Meet the ground cherry: a wish fulfilled.

like little paper lanterns, but, you know, less tacky

I’ve been dying to try these for what feels like forever. They’re basically just a tiny husk tomato*, and according to James Beard, they used to be quite common in many parts of the U.S. But now, for some reason, few people seem to have heard of them and I’ve certainly never seen them at any supermarket or on any restaurant menu. Perhaps, despite the fact that they supposedly grow well even in poor soil, they don’t take well to industrial-scale cultivation or don’t hold up well over long distances. Or maybe their scarcity has something to do with the idea that some varieties are believed to be hallucinogenic, which is apparently the reason there’s a law in Louisiana that says you can only grow smooth groundcherry for ornamental use. would louisiana let you grow "ornamental" marijuana?

The feeling of “forever”  is so variable. Ten consecutive hours of driving. Ten minutes waiting in line. Apparently, in time spent waiting to taste a ground cherry, forever is just over a year.  I first heard about them last summer when a friend from Ohio got some in his weekly CSA share. I went looking for more information, and the descriptions I found were unbelievably tantalizing: a fruit that tastes like a cross between strawberries, pineapple, and vanilla custard. They sounded like they might be the most delicious thing ever found in nature.

I kept an eye out at the farmer’s market, but must have missed their window last summer, or maybe no one was growing them for sale yet. Then, in February when Brian went to Egypt, he had something that fit the description perfectly, as improbable a place as that seemed to find an almost-completely unknown husk tomato cultivar. They wouldn’t have survived the trip, even if he’d been able to smuggle them past customs, so I waited and waited for summer which never comes fast enough in Michigan anyways. And for most of this year, too, I searched the farmer’s market in vain. I started to feel like they were some mythical creature, and I was Molly Grue.

But then this weekend, I spotted a handful of pint baskets full of what looked like the tiniest tomatillos I’d ever seen. At first, Brian thought I was pointing at the actual tomatillos, slicing-tomato-sized on the shelf below, as if my desperation had made me delusional. But no, there they were.

and the clouds parted and rays of brilliant light shone down and an unseen choir sang a C major chord

Are they the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted? Okay, probably not. But I’m not disappointed; they’re pretty great. The tiny seeds and mild acidity are definitely reminiscent of strawberry or kiwi, but with this rich perfume that is a little like vanilla but also entirely its own thing.

what if the "ornamental" marijuana also grew adorable paper-lantern fruit?When we got back from the market, I husked a small handful and ate them with some of the raspberries with plain yogurt and a little bit of maple syrup.

You can tell from the picture that some of them are a little green, which apparently means they’re not quite ripe, and just like  unripe tomatoes, those ones had a bit of crunch and bitterness. But left at room temperature, preferably with their husks on, they get sweeter and more golden every day.

A recipe coming soon, not that you need one if you do manage to get your hands on some. I totally agree with with James Beard: “When eaten raw [ground-cherries] are refreshingly sweet and rich.  It is mystifying to me that they are not more prized.” (from Cooking Books)

*which aren’t technically tomatoes, someone just pointed out to me. Husk tomatoes are in the same family, but a different genus than other tomatoes. And all of them related to nightshade, and someday I’ll write something about why so many people used to think tomatoes were poisonous.

Feeling “umami”: On taste, subjectivity, and metaphor

The Modern Four Taste Orthodoxy

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely taken to be gospel truth until 2002, when the taste receptors for glutamate were identified. Glutamate, and the "umami" flavor it imparts to foods like seaweed, bacon, parmesan cheese, and Doritos, was first identified and isolated by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. But the four-taste model was so dominant that umami’s status as a distinct taste was considered "controversial" until its molecular basis was confirmed almost a century later. Here’s the description of umami in a book titled Sensory Processes published in 2002 (before the taste receptors were identified):

Umami originated from a glutamate derived from seaweed. The chemical substance is commonly known as MSG, monosodium glutamate, and, by itself, has no odor and an unusual taste that is approximated, so they say, by appropriate combinations of the four primary taste qualities. Whether umami is a result of the unique combination of the four tastes or an independent classification of is own is open to debate (176).

Oh, they and the things they say.

