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


Food Waist

May 29, 2016

So picking up right where we left off last week, I’m going to loop back to the week before last when we were wringing our hands about our own pointy headedness at the 4th Annual Food Justice Workshop. Galen Martin was one of the pointy-headed academics who showed up all the way from Eugene, Oregon to regale us about food waste and food justice. I hope Galen will forgive me for calling him a pointy-headed intellectual here in THE BLOG. He’s on the faculty in environmental studies at the University of Oregon which according to the rigorous technical standards applied here on the Thornapple CSA website automatically qualifies him as a pointy-headed intellectual. If you are a sophisticated practitioner of de-colonizing rhetorics (and I’m sure you are) you have already decoded the irony and sarcasm and seen that this is in no way intended to be a slight to Galen on a personal (which is to say sure-enough human-to-human) level. The chance that he will ever see this infinitesimally small, but every now and then someone that I have made highly ironized and triply rebounded significations around does in fact get on the website and take things the wrong way. It’s all part of my contractual obligation to make fun of myself by parodying the non-parody-able.

Take that, Frederic Jameson!

So now on to some stuff that people who actually eat vegetables can make some sense of. Galen introduced his talk on food waste and food justice by pointing out to us that the Pepsi he was drinking was actually a good example of food waste, even though he was planning to drink all of it. He did in fact drink most of it while he was standing there, so if you think that food has to go unconsumed in order to be wasted, you would be puzzled by his introductory comments. Well, not being so inclined to bury his points in indecipherable sarcasm as we are here in the Thornapple Blog, Galen explained what he meant. He meant that he did not really need to be drinking a Pepsi. The energy he was going to get from high-fructose corn sweetener in his Pepsi was a form of wasted calories. The Pepsi was, to engage in some punning that explains the title of this week’s blog in an uncharacteristic moment of direct explanation, an instance of waisted calories.

Being a professor of environmental studies, Galen went on to make the general environmental ethics point that we mentioned last week: Isn’t it a shame that we had to grow the corn that this high-fructose corn sweetener came from, in the first place? His answer: Yes, it is a shame because, as we have (I think) already established he as a food secure citizen in an industrialized society did not really need to be drinking a Pepsi to maintain his basic bodily metabolism. There were already plenty of calories (we can surmise) in whatever it was he had for lunch that day, which was probably some delicious vegan food from Altus. I realize that this won’t mean much for the readers outside the East Lansing area, but being the sophisticated practitioners of de-colonizing rhetorics that you are you can probably Google it if you haven’t already figured out that it’s a local Ethiopian restaurant. I surmise that Galen had eaten something from Altus because that was what we had catered for the workshop, but here I have to admit that I might be wrong.

So I guess Galen made his way down to the vending machines after eating to buy a Pepsi. Maybe like me what he was craving some caffeine, though what I wanted was a cup of coffee. It’s something that can’t be had in that vicinity of the MSU campus on a Saturday in May. I’m not sure that there is a waste in my own inability to satisfy my post-lunch cravings with a cup of joe, much less something going to waist. But I did rather like the way that he pointed out to us how probing more deeply into the very idea “food waste” can lead us to some surprising ethical conclusions. So I decided to encode his subtle but still well-formulated point into a sarcastic parody of pointy-headed intellectualism for consumption here in the Thornapple blog.

No need to thank me for it.

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

In the Hunt

March 27, 2016

The blog is posting a few hours later than usual this week because I’m just back from dinner at my mother-in-law’s after flying in from Houston: ham, peas, scalloped potatoes. It was cooked up special by the kitchen, and the place was buzzing with relatives of other residents visiting for the Easter weekend. Food becomes central at a lot of holiday meals, but exploring that with the seriousness it calls for is just not my mood today. I’m thinking much more about the three (count ‘em, three) Easter Egg hunts I participated in this year with my granddaughter.

One of the three was pretty much like the ones I knew as a boy. You know the drill: cheap dye kit from the grocery, and the pre-Easter party of boiling a dozen eggs then decorating them with “the Magic Crayon”. Psst. Here’s a dirty little secret: Any crayon will keep the dye from penetrating the eggshell. I hope I’m not spoiling any little toddler’s Easter by spilling the beans about the fact that there’s nothing really magic about the crayon that comes in your Easter egg dye kit.

So then on Easter morning the Easter bunny hides the eggs you dyed around your house. If you live in Michigan, the Easter bunny is not so likely to hide them in the back yard, which is what she did for my granddaughter down in Texas. Easter bunnies are not stupid. You get up, your parents hand you a basket, and you run around excitedly finding all those eggs “left” by the Easter bunny. Even though they look rather a lot like the eggs you decorated the day before. Don’t worry yourself over that detail. The Easter bunny leaves a few surprises, too, like a chocolate bunny. The ears are supposedly extra-special tasty. Trust a food ethicist on that one.

