Chin Warmers

Adzuki beans and arepas make for a pretty good cold weather supper about this time of year. I know we are supposed to be in the midst of Earth shattering changes that will drive all of us into our backyards during late March to grill out before the seriously hot weather sets in. In total honest to God facticity I did actually see some smoke wafting above my backyard fence this week when one of my neighbors took it upon himself to trot outside around six pm and fire up the charcoal. After all we did just endure the “spring ahead” and it’s not all that dark around six pm, so why not trot yourself outside? Especially when due to the Earth shattering changes we are enduring it is actually close to 60° out there. That’s what I’d like to know. I did get a lecture the other day from Chef Daniel Patterson about grilling your meat too long. “Cancer pills” was the phrase he used, but I’m not going to use my cosmic authority as the local expert on food ethics to pull a smug alert and tell you that you shouldn’t be outside in your backyward on a warm afternoon in the month of March checking to see if the bottom of your Weber grill has perchance rotted out over the winter. And what better way to do that, I note, than firing up some of those crumbly briquettes that are lying around in the bottom of the Kingsford bag that you bought last August. Last August was when Chef Dan’s advice about cancer pills was really more appropriate. Of course Dan also gave me a tip about grilling while he was lecturing us on the health risks of eating overly charred meats. “Turn it over every 30 seconds or so,” he said. The point being that this gives you great flavor without creating any of those heterocyclic amines (not to mention polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).

Chef Dan used some horrifying story about holding your thumb over an open flame and noticing that although this is pretty rough on your skin, you don’t feel a thing down in the pit of your palm. I’m not really sure I follow what he was trying to say there, though it did have something to do with idea that you can’t actually cook the pit of your palm by holding your thumb over an open flame. These celebrity chefs! What will they think of next? I’m actually just going to chalk all that up to this week’s obligatory tangent, except that before moving on I’ll note that we usually just refer to heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by the friendly names of “HCAs” and “PAHs” here in the Thornapple Blog. I don’t want any HCAs or PAHs writing lengthy outraged responses in the comments section of the blog. I already have enough trouble with robots who are posting links to Russian shopping malls or porn sites (though I will say it’s much better since we switched to the new WordPress platform). Still and all, I hope all the HCA and PAH readers out there will forgive me if I say that although we take your perspective seriously here at the Blog, we don’t expect to be inviting any of you to dinner.

And that goes especially for those Fridays in March when the temperature has dipped back into the upper twenties. Ha! On Tuesday your neighbors are grilling steaks in the backyard, but by Friday evening it’s feeling pretty chilly out in the backyard and it makes a lot more sense to be cooking up something over the stove that you can slather with the Columbia™ salsa picante that’s been sitting in your spice cabinet ever since you made your last trip to Tampa. Of course my Nana (God rest her soul) would not have known what to make of adzuki beans and arepas. In a similar vein I found myself corrupting the moral fiber of some younger colleagues the other day by suggesting we all head out for some sushi. “We didn’t eat much sushi in my family,” one said. “No kidding,” says I. “We used to scarf down tons of sushi from our TV trays when we were sitting there watching The Red Skelton Show on the little black and white television set mounted on wheels that we used to roll in on those nights when my mother was willing.” She was often willing. I think she rather liked Red Skelton.

Well, I was just kidding then like I am now. My mother may have gotten around to trying some sushi before she passed but I’m as sure that my Nana never did as I am that she never encountered an adzuki bean or an arepa. Pinto beans and cornbread, sure. Chef Dan himself kept referring to himself as a cook, too.

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

 

Heart-Shaped Blog

February 14, 2016

Although we find frequent occasions to complain about robots here in the Thornapple Blog, I do have to acknowledge that The Google is a regular blogger’s friend and savior. I sat down with a few half-baked ideas this morning (they will probably be back soon, but hopefully more fully baked). Then I noticed it was Valentine’s Day. Typing “valentine food” into my search engine (in full disclosure, I should note that it was Bing, not Google) the robot coached me with “valentine’s day food ideas”. Let’s see what that turns up, I thought to myself.