Umami’s been gaining traction—Kikkkoman’s current advertising campaign is "discover umami"(.com)—but it hasn’t quite arrived. This past Sunday on Iron Chef America, one of the judges said he detected some "umami" in a coconut-based soup, and then he had to define it for the other judges (and perhaps the audience?). His first stab was to call it an "illusory" taste, although he did follow that up by ranking it with "sweet, salty and sour," so perhaps he actually meant something more like "ineffable." Either way it shows how dominant the classical four tastes still are.

Except "classical" isn’t quite right word, because it turns out the idea that we only experience four distinct tastes is actually a pretty recent invention—more recent than Ikeda’s "discovery" of umami, actually. Traditional Chinese medicine named five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty, each one corresponding with one of the five elements or movements that are omnipresent in early Chinese thought. Aristotle claimed there were only two, which doesn’t come as that much of a surprise given his characteristic love of dualities. Just as he divided visual perception into the "fundamental colors" black and white, which contain all the elements of all the other colors we perceive, Aristotle thought the whole range of gustatory sensations derived from the "fundamental tastes" of sweetness and bitterness. He also proposed a second-order classification of seven "primary flavors" that corresponded with his rainbow of seven "primary colors": sweet (which included fatty or oily), bitter, salty, harsh, pungent, astringent, and acidic or sour. Hard to say now what exactly the difference was between harsh, pungent, and astringent—I suppose the latter might be something like the tannins in tea and red wine while "pungent" instantly evokes blue cheese although it often just acts as a modifier rather than a descriptor—a pungent smell is strong, not necessarily strongly any particular thing. It’s hard to even think of those things as taste categories on the same level as "sweet" or "sour."

But one question that raises is whether or not it’s hard to think of them that way because there’s some objective difference between sweetness and astringency or because it’s just unfamiliar to think of "astringent" as a primary taste category. Certainly tannins cause a particular reaction on people’s tongues—is that less of a distinct taste experience than the reaction caused by sugars?

Colors are a useful parallel, again. A linguistics professor I had at NYU told us about this experiment that my casual googling is not coming up with, but here’s the gist: if you give children a set of colored tiles and tell them sort them into as many piles as they want, by color, there are predictable, reliable differences between the number of piles they make that correspond to the number of primary colors in their primary language. So, for example, English-speaking kids generally put all hues of blue in one pile while Russian-speaking kids usually separate lighter blues from darker blues because they have two "primary color" words for those shades. It’s one of the classic examples of how language can shape how we perceive the world rather than just reflecting it. Also a reason why translation is always imperfect. 

Henning taste tetrahedronGetting back to the four taste orthodoxy, that was something a German psychologist named Hans Henning  came up with in 1916. He devised a ""taste tetrahedron" with each of the four tastes he thought were primary at the four vertexes. The idea was that flavors could be conceptually mapped onto geometric plane based on which of the primary flavors they were comprised of—a flavor relying on two of the primary tastes would be located on the edge between those two vertexes. Flavors that used three would be on the surface between the relevant three points. And the tetrahedron was hollow, according to Henning, because no substance could produce all four taste sensations. So while taste itself was three-dimensional, tastes were two-dimensional at best.

Minor digression: I suspect Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth century French gourmand who’s responsible for the cliche "you are what you eat" (well, ish, the problem of translation rears its head again; what he wrote was Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es, which is closer to, "Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are") would disagree, and name as exhibit A something involving veal stock (a sweet-sour-salty-bitter cabbage soup maybe?). Speaking of veal stock, Brillat-Savarin also sought to identify the special savory quality of "the purely sapid portion of flesh soluble in cold water," or functionally, umami. His word was osmazome. And surely Brillat-Savarin wasn’t the first to muse on the particular deliciousness of dashi, truffles, and tomatoes—especially after they’ve been cooked down into a rich sauce. So the 1908 "discovery" of umami turns out to be, like so many "discoveries" (*cough* America *cough*), basically a trumped-up (re)-christening.