But this Easter weekend we started with the school Easter egg hunt at my Granddaughter’s classroom on Thursday. That one yielded about a dozen plastic eggs, each with a candy treat inside. So in addition to the treats that the Easter bunny left, we are now approaching a haul comparable to that of a fair to middlin’ Halloween. Of course it was actually a lot more than a fair to middlin’ Halloween, because there was also the Saturday morning Easter egg hunt for the whole neighborhood. And I’m telling you, you’ve never seen so many $400 BOBs assembled in one place.

Now I know it’s not exactly a food item, but I’m compelled to launch a brief tangent here for the clueless reader (hey you know who I’m talking about) who has absolutely no idea what a BOB is. In point of fact, I have no idea why it’s called a BOB. Maybe it’s a trade name, but for all I would be able to attest, it’s some kind of secret code password that only millennials understand. At any rate, be assured that we’re definitely not referring to the $169 version of the large wheeled jogging stroller that you can purchase down at the Target store. No. This baby has inflatable tires and impact resistant lightweight cast aluminum wheels. And what’s more, they flex. That’s what does the trick if you are have been born (as my granddaughter has) since the start of the current decade.

So it was BOB round-up at the Saturday Easter egg hunt in The Heights. Everyone was there and they lined up against that roped-off playground littered with multi-colored plastic Easter eggs just like a bunch of land-hungry pioneers itching for the opening of Indian Territory to settler-colonials back in 1899. You may recall the scene from Cimarron, which won an Oscar back in 1931. That’s the one with Irene Dunne, though I think what I’m envisioning was from the remake in 1960 with Glenn Ford. At any rate, those toddlers-through-preteens had a gleam in their eyes not at all unlike that of homesteaders awaiting the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush. They could just see those eggs out there littering the lawn, and they knew that each one was going to be stuffed with some kind of treat ranging from the relatively disappointing Kraft caramel to the prize-winning Baby Ruth.

I’m not sure that any of this stuff should really be called food, though like beer, it is not wholly without nutritive value. The deviled eggs we had at my mother-in-law’s were better.

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

Good Stories

March 13, 2016

March is still roaring a bit, though with Mid-Michigan temperatures eking into the 60s it’s a bit more like a purr. Nevertheless, you have to squint pretty hard to see the crocuses peeking out of the ground or the little spots of green that will be turning into budding leaves in the coming weeks. I suppose the real farmers are already getting busy, but it’s a dead season for the faux farmer foodies. We have little in store but waiting, so maybe it’s a good moment to explore obscure literary references in the food world.

It occurs to me that if you want to explore American food ethics at about this time in the previous century, you would probably be reading novels. Yet that doesn’t seem so much the case today. There were tons of food and farming novels published in an era that runs from about 1860 to 1960. They were, on the on the one hand, novels in a full-blown sense: plot, characters, story development, represented as fiction. On the other hand, they were a form of thinly veiled journalism. The stories being recounted were true, and the books were read with the understanding that one could learn something of significance about the events being reported from these accounts.

Of course, the names were changed. Not so much to protect the innocent, I suspect, as to ward off legal action, especially when the real-life protagonists were both well-known and well-heeled. The stories themselves were very much the stuff of food ethics: fraudulent schemes that deprived homesteaders of their land; cruel exploitation of marginalized groups being employed as seasonal labor, especially in California, where even by the 1870s large estates were dependent on the labor of dispossessed Native American tribes and Chinese immigrants; singular events of violent resistance, such as the Mussel Slough Affair. This last was the result of an extended dispute over land titles between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was the subject of at least three novelizations, the best known being Frank Norris’ The Octopus.

For racial strife, we could cite Edna Ferber’s Giant. The scene in which patrician rancher “Bick” Benedict (grandfather of a mixed-race child) confronts a racist café owner was an especially telling incident in the 1956 film version. The primary example might be Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (a book I have not read, mind you) published in 1884. The book combines the mutual hatred of Mexicans and Americans with cruel prejudice toward Native Americans. And then a special kind of vindictiveness is reserved for the half-breeds. Maybe not exactly Gloria Anzaldua’s story, but not all that different, either—and a full century earlier!

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, best known example in this genre. It was based fairly directly on reporting that Steinbeck did in the Federally-supported “Weed Patch” camp near Arvin, CA. (We’ve blogged about this before.) After taking a turn through Oklahoma for background, Steinbeck converted straight-up reportage into the story of the Joad family’s eviction, migration to California, exploitation by large growers and eventual dissolution. But you knew that.

