May 31, 2015

In the spirit of our penchant for obvious and not-so-timely reminders, we note that May is asparagus month. Fresh, asparagus is a favorite for most true foodies, and by “fresh” I mean picked this morning or at least yesterday. That makes asparagus an inherently local food as well. We’ve been in asparagus season here in Michigan for the last three or four weeks, and with a bit of luck we will have two or three weeks more. So reminding people that this is the time of the year to be on the lookout for asparagus may not be entirely futile.

The first pick-up for Thornapple CSA will be on Wednesday of this week, but I must advise expectant members against looking for asparagus in the first weekly share. You don’t just plant asparagus in January or February with the idea that you will be eating it in May. Asparagus needs a good 3-4 years to be in harvestable condition, and some say you should really not expect much for seven years. 35 years ago when I came to Texas A&M as a newly minted faculty member, lots of us thought of the place as a temporary stop on the way to a position at a more attractive place. My colleague Dick Becka used to say, “Living in College Station is not so bad; it’s the thought of dying here.” Some of the newcomers came around to the idea that A&M was actually a pretty good place to work, while others resigned themselves to the limited mobility of the increasingly tight job market for university faculty. We would recognize this transition in an individual’s attitude by noting whether or not they were planting asparagus in their backyard garden. Anyone who puts out asparagus expects to be around for a while.

As a result, asparagus DOES NOT appear on the list of vegetables that you can expect to get from your participation in the Thornapple CSA. We did put out some asparagus at Appleschram a couple of years back as an experiment, but it hasn’t really taken. One problem is that it’s hard to keep people out of it while it get’s established. Casual visitors easily convince themselves that they have stumbled on an unknown treasure trove. They yield to the temptation to help themselves to a few stalks, thinking that it couldn’t possibly hurt anything.

This is an instance of a collective action dilemma—a problem theorized in the 1960s by Mancur Olson. I met Mancur Olson once in the hall at 1616 “P” Street in Washington, DC. It probably would have been less than a year before he died, but I suppose that this is too much a tangent even for the Thornapple blog. A more accessible version of the problem was formulated by Garrison Keillor for one of his A Prairie Home Companion monologues. It’s called “The Living Flag”, and it was popular enough that it was one of the stories celebrated in the 25th anniversary collection. But that’s all I’m going to say here. If you want to hear how Keillor explains collective action dilemmas, you can go to this link.

The long and short of it is that we are at least a year or two behind in getting asparagus established for distribution in Thornapple shares. This will not, however, deter our farmers Paul and Chelsea from providing a sumptuous helping of salad greens, and maybe some kale and radishes. Yum. In the meantime, look for asparagus on the menu at any appropriately hip or “local” eatery, or find some at the produce section in your local market. It may not have been picked yesterday, but it will still be pretty damn good.

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

The Real Thing

May 24, 2015

Blogging again this week from Schiphol. It seems I’ve missed two of the great denouements of the decade. One would be David Letterman and the other would be Don Draper. Of Dave I could say that his decision to drop watermelons from great heights back in the 1980s was my inspiration to get into food ethics. It wouldn’t be strictly true, but I could say it. Of Don Draper I could say that although I didn’t catch the last episode of Mad Men, I did hear that it ended with the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola commercial. Now that does seem like a tie in to food ethics.

If school were in session (and I weren’t in Amsterdam) I’d poll my MSU undergraduates to see how many of them have seen this iconic bit of advertising. Coca-Cola will gladly play the thing again for you at the website attached to this link. For the link challenged, I’ll say that it starts out with a girl singing, “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love. Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle dove.” It goes on with some ideas about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony before getting to the point, to wit: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”

We could say something about the racial make-up of this assembly of young people that Coca-Cola put “on a hilltop in in Italy”. They’re not ALL white but they are assuredly disproportionately white. But perhaps that would be an ungracious way to remember the 1970s.

After some nice counterpoint repetitions of this, this mostly-white crowd of twenty-somethings breaks into the more familiar “It’s the real thing.” Coke jingle. At least it was more familiar back in 1971. The way I remember it going was “It’s the real thing. In the back of your mind, what you’re hoping to find is the real thing.” Although it would not be true to say that Dave dropping watermelons inspired me to do food ethics, it might indeed be true to say that listening to those Coke jingles sparked my interest in ontology. Both readers remember ontology, don’t you? That riff we did last year about whether small farms are real farms?

Although it might well be true that my entire generation was inspired into their respective career choices by 1960s food and drink advertising, the advice that what I was hoping to find was the real thing (so go study philosophy, you idiot) would have had a totally subliminal effect. I didn’t actually realize how strongly I had been affected until I started watching Mad Men.

But when I went back and played the famous hilltop commercial (the link is still there above, if you’re curious), there was none of this “what you’re hoping to find” stuff, at all. Rather it goes like this: “It’s the real thing. What the world wants today … is the real thing.” Not just what I’m hoping to find, mind you. It’s what the entire world wants today!

So hopefully I’ve inspired you, now, too, if only subliminally. Go out and have a Coke if you must, but for that weekly ontology fix, keep on coming right on back to the Thornapple blog. We will probe the textures and folds of reality and all its simulacra. We’ll do it weekly and we’ll fill the back of your mind with all the tasty bits that will satisfy your longings for thingness. Count on it! And hey, can somebody fll me in on the Letterman show?

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

Badges Redux

May 17, 2015

It’s 5:37 as I write this. Getting late in the day for a blog this Sunday in May. And I’m tired. … Tired of playing the game… Ain’t it a shame? I’m soo tired….Dammit I’m exhausted!