Well it will not be a surprise to very many blog readers that it turns up quite a lot. One high-ranking link is to a site at purelocal.com. Now here’s a tangent: what’s the proper grammar for listing a URL at the end of a sentence? If you put a period after it, you’ve corrupted the address, but if you leave the period off, well that’s just not right, is it? Let’s leave that one for some non-food blogger to ponder. A better tangent would be to speculate on this purelocal.com website, which seems to be run by one of those aggregating robots that collects information from all over cyberspace and then puts in conveniently on your screen. Frankly I wouldn’t trust these guys, especially when it comes to “local”. Who knows what kind of standard they are applying?

In any case, the “valentine’s day food ideas” page starts out with links that are, I note, disclosed as “ads” (though in tiny grey print). They would take you to other websites sponsored by Rice Krispies™, Hot Pockets™ and Hidden Valley™. It just goes to show how quickly we go from “local” to giants like Kellogg’s, Nestlé and Clorox. This is probably not a surprise to anyone reading the Thornapple Blog, but it can never hurt to mention it. I didn’t bother to click on any of the sponsored links, even though I’m sitting here dreaming of rice krispie treats (maybe with some of that extra-special pink food coloring) and wondering how salad dressing can figure in a Valentine’s Day meal. But that’s yet another thread we’re going to drop for the time being.

The Valentine’s Day Party Food Ideas page at purelocal.com goes on to aggregate some results from other Q&A websites. We are advised to “Make heart-shaped cookies and then decorate them.” Well, duh! We are also told that children like mini-pizzas and caramel apples, and reminded that school districts are quite strict about food: “Absolutely NO peanut items!” It suggests that we should run a food ethics theme on allergies pretty soon, but we’re too deep in this week’s blog to take off on that one. There’s also a curious link that I didn’t follow suggesting that an “anti-valentine’s day” party can be stoked with a mix of “un-love” songs. Robots! How do their minds work, anyway?

You could go through many pages of links on search results for “valentine food ideas” without learning very much about the way that food and Valentine’s Day are culturally intertwined. To wit: One of the main things that you do on Valentine’s Day is to give your lover a box of chocolates. Another is that the two of you go out for an intimate dinner. If I had been a space alien with a general curiosity about how the earthlings’ food habits are affected by this special day on their calendars, I would have actually been misled by this Internet search. I would be thinking that it was either about making cookies or pizza for children’s parties, on the one hand, or creative ways to cook with salad dressing, on the other. I can admit that children’s parties are indeed a significant part of Valentine’s Day, but I’d still like to insist that these traditions are derivative. Valentine’s Day is for lovers.

So I’m here to tell you that romantic love and food do indeed go together. That might also suggest some creative ways to use salad dressing, but this is a family blog, so I’m just going to leave that thought to your imagination.

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

Aristotle

January 17, 2016

A couple of weeks back when I decided to dedicate this year’s series of blogs on “food ethics icons” to full-bore, no-one-would-raise-an-eyebrow-about-me-calling-them-philosophers philosophers, Aristotle was one of the guys I had in mind. He certainly meets the no-eyebrows-raised criterion. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, but these days it’s Aristotle who is thought to be the pinnacle of thought in Ancient Greece. He was a Macedonian born in 384 BCE, but like Socrates and Plato, his philosophical legacy is tied closely to the city of Athens. I’m not going to do biography. I kind of like the way that Plutarch makes Aristotle out to be something of a gangster in his time, implicating him in a plot to assassinate his onetime pupil and conqueror-of-the-known-world Alexander. It’s probably not true, but hey, that hasn’t stopped us here in the Thornapple Blog before. Aristotle died on the island of Euboea (can I resist a surrealistic tangent on Ebola?) in 322 BCE.

I’m also going to break form from the last two food ethics icons by saying absolutely nothing about Aristole’s general philosophy. There’s way too much of it, for one thing. In ethics, he is cited as the paradigm expositor of virtue ethics, which is just a bizarre conceit among philosophy professors that is intended to mark out three general approaches to ethics. Consequentialists think that ethics is only about getting the best outcome from what you do, while deontologists think that ethics is only about knowing and discharging your moral duty. Virtue ethics is in truth kind of a trash-can “not either one of those” approaches, but it does pivot on the idea that ethics is predominantly about developing a strong moral character.

