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

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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

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

Resistance

July 31, 2016

There was a lot of lambasting white male privilege at the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association meeting here in Santa Cruz over the last three days. It started with my friend Ricardo dissing the Declaration of Independence as a document asserting the privilege of rich white men. I think he’s right, don’t you know. It’s men who are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Ricardo didn’t mention that Jefferson wanted to put some mild anti-slavery rhetoric in there, but he was overruled by cooler heads who thought that it would be divisive. Planters from the Southern Colonies (of which Jefferson was one, by the way) needed their slaves to plant and pick cotton. So Ricardo was right to notice that the Declaration of Independence is explicitly sexist in not counting women, and implicitly racist by being silent about the enslavement, disenfranchisement and oppression of black farm workers. And there’s that other thing the Declaration is conveniently silent about, which is that the rich white men who gathered to sign Jefferson’s little essay 240 years ago this month were sitting on what the native Americans would have recognized as tribal lands. Whoops! Just another whole domain of oppressions at work there.

Those are the points that set the tone for the whole conference.

So like the cucumber beetles but maybe more so, there’s really nothing funny to talk about here, so I’m just going to straight for jugular. I’m going to reinforce the point that I’ve agreed with all this, and then I’m going to point out that those guys in Philadelphia back in 1776 may have been a bunch of rich white men, but the Declaration of Independence itself comes out of a discourse of resistance. It wasn’t written to affect the oppression of women, blacks or native Americans, not to mention others who have been oppressed as a result of white male privilege. There was plenty of oppression to go around back then, and a good portion of it was directed at groups that still struggle for social justice today. But the DOI was written to resist what was at the time the dominant oppressive power on Earth, the British Sovereign. It was in that respect the paradigm document of decolonialism. “Let’s decolonize,” says Jefferson, and let’s get George Washington to put some teeth behind it. They may have been a rich white guys and slave owners farming on land dispossessed from tribes, but they were putting their rich white guy butts on the line.

So this isn’t a comeback against all the lambasting of white male privilege, and it isn’t even an apology for Jefferson and Washington. It’s really really true that white guys (rich or not) should find a little time every now and then (if not every day) to think about what implicit bias means and try to understand it a little better. One thing us white guys have to do is not take it personal when a keynote speaker tries to fire up a meeting by pointing out that there are rich white guy privileges woven deeply into the fabric of the American way of farming. So I’m going to mention another speaker who saw fit to call attention to those words from the DOI a little more than fifty years ago next month. He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” He didn’t say that to assert male privilege or to justify appropriation of tribal lands, though he failed to mention both of those points.

America has a fine tradition of resisting oppression. Let’s live out that creed.

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

Just Desserts

July 3, 2016

I was down in Atlanta last week and had a couple of dinners-out with some friends & fellow workers. The names of the restaurants have been expunged to protect the innocent (not that there are any innocent victims in this story).

We started out a pretty good place, a bit high-toned and treadling the foodie vibe. All the signs encouraged us to expect that the chef (or kitchen, as the case might be) was taking their mission seriously. The fried chicken wasn’t Deacon Burton’s, but I would go back. I was sitting next to an acquaintance named José and we found ourselves ordering the same thing, happy as clams until we got to the mango sorbet on the dessert menu. I’m noticing that this sorbet has more of a reddish hue than I expect from mangos but I’m not deterred. A bite or two into it, I’m definitely experiencing that uncanny strangeness of being that comes over you when you are just realizing that some of your expectations are being subverted.

Then José says “This isn’t mango!”

He’s right, I’m thinking. Then I speak up: “And it isn’t sorbet.”

For some reason that probably had something to do with the wine and will not translate well into written form, this causes an outbreak of hilarity around the table. What we have before us is a rather ordinary orange sherbet. José points the ontological faux pas out to our waitperson and asks if he can get a scoop of vanilla to make it into “creamsicle”. She brings him the vanilla but whisks away the orange sherbet, at which point he’s through voicing complaints and just settles in to the ice cream. Me, I’m eating the orange sherbet.

We are out the next night at a place that is cultivating a more aggressive upscale ambiance. I mean, there may not be any restaurants in Atlanta that you can’t go into in shorts these days, so it’s not like we are wearing white tie and tails. Both of these places were white tablecloth joints (if white tablecloth and joint can be conjoined), but this one was deliberately abjuring any down home feel. (Don’t you love it when I throw a verb like “abjure” into the blog without any warning?) But the food was barely edible. Still and all, we stuck around for dessert, mainly for the camaraderie, I think, or possibly because we were not responsible for our own check.

