Enter Title Here

July 12, 2015

I might as well start out today by just admitting up front that it’s not really proving to be particularly conducive to blogging. I mean, what is this blogging thing, anyway? (Sounds like the start of a Seinfeld monologue, doesn’t it?). There was a particular idea to it back in the stone age years of cyberspace. It was “Hey! Break free of the constraints laid on us by editors who filter out what we want to read. Go on line yourself. Post anything you want—recipes, how your day went, garden tips, your reaction to current events, your last trip to the bathroom, your sex life (that one was especially popular)—and then see who turns up to read it. Freedom from the tiresome judgment laid on us writers by the gatekeepers to publication. Freedom from the whole process of submitting your writing to someone who then, of necessity, must judge it. A direct line to readers.”

And for readers, what? Aside from the occasional titillation I think it was a mix of business-as-usual chit-chat, on the one hand, and an exploratory sense of the new, on the other. The first had fit nicely with food themes (the recipes and gardening tips) while the latter led to some interesting experiments in semi-intentional online community. That’s way too serious for a Sunday Thornapple blog, so just forgetaboutit right out of the gate. I suppose one of the more interesting parts of that would be the Wiki-wiki thing: the Internet + search as the real-world incarnation of Borges library of babel. It turns out that Borges was right. There is a ton of crap to find on the Internet, and all those little blog episodes thoughtfully entered by the random person occasionally turn up just what you are looking for, if you have the patience and luck to find them.

The fact that it only took a year or two for Internet devotees to tire of parsing the gibberish in search of occasional wisdom is the main reason why I make a distinction between the eventual reign of babel and chit chat, which continues to be useful. Those food-tips and discourses on the food system have continued, as I noted in a more ominous tone the week before last. And we might note in passing the oft noted tendency for “comments” to devolve rapidly into rants (at least when they are not dominated by robot posts advertising shoes or dental services in the Netherlands). The comment sections of most serious blogs are pretty heavily edited by human beings these days. But when you need some help making pound cake or you are trying to find out what to do with that Russian kale, well in those cases the blogosphere remains helpful.

I must confess that I didn’t really pay any attention to bloggers during the stone age. I suppose I should confess that I don’t pay all that much attention to bloggers now. Back when I started writing this blog in 2009, I might spend an hour on Sunday poking around the Internet reading blogs on philosophy or food issues. I rarely do that today. I’ll just end by saying that I don’t care all that much for Russian kale, either. I know, I know. It’s blasphemous for a food blogger to admit such a thing. But there you have it.

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

Elegant Economies

June 7, 2015

The 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskel advises that “almost everyone has his own individual small economies—careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one particular direction—any disturbance of which him more than spending schillings or pounds on some more real extravagance.” She goes on to illustrate the point with examples, one of which falls squarely in the domain of food ethics.

Small pieces of butter grieve others. They cannot attend to conversation, because of the annoyance occasioned by the habit which some people have of invariably taking more butter than they want. Have you not seen the anxious look (almost mesmeric) which such persons fix on the article? They would feel it a relief if they might bury it out of their sight, by popping it into their own mouths, and swallowing down; and they are really made happy if the person on whose plate it lies unused, suddenly breaks off a piece of toast (which he does not want at all) and eats up his butter. They think that this is not waste.

I may be repeating myself to note how my mother used a similar ethic of limiting waste to encourage me in the practice of eating everything on my plate. I confess to losing track of what I have and have not already said in the Thornapple blog, but I take comfort from the vanishingly small probability that anyone who against all odds finds themselves perusing the words formed by the electrons bouncing about on their screen this week would have read the blog some time ago. In any case, cleaning your plate was a fairly widespread application of the “waste not, want not” adage at one time. Maybe it still is. These days, of course, there’s often so much on the plate that popping that extra bit of buttered toast into one’s mouth in order to effect an elegant economy may be one of the things that’s contributing to our tendencies toward diabetes and heart disease.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing worth talking about from an ethics perspective when it comes to food waste. Here is a link to the Food Ethics Council on food waste. They begin with a quote to the effect that food currently wasted in the USA and UK could “lift 233 million people out of hunger.” But amazingly, they are almost as twisted and noncommittal as we are here at the Thornapple blog. They note (correctly, I think) that simply economizing on waste won’t actually feed the hungry. Attempts to economize on food waste must be accompanied by other efforts deliberately designed to address food security among impoverished and marginalized peoples.

