Food Ethics circa 1929

October 30, 2016

The English philosopher Frank Ramsey gives us the following: If a man has a cake and decides not to eat it because he thinks it will make him ill, we can judge him mistaken even if he does not eat the cake. But being mistaken does not does not also make him crazy (Ramsey would have preferred the more British “irrational”). Perhaps the man is not in possession of adequate knowledge about how this particular cake came to be: he does not know its ingredients, or the skill and trustworthiness of its baker.

The moral I take from this is that there are at least two different ways the man might be mistaken: the cake might have been safe, even though he thought it wasn’t (that’s Ramsey’s sense); or the man did not draw upon the knowledge that he had in a rational fashion. I would say that in this latter sense, we would not be inclined to say that this man erred in deciding not to eat the cake: he needed to know more about it.

Ramsey goes on to write:

 Suppose the human race for no reason always supposed strawberries would give them stomachache and so never ate them: then all their beliefs, strictly so-called, e.g. that if eat strawberries I shall have a pain, would be true; but would there not really be something wrong? Is it not a fact that if they had eaten them they wouldn’t have had a pain?

I’ll note that we’ve discussed some curious things about strawberries in the Thornapple Blog before. Now, appearances to the contrary, Ramsey is less interested in food than in the way we establish truth conditions for “if—then” sentences. There were views circulating in 1929 that when the “if” part of the sentence (here “if people had eaten strawberries”) is false, the whole “if—then” conditional is trivially true. Ramsey is criticizing this view in his strawberry example, but he goes on to deny that there is some fact about the world that makes it false, at least as it pertains to the world in which people don’t eat strawberries. It’s only because we (that’s you, me, Frank Ramsey and his Uncle Bob) have actually tested this hypothetical that we can be so smug about it.

As for me, I’m going to rest on my laurels this morning, the pointy little bits of twiglets and leaves poking uncomfortably into my keister notwithstanding. I think Ramsey’s early twentieth-century food ethics really does pertain to all kinds of present day issues in food and food politics—though I’ll be politic enough not to alienate anyone on a fine late October Sunday by mentioning them by name.

As the American philosopher Cole Porter wrote in 1933:

 If this advice you always employ

The future can offer you infinite joy

And merriment,

Experiment

And you’ll see

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

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Eating Figs from the Deroga Tree

October 24, 2016

Coming to you from Central Michigan, the latest flash news from the food movement. This week in an unprecedented turn of events a contingent of seventeen celebrity chefs led by Ettore Boiardi picketed the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia where Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker were conducting a taste-test of four local store-brand hot dogs. Noted food writer Mark Bittman questioned the authenticity of the test in his New York Times column last Wednesday, claiming that due to corporate control of the industrial food system it is actually impossible to find four local store-brands of hot dog. When questioned as to whether he would accept the results of the test, Bittman replied that he couldn’t say just now. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said.

Baker challenged the chefs to a drum-off, asking them, “How do you keep a turkey in suspense?”

“Turkey dogs?” replied Boiardi (who died in 1985), “We don’t have any turkey dogs. We don’t need no stinking turkey dogs!”

“I might have been a great President,” said Warren in an apparent non sequitur. “Now we’ll never know.” Baker insisted that Pressed Rat’s doglegs (and feet) were smoked with atonal apples. Meanwhile the celebrity chefs brandished placards protesting the merger of agricultural giants St. Louis based Monsanto with the German Bayer. “We don’t need no stinking genetically engineered aspirin,” said Boiardi (still dead after over thirty years).

What I want to know is why whenever I turn on the PBS Create station there is always somebody standing there kneading dough or possibly filling a muffin pan? What’s the food ethics message there? Rappin’ Pressed Rat & Warthog: Well, good luck with that!

Sadly, they left, telling no one goodbye. Just hold your breath. In sixteen days this nightmare will be over.

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

Japanese Rain Goggles

October 16, 2017

So I was lunching with Usher last week at some chic little bistro in a trendy Toronto neighborhood. I don’t recall the name, and doesn’t matter much anyway. As a matter of fact, maybe it wasn’t even Toronto. Maybe it was Brooklyn or Burlington. I can’t fully recall. We had settled in and were sipping our appletinis, or maybe it was a pumpkin-spice mulled cider. The details escape me, but I’m sure they were fresh ripe flavors as beautiful as the falling leaves. After chatting up the underground railroad and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next big project we finally got around to the menu. Amazingly, there still are menus at chic little bistros in trendy Toronto neighborhoods.

There was a caprese with black cherry tomatoes from Maharashtra served with a chili verde made from purple tomatillos grown on a collective farm in the Bruce Peninsula. Authentic buffalo mozzarella, of course. (Ho-hum.) From that point on, however, the offerings started to befuddle me.

“What are you having?” asked Ush.

“I dunno,” sez I. “What are tardons? And what about pangasius or gourami?”

“Ooh! Pangasius! Order it poached,” says Ush.

“But what is it?” I insist. And frankly, this just goes on and on. Txikito, resto, takashi, spotted pig. That last one I can guess, but I’m thinking that I’m probably guessing wrong.

“Doo, doo doo. Just let it burn,” he’s humming under his breath.

I’m thinking that the spotted pig must be pretty spicy at this particular bistro. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t Usher who was sitting there licking his chops over the thought of a steaming pan full of pollo en pipian. Certainly it was someone like him, though. And maybe it was tamales de huitlacoche rather than pipian. Who cares anyway.

“Just Google it,” says Ush (or his double).

And that, I think is the situation that all of us face when we sit down to read a menu these days. Bring your smart phones if you hope to lunch with Usher (or someone like him) at chic bistros in trendy new neighborhoods in Toronto. Or Brooklyn. Or Burlington. Or Corktown and Eastern Market, for that matter. I’m not sure there’s a food ethics point here, but there might be.

