Babette’s Feast

September 27, 2015

We’ll finish up “food flics month” with the film I take to be the granddaddy of them all: Babette’s Feast. It came out way back in in 1987, before food was cool. Unlike the other three films we’ve mentioned, it is not a documentary. It’s based on a story by Karen Blixen set in 19th century Berlevåg, Norway, though the film relocates events to the austere coast of Jutland. A young Frenchwoman (Babette) appears on the doorstep of an austere religious sect seeking asylum. After working for them as a cook and servant for some years, Babette wins the lottery and proposes to treat this group accustomed to an austere diet of gruel (or some such) to “a real French dinner”. Some of the plotting concerns whether the group can permit itself to break from the austere conventions that are required by piety to accept this offer, but eventually, they agree to the feast out of consideration for Babette, (who, they presume, will be leaving them now that she is rich).

In case it wasn’t clear from the previous paragraph, the key theme here is austerity.

I saw this movie when it came out, and haven’t seen it since, so I may be misremembering a few points. As I recall it, the main part of the film concerns the collection of the diverse ingredients for the meal, Babette’s loving and meticulous preparations, the sumptuousness of the feast itself and the pleasure of the usually abstemious diners. As the story winds up, we learn that in Babette’s former life she was a great chef, and that having spent her entire lottery winnings on the meal, is not rich. Hence she will be remaining among the sect as a chambermaid. There’s also a bit about Babette revealing that her artistry in cooking is her true wealth—presumably a point against the somber asceticism of the religious sect—but the obvious food ethics dimension notwithstanding, I’m not going there. I will note that the Wikipedia article on Babette’s Feast claims that it is Pope Francis’ favorite film.

The movie inspired many to replicate the menu of the feast (also on the Wikipedia site), and spawned a flurry of interest in the idea that culinary arts can rise to the same aesthetic heights as classical forms: music, painting, literature or sculpture. Viewers of Babette’s Feast could fashion themselves as adventurers whose quest for an exquisite meal was on a cultural par with that of someone who attends a symphony concert or spends weekends at art museums. Could the Food Network be far behind? In fact, it wasn’t; founded in 1993.

Equally important, filmmaker Gabriel Axel demonstrated the cinematic qualities of food so convincingly that an impressive line of film’s celebrating the production and consumption of foods was to follow: Like Water for Chocolate; Eat Drink Man Woman; and just last year, The Hundred-Foot Journey. This would be a very long list. Films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover should also be on it, though here the themes of pleasure and seduction are troubled. Beyond these films where food is central to the plot, there are many, many more where a meal is affectionately presented in opulent detail either to advance some other theme, or simply to provide viewers with a momentary bit of eye candy. I ask you, would we be having a food movement today without this sequence of films? It’s always hard to answer the chicken/egg dilemma with phenomena like this, but whether symptom or cause, I assert that Babette’s Feast marks a milestone for the enthusiasm with foods are celebrated in the first two decades of the 21st century. It’s definitely worth a look in “food flics” month.

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

Searching for General Tso

September 20, 2015

We had an opportunity to mention “Werewolves of London” back when we were celebrating the blue moon in July. We didn’t quote the verse that makes it a “food song”. Warren Zevon reports, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand. He was walking through the streets of Soho in the rain. He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fooks. Gonna’ get himself a big dish of beef Chow Mein.”

“Whoa, there! Slow down, bucko,” both of the astute regular readers of the blog are saying to themselves, if not perhaps exclaiming loudly to the other patrons of the coffee shop where they have opened the Thornapple CSA webpage to read this week’s installment. “We’re not supposed to be doing food songs this year. In 2015, September is food films month.

So I turn immediately to Zevon’s reference to beef Chow Mein. Like Chop Suey before it and almond chicken afterwards, one would have a very difficult time getting a big dish of Chow Mein anywhere in China. This is a thoroughly Westernized dish, served in putatively Chinese restaurants, but having only a very weak connection to actual Chinese cuisine. That connection resides largely in the fact that the ingredients of Chow Mein are chopped prior to being cooked and served, obviating the need to place a knife in the table setting. The dish is probably cooked in a wok at Lee Ho Fooks. The chopping allows for a rapid stove-top cooking process that is common but not universal in some Asian culinary traditions, but one can just as readily use a flat-bottomed Western-style frying pan.