We ripped that dessert menu apart like red Rizla to raas. Don’t ask me what that means, just roll with it. Everyone was asking for some special twist. The woman across the table from me had been asking for me to explain all the Italian dishes listed on the menu to her all night because she wants non-dairy and gluten-free. Nothing on the desert menu fits, but one item combines watermelon sorbet with a pastry. “Can I just get the watermelon sorbet?” she asks, and our waitperson replies, “Of course!”

So you’re thinking, “It’s neither watermelon nor sorbet,” and when it appears my companion asks me to taste it. I do and in fact it is watermelon sorbet, and probably the best dish that has been set on the table all evening. Except that the waitperson has referred to it as gelato, and when my companion asks a second time she (the waitperson) says “I served it out of a box that says gelato.” Well, it’s probably watermelon sorbet from the Atlanta Gelato Co., or something but my companion is taking no chances. The watermelon gets sent back on the off chance that it has some dairy in it. In the meantime, I’ve been served some panna cotta that tastes like Jello chocolate pudding with some crumbled up granola bars and Cool-Whip on top. Not that I am deeply opposed to Jello chocolate pudding but as we say in the South, my mouth was set for panna cotta.

Actually we wouldn’t say that. We might say that our mouth was set for sweet tea or fried okra, but not panna cotta. But you know what I mean. I would have liked to have had the watermelon sorbet that was undoubtedly thrown in the trash. (Speaking of food waste).

So you may be thinking to yourself now, “I get the food thing, but where’s the ethics.” Well, I could change the overall tone of this week’s blog by going off on the ethical responsibilities of restauranteurs, not to mention waitstaff who really should know the difference between gelato, sorbet and sherbet. And why that’s ethical in a world of touchy stomachs and food allergies. But that would not be mango.

Nor would it be sorbet.

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

More Waste

June 19, 2016

We’ve been on a run of blogs focused on food waste. The topic can’t help but bring up memories of my Nana, an obsessively frugal woman whose closets always contained at least fifty rolls of toilet paper purchased with triple coupon savings at her neighborhood Publix supermarket. Although she never did, I imagine my Nana saying things like this: “When I go to restaurant, I hate to waste the water that they’ve insisted on bringing me, despite the fact that I’ve ordered something else to drink, too. So I ask for a to-go cup so that I don’t have to waste that water. I’ll take it with me. Except that they invariably insist on bringing me another cup of water in a brand new to-go cup. So I have to tell them, ‘No, I wanted that water. Now I have even more water to carry around with me until I get thirsty so I don’t have to feel like I’m wasting stuff.”

Then I’m imagining a plumber telling my Nana, that she needs to spend about four thousand dollars on the pipes in her kitchen because she has been so frugal in saving every last of water that might have gone swirling down the drain that her pipes have gotten clogged up with some kind of sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union. In actual real life fact my Nana did have to have a functionally new dishwasher replaced after a decade of non-use (so she could save on both electricity and water) because the rubberized seals had dried out from lack of use. So in my imagination her economy with water has not actually been an economy in the larger sense, and even if she hasn’t been wasting her water all these years, the plumber is telling her that she is now actually going to waste some money (not to mention time and presence of mind) paying to have the sludge, goo or other pipe-clogging substance known only to members of the plumber’s union removed from the infrastructure of her otherwise efficient modern ranch home.

Which brings us back to the ontological point at issue: what makes something waste, in the first place? I think that both my Nana (notice how she’s replaced the pointy headed intellectuals in my earlier blogs?) and the plumber agree that waste is expending something that did not need to be expended. The difference seems to be that my Nana is placing her chips on a precious natural resource while the plumber has a laser-beam focus on dollars and sense. Err, cents, I mean. (Freudian slip, there, n’est pas?) Not that he minds the fact that my Nana is spending $4000 on a plumbing repair, mind you, but he does consider this to be a wasteful expenditure in some yet to be identified sense. What is that sense? That’s question that should be bothering us, not to mention the question of whether there is any hope that the plumber and my grandmother could ever come to an agreement on the issue.

And maybe they just can’t and maybe there is some deep truth about waste to be revealed in that circumstance. I’m resisting the thought that waste is all in the eye of the beholder. After all my Nana, the plumber and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already circled the wagons around this theme of food waste, so doesn’t there have to be something more to it than the difference between strawberry and vanilla? I think there is. Nevertheless I am coming around to the idea that there might be some deep moral commitments—like the commitment to nature vs. the commitment to money—that are going to reverberate through anyone’s decision making about whether a given thing you’re doing at any random moment is frugal, wasteful for none-of-the-above. I think that coming to any kind of community based action plan on limiting food waste is going to require us to sit down together and hash some of that out.

Don’t you?