I wonder if they had been reading Cranford?

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

Thomas Malthus

January 11, 2015

If Amartya Sen deserves to be called a food ethics icon for dismantling the idea that the total amount of food produced provides a good index for understanding the ethics of hunger, we should probably look the source of that idea for our next entry for “food ethics icons month”. Is there anyone out there who would not go back to Thomas Malthus for that idea? Haven’t all of us heard about “Malthusian” predictions and scenarios, after all?

As a teacher of undergraduates I am well aware of the fact that there are many of us who have never heard of Malthus, so please recognize the rhetorical nature of these last two questions. Thomas Robert Malthus lived from 1766 to 1834. He could be described as an economist, a philosopher, an applied mathematician and a political theorist. He started out by becoming ordained in the Church of England, which led to sobriquets acknowledging his religious affiliations throughout his lifetime and down to the present day. For most of his life he was actually a college professor. When I was a fairly young professor of philosophy and agricultural economics at Texas A&M University in the 1980s, I spent a good chunk of time not only reading up on Malthus, but actually reading him. Malthus wrote on the economic interpretation of rent, but I did not read any of that stuff. What I did read were several versions of his work on population. This was thirty years ago, so take what follows with a grain of salt.

Malthus was not the only person thinking about population when he proposed an early formula for what we now call “population ecology” in 1798. He wrote that while food production increases arithmeticaly, population grows geometrically. Therefore population eventually outstrips the food supply. If you do know Malthus, that’s probably what you know, but please pause and notice that this is a very obscure and abstract little formula. “Geometrical increase” was nicely explained in the Pete Seeger song “We’ll All Be a Doubling”:

Two times two is four!
Two times four is eight!
Two times eight is sixteen
And the hour is getting late!

We’ll all be a-doubling, a-doubling, a-doubling
We’ll all be a-doubling in thirty-two years.

You get the idea.

Malthus had combined a study of the facts with some fancy mathematical modeling to come up with this, but what he thought was important was that this is “the natural rate of increase” in population, not the actual rate of increase. In fact, something constrains the natural rate of increase, and the so-called arithmetical growth in food production was proposed as one basis of constraint. Unlike the careful science behind population, Malthus based his claims about agriculture on a thought experiment. Suppose that in the first generation we do “double” food production (I’m taking some liberties here because Malthus did not think even this possible). Surely next time around the best we can do is increase it by the same amount, but now that will only be a 50% increase over what he had. Next time around a similarly sized growth in total food production will only be a 25% increase, and so on. So we have a theoretical model which shows that the natural rates of growth of population and agriculture lead to the theoretical conclusion that population eventually outstrips food supply.

Present day population ecologists still take this model pretty seriously, though like Aldo Leopold, they are more likely to talk about deer than humans. If the population of deer are not “checked”, then they will eventually exhaust their food supply, leading to a catastrophic population crash. How is population growth checked? Well, if we are talking about deer, we look for wolves, and if none are to be found we rely on hunters. When we shift to the human population, these solutions have not been ethically popular. And this brings me to what I remember Malthus as actually saying, generally with increasing clarity as his work on population progressed over a period of nearly forty years. He wasn’t saying that agriculture was in a race with population. He was setting up a research problem: What does provide the checks on human population growth? His answer? It’s general poverty in the case of the poor. People die from sickness and overwork. And in the case of the rich? Here Malthus had to be circumspect. Rich families recognized good incentives to keep their families smaller than the “natural increase” would suggest. As someone who sent two kids through college, I understand these incentives. How did the rich act on those incentives? Malthus’ one word answer was “vice”, by which he meant frequenting prostitutes.

Who said that food ethics lacks a racy side?

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


Summer Cyborg Mailbag

August 3, 2014

Maybe it’s time for another Thornapple blog complaining about the robots in our midst.