Should your interest be piqued by this, you can explore the history of so-called Chinese food outside China (and mainly in the U.S.A.) in the recent documentary “Searching for General Tso”. General Tso is an actual historical figure from Hunan province, but it is doubtful that he ever enjoyed a dish of the now ubiquitous General Tso’s Chicken. Like Chow Mein, General Tso’s Chicken is a dish that cannot be found in China, though as the filmmaker shows, the dish was developed by a chef from Hunan who wanted to commemorate his native culture while working at a restaurant in Taipai. The dish moved rapidly to some high end Chinese restaurants in New York City, from whence it has spread across America and further abroad. Most of the Western renditions of General Tso’s Chicken bear little similarity to the Taiwanese version, having been transmogrified into something like Chicken McNuggets with a somewhat more tangy version of the sticky “sweet-and-sour” (but mostly sweet) sauce that is also a thoroughly Western adaptation of the pre-chopped cooking style imported into the West when Chinese immigrants flooded into San Francisco during the 19th Century.

My friend Lisa Heldke has written a very nice book that explores the exploitative dimension of this, as the assumption that these dishes actually are Chinese becomes part and parcel of the way that non-White others come to be viewed through stereotypes that ultimately create prejudice and racial profiling. Exotic Appetites goes even deeper when Lisa discusses how the “food adventurer” who seeks “authentic” versions of so-called “foreign foods” also participates in an exclusionary practice that essentializes racial identities. Of course, the verb “essentialize” is much too heavy for the Thornapple blog, so I think we’d better bring this particular tangent to a close right now.

The movie, however, is funny. It conveys quite a bit of information about the history of Asians in America while frequently portraying it through laugh-out-loud ironies, like when the filmmakers go to Hunan province in search of some “authentic” General Tso’s Chicken. My personal favorite is the segment that explores Springfield almond chicken. You can get almond chicken lots of places, but it was created in my birthplace, Springfield, MO. It is, in effect, chicken nuggets covered with gravy. And speaking of choice ironies, I love the Yelp! review of Huapei, my favorite Lansing location for Chinese food, which complains that their version of almond chicken is not authentic.

Not that I would be caught eating almond chicken at Huapei, mind you, so how would I know better?

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

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

September 13, 2015

This is another one of those Sundays where I am entrusting the blog to robots at WordPress. If things have gone according to plan, I am actually on my way home from Japan this Sunday. I’ve been in Japan giving an invited lecture at a big soil science conference. I’ve been excited about this for some time. On the one hand, it’s an honor to be invited to give this kind of an address, and an opportunity to do some travel that is a bit out of the ordinary. On the other hand, it’s intimidating to think about standing up in front of an audience of highly trained scientific specialists. And in fact the trip is too short to really provide much opportunity for sightseeing.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. I thought I might promote this nice little documentary about a tiny sushi shop in Tokyo that has one of the very few Michelin three star ratings (or at least it did when the film came out in 2011). I might start by saying that although there is absolutely no doubt that this is a food flic, it’s quite different than Food Inc. which we were talking about last week. Although it was very popular, it’s a lot less likely that you’ve seen it, for one thing. I saw it during a theatrical run at the Living Room Theater in Portland, OR. I could go on about the Living Room Theater itself for a while. There are starting to be more and more places like this where you have big, comfortable seats, can get real food (rather than just popcorn and candy), and where there is a place to put your nosh while you are watching the movie. Just like your living room. The food at this particular spot is good enough that they operate a bistro out front for people who have no intention of seeing a movie. Oh yes, and you can usually get a glass of beer or wine at places like this. I want to strongly endorse this trend as fully consistent with the broad contours of food ethics.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. Jiro Dreams of Sushi eventually aired as an episode of the PBS Independent Lens series. So there is a fair chance that if you missed the opportunity to catch it in Portland, you might have seen it in your own living room. Of course, this would not have been available for me, because Diane has absolutely forbidden a television set in our living room. We do have one in the kitchen, and I have prevailed upon her for a comfortable chair, where I could indeed watch Independent Lens while sipping my beer or wine.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. You don’t need the Thornapple Blog to get a synopsis of Jiro Dreams of Sushi in the event that this would help you make a decision about whether or not to watch it. The Internet is now full of sites where every film ever made has been summarized, dissected and resected by helpful bloggers, critics and literary types. You should just Google it if that’s what you’re looking for. And if by some weird coincidence you did Google Jiro Dreams of Sushi and wound up here at the Thornapple Blog, my sincere apologies. I don’t typically write film summaries or reviews in the blog. September 2015 happens to be some kind of exception due to the confluence of cosmic forces that are beyond human ken.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. I partly picked this movie (it’s true) because of the Japan thing we started out with. But enough about me…. However, even before I made this connection I was thinking that this could be one of the films on my list. First of all, it is a very nice little film. Probably not the sort of thing my MSU students are used to seeing, to be sure. No blood and gore (at least if you discount the scene with the tuna buyer down at the Tokyo fish market). No sex that I can recall. “Tuna” is not a euphemism in this film. It does have a little bit of family drama, as Jiro’s sons are, perhaps, not given credit where credit is due. (This less by Jiro than by those who celebrate him, which would, oddly, include the filmmakers themselves. Literary types love little ironies like that.)