Henning pruned away tastes like "astringent" and all the shades of flavor produced by the almost infinite variety of aromas we can detect because those aren’t, strictly speaking, "taste" sensations. The prickling and burning sensations caused by capcaicins (which make peppers "hot"), the puckering induced by tannins, and the palpable richness of unctuous or viscous foods are all tactile sensations. And aromas, obviously, are processed by the separate-but-related chemical sense of smell. As most people know, particularly if they’ve ever been seriously congested, smells are what turn functionally one or two-dimensional taste sensations into much more complicated (and enjoyable) perceptual experiences. Laboratory experiments in the early twentieth century that involved delicately swabbing the tongues of blindfolded, noseplugged subjects confirmed Henning’s taste quartet. In those conditions, the only things most tasters could reliably identify were sour, salty, sweet, and bitter.

More science to the rescue?

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether or not "taste" should actually be seen as a multi-sensory experience, those experiments were also limited by the descriptive vocabularies of the participants and the kinds of compounds applied to their tongues. Did the researchers try compounds that would have tasted alkaline or metallic or umami to most people? Even if they did, maybe people wouldn’t identify something like "umami" (or "osmazone") because they didn’t have a word for it, not because they didn’t taste it. Or maybe if they did, they called it "savory," and that was conflated with "salty."

Umami is, if not illusory, still notoriously difficult to isolate when tasting food and even harder to characterize. Perhaps part of that is because the compound itself has no smell, although neither do sugar or salt, and perhaps another part is that its description always ends up sounding more evaluative than descriptive—I mean, the Japanese term literally means "delicious." On the Iron Chef America episode I mentioned earlier, another judge playing with his new vocabulary joked, "Ooh, mommy!" which was dumb and irritating, but not actually completely off-base in terms of trying to describe the particular sensation imparted by glutamate. Try eating msg plain sometime (it’s available as Accent(tm) in the spice section of most grocery stores and in bags ranging from a few ounces to multiple pounds in Asian markets. And no, it won’t kill you, which is a post I’ll get to some other time)—it tastes like the exact intersection between Doritos, instant ramen, and Heinz ketchup. How do you describe that? It’s like the taste of tastiness.

More recent research, most of it enabled by the sequencing of the human genome, suggests that four tastes is far two few. While scientists haven’t identified them all yet, they now estimate that there are probably about 40 distinct taste receptors (and 300 distinct olfactory receptors), at least half of which are devoted to detecting bitter tastes. They’ve also discovered a number of complications in terms of how chemicals react with those receptors, and how the response triggered by different chemicals is perceived and processed in the brain. Even with other senses muffled, it now seems that people can indeed identify metallic, alkaline, and umami in addition to the big four. If we have trouble differentiating between all the different kinds of "bitter" we can taste, that’s probably because we tend to be averse to those tastes and have little practice trying to distinguish or name them, not a lack of complexity at the level of the tongue.

Additionally, tastes interact, even without the "interference" of smell or feeling. Sour flavors dampen bitter flavors (the role of the lime in a gin and tonic) and if you have a lot of something sour, it may make other foods or even relatively "neutral" substances like water taste sweet. There are also substances in specific foods that can mess with your taste receptors, which is why artichokes give anything else you eat for a while after an additional subtle sweetness (part of why it’s a great appetizer ingredient). The most dramatic example is the "miracle fruit" people got all excited about last year that contains a protein that temporarily binds to "sweet" taste receptors and reacts with acidic compounds, meaning you can eat plain raw lemons and they taste like the sweetest candy. (Note: it is kind of cool to be able to scarf down lime wedges like potato chips, but eating that much acid turned out to be sort of a regrettable decision for a lot of the people at our miracle fruit party. The remainder of the tablets we bought have languished in a drawer for over a year.)

To complicate matters even further, not all people taste the same things the same way. "Supertasters" are highly sensitive to bitter and spicy compounds, and some people really do have a "sweet tooth" that makes them inclined like sweeter foods more than most people, which could reflect a different perception of sugars anywhere between their tongue and their brain. Related: some fifteen percent of the population thinks cilantro tastes like soap.

And, as most people know from personal experience, the way people respond to the same foods may change over time—I drank about a hundred mochas when I was fifteen and had an irrepressible crush on a Starbucks employee, which stopped me from ordering the hot chocolate I actually wanted because I didn’t want to seem like a little girl. Gradually, aided no doubt by the fact that mochas are as close to hot chocolate as a coffee drink can possibly be, I came to like the coffee flavor. Within another year or so, I honestly preferred my coffee black (and personally delivered by a particular waiter at my local Denny’s).