Those are about the only lyrics I feel good about quoting from Madeline Kahn’s send-up of Marlene Dietrich. I’ve come off another semester of teaching kids who haven’t seen Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles and who would have absolutely no idea who Dietrich was in the first place. The only good thing here is that they can indeed find both of them on U-tube if they are inspired to figure out what the old geezer in the front of the room might be gassing about today.

And I’ve just come from a weekend at the “Food Justice Workshop”—a student organized activity at MSU that deserves high praise. But for some reason—no good reason mind you (other than, as I’ve already noted “I’m pooped already!”)—hanging out with all these young and idealistic kids (I know, I know…people in their mid-twenties don’t like to be called kids, but give me a break) makes me, well, you know, tired. Like explaining to the astonished student who took the bus in from Boulder, Colorado that I had seen the Airplane there back in ’69. She probably thought I meant that a saw an airplane there back in 1869.

I’ve got some colleagues (not quite as young as these kids in their twenties) who are working on a project to create a list of tasks that will promote food justice. (I know, I know. Don’t make fun of this stuff. Just cut me some slack this week. I’m tired!). The idea is that you sign up on a website, and then when you’ve checked in enough to report on your activity, you’ll earn a “badge”, just like you do when you eat at three vegetarian restaurants on Yelp!

Actually, there are already some real badges for more significant activities that are already given out by the Boy Scouts of America. Great stuff. I’m not knocking it. I’m just in that state of mind where the whole world is my voodoo doll. I’m just going with Blazing Saddles again, this time when Mel Brooks was lampooning not Marlene Dietrich but Alfonso Bedoya from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Earning badges for food justice?

We don’t need no stinking badges!

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

Vocabulary Builder

May 10, 2015

I spent a good hour and a half this morning struggling over a blog for the Oxford University Press website, and now I’m pooped. I don’t even know whether they will take it, so I feel like I’m letting both of my regular readers for the Thornapple blog down. I’m sworn off of my usual insouciance for the Oxford effort, and that (I think) is what made it so exhausting. Of course I can use words like “insouciance” in the Oxford blog, even if I’d be well advised to avoid them here. Oxford is the oldest university in the English speaking world, and their press is the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary—definitive source for English usage. They will be happy when people use the English language to its fullest potential, if anyone will.

However, I’ve been warned that unsuspecting lawyers, city councilmen and the occasional sociology professor find their way over to the Thornapple Blog only to be put off by a word like “ontology” or “catachresis”. There for a while I took to provide links to But today I’m persevering.

A pretense of unlettered naiveté to the contrary, I’m sure that both of my regular readers know full well that insouciance is a style of cooking that was originally perfected in Provence during the last three decades of the 18th century. This was a century after the suicide of François Vatel over the late arrival of the fish at his banquet for Louis XIV at Chantilly, but the French were still searching for a mode of preparation that would make the timing of distant ingredients a bit less crucial. It would be another century before the opening of Japan, but recent contacts with the East had made chefs in Nime and Aix-en-Provence aware of the gustatory and preservative properties of the fermented paste from boiled soybeans.

It was not until the 19th century that American naval hero Matthew Perry visited Provence and the Langdoc-Roussillon. Having only recently completed his inaugural voyage to Japan, he was well situated to appreciate the fine flavors of this new mode of food preparation. Perry later made a number of contributions to the English language as a result of his travels. One of them was the word “denim”, which he began to use in reference to any sturdy, cotton twill fabric that reminded him of the textiles he had seen in southern France. He would call them “de Nimes,” (e.g. “of Nimes”). And whenever he would encounter a food that had been allowed to marinate in an inky-brown sauce before being served he would refer to it as “insouciance” (e.g. in soy sauce). Perry’s neologisms (another one the lawyers out there may need to look up) caught on, and there you have it.

Of course you may not care for soy sauce. If that’s the case, you can always maintain that posture of erudition and sophistication that you associate with the Thornapple blog when you are among gourmands and epicures by insisting that your fish or fowl be served “sans souci” (e.g. without sauce). Just take it from me and your dining can be carefree and without worry.

You may be wondering what the connection to food ethics is today, so I’ll fill you in. While doing my “research” for today’s blog I looked up the map for Provence on Google. Then a stray click on my mouse took me directly to the website for Hormel meats “Pepperoni Minis”. They come in something called a “pillow pack”. That’s about all I have to say about it. I’m sure the robots know what they are doing.

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

Passionate Knishes

May 3, 2015

Taking a break from all that “serious” food blogging for a shout out to Lucinda Williams for giving us this:

Is it too much to ask?
I want a warm bed that won’t hurt my back.
Food to fill me up,
Warm clothes, and all that stuff.

“Shouldn’t I have all this?” she goes on to ask (three times, mind you) before adding “AND passionate knishes (who oh oh oh) passionate knishes from you.” Or something like that.

Neil Young also asked “Are you passionate?” and I must say that I’m asked that frequently. Usually when I’m headed into a meeting with a bunch of people I hardly know. We are all there (it’s presumed) because we are passionate. Passionate about helping people, passionate about food deserts, passionate about little babies and puppy dogs, passionate about the pink boll worm, passionate about gluten-free, passionate about ending the tyranny of logocentrism and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Come right in won’t you please. Fill out a name tag (labeled “Call me…”). I’m always tempted to write “irresponsible,” “unreliable” and to throw in “undependable,” too. But then you get the little index card and the instructions, “Tell us about your passion.”

Well my passion is sarcasm.

THE THORNAPPLE BLOG: Proudly injecting irony, sarcasm and obfuscation into food ethics since 2009.

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