As my many legions of irregular readers may have surmised, I have become somewhat reconciled to many robotic presences during the years that I’ve been writing the blog. Anyone who runs a website with an opportunity for “Comments” goes through a phase where they lose all faith in human nature. If you’re doing something kind of serious, all these nutcases show up to rant, expressing only the most extreme opinions and exhibiting the worst excesses of intolerance and crudity. Despite appearances sometimes, these are actually human beings. It’s not a problem that I have with the Thornapple blog, mainly because I’ve managed to remain incredibly obscure. And by “obscure” I’m referring both to the level of “hits” I get and also to the quality of my content.

The other problem with the “Comments” section is that occasionally you will turn on the computer and open up WordPress to discover that you have attracted 127 comments, all from “people” with different names, and all saying some variation of pretty much the same thing. Something like “ñïñ çà èíôó!!” The naïve blogger assumes that your site has gone viral in some foreign locale where an especially discriminating audience has appreciated your natural brilliance and responded with an unusual amount of enthusiasm in some language that you (unfortunately) do not understand.

Actually, ” ñïñ çà èíôó!!” is an expression in Urhobo dialect that (roughly translated) means “Your hot dogs are getting overly charred.” So it turns out that it does have something to do with food ethics in much the same way as our Bullwinkle blog of last month. But with 47 posts warning me about hot dogs on the grill I’m more inclined to think that another robot invasion has occurred. The consolation is that I do hear from human beings now and then. Sometimes they use the comment box, but they are more likely to wait until they see me. Then they will point out that that recording of “Handy Man” I referred to some months back was by Del Shannon. We could say more about Del Shannon, but that would be a tangent and we never indulge in tangents here in the Thornapple blog.

Other readers send me e-mail. Like Terry Link, who responded to my blog on the closing of Goodrich. He was concerned that I might be plumping the Meijer chain of grocery stores a bit too much. He writes: “there are any number of concerns I have with supporting Meier.”

They are privately held so we have less available information with which to judge them. Some of the concerns I would include (in no particular order of importance):

1)     Great wealth accumulation by the Meier family

2)      Illegal efforts to affect local development decisions (see Traverse City area case a few years back)

3)      Family and executive donations exclusively to Republican candidates

4)      Mislabeling produce as organic and or local/Michigan based

5)      Fighting the unit pricing regulation – I’ve caught them a few times running higher prices on items than shelf lists

6)      Not sure of their minimum wage/benefits for employees to know whether or not if they are better or worse than Walmart or approach a living wage.

Indeed, Terry, there are a few food ethics concerns in that list.

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


Food Sovereignty

October 7, 2012

Food sovereignty is one of the key buzzwords in food ethics, and I’m trying to work it into my vocabulary a little more systematically. The phrase comes out of Via Campesina—an international movement in support of small-scale peasant farmers. Via Campesina has their root in Latin America, where the struggle between large hacienda-style agricultural production systems and smallholding farmers is an old one. I’m not entirely sure how the idea of globalizing this movement took hold, though I know some of its leading academic theorists personally. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that it has taken hold. I ask you dear blog reader, is this an idea that was familiar before you opened the Thornapple page just now?

Food sovereignty is a political ideal: people should have secure access to food that is nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainably produced. Now I’ve been down with the “secure access” bit ever since I started doing food ethics back as young whippersnapper in the early 1980s. It’s the idea behind the “right to food” in the International Declaration of Human Rights. Unpacking secure access is not as straightforward as you might think, but I’ve hit that theme in the Thornapple blog before. But one might say that Americans have “secure access” in the sense that we have government entitlement programs (like the bridge card) that give people with little or no income the wherewithal to purchase food. Though if they don’t have someplace to cook it, they may wind up eating Cheetos for every meal. But even in that event, we have a pretty good network of soup kitchens where the indigent can get a hot meal. People do go hungry in the U.S., but one could say that it’s not because they have a total lack of access.