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. The film also does document what it takes to run a three star sushi shop, and it’s pretty interesting. There are some ties to food ethics in here I think, but it looks like I’m getting to the end of the blog without getting around to them. Make them up for yourself, I say, or complain to the robots who are in charge this week.

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

Food Inc.

September 6, 2015

“Well 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.”

This would be Gary P. Nunn explaining “What I Like about Texas”. He goes on to mention Mi Tierra, which has come up once before in the Thornapple Blog. As both of my regular readers know, this is enough to qualify “What I Like about Texas” as an official “food song.” When you scroll up and take a gander at the date, you see that it is officially September, and if you are one of my two regular readers, you are thinking to your own self “Well, I guess it’s “food songs” month again.” Being one of the cognoscente, you would know that for most of the Blog’s history we have taken two months a year to do themed entries. In January we do “food ethics icons”—people like Norman Borlaug, Wendell Berry or Jane Bush. In September we do “food songs”. But you may have also noted that what it takes to actually be a food song has been diluted a bit over the years. We started out with songs like “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House.” This is a song that is not only very clearly about food; the lyrics are largely just a list of foods. But next thing you know, we’re doing “House of Blue Light” which clearly mentions fryers, broilers and Detroit barbeque ribs, but which, in truth, is much more about dancing than eating. And then there is that problematic category including dozens of blues standards that discuss the importance of jelly in various bluesmen’s lives. But we know what they are really talking about, and it ain’t food.

So while I think I’ve already said enough for this week to qualify as a sure-nuff food songs blog, I should probably get around to the perplexing title of this blog, which is not “Another Burrito”, but a reference to the 2008 documentary from Robert Kenner. While I think it improbable that anyone who stumbles on this blog would not have already seen Food Inc. I thought I would take just a few pixels this morning to say something about it. In the event that you haven’t seen it, I’ll note that you can now watch a preview online at your leisure and at no cost other than your time. As for watching the film itself, well that might cost you something.

Food Inc. deserves something like iconic status in the world of food ethics itself. The film built on a growing interest in “the industrial food system” and achieved a wide audience. Kenner collaborated with Eric Schlosser and food ethics icon Michael Pollan on the project. It consists of a series of vignettes that I think we can safely say are intended to expose various forms of injustice or unsustainable practice in the American food industry. There’s also a bit with Joel Salatin slaughtering a free-range chicken that is stuck in there to give us the sense that there is a better way to do things. The film ends with a segment on an Indiana farmer who is being prosecuted for conspiring to encourage violation of the Monsanto Co.’s intellectual property rights. The stunned reaction of this particular farmer was, for me, the most emotionally engaging part of the whole movie.

The Wikipedia article on Food Inc. is not very forthcoming on what the film is actually about, but it does include a nice discussion of the film’s reception, including critical reactions from major food industry players. I can attest that mainstream farm organizations hated the film. Yet food and farm input companies (the Inc.s of the title) seemed not to be so strongly irked. Maybe it was just what they had come to expect. The film was actually kind of helpful to them in laying out some of the concerns of their customer base in an obvious place where everyone could see it. My personal reaction was that the film could be characterized as misleading, but only if you thought that Kenner, Schlosser and Pollan set out to create a dispassionate and balanced overview of difficult issues in the food system, a film that would help people think more critically about both policy and their individual dietary choices. It’s pretty obvious to me that this was never the intention; Food Inc. is about consciousness raising. Given that orientation, I would argue that only one early segment where Kenner filmed inside a broiler production facility that was being “dropped” by whichever of the big broiler meat companies the farmer was working with (I forget which) was truly specious. I don’t doubt that what we saw was the reality in that barn, but I rather suspect that some of what we saw was actually the reason that farmer was being dropped.

But this is not a defense of the status quo on my part. If you somehow missed Food Inc. on its frequent airings between 2009 and 2012, go up to the link and take a look for yourself. And by the way, take this as signal that in 2015, September will be “food flics” month. Hang up your guitar and renew your Netflix account.

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