So you protest, dear reader, “I thought you weren’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s general philosophy, yet here you are prattling on about virtue ethics!” But I have two responses. One is to remind you (for the second time in this blog) that not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true (though of course, some of it is). More substantively, a) I haven’t really told you much of anything about Aristotle because b) in fact all the Greeks were really doing virtue ethics, especially when you compare them to the way that consequentialists and deontologists do ethics today. One key point would be go back to the last paragraph and ponder the fact that the word ‘only’ is italicized. Twice.

So I do in fact think that food ethics really demands a ‘virtue ethics’ approach, but that wouldn’t be why I picked Aristotle as a food ethics icon. In point of fact, I’m not so sure that he was a good choice, after all. There’s not a hell of a lot about food or farming in Aristotle (not that I would represent myself as having read every word of Aristotle, mind you). You could go off on a few passages where he talks about the appropriateness of eating animals. But I won’t.

What made me think of Aristotle as a food ethics icon are a few passages in the Politics where he says that the family household is the model for a good society. Some of my feminist and gay friends tee off on this, but that’s not reading Aristotle in the appropriate historical context. He’s not defending the model of a family household that we learned from watching Leave It to Beaver back in the 1950s. He’s actually thinking about the kind of farming household that Xenophon discusses at length in his Oeconomicus. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, we’ve already done Xenophon, so here’s a link. You can tell that Aristotle has the farm household in mind because he talks about the hoi mesoi which we would probably translate as “the middle class”. This ties in nicely with themes Aristotle stresses in his virtue ethics, where he writes that a virtue is usually a “mean” or middle-point between two vices of excess. “Courage,” for example, is the mid-point between cowardice and foolhardiness. But I said I wasn’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s larger philosophical views, so I’d better just drop this right now.

It’s easy to read that “middle class” thing to mean people just like you, me and Bob, but neither you, me nor Bob very likely represents the hoi mesoi unless Bob happens to be a farmer who is also a member of the National Guard. The farm households had a special relationship to the heart of the polis, which is, in turn, the heart or core of political solidarity. Unlike the hoi polloi they were not plutocrats, but had to work for their living, and the work they did depended on the sustainability of society and its ability to protect their fields from invading hoards. Invading hoards like Cyrus and the Persians, who were not a Peloponnesian punk band, but actual and for instance in fact invading hoards.

Well, I’m being a bit sarcastic and stretching the truth a little and I might as well admit it. But it’s also just a fact that lots of philosophy professors who know a lot more about Aristotle than I do seem to miss this singular fact about the way that he describes the basis of political association. So to push this line just a little bit harder, I’m calling Aristotle a food ethics icon.

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

Some Fishy News

December 6, 2015

Here is a post for those Thornapple Blog readers who rely on me to keep them informed of all the doings in the murky world of food regulatory policy. Of course I have to caution any other innocent soul who happens to have stumbled onto the Blog that the readers who rely on me to keep them informed of all the doings in the murky world of food regulatory policy have very low expectations. They don’t really have a great desire to be informed about such matters at all, else they would have long since found a more reliable source. There are hundreds of bloggers frequenting the Internet who (as we have colorfully noted on a previous occasion) write a blog post every time they go to the bathroom, and there are probably be a dozen who write every time someone in a regulatory agency goes to the bathroom, and (although I can’t direct you to this particular website) that suggests there has to be one or two who specialize in the bathroom visits of regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

There is probably somebody with a secret webcam installed in the office bathroom of Larisa Rudenko, who is the FDA official who was charged with responding to questions about the FDA’s announcement that finally, after what seems like centuries but is in fact only decades of delay, they have approved the genetically engineered fast-growing Aqua Bounty™ salmon. I count Larisa as a friend, even if I only see her in a professional context and even then not for a year or so now. She didn’t see fit to call me up and give me advance notice about this, but I’m not complaining. I’m not the one who has a listening device squirreled away in the women’s bathroom at FDA headquarters hoping to scoop the blogosphere on the approval of GM salmon, after all.

And to prove this, I’ll point out that it has, in actual fact, been nearly a month since FDA made this announcement. Now don’t complain. I warned you two paragraphs ago that the Thornapple Blog is not the place you should be going if you want up-to-the-minute updates on the murky world of food regulatory policy. Has the Internet been aflame in the wake of this announcement? Not really. I did a Google search on “GM fish” and the top ranks were all several years old. I also took a look at the Center for Food Safety’s webpage. They are—as one would expect given that they have been one of the most severe critics of genetic engineering in the food system—up to date on this issue. When I checked they had a flash banner pointing out that Costco has announced they would not sell Aqua Bounty™ salmon. Now this may or may not be true. I’m just reporting this in the same spirit that Hunter S. Thompson once reported a rumor that Ed Muskie was using ibogaine. Thompson later clarified, saying that he had never said Muskie was a druggie, only that there was a rumor that he was…which was true, he wrote, “because I started it.”

