The Last Key Blog

So for latecomers, the title is a pun on “key log”, which is the log that you have to remove to break up a logjam. I tend to conflate this with something the like the key note, which is the tonic in a scale, the note on which songs frequently (but not always) end. As my one remaining regular reader knows quite well, I always take the Sunday after Thanksgiving to make a reference to Aldo Leopold’s discussion of the key log in his foundational work on environmental ethics, A Sand County Almanac. Way back in 2009 I wrote:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold was trying to get us to see that our community was more than human, that we are in community with the land. His ethic was revolutionary in many ways that we are only now starting to appreciate.

  • The original key blog went on to talk about how focusing on food might be a good way to act on Leopold’s desire to incorporate the land itself into our understanding of community. That’s a nice theme for a blog written under the auspices of a Community Supported Agriculture. It was, I hoped, something that we could see as a fundamental part of the CSA way.

Well, I’m not backing off from that thought, but I am done writing the Thornapple Blog. You’ll just have to get through the winter of 2016-17 without me, I’m afraid. I’m sure I won’t disappear from cyberspace completely, but the routine of sitting down every Sunday and ginning up 400 words or so has gotten tiresome.

Happy Thanksgiving, America. And may God’s blessings go with you.

I’m sure you’ll need them!

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

Penultimate

November 20, 2016

If my math is correct (and it might not be) this is the 364th Thornapple Blog. I’ve written the blog from Italy, France, Japan and Germany, as well as at least four or five times from the lounge at Schipol in the Netherlands. My laptop has gotten thinner and lighter over the years, and in truth, so have I. Although I still carry too many pounds, I dropped about 15 of them a couple of years back when I switched medications and stopped trying to eat so many vegetarian meals.

Sooner or later (if I live that long) I intend to write a piece for my day job which I’ll call “Why I Am (Not Even) a Demi Vegetarian.” It’s an oblique reference to an essay by R.M. Hare, who was Peter Singer’s mentor. Singer was one of our “Food Ethics Icons” so if you’re scratching your head with that reference, follow this link. Hare was quite influential in ethics for developing “two-level utilitarianism”. The basic idea is that common sense morality is just fine most of the time (that’s one level), but sometimes you need to think more carefully about the consequences of your actions (that’s the other level). It is kind of amazing what you can become well-known for in the academic world, but that’s another rabbit-hole altogether.

At any rate, Hare felt compelled to explain why he had not followed his more famous student’s reasoning into vegetarianism. He gave his answer in an essay called “Why I Am Only a Demi Vegetarian,” He pointed out that Singer’s argument was targeted against factory farmed animals, and that he (Hare) was convinced that Singer was right on that score, but it didn’t mean you couldn’t eat any meat, just that meat. Besides, he was not eating much meat—mostly fish—and cutting down on your meat would send the same signals. Hare wrote before we had the sense that beef and dairy production might be contributing to global warming, but his arguments would have meant pretty much the same thing on that score. I guess you could say that it was the rationale for “meatless Mondays” type of dietary activism.

Well, I had been doing that kind of vegetarianism for a while, though given the number of meals I eat away from home, I really can’t say I know much about where any meat I eat at a restaurant might have come from. But the general point being that I was trying to do several meatless days a week, while also trying not to eat meat more than once a day. I wasn’t trying to cut down on dairy, and that might have been my downfall. At any rate, this diet did not make me thin. And in fact after a bout with a nasty anti-biotic resistant microbe a few years back, it took over a year for me to bring my blood sugars down to the just “slightly elevated” target level for most Type 2 diabetics. Finally, my doctor said that I had to give up the pasta and rice meals that had become too frequent on my meatless days. Eat a burger instead was the medical advice.

And in fact I lost some weight and my blood sugars went down. It’s my little personal “maybe vegetarianism isn’t for everybody” story. I’ve long argued that my colleagues who support vegetarianism as a moral obligation are rather insensitive to the life rhythms of working mothers, people who depend on hunting and, indeed, the very poor around the world whose meat consumption consists of a little broth in their gruel. My point was not that vegetarianism is impossible, but that it is a lot more difficult for some people than it is for others. I’m not sure whether Hare would count this as a moral argument, but I think that he might.

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

Perdurance

November 13, 2016

I had a great idea for this week’s blog sometime around Wednesday of last week, but then I forgot what it was. I don’t think that this is a sign of senility in my particular case, but it does suggest that I’m wearing out my willingness to dedicate some of my brain cells to cogitating on the Thornapple blog during the time periods that I am supposed to be focusing on my day job. I do, however, keep something of a list of possible topics and these are a few of the things that are on it:

