Resistance

July 31, 2016

There was a lot of lambasting white male privilege at the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association meeting here in Santa Cruz over the last three days. It started with my friend Ricardo dissing the Declaration of Independence as a document asserting the privilege of rich white men. I think he’s right, don’t you know. It’s men who are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Ricardo didn’t mention that Jefferson wanted to put some mild anti-slavery rhetoric in there, but he was overruled by cooler heads who thought that it would be divisive. Planters from the Southern Colonies (of which Jefferson was one, by the way) needed their slaves to plant and pick cotton. So Ricardo was right to notice that the Declaration of Independence is explicitly sexist in not counting women, and implicitly racist by being silent about the enslavement, disenfranchisement and oppression of black farm workers. And there’s that other thing the Declaration is conveniently silent about, which is that the rich white men who gathered to sign Jefferson’s little essay 240 years ago this month were sitting on what the native Americans would have recognized as tribal lands. Whoops! Just another whole domain of oppressions at work there.

Those are the points that set the tone for the whole conference.

So like the cucumber beetles but maybe more so, there’s really nothing funny to talk about here, so I’m just going to straight for jugular. I’m going to reinforce the point that I’ve agreed with all this, and then I’m going to point out that those guys in Philadelphia back in 1776 may have been a bunch of rich white men, but the Declaration of Independence itself comes out of a discourse of resistance. It wasn’t written to affect the oppression of women, blacks or native Americans, not to mention others who have been oppressed as a result of white male privilege. There was plenty of oppression to go around back then, and a good portion of it was directed at groups that still struggle for social justice today. But the DOI was written to resist what was at the time the dominant oppressive power on Earth, the British Sovereign. It was in that respect the paradigm document of decolonialism. “Let’s decolonize,” says Jefferson, and let’s get George Washington to put some teeth behind it. They may have been a rich white guys and slave owners farming on land dispossessed from tribes, but they were putting their rich white guy butts on the line.

So this isn’t a comeback against all the lambasting of white male privilege, and it isn’t even an apology for Jefferson and Washington. It’s really really true that white guys (rich or not) should find a little time every now and then (if not every day) to think about what implicit bias means and try to understand it a little better. One thing us white guys have to do is not take it personal when a keynote speaker tries to fire up a meeting by pointing out that there are rich white guy privileges woven deeply into the fabric of the American way of farming. So I’m going to mention another speaker who saw fit to call attention to those words from the DOI a little more than fifty years ago next month. He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” He didn’t say that to assert male privilege or to justify appropriation of tribal lands, though he failed to mention both of those points.

America has a fine tradition of resisting oppression. Let’s live out that creed.

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

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Race to the Farm

July 24, 2016

I’m headed off to the SAEA meeting later this week, where I’m part of panel. SAEA is the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. It’s not part of my regular circuit, but I’m looking forward to it. The panel is being sponsored by INFAS, which is part of my regular circuit. INFAS is the Integrated Network for Food and Agricultural Systems. Not to bore you with more information than you wanted, it was put together about a decade ago by WKKF. WKKF is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which (if you look all the way down to the bottom of the page) created my position at Michigan State University. After creating a bunch of positions rather like mine at several different universities, WKKF created INFAS to help us coordinate our work. WKKF did both of these things with an eye toward structural change in the global food system. Now if it hasn’t already been bad enough this week, getting into the details on what that means would try the patience of any websurfer. So go find someone who can mansplain it, because I’m just going to skip the whole thing.

Before I got off on this series of acronyms—and we all know that acronyms are second only to robots as the bane of existence in postmodern America—I was going to say that my mind has been on the presentation I have to make at SAEA. And that’s disrupting my blogging this week. So just put up with it. This is one of those occasions where I need this space to sort things out. You can help me if you like, but no sarcastic comments about how all of this is just a bunch of high flown academic BS that means nothing to the average person. As I said earlier this summer, I already know that, and besides, I assert the prerogative to control the flow of sarcasm in this little corner of the Internet.