One can quibble over the exact sense in which one could say this, but I’m going straight for the next part: Maybe our problem resides in the “nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainably produced” part. The whole point of food sovereignty was to “go beyond” food security, in any case. But I’m going to ignore the “sustainably produced” for the time being, because as we’ve discussed many times in the blog, it’s not all that likely much of the food any of us are eating in the U.S. is sustainably produced. And here I include the Thornapple CSA. We’re having a devil of time sustaining our farmer, you know. But noble and important topic as this is, we’re word limited in the Thornapple blog and this is just not the time to head down that rabbit hole for 3,748th time.

So we’re moving ahead to nutritious and culturally appropriate. And of course the “nutritious” piece will also be depressingly familiar to both of my regular readers. Sure, you have access to a steady diet of greasy French-fries and high-fructose sweetened energy drinks in most U.S. cities, and they are affordable, to boot! Why not just put on the leather flight jacket and declare this food ethics thing “Mission Accomplished”? So let’s push on to the last little piece, that “culturally appropriate” thing. This is an interesting way to highlight the fact that if you are a refugee from the strife in Africa or Afghanistan, you can certainly get some calories from the local Subway or from a can of Chef Boyardee once you’ve arrived at any American city, but it’s not going to be all that familiar to you. It’s not going to give you a sense of belonging or comfort, and arguably, that’s something that food can and should do. And maybe it’s even worse when the global food system comes in and rips up a local community’s ability to maintain their food traditions.

All of which suggests that food sovereignty would be problematic if it were interpreted to mean that I should have access to a Big Mac when I’m traveling in some distant corner of the world. After all, that’s what would be culturally appropriate (remember, we’ve dropped nutritious and sustainably produced) for me. So food sovereignty is going to turn out to be a little bit complicated—not a universal political ideal that is applicable to all people at all times and places. Of course, it turns out that I generally do have secure access to a Big Mac at almost every place I’ve found myself traveling over the last few years (Burlington, VT would be the exception). Beans and rice would be tougher to find, and that’s what “resistance to the global food system” is mainly about.

I think.

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

Strawberry Patch

July 3, 2011

Every now and then I catch myself in an attitude that shows how after eight years, I still haven’t really adjusted to living in Michigan. One of those thoughts occurred to me this week when I was enjoying another bowl of fresh organic Michigan strawberries. Diane says we are paying about five bucks a quart for these babies, and this is cheap by local market standards. I don’t care what we are paying. As ‘Cousin Joe’ Pleasant says,

When you get your big money, buy everything you can get. When you get your big money, buy everything you can get.Cause’ you know you can’t take it with you. You never saw an armored car at a funeral parlor yet.

And I think that basically means strawberries in season. Eat them twice every day because the season really only last two good weeks. I won’t blame you if try to squeeze another week out it, however.

I remember going to the strawberry festival in Plant City, Florida with Diane’s parents, though I don’t remember when. It must have been March, though, because we had to have been on Spring Break from somewhere. I remember it being very good, but I don’t actually think it’s very likely that those were organic berries. And then there were the years trying to grow strawberries in my back yard in Texas. I was a rather poor gardener, at least by the standards I set for myself. I think being trained to garden in Missouri by my grandmother and then trying to do in Texas was a major part of the problem. They do grow strawberries in Texas, though I must confess that I never made it to the big strawberry festival in Poteet. That’s in April.

According to the web, there’s a strawberry festival in Oxnard, CA in May. But Indiana! That’s when I really rekindled my love affair with in-season strawberries. It was in Crawfordsville. In fact it was really the main reason to go to Crawfordsville, the Old Jail and its rotary mechanism notwithstanding. You wander the streets looking at the antique cars or whatever else they decided to haul in this year. And then of course you eat strawberry shortcake on the green. Well that’s how I remember it. My research today suggests that “the green” may have been the grounds of the historic Henry S. Lane home. But on strawberry festival weekend, you’re mostly just focused on eating. The strawberry festival in Crafordsville, Indiana is smack in the middle of June.

So here it is July 4th weekend and we are right at the peak of strawberry season. Somehow, it don’t seem right, but who’s complaining. I’m enjoying strawberries on ice cream, strawberries on Frosted Flakes, strawberries on Frosted Mini Wheats (I am the Kellogg professor), strawberries with yogurt and granola (a little extra sugar never hurt with strawberries). We may not get around to shortcake this year.