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

Waste (at last)

June 12, 2016

So finally after last week’s silliness and the week before that’s semi-seriousness I want to circle back to the week before that’s deadpan no-foolin’ serious talk about the moral dimensions of food waste. I’ll start by apologizing to anyone who might have been offended by the sarcasm or by the flippancy implied by the way I’m sidling up to what many people would take to be a deadly serious topic. Except by ‘apologizing’ I mean what Socrates meant right before drinking the hemlock; to wit, defending myself, (as opposed to what Paul McCartney meant when noting that the kettle’s on the boil and we’re easily called away just before launching into that ditty about Admiral Halsey, a cup o’ tea and a butter pie).

Which is, in effect to prod a little harder on the deadly seriousness of food waste. And speaking of butter, we’ve blogged about leftovers at least once before and even then we were poking just a little bit of fun. Yet there is a strand running through food culture that sees any waste of food as a huge sin. People who have lived through hard times come by this very honestly, and I don’t mean to poke fun at them. There are precious few Americans around these days who endured food shrortages during the Great Depression, but there are plenty of Chinese who lived through the Great Famine years in the late 50s and early 60s. The tragedy in both cases was that there was food to go around, but a breakdown in the economic system that kept hungry people from getting it. So there’s this one kind of running-short-of-food-that-leads-you-to-conserve-every-scrap-of-butter-because-who-knows-when-you-might-need-it-and-even-if-you-don’t-someone-round-the-corner-does kind of worry about food waste, and then there’s a somewhat different kind of damn-I’m-hungry-why-can’t-I-have-some concern that is actually a little bit misplaced when it is understood as a problem of waste.

Now remember that we’ve already allowed as how throwing away food that you could have meaningfully used to feed a genuinely hungry person is a moral shame. Shame on the communes in China who threw food into garbage cans when others were so hungry they were boiling tree bark and digging up fresh corpses. But not, I dare say, on the farmers who plowed unsaleable crops into the ground while others stood in breadlines during the Great Depression. Somebody needed to buy those crops to feed hungry people, else the farmers themselves were going to be the ones taking the biggest hit. The shame here in the USA was on people who refused to support programs to give hungry people the money they needed to buy those crops themselves. By plowing them back, the farmers were at least saving on next year’s fertilizer. Which is to say that they were not literally wasting them in a morally pernicious way.

But to push my larger point, while there are moral shames in both counts, it’s potentially misleading to characterize the failure as a problem of some person or group wasting food. Nevertheless, talk about food waste seems to be a very natural way to encourage people to do something about a situation where people are going hungry. So here’s my dilemma. I don’t really want to criticize the recent push among news media (and the USDA) to bring this huge problem of food waste to everyone’s attention. Using the word ‘waste’ here does engage our moral sensibilities in a way that might get us around to doing something about food security. I don’t want to short-circuit that.

Yet you might be mistaken if you thought that the solution to this problem was to give hungry people some of the food you were about to “waste”. They don’t really need the food that you were literally about to throw in the garbage (there are some exceptions to this, which we’ll get to in the weeks to come). And if you’ve got cans on the shelf or something in the freezer that you decide to give away, well it’s not at all clear that you were going to waste it. In most instances, you’ll just go right out and buy some new food for the shelf…and then you’ll waste that food instead of the food you gave away. So I think that we’re really just talking about a charitable gift on your part  when you contribute to a food drive, rather than something like “not letting it go to waste.” All well and good. I don’t want to dissuade you from charity, even if this is not really doing anything to address the larger problems of food waste.

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

Workshopping

May 15, 2015

The 4th Food Justice Workshop was held at MSU yesterday. There was some hand-wringing about “who is at the table.” Mostly academics was the answer, though a few people active in various community organizations dropped by for short stints. By the time we got around to the serious hand-wringing they had all gone home, as had all but one of the non-White participants. I’m sure that the “drop-in” visitors to the Thornapple Blog (as distinct from my regular readers) must have some sympathy with the thought that there can’t be anything more useless than a bunch of pontificating academic types sitting around in conference rooms talking about food justice.

Some of the hand-wringing comes out of the thought that the young scholars who were there (mostly graduate students) want to “make a difference” and they are aware that most people who are active in trying to change food systems for the better are totally bored by what they are writing in their dissertations. The activists already know what food justice is and they are only interested in very practical discussions that help them do it. And even that is a bit of an overstatement, because even practical discussion is a lot less useful to them than greater resources of money and time. So why waste money (albeit the registration was only $25 and you got three great vegan meals + coffee for that) and especially time sitting there listening to a bunch of 30-somethings gas about food justice? And for the most part, young scholars agree with this assessment. They are keenly aware that it would be presumptuous of them to expect food activists to find participating in their rarified conversations about the male-privilege embedded in our cultural construction of what it means to be a farmer interesting.