We’re supposed to be talking about the connection between sustainable agriculture and race on this panel. While there are lots of things that might be said once you get rolling, getting rolling is the hard part. People who teach sustainable agriculture (remember this is the SAEA) mostly do stuff on crop rotations, composting, weed control and (as we mentioned just the week before last) picking cucumber beetles off of your bok choy by hand and throwing them into a bucket of soapy water. I, at least, do not recognize immediate points of contact between these issues and the subject of race and racial oppression. We’ve organized the panel with the general presumption that many people in the audience will not make this connection, either.

So with less than a week before I have to stand up and pontificate about this topic, I have to confess that I still don’t know what I’m going to say. I do think there’s an obvious starting point, however, and one thing I have learned over the last forty years in academic life is that it never hurts to state the obvious. That goes double when topics engage race, because what’s obvious to us white males is not only unobvious to others, it’s obviously false. So stating the obvious, I would point out that sustainable agriculture got its early start in the 1970s and 1980s primarily as a way to simultaneously correct some environmental deficiencies in mainstream farming practice and to help smallish family farmers survive in an era when the margins on commodity crops were just too thin for them to compete. If you were not willing to get big, as Earl Butz once advised us, you’d better get out. Sustainable agriculture was the collective voice of a generation of smallish and medium sized farmers making polis with hippie vegetarians and feministas to say “Hold on there, Earl. We think there is another way.”

Of course, as things have transpired that other way has stressed higher quality fruit and vegetable production (increasingly moving into meat, milk and eggs) and as a way to make this whole thing work for farmers, getting a higher price for that higher quality from consumers. Already by the 1990s some folks had started to notice that whatever this was doing for smallish and medium sized farmers, it wasn’t really delivering much for economically marginalized people living in urban neighborhoods. For one thing, this high quality stuff wasn’t being stocked at the bodegas, quickie marts and liqueur stores where they were often forced to do their shopping, they couldn’t have realistically afforded it, anyway. This sparked a lot of WKKF’s active experimentation with food justice, focused both on the plight of farmworkers (who were still being treated miserably) and on ways to get fruits and vegetables into urban cores. I rather suspect they formed INFAS because they wanted us to tell the world about that.

So maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m sure I’m missing more than a few things in this, but it never hurts to start by stating the obvious.

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

Eat ’em from the Can

July 17, 2016

What we eat reflects an ethic: a sense of what is right and proper. If beans are not for breakfast—a theme we explored last week—that’s because we (whoever “we” we happen to be at the moment) have adopted some culturally based presumptions about what to eat and when. For a lot of middle-class Americans, breakfast is a time for bowls of hot or cold cereal, a bagel or pastry, or possibly a hot breakfast with eggs at the center somewhere. The particular hold that this norm has on Americans is fading rapidly. There are plenty of under 40s who think nothing of chugging down some cola first thing in the morning, and that’s something that would have been unthinkable to the point of sacrilege for any of my immediate ancestors.

With only a little bit of prodding I could come up with a respectable philosophical defense of my grandparents’ culturally based disapproval of soft drinks. Empty calories dosed with caffeine give a quick buzz but drop you flat by mid-morning. And then there’s the long term connections with obesity and neurological triggers for sweet tastes. Beans would be another matter. Nothing wrong here, even if they are an incomplete protein in and of themselves. In combination with a little wheat or rice, they make a nutritionally sound choice for starting the day. But I grew up with the firm understanding that beans are not a breakfast food.

So when Johnny Cash sings, “Beans for breakfast once again. Hard to eat ‘em from the can. Wish you’d come back and wash the dishes. I’m a hungry nasty lonesome man,” he’s evoking a ton of cultural stereotypes. Not that he’s expressing approval, mind you. Like a lot of country music, Cash’s poetry trades heavily on the archetype of the “no good man”, insensitive to love and abusive to the woman who offers it. In this case, the love that is casually discarded (later to be rued over) takes the form of that prototypical hot breakfast we were talking about earlier. It’s hard to picture Cash’s love interest in this song pouring Frosted Flakes™ into a bowl and then slamming a carton of milk down in front the sulking, drugged-out hungover he-male that is narrating this particular slice of mid-70s American life.