There’s one more thing about strawberries. They are monstrosities. Although wild strawberries have been known in Europe forever, and were enjoyed by Native Americans, the fruits are tiny, tiny. They look nothing like what we eat at strawberry festivals. The modern garden strawberry was created in a French monastery when some cultivars from different parts of the world got mixed together inadvertently. Or that’s the story I like. Tracing plant origins is dicey. Every country (sometimes every county) has a favorite son who allegedly made the breakthrough. Here’s two plant scientists, Hokanson and Mass:

In short, the cultivated strawberry is the result of chance hybridizations between two octoploid new world strawberry species, the beach strawberry Fragaria chiloensis, and the scarlet or Virginia strawberry F. Virginiana. The large-fruited F. chiloensis clones imported into Europe from Chile by French spy, Catain Amédée Frézier in 1716, were male sterile and did not fruit until inter-planted with plants of F. virginiana, which served as pollinators. Seedlings resulting from the chance hybridizations began appearing in European botanical gardens and commercial fields in the 1750s, producing plants with fruit characteristics and plant habits unlike those of the commonly grown Scarlet and Chilean types of the period. Additionally, the hybrids were hermaphroditic, as are most commercial strawberry cultivars today.

Hakanson and Mass in Plant Breeding Reviews V. 21 (2001), pp. 138-139

It’s no wonder I had such trouble back in Texas given these disturbing facts about plant sex. Be afraid! Be very afraid.

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

Current Events

March 27, 2011

Within about twenty minutes of posting the Thornapple Blog on March 13 I started to have second thoughts. I had been attending a philosophy conference where more than one speaker had  commented on the way long dead American philosophers (William James, John Dewey, Mary Parker Follett) failed to comment on or become involved in what seem to us seminal events occurring in their lifetime. By the morning of the 13th, I had become aware that an earthquake and tsunami had very likely taken a huge toll of life in Japan. It took some time for the extent of this natural disaster to become clear, but I read in yesterday’s paper that the known death toll has now passed 10,000 and that over 17,000 are still counted as missing.

I went about my business two weeks ago dogged by the thought of this human catastrophe and by the fact that instead of noting it, I had whined about having to get up an hour earlier. I thought about posting something along the lines of what I’m writing now a week later, but by that time the headlines were awash with news of radiation clouds approaching the coast of California, as well as the mounting toll of lives in Gadhafi’s Libya. The developing stories of Fukushima Daiichi and war in the Middle East have dominated the news again this week. One has to delve deeply into the cacophony to find a mention of tsunami victims or survivors.

There is an “on the other hand…” to consider here. The Thornapple Blog is dedicated to the Thornapple CSA, conceived originally as a weekly delivery to tide members over during the barren months when there is no actual food coming off the Appleschram Orchard farm plot. It’s written with awareness that the blogosphere is a public space, that people outside of Central Michigan might find it and even follow it in a fashion. And I use it unapologetically to weigh in on agriculture and food issues for which I will never get around to doing a full-bore peer-reviewed analysis in my role as a professor of food ethics. Nonetheless, it’s not Paul Thompson’s Facebook page, where it might be totally appropriate to share a personal moment of shock or grief at things happening in the broader world. Hopefully I’m not veering perilously into Facebook territory with this week’s post.

I express this hope because the other story in this week’s news had significance in my purely personal world, though gauging by the extent and longevity of coverage it may have had resonance in the personal world of others as well. Elizabeth Taylor died following a long illness on March 23, 2011, the day after what would have been my mother’s birthday. My mother died after a long illness several years ago. She and Taylor were about the same age. My mother might have been shocked and dismayed if I had ever told her this, but I kind of associated her with Elizabeth Taylor in a strange and largely unconscious way. Kind of like on the one hand, I projected my mother’s personality onto the anything I heard or read about Taylor, and on the other hand if I had been the child of a public icon and movie star, it certainly would have been Elizabeth Taylor. The director Joseph L. Mankewicz was quoted comparing Taylor to Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. If those are the iconic choices for the 1950s, my mom was definitely Elizabeth Taylor.

