Dietary Impulses

March 29, 2015

I have an ongoing disagreement with one of my friends at work about incontinence. It usually comes up in connection with the question of how we should think of obesity as an ethical problem. There are some important tangents that could be pursued here—like the sense in which being overweight is really a moral problem or a matter of personal prudence. But I’ll try to resist the tangents this morning, even at the risk of being even more boring than usual. At least you know that in the Thornapple Blog the tedium does not go on for long.

So to put the point as directly as I can, my friend thinks that being overweight is no one’s fault but one’s own. Everyone has a duty to pursue a healthy diet. This implies eating the right foods—a balance of fruits and vegetables, with (in my friend’s case) moderate portions of animal protein. She’s not opposed to vegetarianism, by the way, but that would be another tangent. More to the point, that nutritional category she describes as “sweets and snacks” should be consumed only as the occasional treat. My friend is actually a biochemist, by the way. The fact that “proteins,” “fats” and “carbohydrates” can be given good scientific definitions, while “sweets and snacks” cannot does not deter her. She knows a sweet or a snack when she sees one. When some fool brings a whole tray of sweets and snacks to a business meeting and incontinently throws them out in front of everyone, well that’s precisely when a strong food ethic should intervene and prevent the virtuous person from taking more than the tiniest portion. An ethical person might have a pretzel or an M&M or two just to acknowledge the hospitality implicit within such an otherwise inappropriate gesture, but an ethical person would never indulge in an entire brownie on such an occasion.

We move on from this basic picture to a more general social ethic by inferring that the rise of diet-related disease (heart disease and diabetes, especially) is the result of a widespread moral failure on the part of individuals. People are just not living up to their basic responsibility to resist the urge to get up and get that bag of Fritos out of the cabinet when they are watching late-night TV. Or maybe their moral failure comes when they fail to resist the urge to put that bag of Fritos in their grocery cart, in the first place. On my friend’s view both types of failure are all of a piece. What’s called for in either case is a strong moral will, and evidently fewer and fewer people have it.

I’m not so sure, but as usual my tendency to recognize complicating factors comes at the cost of directness and clarity. In the spirit of resisting tangents this morning, I will confine myself to just one complicating factor, and I will warn you that this may not be very convincing.

My friend’s picture just doesn’t square with the basic phenomenology of dietary impulse for me. Now here I can’t avoid one tangent: explaining what I mean by the phenomenology of dietary impulse. It’s simply this: a detailed and disciplined attempt to describe the experience of getting that bag of Fritos out of the cabinet, or if you prefer, putting it into the cart. One reason why I think my friend’s account doesn’t stand up is that I would describe these two impulses quite differently. I had that impulse to eat some Fritos just last night, for example. One key feature is its constancy. Some would call it a craving. It’s not a momentary thought, “Gee, some Fritos would taste great right now.” Nope. It’s more like a drive that doesn’t actually require any thought at all. The shopping cart thing, in contrast, is a momentary thought.

That get up and eat something impulse is different from the shopping cart impulse because it lingers. My body knows how to find Fritos and I don’t really have to think about it. The effect of conscious thought is to interrupt that habit. (This does, by the way, have something to do with Aristotle’s notion of incontinence—but that’s a tangent). One important feature of that drive is that even if there are no Fritos in the cabinet, I’ll find myself eating something, anyway. Usually it’s something even more disgusting—like that little bag of crusty marshmallows that’s been sitting stuffed back in the corner for seven years.

In fact, last night (and this doesn’t always work out so nicely, I’ll admit) I got up, had two or three Fritos and put the bag right back where it came from. Craving satisfied and no serious damage done. Crusty marshmallows never entered the picture and the impulse to buy those Fritos was vindicated. At least for this time.

(I warned you it wouldn’t be convincing.)

