Gumbo

September 25, 2016

Way back in the Jurassic Era we started these blogs about food songs because Doug Anderson had complained about not being able to think up enough of them. Here in the Anthropocene Doug has lots of help because I think if he just types ‘food’ and ‘song lyrics’ into the Google, he will turn up a couple of dozen pages listing food songs. A lot of them are focused on kids songs, to be sure, but if the point is to sit around with your guitar and sing about food, what’s the trouble with kids songs, anyway.

At any rate, I know this because as you have guessed I can type ‘food’ and ‘song lyrics’ into the Google just as well as the next fellow, and as a result I’ve discovered that there are pretty fancy web pages dedicated to food references in rap songs, as well as to food references in country and western songs. Amazingly, none of the latter turn up any of the songs that we were talking about last week. Instead, they get all nostalgic in praise of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and occasionally sweet tea. It does seem that the food-identity connection runs pretty strong in redneck country.

But this web search did remind me about Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” which I think we may have actually mentioned once before, because it is in actual fact a no-foolin’ food song, of which there are, I have to say, comparatively few. For the first verse anyway, it’s just a list of Cajun dishes: jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo. And what could be more foodish than that? So I although I could go out in 2016 on jambalaya, it would not really be fair, having actually mentioned this Hank Williams tune sometime back in, like, 2012 or something. So I need to come up with something else, and I think the only way is go full circle back to Doug’s food songs concert, which, I think consisted of “Jambalaya,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and then a mumbling explanation that although he knew a number of beer songs, that was basically everything he could come up with.

“Cheeseburger in Paradise,” is not the only Jimmy Buffet food song, by the way. Buffet has a number of songs that contain passing references to grapefruit or to shrimp that are starting to boil. And he has one about eating the last mango in Paris, too. So we probably could crown the Pirate King as the prince of food songs, too. (Which we reminds me that we missed “talk like a pirate day” this year by only a week.) but once we get into this territory, we get picky and these puns and passing references just won’t cut it for the bona fides.

But there is one other Buffet food song that does cut the mustard and that would be “I Will Play for Gumbo.”

It started in my grandma’s in her kitchen by the sea
She warned me when where she told me “son the first one’s free”
It hit me like a rock or some TaeKwonDo
Cause I will play for gumbo
Oh Yeah I will play for gumbo
Paul Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University
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Another Burrito

September 18, 2016

It seems that country music is a particularly rich source of food songs. The title of this week’s blog is a quote from Gary P. Nunn’s “What I Like about Texas.” I should have used this as the title two weeks ago. A fair portion of the food songs we’ve done over the years come from the C&W genre. There are some good blues songs, too, but as we’ve noted before, when a blues man mentions jelly, he’s probably not really singing a food song after all. I’m not aware of any operatic arias that deal prominently with food, but it’s an area I could easily overlook.

So we are going back to that stalwart theme of a country boy who does not appreciate and therefore abuses his woman. As we saw last July, the country boy’s expectation that his woman is there to feed him plays a prominent role in sounding out these abusive relationships. So Johnny Cash is forced to eat “beans for breakfast” when his woman has left him. The string of events that lead to this eventuality are limned by Tompall Glaser in “Put Another Log on the Fire.” This song gets right to the point.

Put another log on the fire.
Cook me up some bacon and some beans.

And go out to the car and change the tyre.

Wash my socks and sew my old blue jeans.

Come on, baby, you can fill my pipe, And then go fetch my slippers.

And boil me up another pot of tea.

Then put another log on the fire, babe,

And come and tell me why you’re leaving me

Now admittedly it’s only the second line here that deals with food (though in a stretch, we can think of tea as food). The second verse goes on to list the favors that this country boy has done for his woman which include letting her wash the car, taking her fishing and driving in the countryside with her kid sister. You get the idea. So like a number of our entries, it’s not altogether clear that this is really a food song. It’s just that cooking bacon and beans fits into general picture of servitude.

The woman’s side of this vignette is told by Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” She also gets right to the food-related point:

She makes his coffee, she makes his bed

She does the laundry, she keeps him fed

I’m old enough to remember men smugly saying “I think I’ll keep her” as if it were a harmless little joke, and I’m not sure my MSU students would get the point in our putatively more enlightened era. I think it’s significant that these songs from 40 or 50 years ago tie food so closely to a stereotype especially tailored to the working class, rural audience of the country music listener. There’s even a food ethics point in there somewhere.

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

Remembering 9/11

September 11, 2016

I’m going to take a “time out” from the usual September theme today to remember what I was doing 15 years ago on September 11. I had gone into my office at Purdue University a little earlier than usual, and I was busily working on something that dealt with a front page story in the early edition of The New York Times that morning. The story was about then-recent research on the impact of genetically engineered crops on the monarch butterfly.

