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

Advertisements

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

Eating Figs from the Deroga Tree

October 24, 2016

Coming to you from Central Michigan, the latest flash news from the food movement. This week in an unprecedented turn of events a contingent of seventeen celebrity chefs led by Ettore Boiardi picketed the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia where Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker were conducting a taste-test of four local store-brand hot dogs. Noted food writer Mark Bittman questioned the authenticity of the test in his New York Times column last Wednesday, claiming that due to corporate control of the industrial food system it is actually impossible to find four local store-brands of hot dog. When questioned as to whether he would accept the results of the test, Bittman replied that he couldn’t say just now. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said.

Baker challenged the chefs to a drum-off, asking them, “How do you keep a turkey in suspense?”

“Turkey dogs?” replied Boiardi (who died in 1985), “We don’t have any turkey dogs. We don’t need no stinking turkey dogs!”

“I might have been a great President,” said Warren in an apparent non sequitur. “Now we’ll never know.” Baker insisted that Pressed Rat’s doglegs (and feet) were smoked with atonal apples. Meanwhile the celebrity chefs brandished placards protesting the merger of agricultural giants St. Louis based Monsanto with the German Bayer. “We don’t need no stinking genetically engineered aspirin,” said Boiardi (still dead after over thirty years).

What I want to know is why whenever I turn on the PBS Create station there is always somebody standing there kneading dough or possibly filling a muffin pan? What’s the food ethics message there? Rappin’ Pressed Rat & Warthog: Well, good luck with that!

Sadly, they left, telling no one goodbye. Just hold your breath. In sixteen days this nightmare will be over.

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

Japanese Rain Goggles

October 16, 2017

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

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

“What are you having?” asked Ush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

b

Gumbo

September 25, 2016

Way back in the Jurassic Era we started these blogs about food songs because Doug Anderson had complained about not being able to think up enough of them. Here in the Anthropocene Doug has lots of help because I think if he just types ‘food’ and ‘song lyrics’ into the Google, he will turn up a couple of dozen pages listing food songs. A lot of them are focused on kids songs, to be sure, but if the point is to sit around with your guitar and sing about food, what’s the trouble with kids songs, anyway.

At any rate, I know this because as you have guessed I can type ‘food’ and ‘song lyrics’ into the Google just as well as the next fellow, and as a result I’ve discovered that there are pretty fancy web pages dedicated to food references in rap songs, as well as to food references in country and western songs. Amazingly, none of the latter turn up any of the songs that we were talking about last week. Instead, they get all nostalgic in praise of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and occasionally sweet tea. It does seem that the food-identity connection runs pretty strong in redneck country.

But this web search did remind me about Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” which I think we may have actually mentioned once before, because it is in actual fact a no-foolin’ food song, of which there are, I have to say, comparatively few. For the first verse anyway, it’s just a list of Cajun dishes: jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo. And what could be more foodish than that? So I although I could go out in 2016 on jambalaya, it would not really be fair, having actually mentioned this Hank Williams tune sometime back in, like, 2012 or something. So I need to come up with something else, and I think the only way is go full circle back to Doug’s food songs concert, which, I think consisted of “Jambalaya,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and then a mumbling explanation that although he knew a number of beer songs, that was basically everything he could come up with.

“Cheeseburger in Paradise,” is not the only Jimmy Buffet food song, by the way. Buffet has a number of songs that contain passing references to grapefruit or to shrimp that are starting to boil. And he has one about eating the last mango in Paris, too. So we probably could crown the Pirate King as the prince of food songs, too. (Which we reminds me that we missed “talk like a pirate day” this year by only a week.) but once we get into this territory, we get picky and these puns and passing references just won’t cut it for the bona fides.

But there is one other Buffet food song that does cut the mustard and that would be “I Will Play for Gumbo.”

It started in my grandma’s in her kitchen by the sea
She warned me when where she told me “son the first one’s free”
It hit me like a rock or some TaeKwonDo
Cause I will play for gumbo
Oh Yeah I will play for gumbo
Paul Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Another Burrito

September 18, 2016

It seems that country music is a particularly rich source of food songs. The title of this week’s blog is a quote from Gary P. Nunn’s “What I Like about Texas.” I should have used this as the title two weeks ago. A fair portion of the food songs we’ve done over the years come from the C&W genre. There are some good blues songs, too, but as we’ve noted before, when a blues man mentions jelly, he’s probably not really singing a food song after all. I’m not aware of any operatic arias that deal prominently with food, but it’s an area I could easily overlook.

So we are going back to that stalwart theme of a country boy who does not appreciate and therefore abuses his woman. As we saw last July, the country boy’s expectation that his woman is there to feed him plays a prominent role in sounding out these abusive relationships. So Johnny Cash is forced to eat “beans for breakfast” when his woman has left him. The string of events that lead to this eventuality are limned by Tompall Glaser in “Put Another Log on the Fire.” This song gets right to the point.

Put another log on the fire.
Cook me up some bacon and some beans.

And go out to the car and change the tyre.

Wash my socks and sew my old blue jeans.

Come on, baby, you can fill my pipe, And then go fetch my slippers.

And boil me up another pot of tea.

Then put another log on the fire, babe,

And come and tell me why you’re leaving me

Now admittedly it’s only the second line here that deals with food (though in a stretch, we can think of tea as food). The second verse goes on to list the favors that this country boy has done for his woman which include letting her wash the car, taking her fishing and driving in the countryside with her kid sister. You get the idea. So like a number of our entries, it’s not altogether clear that this is really a food song. It’s just that cooking bacon and beans fits into general picture of servitude.