But I digress. We’ve gone over the ins and outs of these fish on a couple of occasions, and so I don’t actually feel any compulsion to say anything intelligent about the ethics or wisdom of FDA’s decision. I will repeat that this decision has been expected by many of us for a long time. It was hard to imagine given the evidence before them and their regulatory mandate, that they could do much of anything else. But of course having blogged about these piscis before, I felt this obligation to keep my loyal but only mildly curious readers informed—even if it was somewhat late.

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

A Quick One, While I’m Away

November 22, 2015

Nothing about Ivan the Engine Driver this week, just a few random thoughts as we round the corner into Thanksgiving weekend.

I’m eating breakfast in a distant city (again) this week and I’m sitting there sipping my coffee with a copy of my book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone sitting on the table in front of me. A woman at the adjacent table asks me, “Is that a good book?” Well, I should have assured her that it is probably the best book I have read since Thornton W. Burgess’s The Adventures of Grandfather Frog. But instead I was taken aback and just told her that I probably wouldn’t be a very good judge of that because of my deep personal involvement in the book’s creation. To which she replied, “A friend had told me about it, and I was just curious.”

This has certainly never happened to me before, a total stranger NOT at some kind of arcane philosophers’ meeting mentioning that she had actually heard of something I’ve written. Frankly, I’m a bit skeptical. Perhaps she confused “from field to fork” with From Farm to Fortune by Horatio Alger. Or maybe it was From Abundance to Scarcity by Kenneth Boulding. Still I decided to enjoy the moment.

I can also comfort my self with the elliptical ontological observation that if you happen to be reading the Thornapple Blog right at this moment, you too may have heard of something I’ve written.

Next week is the anniversary for the Thornapple Blog.

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

Overheard at Ellyington’s

November 15, 2015

It’s hard to avoid a little inadvertent eavesdropping when you are waiting for breakfast by yourself at a quiet restaurant. The two guys at the adjacent table are also waiting for their food, but they are engaged in an intense conversation over things like “core samples” and some sort of foibles that have occurred of late that will require them or their partners to redo something not done properly. The conversation seems to be about drilling of some kind, but I don’t think they are dentists. They drone on. I’m not really trying to listen, and my coffee is much more interesting in any case. After my oatmeal shows up and I have creamed and sugared it to my taste, I’m working through my daily regimen of morning medicine and happen to catch a few more snippets of their exchange. Now things have moved on and the topic has turned to Peyton Manning and last week’s loss to the Colts. It’s something else I’m not deeply inclined to listen in on, but at least I can make a little more sense of the apparent concern being expressed about whether the Broncos are really as good as their record would suggest.

Next morning I’m seated in a different area of the same restaurant near a table with two women, both younger than me, but between 35 and 50. I overhear something about a rehearsal dinner and am trying to tune them out, but the topic segues into shopping for dresses and the pair are quite animated, if certainly well within the range of decorum one would expect at a place with white tablecloths. The detail on colors, styles and how they make them look is a little embarrassing to listen to, but strangely compelling, too. Eventually my coffee is enough of a distraction and I am able to tune out this conversation at least until my bran muffin shows up. Their food has arrived as well and just like the morning before I catch a few more lines of the conversation, which has now turned to contracts, expectations and foibles. One says, “I see that I did not ask the right question.”

So both of these couples are conducting business over breakfast—something I do very rarely. The men apparently got right down to it, finishing all the tough stuff about digging holes over their coffee and juice, leaving plenty of time for exchanging sports-talk once the omelets arrived. The women might have been friends or relatives planning an event at the hotel I was staying at given their OJ and coffee talk, but that turned out to be pleasantries that were being exchanged until the serious food arrived, at which point they got down to business. And clearly one of them had a pointed message that she wanted to get across to the other.

Now, I’m just sayin’, but do you think there was some kind of gender/food thing going on here?