I happened to pick up a copy of The New York Times on March 24, which contained three informative and well written eulogies. A lengthy one by Mel Gussow discusses Taylor’s struggle with addictive behavior, including weight problems. While this provides an ostensible food connection, I prefer to follow Taylor’s own dismissive response to the fat jokes cracked by comedienne Joan Rivers: “They didn’t get me where I live.” Instead I’ll associate Taylor’s blend of glamor and vulgarity with my mother’s cooking. Opulent Thanksgiving dinners with out-of-season vegetables like asparagus punctuated by more typical offerings of pretty tasty chili, which she taught her sons to make and then mainly had us do it, and the proverbial “balanced” meal of frozen fish sticks, canned spinach and macaroni and cheese from the famous blue box. Whether on the table or on the screen, it was a strange and heady concoction that today’s generation will never fully appreciate.

Screen and table came together in the Thompson household with the frozen TV dinner, which we really did eat from folding trays while watching Donna Reed or Barbara Billingsly set the standard for 1960s motherhood. To my knowledge, Elizabeth Taylor wisely resisted any offer to portray a TV mom, (and I’m sure my mother approved of that). I have clear memories of eating turkey, peas and mashed potatoes from the conveniently partitioned disposable packaging the dinners came in while watching Red Skelton, and Gary Moore. And then there was this bizarre juxtaposition of food and movie stars coming to us from Flatt and Scruggs:

Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Jed
Poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shooting for some food,
And up through the ground come a bubbling crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)

Well the first thing you know old Jed’s a millionaire
Kin folk said Jed move away from there
Said California is the place you oughta be
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly
(Hills that is, swimming pools, movie stars)

It’s a bit depressing to recall how much I relished those occasions, but I don’t think my recollections are untypical of American food culture.

We don’t know what Dewey or James thought about Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes) or why Follett was not more involved in the suffrage movement. Neither do we know what they thought about their mom’s cooking, but it seems reasonable to me that mom’s cooking figured prominently in the meaning of food for all of them. We can’t know what future generations will think of our preoccupation with popular culture, either–food ethics and movie stars–or whether moving on too quickly from events that mark the end for thousands of people and the ruin of countless other lives will seem too insensitive for words.

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

Ride That Pony Fast

February 27, 2011

As threatened last week, I’ve been out there riding airplanes again. It’s a little after 6:00 AM in Europe and I’m sitting in the KLM Crown Lounge in Amsterdam where I was presenting a paper called “The Fundamental Problem in Food Ethics.”

Simply put, when food prices go up—and right now they are up, up, up—it’s a good thing for farmers, but it’s a bad thing for people who have to buy food. Here in the Netherlands, (or for that matter back home in the U.S.A.) our ethical impulses are that this is, on balance, a bad thing because we assume that higher food prices hurt the poor disproportionately. And in the developed world, they do.

But globally, about half the world’s poor live in rural areas, and their quality of life is pretty closely tied to whether things are good for the farmer, even if they don’t farm themselves. And most of the farmers in the developing world are women, who have extra sources of vulnerability. So as I see it, this is actually a very hard problem. And it’s not one I have an answer for. See my blog on Norman Borlaug for someone who thought he did have an answer.

But this morning I’m asking myself, is it really worthwhile to burn all those greenhouse gases gallivanting off to Europe when I don’t have any answers? And I don’t have a good answer for that question, either. I do tend to be willing to be moving. In part I see it as my job. I was deeply honored when John McDermott, one of my heroes and mentors, recently told me “You are the face of the university, and you should be proud of what you are doing for it.”