The woman’s side of this vignette is told by Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” She also gets right to the food-related point:

She makes his coffee, she makes his bed

She does the laundry, she keeps him fed

I’m old enough to remember men smugly saying “I think I’ll keep her” as if it were a harmless little joke, and I’m not sure my MSU students would get the point in our putatively more enlightened era. I think it’s significant that these songs from 40 or 50 years ago tie food so closely to a stereotype especially tailored to the working class, rural audience of the country music listener. There’s even a food ethics point in there somewhere.

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

Another Year for Food Songs

Long time readers of the blog know that September and January are thematic months. Ever since 2011, we’ve dedicated Januarys to “food ethics icons” and we’ve done something special with September, too. Last year we took off from a theme that we had followed for the preceding three years to celebrate a series of “food flics”. This year we are going back to the theme of food songs. For most of the food songs blogs, we’ve picked a song with lyrics that make some prominent reference to food. Once you get beyond Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” it gets surprisingly hard to come up with them, but there are in fact a bunch of them out there. These blogs are not intended to be taken too seriously, by the way. It’s a kind of discipline by undisciplined frivolity, if you will.

So on those lines, we’ll start this September by recalling a couple of mid-summer blogs we did on the Johnny Cash song “Beans for Breakfast.” As we noted back in July, the song came up as the result of a little bit of desperate web-surfing. When I listened to a U-Tube version of the song, I recalled hearing it, but just barely. It’s not actually about beans, but very few of the food songs we’ve surveyed over the years actually are about food the way that Buffet’s “Cheeseburger” song is. Most of them are about sex. Cash’s “Beans for Breakfast” is about eating beans from a can because his woman has walked out on him. And the song is pretty clear in painting a picture that suggests she was fully justified in walking out on him. But the overall thrust of the song is that when things are right with the world, a man can expect his woman to make breakfast for him, and to clean up the dishes afterwards.

Now this is not a “feminist friendly” message, to be sure. So while I would like to bring the existence of “Beans for Breakfast” to the attention of those who, like me, collect songs that make prominent reference to food for our next foodie adventure party, I’d like to reverse field and mention another song about beans that Cash recorded, this one by Joe Tex. It’s called “Look at them Beans!” and I don’t think I ever heard it played on the radio. Of course it’s not about food (or beans) either, but it does set up the theme of a farmer who dies before he has the chance to ever see the bumper crop he always hoped for come into being. The crop he’s thinking about is actually his children, rather than beans, but the song does have this rather direct chorus:

Hey, look at them beans, and look at that corn, and I bet those watermelons must be three feet long.

Man, look them tomatoes and look at them peas! Well, if papa was here right now he sure be pleased.

And that’s enough to make it a food song.

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

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

 

Eat ’em from the Can

July 17, 2016

What we eat reflects an ethic: a sense of what is right and proper. If beans are not for breakfast—a theme we explored last week—that’s because we (whoever “we” we happen to be at the moment) have adopted some culturally based presumptions about what to eat and when. For a lot of middle-class Americans, breakfast is a time for bowls of hot or cold cereal, a bagel or pastry, or possibly a hot breakfast with eggs at the center somewhere. The particular hold that this norm has on Americans is fading rapidly. There are plenty of under 40s who think nothing of chugging down some cola first thing in the morning, and that’s something that would have been unthinkable to the point of sacrilege for any of my immediate ancestors.

With only a little bit of prodding I could come up with a respectable philosophical defense of my grandparents’ culturally based disapproval of soft drinks. Empty calories dosed with caffeine give a quick buzz but drop you flat by mid-morning. And then there’s the long term connections with obesity and neurological triggers for sweet tastes. Beans would be another matter. Nothing wrong here, even if they are an incomplete protein in and of themselves. In combination with a little wheat or rice, they make a nutritionally sound choice for starting the day. But I grew up with the firm understanding that beans are not a breakfast food.

So when Johnny Cash sings, “Beans for breakfast once again. Hard to eat ‘em from the can. Wish you’d come back and wash the dishes. I’m a hungry nasty lonesome man,” he’s evoking a ton of cultural stereotypes. Not that he’s expressing approval, mind you. Like a lot of country music, Cash’s poetry trades heavily on the archetype of the “no good man”, insensitive to love and abusive to the woman who offers it. In this case, the love that is casually discarded (later to be rued over) takes the form of that prototypical hot breakfast we were talking about earlier. It’s hard to picture Cash’s love interest in this song pouring Frosted Flakes™ into a bowl and then slamming a carton of milk down in front the sulking, drugged-out hungover he-male that is narrating this particular slice of mid-70s American life.

At the risk of boring everyone, it’s probably worth it to linger awhile over just a few of the gender issues raised by Beans for Breakfast. If we are not supposed to be eating beans for breakfast, if we are, as Cash’s narrator is, brought momentarily (and even then only partially) to an awareness of the despicable state to which we have fallen by this indignity, then just as surely the absent referent (e.g. the women, who in previous verse we have learned has boarded a flight to somewhere else) is supposed to be frying up some eggs, brewing up some coffee and placing them subserviently in front of the man that she is, to quote yet another country classic of the era, “standing by.” You have to infer all of this for the song to work for you.

Maybe this is why Cash is not appreciated by a new generation listening to Kellie Pickler or Carrie Underwood through headphones as they drink Pepsi™ or Red Bull™ on their way to work in the morning. Maybe that’s progress, but can you forgive me for not being too sure about that? It’s not that I want to put women back behind the frying pan, nor is it any lingering prejudice against beans, for that matter. I’m as down with a bean and cheese taco for breakfast as the next gringo. It would probably be safest for me to advert to that nutritional line we tendered briefly above. But the actual fact is that I’m having trouble seeing any cultural resonance in swigging soft drinks for your wake-up meal, and that strikes me as a loss.

Maybe the problem wasn’t the beans, after all. Maybe it was the can.

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