I have many questions. To start with, what happened to this form? It’s nothing like today’s novelists would write, and that’s true whether we’re talking Margaret Atwood or John Grisham. Sure, we have Barbara Kingsolver, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was non-fiction. It’s not as if the stories have gone away, but in our time they are much more likely to be recounted simply as a factual exposé.

Perhaps we should regard that as progress. My other questions address the form itself: What made these novels, aside from the fact that names were changed. In some cases (like Steinbeck) the characters are composite, pulled together from the life-events of several individuals he met during his reporting. More generally, I’d speculate that the novel form was just a way to get people to read the damn things, in the first place. I know that I have a lot of trouble just convincing anyone to read this puny little blog! Maybe ethics needs a good story. I guess the authors of The Bible had that one figured out.

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

Oedipus the Scientist

March 6, 2016

We’ve been doing “ways of knowing” in my class at Michigan State, and I’ve been resisting the temptation to drag my undergraduates through a tangent on Sophocles. Blog readers are not so lucky. You’ll recall Sophocles’ play about King Oedipus from your freshman class on world literature. The plot gets rolling because Creon, his brother-in-law and some-time rival is back from Delphi with the news that Thebes suffers because the murderer of former King Laius remains unidentified and unpunished. In true macho fashion, Oedipus immediately sets out to discover the facts of the matter, promising swift action upon learning who the culprit is.

The events of the play all pivot from this point, as a series of witnesses are called before Oedipus to give testimony that will allow him to gain knowledge about this crucial unknown fact. I wonder if anyone who read Sophocles’ play or saw it performed was really in suspense about the final outcome. Most of us know that Oedipus himself is the culprit, that in fact Laius was his natural father and that he has married his own mother Jocasta and fathered children with her in the course of assuming the throne of Thebes. I don’t actually think that discovering all these gory details is actually what the play was about. Even Sophocles original audiences would have known the outline of this story from an earlier cycle of plays by Aeschylus.

Sigmund Freud drew a well-known set of psycho-sexual inferences from Oedipus the King, but in accord with ways of knowing I’d like to point out that all of the witnesses called to give testimony to Oedipus in his quest for the truth are reluctant to do so. First Tiresias the prophet of Apollo, then Jocasta herself and finally the shepherd and former servant of Jocasta resist Oedipus’s prodding, each telling him that he and Thebes will be better off if Oedipus gives up his quest for this particular matter of fact. Much earlier Creon has told Oedipus that facts must be seen in light of the motivations that people have for seeking or stating them. Oedipus’s witnesses are compelled to speak a truth they know will serve no good purpose under pain of death.

What, you may reasonably ask, could all this have to do with food (food being the nominal topic of the Thornapple Blog, after all)? I’d like to suggest that we’ve structured our public policy and our scientific research around food from Oedipus’s perspective: a quest for facts of the matter that is divorced from larger and more fundamental commitments to our own good, and that of those around us. It may not be as profound or tragic as Oedipus’s forbidden knowledge, but is it really helpful to ascertain and enforce an objective standard for the allowable amount of rat feces in our oatmeal? Mightn’t it have been more sociable to rest content with a warranted belief that actors along the cereal supply chain are doing all that they can to keep the Avena sativa and the genus Rattus separate from one another?

An oedipal type of knowing invites a rather uncaring and unbonded form of relationship building. To wit, why not blend an especially clean batch of oats with one that exceeds the allowable ratio of contamination so that the new batch is below the threshold? If there’s no evidence that GMOs, high fructose corn sweeteners or preservatives will harm you, why worry about whether people want them in their food? If the EPA standard for lead in drinking water gives you a year to fix the problem, why do anything now? All of these practices are consistent with the fact of the matter, aren’t they?

Oedipus was a little bit too confident that knowing who killed Laius would put him in a position to fix things in Thebes, and those of us in academe may share an overweening faith in a similar kind of facticity. In fact, we’ve set up all of our incentive structures to filter out our loyalties to other human beings (not to mention other species). Perhaps Tiresias and Jocasta were right to insist that those who search for facts would sometimes be wise to temper their quest and look to that which achieves a larger good.

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

A Quick One, While I’m Away

November 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

Next week is the anniversary for the Thornapple Blog.

