The Last Key Blog

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sure you’ll need them!

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

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Penultimate

November 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perdurance

November 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

Food Ethics circa 1929

October 30, 2016

The English philosopher Frank Ramsey gives us the following: If a man has a cake and decides not to eat it because he thinks it will make him ill, we can judge him mistaken even if he does not eat the cake. But being mistaken does not does not also make him crazy (Ramsey would have preferred the more British “irrational”). Perhaps the man is not in possession of adequate knowledge about how this particular cake came to be: he does not know its ingredients, or the skill and trustworthiness of its baker.

The moral I take from this is that there are at least two different ways the man might be mistaken: the cake might have been safe, even though he thought it wasn’t (that’s Ramsey’s sense); or the man did not draw upon the knowledge that he had in a rational fashion. I would say that in this latter sense, we would not be inclined to say that this man erred in deciding not to eat the cake: he needed to know more about it.

Ramsey goes on to write:

 Suppose the human race for no reason always supposed strawberries would give them stomachache and so never ate them: then all their beliefs, strictly so-called, e.g. that if eat strawberries I shall have a pain, would be true; but would there not really be something wrong? Is it not a fact that if they had eaten them they wouldn’t have had a pain?

I’ll note that we’ve discussed some curious things about strawberries in the Thornapple Blog before. Now, appearances to the contrary, Ramsey is less interested in food than in the way we establish truth conditions for “if—then” sentences. There were views circulating in 1929 that when the “if” part of the sentence (here “if people had eaten strawberries”) is false, the whole “if—then” conditional is trivially true. Ramsey is criticizing this view in his strawberry example, but he goes on to deny that there is some fact about the world that makes it false, at least as it pertains to the world in which people don’t eat strawberries. It’s only because we (that’s you, me, Frank Ramsey and his Uncle Bob) have actually tested this hypothetical that we can be so smug about it.

As for me, I’m going to rest on my laurels this morning, the pointy little bits of twiglets and leaves poking uncomfortably into my keister notwithstanding. I think Ramsey’s early twentieth-century food ethics really does pertain to all kinds of present day issues in food and food politics—though I’ll be politic enough not to alienate anyone on a fine late October Sunday by mentioning them by name.

As the American philosopher Cole Porter wrote in 1933:

 If this advice you always employ

The future can offer you infinite joy

And merriment,

Experiment

And you’ll see

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

Japanese Rain Goggles

October 16, 2017

So I was lunching with Usher last week at some chic little bistro in a trendy Toronto neighborhood. I don’t recall the name, and doesn’t matter much anyway. As a matter of fact, maybe it wasn’t even Toronto. Maybe it was Brooklyn or Burlington. I can’t fully recall. We had settled in and were sipping our appletinis, or maybe it was a pumpkin-spice mulled cider. The details escape me, but I’m sure they were fresh ripe flavors as beautiful as the falling leaves. After chatting up the underground railroad and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next big project we finally got around to the menu. Amazingly, there still are menus at chic little bistros in trendy Toronto neighborhoods.

There was a caprese with black cherry tomatoes from Maharashtra served with a chili verde made from purple tomatillos grown on a collective farm in the Bruce Peninsula. Authentic buffalo mozzarella, of course. (Ho-hum.) From that point on, however, the offerings started to befuddle me.

“What are you having?” asked Ush.

“I dunno,” sez I. “What are tardons? And what about pangasius or gourami?”

“Ooh! Pangasius! Order it poached,” says Ush.

“But what is it?” I insist. And frankly, this just goes on and on. Txikito, resto, takashi, spotted pig. That last one I can guess, but I’m thinking that I’m probably guessing wrong.

“Doo, doo doo. Just let it burn,” he’s humming under his breath.

I’m thinking that the spotted pig must be pretty spicy at this particular bistro. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t Usher who was sitting there licking his chops over the thought of a steaming pan full of pollo en pipian. Certainly it was someone like him, though. And maybe it was tamales de huitlacoche rather than pipian. Who cares anyway.

“Just Google it,” says Ush (or his double).

And that, I think is the situation that all of us face when we sit down to read a menu these days. Bring your smart phones if you hope to lunch with Usher (or someone like him) at chic bistros in trendy new neighborhoods in Toronto. Or Brooklyn. Or Burlington. Or Corktown and Eastern Market, for that matter. I’m not sure there’s a food ethics point here, but there might be.

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

 

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Food Dreams

October 9, 2010

I think that food dreams might be the next big growth area for cognitive food studies. Both regular readers of the Thornapple Blog are now expecting me to launch into a tedious discussion of exactly what “cognitive food studies” could possibly mean, and I hate to disappoint them. The growing number of academic types who are now looking at food is simultaneously surprising, amusing and gratifying, so I think I’ll just wave my hands at the thought that there are more and more professor-types taking an interest in food and go right back to the theme of dreams.

