Montezuma’s revenge had I contracted it closer to home. We Americans may not normally think of staying healthy in this sense as an ethical problem. But asserting the right to control what goes into your body can put you in the position of refusing hospitality, and that is an ethical act.

There are dilemmas both for the guest and for the host. When acting as the host, I’ve opted for polling my guests in advance on their dietary preferences, and then I plan a menu that accommodates them as far as I am able. But I don’t think I would go so far as to say that every host is morally obligated to take this path. My local hosts in India were being gracious to share some of their daily food & drink. It would not only have been presumptuous of any guest—and especially a relatively well-to-do Western traveler—to expect anything else, it would have defeated the purpose of making a study trip, in the first place. But this doesn’t mean that the guest is obligated to eat anything that’s put in front of them, either. While there was certainly the opportunity for taking offense when the proffered dish is declined, my experience suggests that awareness of idiosyncratic dietary needs is widely appreciated. There are gestures one can make to signal appreciation for the offering, and those gestures generally suffice for the purposes of acknowledging the generosity and hospitality of one’s host.

As gatherings become more intimate, things get complicated. Throughout my India trip I was an exotic stranger. It was well understood that while we would engage in some conversation and exchange of customs, I would not be coming back to this household again anytime soon. The proverbial dinner party among friends or business associates is built on very different assumptions. In this case, refusal of a food offering can more easily be interpreted as an affront. One needs to at least push the food around a bit, and very probably to take at least a few bites in order to satisfy the norms of propriety.

But even as I write this I’m thinking how dramatically that seems to be changing since the time of my youth. The process of polling potential guests for what they will or will not eat would have been viewed as gauche by my mother, let along my grandmother. The expectation that we can actually eat together (as opposed to simultaneously) has declined significantly with the proliferation of hyphenated dietary regimes. I am a “social conservative” in seeing something regrettable about that, even as I fully respect my guests’ right to construct a dietary ethics according to their own lights.

Another blog, it seems, where I am not so sure.

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

Not So Sure

February 1, 2015

When I was a sophomore in college there was a good-looking fellow among my circle of friends who must have had some deep insecurity buried in his persona. He was constantly embellishing accounts of his various comings and goings with feats of amazing ability and encounters with celebrities that we all knew were very unlikely to be frequenting our Northern Colorado environs. He acquired a nickname based on what people often found themselves saying after he had regaled us with one of these concoctions: “Sure, John.”

There was another fellow named John, sweet of disposition but unkempt even by the shaggy standards of 1970. He always seemed dazed and confused, to quote a popular song of the era. Though generally reliable, he would almost always begin his reply to a question by saying, “Well, I’m not so sure myself…” So you can see where this is going. A casual mention of ‘John’ would always be met by the question, “Do mean Sure John or Not So Sure John?” It was a moment of sophomoric hilarity that I still recall with some fondness even in my dotage.

Now I’m not so sure what this little memento of my late teens and early twenties has to do with food, but it does have something to do with ethics. It recalls the figure of Socrates, patron of all Western philosophy, who is frequently portrayed in Plato’s dialogs as professing almost total ignorance about all the important questions of philosophy. And for the Greeks in general, all the really important questions of philosophy were questions about how to live as one should. They were questions of ethics.

I’d like to think that all of my readers have some direct and personal familiarity with Plato and his teacher Socrates, but as a teacher of undergraduates I understand the vanishingly small probability that this is the case. I could put this into a more accessible frame of reference by pointing out the connection between Socrates and the television character Lt. Columbo, played by the actor Peter Faulk. Unfortunately, this probably won’t help the college sophomores of today, because Columbo was itself a product of the 1970s, and it is quite improbable that very many of them have ever seen it. And so I press on without further elaboration and explanation, leaving it up to those inquiring minds who want to know to use their Internet connection for finding more background on these curious figures, if that is their inclination.

Lt. Columbo was quite like Not So Sure John in his demeanor and approach, but his protestations of confusion and ignorance were covering up a keen mind that was always on the trail of the perpetrator (who was usually the person being interviewed in this characteristically Socratic style). What Lt. Columbo shared with Socrates was the elenctic method: exploring the implications of someone’s statements through questions that lead them inexorably to a contradiction. In Lt. Columbo’s case, it was a way of dislodging the perpetrator’s alibi or subterfuge. For Socrates, it was a way of showing that his interlocutors (who claimed know what was right) were actually just as confused as he professed to be.

Although today we are generally agreed that Socrates professed a keen mind, there is some dispute as to whether his protestations of ignorance were genuine. Perhaps like Lt. Columbo he was onto the truth right from the start. At least for today I’m taking the opposite view. One of the reasons that Socrates “caught on” as the hero for many Greek and Roman philosophers who never met him was the way that he modeled ethics as a dedicated and persistent search for the right thing to do, rather than as the possession of a standard or criterion that could be called upon to produce “the right answer” in every instance. This is not to say that Socrates knew nothing. He certainly knew how to probe for the truth, but as present day analytic philosophers note, there is a big difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. That skill along with Socrates unrelenting willingness to apply it was what made him the closest approximation of a true sage for several centuries in the ancient world.

Now that the holidays are past and we are done with food ethics icons for 2015, it’s time for me to settle down and start thinking about some straight ahead blogs on food ethics. But what should I say? I’m not so sure myself.

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