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

Bindweed & Stinkbug Season

August 14, 2016

I never thought it would come to this.

As both of my regular readers know, I’m contractually obligated to post a blog sometime about now when the tomatoes come in in Michigan. It’s a hot year (in case you didn’t know) and we are short quite a bit of rainfall. The “hot” part is good for tomatoes; the drought part, not so much. However, we are, I think, on our third week of tomatoes in the share of the Thornapple CSA, and for the first time this year we may have more tomatoes than I can eat in a single sitting.

There are also some of those very nice heirloom varieties in the mix. I don’t know who thought up the term “heirloom variety.” They are, as I’m sure both of you already know, much tastier than those tomatoes that have been bred in California to get past the thirty mile per hour impact they must withstand. First their vines are ripped from the ground by the celebrated mechanical tomato harvester then blown through a devious mechanism that separates the fruits from the leavings and then chucks them onto the conveyer belt that hurls them at said 30 mph into the bed of a truck. Kersplat for the so-called heirloom tomato, hence the geniuses at the University of California’s Vegetable Research and Information Center (or maybe it was the geniuses at the grower funded California Tomato Research Institute) had to breed up these blemish free and perfectly round pinkish red but not especially tasty types that have to be gassed with methyl bromide (or maybe it’s just ethylene—remember not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true) in order for them to be digestible. Not edible, necessarily, but digestible. If you have a methane digester.

But fresh homegrown heirloom tomatoes, or as our grandparents used to call them, tomatoes, they are a different kettle of fish altogether. So about this time of the year, I’m supposed to write a blog reminding everyone that the tomatoes are in, and if by some screwy logic you are NOT a member of Thornapple CSA and have failed to plant your own homegrown heirloom tomatoes out in your backyard, it is most definitely time to scuttle your butt down to the local farmer’s market to buy some. I generally try to come up with some amusing, like the Fat Elvis blog we did way, way back in 2010. Or I’ll mention some tomato oriented song like Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” or Trout Fishing in America’s “Pico de Gallo.” But of course I’ve already done that, so now I have to come up with something original.

By the way, if you are troubled by managing your stinkbugs, or you came to this week’s blog hoping to engage in a bindweed discussion, the website at the California Tomato Research Institute might actually be able to help you out. Meanwhile, I’m still thinking.

I never thought it would come to this, but I just may have run out of things to say about tomatoes.

So excuse me while I cut off the blogging and just go eat some.

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


The Hipster Donut Experience

August 7, 2016

We might have seen this one coming. I mean Voodoo Donuts in Portland has been around for quite a while now. In the spirit of what I laughingly call “research” I Googled them and found out that there actually is no such thing as Voodoo Donuts. It’s Voodoo Doughnuts, and their website says that they got started in 2003, the same year as the Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State. I’ll resist the tangent to riff on that coincidence because although I’ve known about Voodoo Doughnuts for a good long while, (though maybe not since 2003, but certainly before this decade) I frankly failed to see that this was going to be more than a one-off phenomenon.

Not that I’m surprised to learn that there are now Voodoo Doughnuts in Eugene Oregon and Austin Texas. Maybe there will be one in East Lansing by the end of the decade, but I doubt it. That’s not what I meant by “more than a one-off phenomenon.” What I meant was that I failed to anticipate that donuts (or doughnuts) would actually become a hipster thing. I should have latched onto it when Glazed and Confused opened up in downtown but somehow I missed it. I think I was still thinking more along the lines of Cops n’ Doughnuts in Claire, which though they make some very fine donuts and are definitely worth a stop when you are on your way going to or from “up North” (or, for that matter, if you happen to be intentionally going to Claire—possibly for donuts) are definitely not hipster. Although it will be very clear by the end of this blog that you should not be relying on the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State for your hipster pronouncements, I can you tell that no place with hoards of sweaty tourists lined up of a Sunday afternoon could possibly be hipster.

Which would, of course, rule out Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland. So what do I know?

Except I wandered into Morningstar in Houston last week at about 7:15 (am, that is) looking for coffee. This is a place tucked into the back of strip mall with no sign out front. Inside everything is dark and shiny. They will make you a pretty decent cappuccino, right down to the little flowering design in the crema, but there is no coffee on the menu. You can get a flat white here, and there is a long list of matchas on the board. But there is nothing on the menu that says “coffee” or “drip” or “joe” or “COD”. They do have something called “The Daily Black” so I decided to order that, to which thankfully you can actually add some cream to (as well as any of several matchas). And what you will have is, in fact, a pretty decent cup of coffee. There is also a menu with a list totally unfamiliar things that probably turn out to be quite a bit like an Egg McMuffin, but I didn’t try any of them.

There is also a very large and impressive rack of donuts. Jason (“Hello. My name is Jason.”) urged me to try the CLP, which is a chili-lime-pineapple fritter (“We grind our own pineapple in house”), which is indeed made with lime and chili (“Not too spicy though”). Though he admitted that he himself was fond of their cake donuts, especially the cinnamon sugar ones, which also include chili (but no lime, I think). They also have special donuts with icings that have the word “Grenache” in them. If you order The Daily Black to go, which is not even discouraged—they are making an effort to be friendly—you get a cup holder with their logo on it, which is a cartoon drawing of a ball-and-chain flail.

So it turns out that the hipsters have gone well beyond the hyphen-free menu of foods produced on local farms run by former CPAs and retired firefighters. Donuts are now hip. Heck, they may have been hip for some time for all I would know. Maybe since 2003. I was going to write a blog this week telling you how you would know whether you had stumbled into a hipster donut shop.

But as it turns out, I have absolutely no idea!

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


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

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