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


March 22, 2015

Well, I spent a few hours reading Aristotle this week, and you know that spells trouble for both readers of the Thornapple blog. I just couldn’t resist Googling ‘incontinence’. It turns out that Wikipedia has a disambiguation page for ‘incontinence’. Who knew? One link refers to a 1981 album by Fad Gadget. I’m sorry, but even in 1981 I was not hipster enough to be into Fad Gadget. In 1971 I probably would have been attracted to an album entitled ‘Incontinence’, even if I had never heard of the band that put it out. I remember once when I came across an “all whistling” album by Pat Boone in the bargain bin at Peaches. Somehow, I resisted that one, and today I wish I hadn’t. I bet it’s worth a fortune. By 1981 I already had other types of incontinence on my mind.

So I picked the title for this week’s blog to lure my readers into the suspicion that I was going to make some sophomoric observation between food ethics and the link on Wikipedia’s disambiguation page that takes you to ‘fecal incontinence’. But not so fast, Chucko! There are four (count ‘em, four) types of incontinence identified by the astute and inquiring authors of Wikipedia (e.g. you, me and Bill). In addition to the two already discussed there is also urinary incontinence, which might also suggest sophomoric tangents, but is also not where we are headed this Sunday. Today it’s Wikipedia’s fourth possibility which (and I quote) takes us to the Wikipedia page entitled “Incontinence (philosophy)”. Once there one finds an entire three sentences under the heading “Aristotle”. Proving that I’m not the dumb cluck you might have thought I was.

This rather short article in Wikipedia also includes references to St. Augustine, Spenser and Jane Austin. In each case incontinence means allowing oneself to be overcome by a controlling passion, especially with respect to bodily enjoyment. Incontinence is thus a fairly basic problem for ethics and you really shouldn’t be surprised to see it coming up in connection to food. Being overcome by the temptations of sumptuous (or even just physically present) food is a pretty familiar experience in the food rich environment of 21st century post-industrial society. Having the feeling that you really shouldn’t indulge in that blueberry donut, those chili cheese fries or that crème brûlée must have occurred to the majority of people with a readily available Internet connection. Although there are definitions of ethics which would suggest that resisting those feelings is a matter for prudence rather than morality, we’ll just ignore the fine points of that distinction this morning in order to say a thing or two about dietary incontinence.

Incontinence is supposed to be a problem in some quarters of philosophy because the incontinent person knows the right thing to do, but just doesn’t do it. “How is that possible?” ask some of my professorial colleagues, scratching their heads in puzzlement. Now I should add right away that such philosophers are not the dolts that this kind of behavior might lead you expect. Their puzzlement is derived from a reading of Aristotle (or possibly Socrates) which suggests that knowledge of the good normally and naturally inclines one to simply do it. In fact, I don’t think that Aristotle thought that at all. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Aristotle thinks simply following one’s bodily inclinations is pretty normal for an immature consciousness. It’s also clear that he thinks we get enculturated into our understanding of the good through practice and habit. Like with bowling, Sudoku or cake decoration, we can’t abstractly understand the attraction or pleasure that one might take in virtue until we actually learn to practice it. Once you’ve mastered the practice, the enjoyment comes so naturally that one is never tempted to do otherwise. But it’s not clear that Aristotle supposes such mastery to be achieved very often. Incontinence occurs in that middle case where one has enough experience to feel the pull of virtue, but has not yet taken it so thoroughly to heart that no contrary feelings pull in other directions. Maybe that middle case applies to most of us.

If that crème brûlée is still staring you in the face after this somber exercise, take this consolation from William James: “But as I have enough trouble in life already without adding the trouble of carrying these intellectual inconsistencies, I personally just give up the Absolute. I just take my moral holidays; or else as a professional philosopher, I try to justify them by some other principle.”

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


High Tunnel Time

March 15, 2015

After a full week of when daytime highs rose well above forty degrees and nighttime lows remained above freezing there is quite a bit of muddy green showing in the Michigan landscape this morning. There is also still a fair amount of snow in my yard. I doubt that the areas along the curb where it was piled high from shoveling will be clear even by tomorrow night, despite the predicted high for 2015 at 66°. Diane was out at Appleschram Orchard yesterday attending to the hoophouse where the early season pickings for Thornapple CSA will very soon be enjoying the convection-warmed air. Maybe I should take a week off from this season’s musings on food and culture to say just a word about the hoophouse.