Our dream experiences have long been thought to provide obscure clues for puzzles and problems we face in waking life. In the wake of Sigmund Freud’s work, themes of repressed sexuality came to the fore, and dreams of food preparation or consumption would be easily interpreted along those lines. I don’t pretend to keep up in the relevant areas of cognitive science, but my sense is that current opinion is more along the lines that one of many things the mind may be doing in dreamlife is working out some troubling bits of reality, one of which might be sex. So I’m just going to repress any temptations to interpret my food dreams as sexual fantasies, though God knows I have them. We could start a whole ‘nother blog on that.

Aside from sex, I’m guessing that the new scholarship on food dreams will see them as coding for anxieties about incorporating the toxins of the industrial food system into our bodies, and as more universal forms of anxiety about our vulnerability with respect to the generalized other. General Other is, in fact, only a brigadier, lacking any real command authority. It’s more like a designation that lifts him (or her) only slightly above other officers holding the rank of colonel. But at the same time, of course, it would be the colonels who are most deeply in engaged in the work of colonialization, (hence their title). So the fact that Officer Other has been generalized should not dissuade us from any worries we might have about we, our own selves, being colonized.

Which is just to show that I can play this game as facetiously (if perhaps not as convincingly) as the next recently promoted Associate Professor of English. But back to food dreams.

I thought the Blog might serve as a repository for food dreams. A sort of data base where people could volunteer their food dreams in advance of this new cognitive science really getting off the ground. Feel free to use the comment space to add your own food dreams, and I promise that they will become part of the permanent record that is the Thornapple Blog (however depressing any thought of permanence in connection with this drivel might seem).

To kick things off, here’s one I had last week. I was someplace—can’t recall where or why—where people were trying to cook biscuits in a pop-up toaster. The method they were using was to start with some especially glutinous unmilled grain kernels (not sure what and no, I don’t think they were a code for colonels [see above]). They were being spooned into a little plastic zip-lock bag and stirred into a paste like dough. Then zip, and the whole bag gets deposited into the pop up toaster. Much of the dreamtime was expended in waiting expectantly for them to pop up. My dream did not include anyone actually eating one of these biscuits, and frankly, I would not advise trying this method at home. Even in my dreams I was wondering why the toaster didn’t melt the little zip-lock baggies.

On reflection, I’m sure that I have just revealed some deeply encoded sexual anxieties and posted them on the Internet. So maybe you should think twice about describing your own food dreams in the comment box.

Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

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

Nuts

October 2,2016

How many blog readers remember Euell Gibbons?

I thought so.

If you Google his name, he is apparently best remembered as pitch man for Post Grape Nuts™. I was interested in his appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

How many blog readers remember Johnny Carson?

Well, that’s a tangent I won’t touch. Let’s stick with Euell Gibbons, who did in fact make two appearances as a guest on the Carson show. I barely remember Gibbons, and I am old. I suppose Gibbons would be a candidate for “food ethics icon” if it were January, but last time I checked, it is only October. I bring him up to ask (in a mildly serious vein) whether we have anyone around quite like him today. I ask this in a mildly serious vein because I’m really curious, but I’m also not feeling serious enough to actually write a serious blog this week. So mark this one “funny”. Even though it really isn’t.

As his appearances on the Tonight show and hawking Grape Nuts would suggest, Gibbons attained a fairly high degree of notoriety back in the 1970s. According to the Wikipedia article on him—which is covered up with notes asking for further development and corroborating citations—he was either on or parodied on a number of shows, including Sonny and Cher (remember them?) and Carol Burnett. What he was on those shows was “a health food nut”. Without really knowing much about it (remember this is not a “serious” blog) I’m inclined to think that he must have had a pretty good sense of humor about himself. Along with people like Adele Davis (who also appeared on the Carson show) he became an iconic figure representing the off-kilter and wackiness about foods. This was, if you recall—and I think it’s pretty well established by now that you don’t—a time when all the kids were going goo-goo for brown rice, and bulger. It was a time before quinoa (of course the Peruvians were eating it), though a few people on the extreme margins of the counterculture were discovering fiddleheads and claiming to like them.

They owed the ethos behind that to Gibbons, who popularized foraging in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Now I should own that I have not read this book, though if I live long enough I will get around to if sometime. Foraging is more hipster now than it was in Gibbons day. Of course, we couldn’t just do that here in the 3rd millennium, so now we call it “wildcrafting” or some such. I do have the sense that Gibbons extolled the healthiness of foraging, but what self-respecting forager wouldn’t? My feeling that he had a sense of humor about himself suggests that any goofiness that went along with this was something of a pose. I mean if you are trying to sell books (or Grape Nuts, for that matter) getting on TV couldn’t hurt, could it?

So to circle back to the present: no Euell Gibbons was not the “me” decade’s Bear Grylls (the Wikipedia article on him does not need additional cites). Gibbons knew how to forage for lots of wild foods, but he was neither a survivalist nor a reality TV personality. My thought is that although we still have the cultural stereotype of “the health food nut” today, we don’t actually see any of them on television.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

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

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

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