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

 

Teeth of a Hydra

October 4, 2015

“Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’…”

We spent all of September doing food films, but a few things happened that could have been good fodder for the Thornapple blog. One of the big ones was a story that broke when some New York Times reporters did a FOIA request on e-mails from a number of agricultural scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at land grant universities (like mine, for example). They were shocked to discover that these government employees had been offering advice to various farm organizations and food industry firms with respect to a number of issues: GMO labeling and state initiatives to regulate the welfare of poultry and livestock being among them.

So when this story broke last month I’m thinking, “She’s in the mood; no need to break it.” I’ll just keep on with the food flics and then come back to it in October. Well October it is and so I Google the phrase at the top of page (“Meanwhile I’m still thinking”) and then I am shocked to discover that the Internet thinks that this comes from Marc Bolan’s Get It On (circa 1971). One site even references Santana and Bang a Gong which is, of course Carlos Santana’s cover of the Bolan tune. There are some other references to songs by Johnathan Richman and OutKast, but the closest that anyone gets to the truth is the Rolling Stones Little Queenie.

The Rolling Stones? Well, yeah, the Stones did cover this iconic Chuck Berry song from 1959. The reason I’m letting this tangent run on so long is that I’m beginning to sniff a point here. The point is that our Internet soaked crowd is so out of touch that they haven’t figured out that all of these songwriters, including Bolan, are quoting Chuck Berry. And speaking of being out of touch, the younger generation is apparently so out of touch that they think discovering a close tie between agricultural researchers and bureaucrats, on the one hand, and farmers or the food industry, on the other, is newsworthy.

I blame Abraham Lincoln. Coincidentally, like Berry’s release of Little Queenie, this also happened way back in ’59, though of course now we’re talking about 1859. Speaking at the Wisconsin Agricultural Fair, Lincoln praises farmers, saying “their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated — that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.” In short, when those scientists and bureaucrats are pimping food producers, they are only doing their job, which is of course, to pursue the national interest. Lincoln goes on in this address to argue for applying steam power to agriculture and supporting agricultural research that would “raise up the soil to its full potential.” When he became President, he delivered on this by creating the USDA, which he referred to as “the People’s department.”

Of course things have changed a bit since 1859, when most Americans were farmers, and poor to boot. I’d like to give Lincoln some credit for those changes, and also for noting that the agriculture of his own day had some moral problems (a little thing called race slavery). Today we are down to less than 1% of our population in farming, and it’s not clear that Lincoln would still be saying that farm interests are the ones “most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated.” Maybe the folks who had their e-mails FOIAed didn’t get the memo.

Still and all, the shock and dismay expressed by those Times reporters tells me that they are living in a different world than I inhabit, for sure. Chuck Berry his own self will be 89 later this month (the 18th, for readers who are counting). I wonder if he would have been shocked by all those e-mail revelations. I wonder if he’s still thinking to himself, “If it’s a slow song, then we’ll omit it. If it’s a rocker, son, that’ll get it”?

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

Searching for General Tso

September 20, 2015

We had an opportunity to mention “Werewolves of London” back when we were celebrating the blue moon in July. We didn’t quote the verse that makes it a “food song”. Warren Zevon reports, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand. He was walking through the streets of Soho in the rain. He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fooks. Gonna’ get himself a big dish of beef Chow Mein.”

“Whoa, there! Slow down, bucko,” both of the astute regular readers of the blog are saying to themselves, if not perhaps exclaiming loudly to the other patrons of the coffee shop where they have opened the Thornapple CSA webpage to read this week’s installment. “We’re not supposed to be doing food songs this year. In 2015, September is food films month.

So I turn immediately to Zevon’s reference to beef Chow Mein. Like Chop Suey before it and almond chicken afterwards, one would have a very difficult time getting a big dish of Chow Mein anywhere in China. This is a thoroughly Westernized dish, served in putatively Chinese restaurants, but having only a very weak connection to actual Chinese cuisine. That connection resides largely in the fact that the ingredients of Chow Mein are chopped prior to being cooked and served, obviating the need to place a knife in the table setting. The dish is probably cooked in a wok at Lee Ho Fooks. The chopping allows for a rapid stove-top cooking process that is common but not universal in some Asian culinary traditions, but one can just as readily use a flat-bottomed Western-style frying pan.

