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



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


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


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

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


August 28, 2016

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) is gathering steam for a new push around food and agriculture when the new administration is installed next January. The exact nature of their initiative is still in flux at this writing, so pardon me while I take a few sentences to situate this whole mess for the casual web surfer.

First, who in the bejeezus is APLU? This one is comparatively easy. APLU is an organization of public universities (that would include Michigan State) from the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It performs a number of coordinating, planning and lobbying services for members. Now for the context in which the APLU decided that a new effort to draw the government’s attention to what universities are doing with regard to food and agriculture.

One of the big things was “Feed the Future”, so what in the bejeezus is that? Well, succinctly, it’s an existing government initiative, well enough established to have its own website, which you can find here. Go figure it out for your own self, I say, but I will offer this: Based on studies from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at the United Nations, as well as our own intelligence services, folks at the U.S. State Department started to get nervous about what the world would be like in 2050, mainly because the projections indicate a significant rise in hunger. The State Department worries about hunger because they associate it with violence and political instability. Hence, “Feed the Future”: every dollar we spend on increasing food security today repays itself five times over in reduced military spending in 2050.

Universities with food and ag programs feel like they can contribute to food security in 2050, so they want to direct some of these dollars spent today into their budgets. Although this sounds on the face of it like a cynical ploy to garner budget dollars, I do in fact believe that there is an ethically sound rationale buried deep in here somewhere.

But there is more.

However justified a push toward greater food availability might be from a global perspective, just pumping up crop yields has feedback effects. The impact on domestic food systems is one of them. We’re coping with the over-industrialization of our food system here in North America, as countless past blogs in this space have emphasized. Will increasing “Feed the Future” dollars to increase our university’s capacity to increase the food-yield from crops such as rice, wheat, corn and soybeans further increase industrial monocultures, not to mention increasing the profits of farm input suppliers? How many times can you use the word “increase” in a single sentence?

Let’s hope the new push at APLU is mindful of that.

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


What Jackie Wilson Said

August 21, 2016

I paid a visit to the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm last week. I’m afraid I didn’t have my reporter’s hat on, so don’t count on the blog for accurate or detailed information this week. Truth to tell, I hardly knew where I was. I don’t get into Detroit but once or twice a year, and it always feels like this giant swoop down MI 10—better known locally as “the Lodge”—then being shot out into some neighborhood. But I have yet to acquire any real sense of how those end points relate to one another. So I had to Google a few things to figure out that I was in the North End.

One of the things I Googled was “Jackie Wilson”. One of the houses being used by the farm is reputed to be Jackie Wilson’s boyhood home. So on the authority of some Internet site that says Jackie Wilson grew up in the North End, I’m interpolating that that’s where I was. All of this might be false. Even on a normal weekend not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true, but on this weekend I’m just still in a cloud about many of the facts, myself. And like I said, I wasn’t taking any notes.

And I wish I had been.

But here’s a few random impressions. Oakland Avenue Urban Farm has been around for awhile, but it seems to be one of the less celebrated urban farms in Detroit. They may have been deliberately flying under the radar because they have only recently (recently meaning the last two years or so) been able to acquire legal title to much of the land they are using for fruit and vegetable production. This can be attributed to city administrators who were not all that interested in supporting this enterprise, and who did not think that food production was “the most valued use” for some of the abandoned properties in the North End. So they were dragging their feet and just not cooperating with attempts to consolidate some of the lots on the site. There’s still a problem with the fact that all of these lots have separate addresses. It’s like walking out into your garden and discovering that while your cabbages are being grown at 1072, your carrots reside at 1074 and your blueberries are living at 1076. So they can’t all be part of the same household, right? And then for purposes of staying legal, you have to fill out a separate form for cabbages, carrots and blueberries when it comes to everything from the census to paying the water bill. But there’s no process on the books for going back to the idea that these contiguous lots are something we might call “a field”.

Detroit has become known for its problems over the last thirty years or so, and this is not the place to go into any of that. The problems that bear on the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm are associated with a once densely populated city that has shrunk to—what? Less than half its former size? This leaving too much housing, depressing property values and then, in turn, leading mortgage holders to just walk away. The Oakland Avenue Urban Farm occupies most of two city blocks from which all but two or three of the houses have been removed. There are opportunities to expand further. As Jackie Wilson sang “My heart is cryin’, dyin’.”

Jackie Wilson was one of the great tragedies in the early days of rock and roll, but the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm is actually a pretty inspiring place. They are paying young people to come out and work on the farm. Not as much as they would like, but something is important. And they are supplying the neighborhood with some pretty sensational looking fresh produce.

Here’s a nod to them.

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