At the risk of boring everyone, it’s probably worth it to linger awhile over just a few of the gender issues raised by Beans for Breakfast. If we are not supposed to be eating beans for breakfast, if we are, as Cash’s narrator is, brought momentarily (and even then only partially) to an awareness of the despicable state to which we have fallen by this indignity, then just as surely the absent referent (e.g. the women, who in previous verse we have learned has boarded a flight to somewhere else) is supposed to be frying up some eggs, brewing up some coffee and placing them subserviently in front of the man that she is, to quote yet another country classic of the era, “standing by.” You have to infer all of this for the song to work for you.

Maybe this is why Cash is not appreciated by a new generation listening to Kellie Pickler or Carrie Underwood through headphones as they drink Pepsi™ or Red Bull™ on their way to work in the morning. Maybe that’s progress, but can you forgive me for not being too sure about that? It’s not that I want to put women back behind the frying pan, nor is it any lingering prejudice against beans, for that matter. I’m as down with a bean and cheese taco for breakfast as the next gringo. It would probably be safest for me to advert to that nutritional line we tendered briefly above. But the actual fact is that I’m having trouble seeing any cultural resonance in swigging soft drinks for your wake-up meal, and that strikes me as a loss.

Maybe the problem wasn’t the beans, after all. Maybe it was the can.

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

 

 

 

 

Beans for Breakfast

July 10, 2016

After racking my brain for several hours trying to think of something funny having to do with cucumber beetles, I finally gave up. Bing tells me that there are two kinds of cucumber beetle, one with stripes and one with polka dots. There is apparently nothing funny about either of them because once they have gotten established, you might as just forget about all that bok choy you were hoping to stir fry up with some tofu about this time of the year. The robot on my computer does not think that bok choy is a word, which goes to show how “smart” robots can be of a time. Bing is telling me that picking off the cucumber beetles by hand and throwing them into soapy water is an effective way to control them, but I think that this advice is pretty much in the same category as thinking that bok choy is not a word. So much for the robots this week.

Since there isn’t anything funny about cucumber beetles, let’s change the subject. Let’s ask Bing about having beans for breakfast. I should start out by saying that this query does not please Bing. Bing offers some helpful suggestions:  “Beans for chili?” “Beans for diabetics?” “Beans for protein?” Then Bing goes back to the diabetes thing again, just in case you overlooked it the first time before deciding that you are just off your rocker and trying “Bean Ford West Chester” I didn’t click on that one. Even the best crazy tangent has to stop somewhere.

However, if you persist, you will discover that “Beans for Breakfast” is, in fact, a food song by Johnny Cash. We should be setting this blog aside for the next food songs month, I suppose, but I’m too deep into it to give up now. The general thrust of it is that a no-good man who won’t listen to his wife winds up eating beans for breakfast. This suggests that beans are not an appropriate breakfast food.

Bingo, Bing! It looks like we hit a food ethics vein that we can mine for a least another couple of paragraphs!

So why, you are asking I’m sure, did you and Bing get off on this peculiarly off beat tangent this Sunday? Well I’m sure it has something to do with cucumber beetles, but more to the point it was because I had beans for breakfast this morning, along with a fried egg, toast, some broiled tomatoes & mushrooms, a sausage, some streaky bacon and a black pudding. An English breakfast, you say. Actually it was Scottish, but their other differences notwithstanding, the English, the Scotts and the Irish have some similar breakfast habits, and they all include Heinz baked beanz. You might also be eating beans for breakfast at some taqueria down in Texas, but they wouldn’t be beanz and you probably would not have any black pudding with them.