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


November 1, 2015

A few weeks back I did a blog about academics and their relationships with big players in the food industry. My point was that we really shouldn’t be shocked, shocked (quoting Captain Louis Renault from Casablanca) when we learn that university scientists share the values and perspectives of major food industry firms. It was, in a twisted sense perhaps, just what Abraham Lincoln had in mind. I’m headed to a philosophy conference on industry/university science relationships down in South Bend, IN later this week, so the story is on my mind.

As it happens, I talked to a reporter named Brooke Borel about this, and she sent me a link to the story that she eventually wrote for Buzzfeed. It’s pretty interesting and I recommend following the link that I embedded in the date text above. For some unexplained reason, the robots at WordPress aren’t letting me embed a link in the right place when I work on my Mac. Must be one of those Cupertino rivalry things.

In a nutshell, a University of Florida plant scientist named Kevin Folta had been running a podcast under the penname “ Vern Blazek.” In one episode, Blazek interviewed Folta. Borel wonders if this is deceptive. There’s also the point about the Borel/Folta “interview” being rather positive (that’s putting it mildly, I think) about GMOs. Then Folta denies any relationship with industry, but it turns out (according to Borel) that Monsanto had given him an unrestricted grant of $25,000. Borel wonders if this, too, is deceptive.

Now to put this in perspective, $25,000 is, on the one hand, not an awfully lot of money in the world of grants. It costs us almost $40,000 to support a graduate student for a year, and this is before we spend a dime on any of the research that they would be doing. On the other hand, any kind of unrestricted grant is rather rare, and $25,000 unrestricted dollars can be paired with other more restricted funds in a manner that benefits a researcher pretty substantially. So I’m at something of a loss to make any sense of how Folta could have denied having a relationship with industry. It’s pretty clear to me that Monsanto was telling him, “Hey, we like you,” and given that, it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that Folta’s use of his alter ego Blazek was a way of saying “Hey, I like you back.”

What about that penname thing? Some time back, a University of Colorado political scientist named Ward Churchill was charged with misconduct because (among other things) he had actually written some of the essays that appeared with other author’s names in books he had (nominally) edited. Churchhill was a) a very controversial activist in support of Native Americans and other marginalized groups and b) eventually fired. Now the Churchill story is pretty convoluted so Google him if you want the background. I mention him as a contrast case to Folta primarily to show that academics with very different political leanings produce written work that they prefer to have attributed to some identity other than themselves.

I’ve thought about it. I once entertained fantasies of writing a book I would call How to Cheat at College. It would in fact recount some of the cheating techniques I’ve actually seen, but it also would have had a subliminal argument that would have led readers to think through whether cheating on class assignments and examinations wasn’t really just a way of cheating themselves. Of course, such a book might have caused me some embarrassment, because you can be sure that the average TV or radio journalist would not have been able to figure out what I was really up to. And there was also the chance that I might actually make some serious money (like more than $25,000) off such an effort. How could an ethics professor stand that kind of publicity? I wasn’t about to do something like that under my own name!

Well, I never got around to it, in any case. Eventually I did think about writing something that would have a life beyond just being a tickbox on my annual report. That was about six years ago when I started writing the Thornapple Blog on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2009. I suppose if I had been really smart, I would have used a false name and asked Monsanto for an unrestricted grant so I could keep doing it. What do you think they would have said?

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

Babette’s Feast

September 27, 2015

We’ll finish up “food flics month” with the film I take to be the granddaddy of them all: Babette’s Feast. It came out way back in in 1987, before food was cool. Unlike the other three films we’ve mentioned, it is not a documentary. It’s based on a story by Karen Blixen set in 19th century Berlevåg, Norway, though the film relocates events to the austere coast of Jutland. A young Frenchwoman (Babette) appears on the doorstep of an austere religious sect seeking asylum. After working for them as a cook and servant for some years, Babette wins the lottery and proposes to treat this group accustomed to an austere diet of gruel (or some such) to “a real French dinner”. Some of the plotting concerns whether the group can permit itself to break from the austere conventions that are required by piety to accept this offer, but eventually, they agree to the feast out of consideration for Babette, (who, they presume, will be leaving them now that she is rich).

In case it wasn’t clear from the previous paragraph, the key theme here is austerity.

I saw this movie when it came out, and haven’t seen it since, so I may be misremembering a few points. As I recall it, the main part of the film concerns the collection of the diverse ingredients for the meal, Babette’s loving and meticulous preparations, the sumptuousness of the feast itself and the pleasure of the usually abstemious diners. As the story winds up, we learn that in Babette’s former life she was a great chef, and that having spent her entire lottery winnings on the meal, is not rich. Hence she will be remaining among the sect as a chambermaid. There’s also a bit about Babette revealing that her artistry in cooking is her true wealth—presumably a point against the somber asceticism of the religious sect—but the obvious food ethics dimension notwithstanding, I’m not going there. I will note that the Wikipedia article on Babette’s Feast claims that it is Pope Francis’ favorite film.