First a note on terminology. I’m sure all the hipsters among my readers already know it, but we have some great new words to toss around over our pumpkin spice macchiato these days. Like, “Did you see that high tunnel going up on the North Farm above Chatham?” I could spin off a tangent here by explaining how I can be so sure that every enumerable hipster among my devoted audience of readers knows this, but I’ll resist the temptation for epistemological diversions. Both of my regular readers can probably fill in these details for themselves.

A “high tunnel” is a kind of hoophouse. A hoophouse is a kind of greenhouse, specifically one constructed by placing a row of metal hoops in the ground and then covering them with plastic. Generally speaking, a high tunnel is a hoophouse that is tall enough to stand up and work in. Low tunnels—hipsters may know them as “quick hoops”—are placed over plants to produce a little early season warming and to keep the frost off. They get taken off when the danger of freezing temperature is safely past. High tunnels are more permanent fixtures, though there are some very fancy ones mounted on wheels that can be rolled back to give the plants inside the full benefit of summer sunshine. You can also peel the plastic back off of a regular high tunnel, but that’s a lot of trouble. It’s not something you are likely to see at Thornapple CSA’s farm.

Hoophouses have revolutionized the production of vegetables for local markets, especially in Northern climes. By this time of year the late winter sun comes through and warms the air inside, creating an internal convection inside the tunnel that can add 15-20° to the outside temperature. This is not a big deal on days when it does reach 66°, but that doesn’t happen every day of the week in March (or April, for that matter). Nor does it happen every day in October and November. The extra warming is big on days when it fails to crack 40°, and huge when that late March snow comes in and it’s 22° at 9:00 in the morning. And, obviously, the physical barrier of the plastic is important for just keeping the snow off of the tender plants during their early season moments of vulnerability—something working for low tunnels, too. It’s less clear that you get a lot of protection from insects and plant diseases, but there is a shield that works as a first line of defense.

The hoophouse is one of the reasons why it is just fallacious to suggest that organic and local production is a nostalgic return to the farm production of yesteryear. Next time you are down at the coffee bar, try using the term “high tunnel” very casually in a conversation. If you are very ambitious, you can explain the bit about fallacious inferences too. Just remember that ‘fallacious’ rhymes with salacious, and be prepared for someone to take it the wrong way.

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

Relational Value

March 8, 2015

It may seem trite and it may be overworked but it doesn’t hurt to notice how comforting food can be to people from time to time. I’m not talking about so-called “comfort food”. That’s become a restaurant industry term for foods that hark back to the middle-class menus that were pretty standard across Middle America during the middle of the 20th century. The standard comfort foods are meatloaf, mashed potatoes and mac & cheese. There are probably a few other m foods in there. They may be largely responsible for the expanding middle of many middle-aged men. Today they are typically of middling quality, too.

A bit more seriously (if not particularly somberly), I’m taking a moment out here to celebrate a kind of food ethics that is focused on relational values. I have to pause and take a deep breath now because discoursing on ‘relational values’ could get rather ponderous, if not somber—and that could lead right on to pomposity. Not meaning to be pompous, I do mean indeed to speak on the pompitous of love (as Steve Miller had it), because when I say ‘relational value,’ I mean a value that is expressive or constitutive of a relationship. And no relationship throws off more pompitous heat than love.

We might be talking about family love. That would probably be the typical occasion for food-centered relational values (at least in Mid-Century Middle America). Mom’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes or mac & cheese could spark tender feelings, even when the mac & cheese came right out of the famous blue box. Whether or not these foods really were prepared out of a deep sense of caring (and I’m not saying they weren’t) they become emblematic of family relationships that tug on the heartstrings for many people. Not everybody, to be sure, and notice that I’m putting more than a little bit of distance between myself and the maudlin celebration of an idealized American Family that was more evident on ‘50s era sit-coms than it was in ‘50s era subdivisions. Lots of those moms were often distracted and busy, while others were dismissive and drunk. I’m coming off a chat with some friends who recount an episode where a mom dropped off her 7 year old at the bowling alley for a two hour birthday party beginning at noon then “forgot” to pick him up until around 8 o’clock that night.