  1. Fake Food. We have a unit at MSU that focuses on counterfeit foods. This may strike you as odd, because if you can eat it, it’s food, right? And how could you fake that? In fact, its food that is intentionally mislabeled, often with a brand name when some huckster has just stuffed substandard ingredients into packaging that looks so much like the real McCoy that you, me and our friend Bob will have trouble detecting it. That’s so obviously an ethical problem that I’m not sure what else I would have to say about it.
  2. Dual Use. This is the totally opaque term that national security geeks use to talk about what the bad guys are able to do with technologies that we typically extoll for their impressive benefits. Weaponization is a multi-syllable approach to the same idea. We might think of it as food bioterrorism. Again, so obviously ethical that what could I possibly add? And it’s just not that funny, either.
  3. Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats, better known as CRSPR. This is the new new thing in biotechnology, and the good news is that makes genetic engineering more precise in terms of where the new gene goes and the potential for screwing up other gene functions. The bad news is that it makes genetic engineering of anything—including food—a lot easier. Maybe so easy some jerk in his garage could do it. I’ve stayed away from this because I bore readers with too much emerging science as it is, but just conjoin this with numbers 1 and 2 above (or think what the supplement industry might do with it), and then it’s ‘nuff said.
  4. Vertical Agriculture. Have I hinted at this? Maybe. As I said at the top of the page, it’s getting harder and harder for me to recall. The idea is to combine business principles developed in the tech industry with the idea of producing food. The vertical part comes from the idea that we do this in skyscrapers instead of farms. I’m ruminating about it quite a bit in my day job, but I’m afraid it’s just not blog ready yet.
  5. The fate of MSU’s student organic farm. Another day job thing, and I try not to import too much of what goes down at the sandbox into the Thornapple outlet. This much loved local institution is under siege yet again. Meanwhile the University of Michigan is putting serious money into starting its own student organic farm. Wasn’t it my hero John Lennon who sang, “You don’t know what ya got (Dum dum dum) until you lose it.”

So it looks like I food ethics is purdurant (e.g. capable of going on forever, for those of you who love philosophical obscurities). Would that we were!

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

In Geometry, the Amount by which an Angle Is Less than 180°

November 6, 2016

I’ve been writing this blog once a week for seven years now. Maybe that explains why every now and then I sit down of a weekend and discover I don’t really have much to say—a phenomenon that accounts for recent stream of consciousness rants that link PBS commercials to cooking shows and the debacle that Americans have come to know as their current political culture. I’ve covered a lot of the ground that can be covered in 800 word blurbs over that seven years, including even a few reflections on the very idea of ranting. Nevertheless, I can still be brought up short by the obvious things that I’ve omitted in accumulating enough entries to fill a daily calendar. One of them showed up on the front cover of the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports. To wit: food supplements.

The notion that our spiritual elders possessed knowledge that is disrespected, repressed and largely forgotten by mainstream food culture has a lot of appeal. The idea that when they incorporated things like St. John’s wort or ginko balboa into their diet it helped them ward off obesity related diseases or fluctuations in mood fascinates the same aging hippies out there who also extol the benefits of brown rice, bulger and quinoa. (Kale is another story altogether). It jibes nicely with a narrative that has a science community that developed the A-bomb and Agent Orange conspiring with the greedy barons of a food industry that spends all day trying to figure out how they can replace food with some of industrial detritus of building A-bombs and Agent Orange in order to increase their already obscene profits. We certainly can’t trust any of them when it comes to figuring out what we should be stuffing into our faces.

Our lack of confidence in the people behind the stuff on our supermarket shelves translates into a lack of trust in the products themselves. The last two or three decades have only added farmers themselves to the people we can’t trust. My point here is that there really is an ethos, at least, behind the scramble to recover these sources of ancient wisdom, and this ethos feels a lot like an ethic to anyone who is inclined to think that ancient wisdom is more credible than modern science. I’ve always thought it kind of strange how ancient wisdom now gets dispensed out of little plastic bottles containing capsules and tablets, but that’s also another story altogether.

Or maybe it isn’t, because Consumer Reports is urging us to notice that the profit-orientation of the supplement industry is pretty similar to that of that evil demon presiding over the fires of Mordor, the industrial food system. The Food and Drug Administration has been urging us to adopt a skeptical attitude for some time now, but they’ve been spanked by Congressional action back in 1994. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act sharply limits FDA’s authority to regulate products in this category, so long as they do not represent themselves as having therapeutic uses. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but it seems to be a pretty fuzzy line that’s drawn between claiming that you can cure a disease, on the one hand, and merely implying that using the product might have healthful benefits, on the other. If there are readers out there who want to weigh in on this nebulous point, have at it.

I hope I’ve already said enough to demonstrate that there are philosophical questions at stake here, and ethical implications involved in whether something gets called a food, a dietary supplement or a drug. And that would be a sufficient objective for even the most serious-minded entries in the Thornapple Blog. Consumer Reports has another shoe they want to drop, however: Oh, and by the way, these supplements can kill you. If that seems a bit overheated to the aging hippies out there headed down to the supplement section at the local co-op, just pare it back to the possibility that they can hurt you as surely as they can possibly help you. After all, we know that’s true for any food, right from the get go. I’d finish up by saying that if I’ve really piqued your interest in something you didn’t know already, you should just go read the Consumer Reports articles yourself. I’m never been here to distribute health or dietary advice in all the years I’ve been pushing this turkey, and I’m not about to start now.

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

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

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

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