So if there’s supposed to be some wrap up here, I’ve got nothing. Maybe it was flying all night and eating breakfast in Edinburgh. But I’d prefer to blame the cucumber beetles. It just goes to show that neither Bing nor Johnny Cash are particularly global when it comes time for breakfast food.

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

Just Desserts

July 3, 2016

I was down in Atlanta last week and had a couple of dinners-out with some friends & fellow workers. The names of the restaurants have been expunged to protect the innocent (not that there are any innocent victims in this story).

We started out a pretty good place, a bit high-toned and treadling the foodie vibe. All the signs encouraged us to expect that the chef (or kitchen, as the case might be) was taking their mission seriously. The fried chicken wasn’t Deacon Burton’s, but I would go back. I was sitting next to an acquaintance named José and we found ourselves ordering the same thing, happy as clams until we got to the mango sorbet on the dessert menu. I’m noticing that this sorbet has more of a reddish hue than I expect from mangos but I’m not deterred. A bite or two into it, I’m definitely experiencing that uncanny strangeness of being that comes over you when you are just realizing that some of your expectations are being subverted.

Then José says “This isn’t mango!”

He’s right, I’m thinking. Then I speak up: “And it isn’t sorbet.”

For some reason that probably had something to do with the wine and will not translate well into written form, this causes an outbreak of hilarity around the table. What we have before us is a rather ordinary orange sherbet. José points the ontological faux pas out to our waitperson and asks if he can get a scoop of vanilla to make it into “creamsicle”. She brings him the vanilla but whisks away the orange sherbet, at which point he’s through voicing complaints and just settles in to the ice cream. Me, I’m eating the orange sherbet.

We are out the next night at a place that is cultivating a more aggressive upscale ambiance. I mean, there may not be any restaurants in Atlanta that you can’t go into in shorts these days, so it’s not like we are wearing white tie and tails. Both of these places were white tablecloth joints (if white tablecloth and joint can be conjoined), but this one was deliberately abjuring any down home feel. (Don’t you love it when I throw a verb like “abjure” into the blog without any warning?) But the food was barely edible. Still and all, we stuck around for dessert, mainly for the camaraderie, I think, or possibly because we were not responsible for our own check.

We ripped that dessert menu apart like red Rizla to raas. Don’t ask me what that means, just roll with it. Everyone was asking for some special twist. The woman across the table from me had been asking for me to explain all the Italian dishes listed on the menu to her all night because she wants non-dairy and gluten-free. Nothing on the desert menu fits, but one item combines watermelon sorbet with a pastry. “Can I just get the watermelon sorbet?” she asks, and our waitperson replies, “Of course!”

So you’re thinking, “It’s neither watermelon nor sorbet,” and when it appears my companion asks me to taste it. I do and in fact it is watermelon sorbet, and probably the best dish that has been set on the table all evening. Except that the waitperson has referred to it as gelato, and when my companion asks a second time she (the waitperson) says “I served it out of a box that says gelato.” Well, it’s probably watermelon sorbet from the Atlanta Gelato Co., or something but my companion is taking no chances. The watermelon gets sent back on the off chance that it has some dairy in it. In the meantime, I’ve been served some panna cotta that tastes like Jello chocolate pudding with some crumbled up granola bars and Cool-Whip on top. Not that I am deeply opposed to Jello chocolate pudding but as we say in the South, my mouth was set for panna cotta.

Actually we wouldn’t say that. We might say that our mouth was set for sweet tea or fried okra, but not panna cotta. But you know what I mean. I would have liked to have had the watermelon sorbet that was undoubtedly thrown in the trash. (Speaking of food waste).

So you may be thinking to yourself now, “I get the food thing, but where’s the ethics.” Well, I could change the overall tone of this week’s blog by going off on the ethical responsibilities of restauranteurs, not to mention waitstaff who really should know the difference between gelato, sorbet and sherbet. And why that’s ethical in a world of touchy stomachs and food allergies. But that would not be mango.

Nor would it be sorbet.

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