But all that said, I can’t quite get behind the idea that we’re all special snowflakes and taste is an entirely, or even primarily subjective, individual experience. I just don’t buy that in five years or so, I will be able to "tell [a restaurant] my flavor type on the Internet at the time I make my reservation and [have them] design a meal just for my DNA," the way this Gourmet magazine article suggests.

Fill in the blank: My, you’re ____________! A) sour B) salty C) bitter D) sweet E) umami

Surely it’s not a purely arbitrary coincidence that the four tastes Henning settled on were part of basically every attempt to classify the primary tastes from ancient China to ancient Greece to Restoration England. Would anyone, ever, propose a four-taste system that included only harsh, pungent, astringent, and sour? Or metallic, umami, spicy, and oily?

It seems odd, and potentially significant that the four tastes Henning canonized are also the tastes with the most widespread metaphorical use. They’re not just taste sensations, they’re part of our basic descriptive currency for emotional states, facial expressions, personalities, reactions, gestures, and the things that prompt those things. Sourpuss. Salty humor. A bitter pill. A sweet smile. And they’re used similarly in other languages—the French refer to someone being overly polite or affable as "Etre tout sucre tout miel," or "being all sugar all honey," and the phrase "sweet as sugar/honey" in Arabic (ahla-mina s’sukkar/l’asal) means the same thing it does in English. I’m sure there are a million more examples, but foreign languages aren’t my strong suit.

Other flavors can be, and often are, used metaphorically, especially "spicy" (which, remember, was a common candidate for the fifth spot in many pre-20th C. classification schemes), but few of them have permeated to the point of idiom and cliche the way the big four have. You might describe a person as astringent or a prospect as savory, but both involve a taking a little poetic license. Others are even further afield—I guess I can imagine a metallic facial expression or alkaline feeling, but I think you’d need other context to help you out there and I’m really not sure what it would mean to describe something other than food as "umami."

At least one thing the metaphorical use of taste seems to suggest is a minimum amount of shared taste perception. When Shakespeare used the phrase "honey tongue," no one in his audience needed to have heard the phrase before to understand what he was getting at. With all due respect to individual genetic and cultural differences, it seems to make more sense that  people would largely share the same taste experiences than that they would differ, at least in extreme ways. It seems only natural that we should all be repulsed by the bitter poisons that would kill us, and that our understanding of what sorts of feelings are involved in and communicated by a "bitter glance" is part of that common taste experience.

So, by way of explaining the title of the blog, I didn’t leave out tastes like umami and metallic and alkaline (and however many more have yet to be named) because I wanted to reify the outdated idea that we only have four basic tastes. Instead, I wanted to invoke the dimensions of taste that seem most central to our experiences with food and also impart clear metaphorical connotations. The twinned subjects of this blog—the food I make and eat and my experiences and concerns as a cook and an eater—will both be sour sometimes, salty often, bitter occasionally, and hopefully sweet at least from time to time. I would try to be and feel and say umami things too, but I’m not sure I know how.

References not linked above:

Aristotle and William Alexander Hammond. 1902. Aristotle’s psychology: a treatise on the principle of life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Digitized 2006 by Google.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. 1825. The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. Fayette Robinson. Digitized 2004 by ebooks@Adelaide and Project Gutenberg

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Battle Tomato Course 1/5: Tomato Toad in the Hole, Sundried Tomato and Asiago rolls, Fresh Ruddy Mary

you can see the hole where the toothpick held the prosciutto in place

My friend Raffi’s family has a summer house on Lake Erie in Ontario, and a group of us who meet there every year stage an Iron Chef-style battle. The battles actually  started in college when Kit’s dad gave him a 7-lb can of refried beans for Christmas, which doesn’t make any more sense if you know Kit, except that he’s the kind of person who appreciates that kind of absurdity.