I also learn a lot at these events, but there’s also just this idea that it is thrilling and challenging to get out there in front of people, working without a net. As Radney Foster says in his song “Texas in 1880”:

I can hear the wind whisper my name
Tellin’ me it’s time to head out again
My horses are trailered and the lights are shutdown
I’m long overdue for headin’ outta town
Gotta fever that they call the rodeo
Just enough winners and make the next show
Sometimes you make eight sometimes you hit dirt
Go on pin another number to the back of my shirt
And I’ll ride that pony fast
Like a cowboy from the past
Be young and wild and free
Like Texas in 1880

On “Song Facts” Foster says that he doesn’t actually think of this as a rodeo song: “…it’s just about people who are willing to sacrifice everything for a dream. And I think dreams are worth sacrificing heart and soul, and poverty and all kinds of other things that we put up with or sacrifice in order to obtain them.” Well, I still don’t know about sacrificing everything here. I’m not sure this rationalizes my getting on an Airbus overnight to Amsterdam to talk about food ethics, and I’m also afraid that this makes today’s blog another one of those with flat out wacky juxtapositions. But enjoy your sandwich, anyway. Pin another number on the back of your shirt and don’t let the bastards get you down.

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

Best Meals of Oh Ten

December 26, 2010

How many bloggers are writing something like this? My guess would be dozens, at least. Dragging out the year’s “best of” is a pretty hackneyed trope for anyone who had to write something (anything) for a deadline anytime in the past thirty days. The creation of the blogosphere only multiplies the cliché rate exponentially. Yet I must confess that I’m addicted to reading every “top X’s of the year” I come upon. I’ve certainly wasted hours reading up on the top athletes, the top new music releases and the top fiction releases of 2010 despite the cold fact that I couldn’t care less about any of them. I might actually put some of the top 10 films in my Netflix queue, but in truth I could probably do without most of the other exercises in remembering the year.

In comparison to these relatively public “best of” lists, a best meals list has to be pretty narcissistic. Still, one of my themes is temporality, the way that growing, preparing and eating involves the lived-experience of time passing. The real sense in which “you are what you eat” has less to do with the substances that your body is made of than with the way that the time of one’s life consists in seasonally reproduced cycles of food. So in that spirit I press ahead with my original thought.

In truth, I had memorable meals in abundance. There was a Bulgarian feast in Sofia, and shopping at a grocery store for bread, wine, cheese and sausages in Madrid. That meal came back to the apartment that Diane and I had booked with four friends from college days, where we stayed up until 2:00 am eating and laughing. That’s what makes a meal worth talking about–the conviviality as much as the food.

The Thornapple blog has celebrated a lot of specific foods, but only a few specific meals. One of them was the MSU Student Organic Farm’s big gala fundraiser back in September, and another was the chili I cooked for a Thornapple fundraiser last January. The chili was especially significant for me because it marked the first time in many years that I got back to an art to which I had dedicated quite a bit of myself in younger days. My particular chili involves both pork roast and ground beef, and it takes three kinds of beans: pinto, kidney and lima. The last bean will surprise many chili aficionados but don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. In January, it also involved canned tomatoes and copious amounts of frozen peppers that Diane had frozen from the previous year’s cache. The peppers (many kinds) were accumulated from our participation in both the Thornapple and the Giving Tree CSA. Oddly, we did not freeze any peppers this year so I don’t know what will happen when the chili fever seizes me some cold winter’s day in 2011.

But of course the real culinary highlights of the year revolve not around canned tomatoes, but fresh heirlooms, which provide the primary gustatory rationale for Thornapple CSA, in the first place. One can find repeated references to them in the Thornapple blog, and I would expect this trend to continue. It’s always that first dish of tomatoes and cottage cheese that’s the best one. Yet I confess that I can’t necessarily recall the specific episode during which this memorable meal occurred. Oh, feeble and fervid neurons! Peaches are right behind tomatoes, and I can recall that giant box of organic white peaches Diane brought in last August. Not one of them was lacking for a bruise or a blemish, so  it was advisable to stand over the sink or in the yard with a knife in one hand and the oozing peach in the other. (Does that count as a meal?) One could get a backache bending over to keep peach juice from staining one’s shirt, but it would be worth it.