Should your interest be piqued by this, you can explore the history of so-called Chinese food outside China (and mainly in the U.S.A.) in the recent documentary “Searching for General Tso”. General Tso is an actual historical figure from Hunan province, but it is doubtful that he ever enjoyed a dish of the now ubiquitous General Tso’s Chicken. Like Chow Mein, General Tso’s Chicken is a dish that cannot be found in China, though as the filmmaker shows, the dish was developed by a chef from Hunan who wanted to commemorate his native culture while working at a restaurant in Taipai. The dish moved rapidly to some high end Chinese restaurants in New York City, from whence it has spread across America and further abroad. Most of the Western renditions of General Tso’s Chicken bear little similarity to the Taiwanese version, having been transmogrified into something like Chicken McNuggets with a somewhat more tangy version of the sticky “sweet-and-sour” (but mostly sweet) sauce that is also a thoroughly Western adaptation of the pre-chopped cooking style imported into the West when Chinese immigrants flooded into San Francisco during the 19th Century.

My friend Lisa Heldke has written a very nice book that explores the exploitative dimension of this, as the assumption that these dishes actually are Chinese becomes part and parcel of the way that non-White others come to be viewed through stereotypes that ultimately create prejudice and racial profiling. Exotic Appetites goes even deeper when Lisa discusses how the “food adventurer” who seeks “authentic” versions of so-called “foreign foods” also participates in an exclusionary practice that essentializes racial identities. Of course, the verb “essentialize” is much too heavy for the Thornapple blog, so I think we’d better bring this particular tangent to a close right now.

The movie, however, is funny. It conveys quite a bit of information about the history of Asians in America while frequently portraying it through laugh-out-loud ironies, like when the filmmakers go to Hunan province in search of some “authentic” General Tso’s Chicken. My personal favorite is the segment that explores Springfield almond chicken. You can get almond chicken lots of places, but it was created in my birthplace, Springfield, MO. It is, in effect, chicken nuggets covered with gravy. And speaking of choice ironies, I love the Yelp! review of Huapei, my favorite Lansing location for Chinese food, which complains that their version of almond chicken is not authentic.

Not that I would be caught eating almond chicken at Huapei, mind you, so how would I know better?

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

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

September 13, 2015

This is another one of those Sundays where I am entrusting the blog to robots at WordPress. If things have gone according to plan, I am actually on my way home from Japan this Sunday. I’ve been in Japan giving an invited lecture at a big soil science conference. I’ve been excited about this for some time. On the one hand, it’s an honor to be invited to give this kind of an address, and an opportunity to do some travel that is a bit out of the ordinary. On the other hand, it’s intimidating to think about standing up in front of an audience of highly trained scientific specialists. And in fact the trip is too short to really provide much opportunity for sightseeing.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. I thought I might promote this nice little documentary about a tiny sushi shop in Tokyo that has one of the very few Michelin three star ratings (or at least it did when the film came out in 2011). I might start by saying that although there is absolutely no doubt that this is a food flic, it’s quite different than Food Inc. which we were talking about last week. Although it was very popular, it’s a lot less likely that you’ve seen it, for one thing. I saw it during a theatrical run at the Living Room Theater in Portland, OR. I could go on about the Living Room Theater itself for a while. There are starting to be more and more places like this where you have big, comfortable seats, can get real food (rather than just popcorn and candy), and where there is a place to put your nosh while you are watching the movie. Just like your living room. The food at this particular spot is good enough that they operate a bistro out front for people who have no intention of seeing a movie. Oh yes, and you can usually get a glass of beer or wine at places like this. I want to strongly endorse this trend as fully consistent with the broad contours of food ethics.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. Jiro Dreams of Sushi eventually aired as an episode of the PBS Independent Lens series. So there is a fair chance that if you missed the opportunity to catch it in Portland, you might have seen it in your own living room. Of course, this would not have been available for me, because Diane has absolutely forbidden a television set in our living room. We do have one in the kitchen, and I have prevailed upon her for a comfortable chair, where I could indeed watch Independent Lens while sipping my beer or wine.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. You don’t need the Thornapple Blog to get a synopsis of Jiro Dreams of Sushi in the event that this would help you make a decision about whether or not to watch it. The Internet is now full of sites where every film ever made has been summarized, dissected and resected by helpful bloggers, critics and literary types. You should just Google it if that’s what you’re looking for. And if by some weird coincidence you did Google Jiro Dreams of Sushi and wound up here at the Thornapple Blog, my sincere apologies. I don’t typically write film summaries or reviews in the blog. September 2015 happens to be some kind of exception due to the confluence of cosmic forces that are beyond human ken.