The movie inspired many to replicate the menu of the feast (also on the Wikipedia site), and spawned a flurry of interest in the idea that culinary arts can rise to the same aesthetic heights as classical forms: music, painting, literature or sculpture. Viewers of Babette’s Feast could fashion themselves as adventurers whose quest for an exquisite meal was on a cultural par with that of someone who attends a symphony concert or spends weekends at art museums. Could the Food Network be far behind? In fact, it wasn’t; founded in 1993.

Equally important, filmmaker Gabriel Axel demonstrated the cinematic qualities of food so convincingly that an impressive line of film’s celebrating the production and consumption of foods was to follow: Like Water for Chocolate; Eat Drink Man Woman; and just last year, The Hundred-Foot Journey. This would be a very long list. Films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover should also be on it, though here the themes of pleasure and seduction are troubled. Beyond these films where food is central to the plot, there are many, many more where a meal is affectionately presented in opulent detail either to advance some other theme, or simply to provide viewers with a momentary bit of eye candy. I ask you, would we be having a food movement today without this sequence of films? It’s always hard to answer the chicken/egg dilemma with phenomena like this, but whether symptom or cause, I assert that Babette’s Feast marks a milestone for the enthusiasm with foods are celebrated in the first two decades of the 21st century. It’s definitely worth a look in “food flics” month.

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

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

September 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Skitters

August 16, 2015

Longtime blog readers expect an entry on peaches about now, but sadly the peach crop in Michigan was not so good this year. In lieu of overpraising the Colorado peaches we’ve been vacuuming into our gullets for the last week, I think I’ll just segue right back to some food references in American literature. Here I’m thinking of a passage in The Grapes of Wrath where Ruthie and Winfield Joad endure a case of the skitters from eating too many peaches. (And I think we’ve visited this incident briefly once before).

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel The Grapes of Wrath would be an obvious choice for anyone interested in food ethics. As I’m sure at least a few blog-readers know, it begins (nominally) in Dust Bowl Oklahoma and ends with the Joad family suffering the indignities of migrant labor in the orchards of California. Steinbeck deftly combines the two big ethical issues of industrial agriculture—environmental devastation and social injustice—with this particular bit of plotting. I’ve written about this in my real-world life in my book The Agrarian Vision, so frankly I’m already bored with the prospect of probing Grapes on these counts. There is the minor point that the region of Oklahoma where Steinbeck situates the Joads during the chapters where they are being evicted from a dust-clogged and no longer productive family farm isn’t actually in the Oklahoma panhandle (where the Dust Bowl was a very real phenomenon), but I’m going to let that one pass this morning.

Although the links between a certain type of greed and the exploitation of Dust Bowl soils was a common enough theme in the 1930s, Steinbeck was always more interested in what happens to the Okies once they get to California. He was an advocate of the poor and downtrodden, though not necessarily an advocate of any particular social policy along these lines. The Joads bounce around from various Hooverville encampments to substandard housing being supplied to pickers at large scale California fruit and vegetable farms. They are generally (though not universally) cheated on these farms by being paid significantly less than the advertised rate for their unskilled labor. However, at one of the locations they are allowed to eat as much as they want. What they are picking at this farm is peaches, hence the link to Ruthie and Winfield’s fate.

Now at this point I’m obligated by my contract with the Thornapple CSA (which hosts this website) to indulge in one or two tangential interludes that take the theme of blog far off track, and instill a sense of befuddlement and stupification in my readers. I’ll start by noting that ‘stupification’ isn’t actually a word, though ‘stupefaction’ is. I think it should be stupification, don’t you? Then I might add that according to the Internet, skitters are functionally nocturnal and communicate using radio waves. You will also learn that they are able to use harnessed children to communicate with humans. If by some chance you were searching the Blogosphere for more up-to-date information on this particular alien life form, I’m now obligated to inform you of my suspicion that this really doesn’t have much to do with The Grapes of Wrath.

Setting aside the possibility that Ruthie and Winfield have been harnessed by an alien life form (there’s really nothing in the novel to support such a reading), Steinbeck is introducing the skitters incident to make a slightly more subtle point. The Joad kids have grown up poor in Oklahoma. As a result, they’ve never seen peaches. It’s their excitement over the rash abundance of what to them is a luxury commodity that induces their overconsumption. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether a case of the skitters is intended to suggest a form of divine revenge for such an indulgence.

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