But deflationary accounts of various mom’s cooking and caring aside, it doesn’t undercut the larger point of food as a conduit for relational values. In fact, a different kind of love relationship might actually be a better example. And no I’m NOT talking about Valentine’s Day chocolates. That’s maudlin, jejune, and more about selling stuff, too. I’m actually talking about a love we share with friends. Sometimes this takes the form of a ritual occasion—a shrimp boil or barbecue—where having something rather specific on the menu becomes one of key bricks in the construction and reconstruction of the event that also involves reconnection, reminiscence and relaxation. But it can also be sitting there across the table from a single individual while you are waiting for the pasta water to boil, the cookies to bake or even for your order of cheese fries to come. It may not require any particular kind of food, either. Last time it may have been sushi, and this time its green curry or pancakes. Nonetheless, the fact that it’s a food occasion may be pretty pivotal to that relational moment where simple caring and pleasure in on another’s company gets kindled.

Food can do that, and that’s something that no one who works in food ethics should ever be allowed to forget.

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


March 1, 2015

Dinner conversation last night led someone to remark that aside from Italy, California has the best food in the world. I didn’t bite. Maybe there’s something to this, because although I spend relatively little time in California, I have had some very good meals there. Yet the image that comes to mind with California food for me is food consumed in the car while cruising from one place to another. Songs by the Beach Boys start humming in my head and I’m reminded of films like American Graffiti where all the action centers around Mel’s Drive-In. Trying to put some meat on those bones, I Googled the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long,” looking for a line expressing fond adolescent memories of eating cheeseburgers or chili fries, but all I got was “Member when you spilled Coke all over your blouse?”

We forget that there was no place to put a Coke in your typical 1960s piece of American chrome. Now in fairness to Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys main lyricist, I should note that the one Beach Boys song really dedicated to food encourages us to eat our vegetables. Maybe we’ll get around to that if we ever do another month of food songs in the Thornapple blog. Today I’ll just chalk that up as a tangent and get right back to the importance of a cupholder in the American lifestyle that we have all come to know and love.

Of course, I drove a ’63 Ford Fairlane without a cupholder in those days (and by “those days” I mean the late 1960s). It was, as a matter of factual record, not until the late 1970s that every McDonald’s or Burger King felt it incumbent to provide an opportunity for drive-through service. True ‘50s-style cruising for burgers would have more typically involved stopping the car and sitting in it while being served by car-hops (preferably on roller skates). Then you start up the car and go someplace else, even if it was just down the strip a few miles to a different drive-in where you would stop the car and do some more socializing, or maybe get a milkshake. We can tick off quite a few important observations in food ethics from this.

First, all the elements of an ethos were fully realized in this automobile-based food culture. There were ritualized social performances that supported group bonding and individual socialization. There was an intense aesthetic experience of being present in the moment that cemented the feeling that contrary to all the obvious signs of triviality, something important was happening here. Car-based consumption of this sort usually involved multiple layers of sociality: You rarely went out by yourself, or at any rate rarely stayed by yourself all evening. Riders would hop from car to car during those burger stops, and there was always the expectation (however infrequently realized) of romantic interludes. It was thrilling, even if it’s a little embarrassing to admit that now.

But of course we need to move right on to the fact that it was completely unsustainable. The fuel consumption was economically possible only because gas was 19¢ a gallon—something that disappeared with the lengthy lines at gas stations during the OPEC embargo a decade later. We were pretty much clueless about the environmental damage. It was also an expression of youth-culture that was destined to disappear simply because each generation has to have its own thing. I’m sure under 40 readers of the blog (if there were any) would have no idea what I’m talking about. So it was economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. That’s three for three.

The Beach Boys might have been on to something when they sang “Won’t be long ‘til summer time is through.” Southern California hung on to that ethos, however. The last chorus answers the “Won’t be long…” with “Not for us, now.” Carmakers paid homage to those days by putting cupholders into their vehicles sometime later and Americans cruised into an era where they did not even pull over to socialize while eating in their vehicles. It’s an identity, I suppose, but is it one we should celebrate?

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