I’m not particularly interested in the monarch butterfly debate this morning, but here’s just a little bit of background (because inquiring minds want to know). In 1999 Cornell entomologist John Losey published a short note in the prestigious journal Nature indicating that when he fed pollen from Bt-transgenic corn to monarch butterfly larvae, it was fatal. On the one hand, this was not a very significant finding, because we (and by ‘we’ I mean scientists) already knew that the Bt toxin killed caterpillars. On the other hand, Losey’s note implicitly called the regulatory review of transgenic crops into question simply by pointing out a rather obvious “non-target” impact that had been overlooked by regulators who had been overly obsessed with estimating the effect of gene flow to wild relatives. None of the “on the other hand” stuff was actually in Losey’s article. You had to be a biotech insider with an unusual sensitivity to the regulatory process to “get it”.

On still another hand, an unsubtle and simple minded reader might have inferred that these Bt crops were going to exterminate monarch butterflies. Indeed, many scientists just assumed that this is what the article intended to imply. Now I should point out that I’ve never met John Losey and I have no idea what he intended to imply, but this morning I’m going with the less simplistic interpretation in the preceding paragraph. My point is that the broader science community reacted immediately against the simplistic interpretation, and their reaction caught the attention of the wider mass media. There were prominent stories in USA Today and The Washington Post that would have led you to believe Bt corn and cotton posed significant risk to the much loved monarch butterfly.

The science community doubted it, but pertinent to my reading of Losey’s intent, there was nothing in the scientific literature at the time to support their skepticism. It was an obvious “non-target impact” that had not been studied in 1999. I will suppress my temptation to launch into a tangent on “non-target impacts,” and herewith end the background.

Except to say that following Losey’s article there was a rush to conduct some research that would ascertain monarch’s actual exposure to Bt toxin from transgenic pollen under field conditions. The seed industry also responded by developing corn varieties that did not express the toxin in pollen, but that really is a tangent in the present context. The point that led me to launch into this subject during a month when I would normally be writing about food songs is that on September 11, 2001 I was sitting in my office at Purdue writing something now long forgotten about the Times piece reporting the results from those studies on the risk that Bt crops pose to non-target species (like monarch butterflies) This was around nine or ten o’clock on a Monday morning. Then my daughter called me from Texas. She almost never calls me at work and she did so that morning because she was upset about what was happening at the World Trade Center.

Needless to say, I forgot all about Bt crops and monarch butterflies, and I have never gone back to them. More pertinently, the story about monarchs and the science of risk assessment was pulled from the front page of The New York Times in later editions and if you scour any newspaper from the entire week of September 11, 2001 you will be hard pressed to find much about monarch butterflies or the environmental risks of transgenic crops. The world’s attention had been turned to other issues, and science stories that get into the details of thinking about environmental risks have been relegated to the back pages ever since.

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

Another Year for Food Songs

Long time readers of the blog know that September and January are thematic months. Ever since 2011, we’ve dedicated Januarys to “food ethics icons” and we’ve done something special with September, too. Last year we took off from a theme that we had followed for the preceding three years to celebrate a series of “food flics”. This year we are going back to the theme of food songs. For most of the food songs blogs, we’ve picked a song with lyrics that make some prominent reference to food. Once you get beyond Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” it gets surprisingly hard to come up with them, but there are in fact a bunch of them out there. These blogs are not intended to be taken too seriously, by the way. It’s a kind of discipline by undisciplined frivolity, if you will.

So on those lines, we’ll start this September by recalling a couple of mid-summer blogs we did on the Johnny Cash song “Beans for Breakfast.” As we noted back in July, the song came up as the result of a little bit of desperate web-surfing. When I listened to a U-Tube version of the song, I recalled hearing it, but just barely. It’s not actually about beans, but very few of the food songs we’ve surveyed over the years actually are about food the way that Buffet’s “Cheeseburger” song is. Most of them are about sex. Cash’s “Beans for Breakfast” is about eating beans from a can because his woman has walked out on him. And the song is pretty clear in painting a picture that suggests she was fully justified in walking out on him. But the overall thrust of the song is that when things are right with the world, a man can expect his woman to make breakfast for him, and to clean up the dishes afterwards.

Now this is not a “feminist friendly” message, to be sure. So while I would like to bring the existence of “Beans for Breakfast” to the attention of those who, like me, collect songs that make prominent reference to food for our next foodie adventure party, I’d like to reverse field and mention another song about beans that Cash recorded, this one by Joe Tex. It’s called “Look at them Beans!” and I don’t think I ever heard it played on the radio. Of course it’s not about food (or beans) either, but it does set up the theme of a farmer who dies before he has the chance to ever see the bumper crop he always hoped for come into being. The crop he’s thinking about is actually his children, rather than beans, but the song does have this rather direct chorus:

Hey, look at them beans, and look at that corn, and I bet those watermelons must be three feet long.

Man, look them tomatoes and look at them peas! Well, if papa was here right now he sure be pleased.

And that’s enough to make it a food song.

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