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. I partly picked this movie (it’s true) because of the Japan thing we started out with. But enough about me…. However, even before I made this connection I was thinking that this could be one of the films on my list. First of all, it is a very nice little film. Probably not the sort of thing my MSU students are used to seeing, to be sure. No blood and gore (at least if you discount the scene with the tuna buyer down at the Tokyo fish market). No sex that I can recall. “Tuna” is not a euphemism in this film. It does have a little bit of family drama, as Jiro’s sons are, perhaps, not given credit where credit is due. (This less by Jiro than by those who celebrate him, which would, oddly, include the filmmakers themselves. Literary types love little ironies like that.)

But enough about me. This is supposed to be food flics month. The film also does document what it takes to run a three star sushi shop, and it’s pretty interesting. There are some ties to food ethics in here I think, but it looks like I’m getting to the end of the blog without getting around to them. Make them up for yourself, I say, or complain to the robots who are in charge this week.

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

Amik Minis

August 23, 2015

Just in from a weekend at Beaver Island. I was up there with my friend and colleague Kyle Whyte, and my student Zach Piso. Kyle is scoping out the possibility of a workshop/retreat focused on environmental philosophy, and he has the idea the Beaver Island might be a good location for it. There are some major plus points. We spent a good 15-20 minutes watching a bald eagle that was lording it over Miller’s Marsh, then when came back by the marsh that evening, there were four sand hill cranes standing within a car-length of the road. In short, it more than passes the test for scenic beauty and opportunity to experience nature.

Of course, we’re post-postmodern hipsters here in the blog, so we’re a little put off with the whole idea of experiencing nature. Nature, after all, would be a social construction, wouldn’t it? Maybe we’re better off just saying that we enjoyed seeing a marsh populated by some sensationally large birds. Yet we could go the full hog and push the line that what’s what on Beaver Island is not exclusively the wildlife and relatively untrammeled ecosystems. It’s the overwhelming sense of place.

And there are many things of human origin that contribute to the sense of place. Michiganders typically know about this guy James Strang, at one point in contention with Brigham Young for leadership of the Mormans following the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844. Strang wound up on Beaver Island with a contingent of disaffected Mormons, where he eventually declared something rather like the ISIL caliphate that is dominating the nightly news (albeit without the beheadings). There is pretty good stuff on Strang to be found at Wikipedia, so there’s really not much point in going on and on about him here.

We might be slightly better advised to indulge a tangent on Protar. Protar’s house is on the National Register of Historic Places (or some such official designation), and we were able to drive up and walk around it without interference. Protar is a long story, but he is a revered figure up there because he served as the island’s only doctor prior to his death in 1925. He was, however, trained as an actor, leading me to think that he was the 19th century version of Marcus Welby (I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV). Tip of the Protar iceberg, these facts, but definitely part of the Beaver Island sense of place.

We did hear some of the Island’s distinctive Celtic music, which relates to the Irish on the Island. And we should also note that there were Odawa living on several of the islands in the Beaver Archipelago back in the days of Strang and Protar. They were excellent fishermen (as were the Irish) until a sudden collapse in the fisheries there in the 1940s. It occurred to me that Beaver Island is a lot less accessible today than it was in the 19th century, when there were hundreds of vessels plying the waters of Lake Michigan on a regular basis. These days you can fly in all year around (not something they did in Protar’s time) but the ferry that runs to Charlevoix is the main commercial ship going in and out on a regular basis.

I went up there looking for the North American home of Simone de Beauvoir, the prominent French existential feminist. I was thrown off by some work by a contemporary existential feminist who refers to de Beauvoir as “the Beaver.” I won’t speculate on the subliminal themes here, but Kyle informed me that the French would have referred to the place as l’île Castor. Food? Not so much in our brief experience. We did eat some local whitefish, but though I’d say the places we dined were just fine, I don’t think you’d go to Beaver Island for food culture. That’s generally true of the U. P., too. It’s a bet they’re missing so far.

And we didn’t actually see any beavers.

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