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

 

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Food Dreams

October 9, 2010

I think that food dreams might be the next big growth area for cognitive food studies. Both regular readers of the Thornapple Blog are now expecting me to launch into a tedious discussion of exactly what “cognitive food studies” could possibly mean, and I hate to disappoint them. The growing number of academic types who are now looking at food is simultaneously surprising, amusing and gratifying, so I think I’ll just wave my hands at the thought that there are more and more professor-types taking an interest in food and go right back to the theme of dreams.

Our dream experiences have long been thought to provide obscure clues for puzzles and problems we face in waking life. In the wake of Sigmund Freud’s work, themes of repressed sexuality came to the fore, and dreams of food preparation or consumption would be easily interpreted along those lines. I don’t pretend to keep up in the relevant areas of cognitive science, but my sense is that current opinion is more along the lines that one of many things the mind may be doing in dreamlife is working out some troubling bits of reality, one of which might be sex. So I’m just going to repress any temptations to interpret my food dreams as sexual fantasies, though God knows I have them. We could start a whole ‘nother blog on that.

Aside from sex, I’m guessing that the new scholarship on food dreams will see them as coding for anxieties about incorporating the toxins of the industrial food system into our bodies, and as more universal forms of anxiety about our vulnerability with respect to the generalized other. General Other is, in fact, only a brigadier, lacking any real command authority. It’s more like a designation that lifts him (or her) only slightly above other officers holding the rank of colonel. But at the same time, of course, it would be the colonels who are most deeply in engaged in the work of colonialization, (hence their title). So the fact that Officer Other has been generalized should not dissuade us from any worries we might have about we, our own selves, being colonized.

Which is just to show that I can play this game as facetiously (if perhaps not as convincingly) as the next recently promoted Associate Professor of English. But back to food dreams.

I thought the Blog might serve as a repository for food dreams. A sort of data base where people could volunteer their food dreams in advance of this new cognitive science really getting off the ground. Feel free to use the comment space to add your own food dreams, and I promise that they will become part of the permanent record that is the Thornapple Blog (however depressing any thought of permanence in connection with this drivel might seem).

To kick things off, here’s one I had last week. I was someplace—can’t recall where or why—where people were trying to cook biscuits in a pop-up toaster. The method they were using was to start with some especially glutinous unmilled grain kernels (not sure what and no, I don’t think they were a code for colonels [see above]). They were being spooned into a little plastic zip-lock bag and stirred into a paste like dough. Then zip, and the whole bag gets deposited into the pop up toaster. Much of the dreamtime was expended in waiting expectantly for them to pop up. My dream did not include anyone actually eating one of these biscuits, and frankly, I would not advise trying this method at home. Even in my dreams I was wondering why the toaster didn’t melt the little zip-lock baggies.

On reflection, I’m sure that I have just revealed some deeply encoded sexual anxieties and posted them on the Internet. So maybe you should think twice about describing your own food dreams in the comment box.

Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

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

Nuts

October 2,2016

How many blog readers remember Euell Gibbons?

I thought so.

If you Google his name, he is apparently best remembered as pitch man for Post Grape Nuts™. I was interested in his appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

How many blog readers remember Johnny Carson?

Well, that’s a tangent I won’t touch. Let’s stick with Euell Gibbons, who did in fact make two appearances as a guest on the Carson show. I barely remember Gibbons, and I am old. I suppose Gibbons would be a candidate for “food ethics icon” if it were January, but last time I checked, it is only October. I bring him up to ask (in a mildly serious vein) whether we have anyone around quite like him today. I ask this in a mildly serious vein because I’m really curious, but I’m also not feeling serious enough to actually write a serious blog this week. So mark this one “funny”. Even though it really isn’t.

As his appearances on the Tonight show and hawking Grape Nuts would suggest, Gibbons attained a fairly high degree of notoriety back in the 1970s. According to the Wikipedia article on him—which is covered up with notes asking for further development and corroborating citations—he was either on or parodied on a number of shows, including Sonny and Cher (remember them?) and Carol Burnett. What he was on those shows was “a health food nut”. Without really knowing much about it (remember this is not a “serious” blog) I’m inclined to think that he must have had a pretty good sense of humor about himself. Along with people like Adele Davis (who also appeared on the Carson show) he became an iconic figure representing the off-kilter and wackiness about foods. This was, if you recall—and I think it’s pretty well established by now that you don’t—a time when all the kids were going goo-goo for brown rice, and bulger. It was a time before quinoa (of course the Peruvians were eating it), though a few people on the extreme margins of the counterculture were discovering fiddleheads and claiming to like them.

They owed the ethos behind that to Gibbons, who popularized foraging in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Now I should own that I have not read this book, though if I live long enough I will get around to if sometime. Foraging is more hipster now than it was in Gibbons day. Of course, we couldn’t just do that here in the 3rd millennium, so now we call it “wildcrafting” or some such. I do have the sense that Gibbons extolled the healthiness of foraging, but what self-respecting forager wouldn’t? My feeling that he had a sense of humor about himself suggests that any goofiness that went along with this was something of a pose. I mean if you are trying to sell books (or Grape Nuts, for that matter) getting on TV couldn’t hurt, could it?

So to circle back to the present: no Euell Gibbons was not the “me” decade’s Bear Grylls (the Wikipedia article on him does not need additional cites). Gibbons knew how to forage for lots of wild foods, but he was neither a survivalist nor a reality TV personality. My thought is that although we still have the cultural stereotype of “the health food nut” today, we don’t actually see any of them on television.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

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