As an inveterate but accidental tourist, I also eat lots of meals out. One particularly memorable one was squid in its own ink at the Metro Moya Restaurante. That’s a Basque specialty I had to try while I was in Bilbao. It was exquisitely prepared and very tasty. Very black, I must say. Yet’ I’m not sure this is one I’d do again. A more repeatable meal would be tapas (called pinxtos in Bilbao). I would head to Casa Victor Montes on Plaza Nueva. I guess it just reflects my bias for the ordinary day-to-day over the exquisite and cosmopolitan.  There was a nice Chicago dog on the floor of the McCormick Place Convention Center, and there was exotic take-out (lobster roll) from Faneuil Hall in Boston. On the chic side I also had a very nice bouillabaisse, but not in the Basque country. This one was in the restaurant of the Hotel Dupont back in Washington, DC. Our group was eating with Walter Willett, and the obvious pick is “Whatever he’s having.”

Back in Lansing there are always visits to SanSu, and the occasional take-out, but my most memorable meals are probably two visits to Golden Harvest. They buy heirlooms from Thornapple at the Allen St. market, by the way. I’d go there frequently but for the fact that one can easily have a wait of thirty minutes to an hour to get one of the tables in this absolutely fantastic and hard to describe eatery. I haven’t written about it because its against the rules. It’s become one of those places that’s gotten too popular. As Yogi once said, “No one goes there. It’s too crowded.”

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

From Seat 2-B

October 31, 2010

I’ve decided to go as Hamlet this Halloween.  That’s because I’m writing this blog from Seat 2-B on Delta 1123 from Salt Lake City to Detroit. (2-B or Not 2-B… Get it? Yuk, yuk…). Apologies to Thornapple CSA readers who tire of the travelogue nature that this blog takes at times, but it is a major component of the reality that I live from day to day. I was awakened this morning at 4:00am by a telephone call from a robot telling me that my flight scheduled for 7:00 am was delayed until 10:00, but that Delta had thoughtfully rebooked me on a flight leaving at 8:40. Then at 4:45 I got a call from another robot thanking me for staying at the Salt Lake City Marriott and advising me that this was the wake-up call I had booked the night before when I thought that I needed to be at the airport by a quarter to six. So by this time, I was pretty much awake and  when my traveling companion called at 5:00 we decided we might as well go on out to the airport and eat breakfast. And maybe even have a little interaction with real human beings.

After receiving my order from the delightful and assuredly non-robotic Coco, I sat at Dick Clark’s  eating my French toast surrounded by Dick Clark’s memorabilia, listening to Steppenwolf, Van Morrison and Brian Hyland. I was sitting next to a platinum record presented to American Bandstand for Bruce Springsteen’s Born In the USA album. (Don’t ask me why American Bandstand got a platinum record for Born in the USA.) I was thinking to myself that it can’t be very long before no one will know what any of this means. Diane and I went to hear Bob Dylan last week at MSU and a casual remark to one of my students revealed that she had never heard of Bob Dylan. And for those of you sitting there wondering who in the heck Brian Hyland was, I’ll clue you in. Brian Hyland was the one who sang these immortal words:

It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini

That she wore for the first time to today

My god! What a terrible thing to hear before coffee! But it reminded me of a Joan Didion essay where she writes about being thrown out of a grocery store called Ralph’s Market in L.A. during the early sixties because she was wearing a bikini . It led me to try a Google search on my in-flight wireless connection to see if I could turn up a picture of Joan Didion in a bikini, but no luck.  Joan, if you read this blog, see if there is anything you can do about that.

So I’ll admit that the food thread here is pretty thin: French toast…coffee…grocery store.  Then there’s the bowl of Corn Chex, and the cup of “light” yogurt they gave me on the flight this morning.  Since it’s already noon in Detroit, I’m going to eat this and call it lunch. And I’m glad to get it.

In fact, I’ve been waist deep in the industrial food system all weekend. I was at a project meeting where Dan Sumner, an economist from the University of California at Davis reminded me that the most generous estimates for U.S. consumption of foods that would fit the various “local” or “alternative”  classifications suggest that they are something between 2% and 4% of the total. Although we might dream about the entire population of Detroit eating a hot breakfast of eggs from backyard chickens, we should remember that the stars may lie but the numbers never do.

I guess it’s too soon to question whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or abandon working with mainstream agriculture to try and edge the food system just a few degrees closer to sustainability. Terroirifying as it may be …

Trick or treat, Horatio!

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