As ripe for sarcasm and parody as that scenario is, I’m going to take a serious turn this week. I’m going to say that we academics need this kind of space and that the food system activists out there need be patient with us. First off, I need to point out that the Food Justice Workshop is, in fact, a pretty unusual thing. Most of the people who attend represent fields of study (philosophy is the big one) where food is not a standard topic. It’s a good sign that young academics are taking up the study of food justice. They will think about it, talk about it amongst themselves, write books and articles about it, and most importantly teach about it in courses that will be taken by hundreds and possibly thousands of students who are disaffected from politics and unconnected to the food they are wolfing down between classes. Just getting food justice outside the narrow coursework in food and agricultural science or rural sociology will be a big thing. Take my word for it.

I was ranting against “stink of the lamp” food ethics in this space just a couple of weeks back, so don’t take me wrong. It’s too easy for a bunch of philosophers to get totally sidetracked. Yet I do think that maybe, just maybe, some small percentage of this highly rarified and over-theorized talk actually will come back and make a difference. It probably won’t happen because some food activist showed up “at the table” and decided to take a pearl of wisdom back to the streets, however. Change in ideas occurs through a process of diffusion that’s a bit like those homeopathic treatments they use in biodynamic farming. Too small and indirect to make a difference according to the basic principles of physics and chemistry, somehow it works anyway.

So give us a break and the space to sit around at these annual workshops. We’d love to have you drop by next year, and be assured that you’ll be taken seriously if you do. Don’t expect to come out with a recipe for food justice, because you can teach us more than we can teach you. But one more thing: what you can teach us IS NOT that we are a bunch of pompous gasbags sitting around talking nonsense that means nothing on the street.

We already know that.

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

 

May Day

May 1, 2016

I wake up and sit by the gas fire with a book. Eventually I go into the kitchen hoping that the oatmeal Diane cooked still has enough heat left in it to melt a pat of butter in the bottom of my bowl. I’ll eventually add a little bit of sugar and some milk. It’s a routine.

Isn’t it odd that the Roman god Janus looks backward to the old year and forward to the new one just at the dead of winter? Or maybe even a little bit before the absolute dead of winter, because psychologically at least it’s going to get worse and worse at least until sometime in February. Of course we all know that this routine is highly relative. That empty set of blog readers from the Southern Hemisphere is headed out to the beach when old Janus rouses himself from slumber to announce the transition from endings to beginnings, looking forward by also looking backward.

But I persist. Why isn’t May Day the beginning, and why isn’t the night of April 30 a time for drunken revels and recalling the days gone by? It seems fitting here in Michigan at least. We’ve rounded the corner even if was below 40° out this morning. Our farmers are smart enough to anticipate a few days of frost here in May, but they’ve also been smart enough to know that they can start getting the soil ready and putting things out a good six weeks or so before May Day rolls in. I probably should be fulfilling my contractual obligation to remind you that Cinco de Mayo is even closer at hand. It’s time to see if you can find the ingredients for some pico de gallo. But I think I’ll just stick with May Day itself this time around the old calendrical continuum.

There’s nothing totally arbitrary about arbitrary distinctions. We mark these junctures on the continuum with the comings and goings of Janus or Persephone for a reason. Maybe just to express the hope that the oatmeal is ready. No reason to be too deep. For some unimportant but not altogether arbitrary reason my friend Michael Eldridge came to mind while I was sitting by the fire. We miss Mike deeply, but I recall some remarks his wife Sue made at a memorial service. She said that his family never really understood what his work as a philosophy professor was about. The just loved him as a person. Well, we all did.

To illustrate her point Sue talked about how right before his death, Mike had been working on an essay. She looked at the file on his computer, which was called “Continuum”. When she read bits of the essay, she couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but if he was working on the continuum, it was probably important, she said. Well, I have a theory, because I had a file on my computer named “Continuum”, too. I could be wrong of course—Mike was and I am a falibilist. But I think Mike was working on his contribution to a collection of essays that was slated for Continuum Publishing. In such arbitrary coincidences great cultural misunderstandings are sometimes born.

So let’s just settle back here and think of May Day as a time for beginning. Since it’s cold outside in Michigan, let’s lift a cup of cheer and look back on auld lang syne. Let’s cook some black-eyed-peas and put on our Janus face as we think about the veggies that will be rolling in from Thornapple CSA before we can say ‘Jack Robinson.” Instead of quoting Robert Burns, let’s look to the Steve Miller Band (or maybe it’s Ben Sidran): Tomorrow’s come a long, long way to help you. Yes. It’s your saving grace.

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