Obviously, unlike on the show, the ingredient for Battle Refried Beans wasn’t a secret, and we’ve continued to choose the primary ingredient in advance because 1) none of us is Morimoto (who I’m shocked to discover has the lowest winning percentage on Iron Chef America, which apparently includes his record in Battle of the Masters, but still, lower than Cat Cora!?) and 2) although Kitchen Stadium Canada is pretty well-stocked, especially given that it’s not a primary residence, we still have to bring some tools and spices. And by "some," I mean basically half the contents of our kitchen, including the stand mixer and rice cooker and food processor and three chef’s knives and a third of the spice rack and more than eight pounds of tomatoes from our garden and farmer’s market, and I’m sure we would have had a great time trying convince the border patrol we were only in Canada for the weekend if they’d opened our trunk.

In our battles, chefs get two hours to cook instead of one, and they can plate their dishes and even do last-minute cooking right before serving so nothing suffers from having to sit for hours while other dishes are judged. Judges can award up to 10 points for taste, 5 points for presentation, and 5 points for creativity, and they also double as sous chefs. Especially talented cooks get traded off between the competitors to try to keep things even. Beyond that, it’s all delicious chaos.

The main ingredient this year paid homage late summer’s bounty and Leamington, Ontario’s reputation for being "The Tomato Capital of Canada." I knew as soon as the ingredient was chosen that I wanted to make ice cream, but the rest of the dishes were up in the air until I stumbled across an old post on Smitten Kitchen with a recipe for eggs in tomato sauce. The runny yolk in the last photo sold me on the idea of a brunch plate, but I decided I needed to do something with a slightly more sophisticated presentation. About the same time, my friend Laurel posted about making oeufs en cocotte to sate an appetite awakened by Julie and Julia, which made me think perhaps instead of poaching the eggs in a tomato sauce, I could bake them in hollowed out tomato cups.

Naturally, I’m not the first person to think of this. So from the mash-up of those recipes and their reviews, I ended up with this:

Recipe: Tomato Toad in the Hole*

For each serving:

  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1 t. prepared pesto
  • 2 t. finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 medium egg at room temperature
  • 1 slice prosciutto (optional but highly recommended)
  • a dab of butter or bit of heavy cream
  • salt and black pepper
  • oil or cooking spray
  • fresh basil to garnish

First, take the eggs out of the refrigerator if you haven’t already. If you attempt this with cold eggs, the yolks will harden before the whites are even close to done.

Slice off the tops off the tomatoes and then scoop out the insides (which you can either discard or reserve and strain for juice or cook down into a sauce or paste). Salt the insides lightly and invert them on paper towels to drain for at least 30 minutes. (People seem to have had more issues with the whites setting with recipes that didn’t include this step)

Preheat the oven to 425F, and coat a baking dish large enough to accommodate all your tomatoes with oil or cooking spray

For the assembly, smear the inside of each tomato with some pesto—I used a traditional basil pesto out of a jar because of the whole frantic two hours business, but the romaine pesto here sounds intriguing and I bet a sharp arugula pesto would be excellent. Sprinkle the insides with parmesan cheese. Then, wrap a slice of prosciutto around each tomato and secure the ends with a wooden toothpick and set in the baking dish. The prosciutto should help the tomatoes stand up straight, but you could probably cut a thin slice off the bottom to create a flat surface as long as the cup remained intact. Break the eggs into a small dish, and gently tip one into each cavity (if using "large" eggs instead of medium, you may wish to reserve some of the whites. Top with salt and pepper, a dot of butter or a tiny bit of cream, and another teaspoon or so of parmesan cheese.

Bake for 20 min, or until the eggs are softly set.

Garnish with torn basil leaves, or basil chiffonade, which is super easy: just stack the leaves flat on top of each other, roll them up, and then cut the roll into thin slices, as seen here.

Mine clearly weren’t done at 20 min, and I got a little paranoid about the possibility of serving undercooked whites, so I left them in the oven for another 4 minutes and that turned out to be about 1 min too long. If the yolks had been just a bit softer, they would have been sublime. Even so, with the prosciutto crisped from the oven and the tomato soft and warm and all the savory herbs and parmesan, they were pretty wonderful.

I served them with a freshly-baked roll studded with chopped sundried tomatoes and asiago cheese based on the Kitchen Aid 60-Min Dinner Roll recipe That Winsome Girl made BLT sliders out of, which was part of my original plan for a lunch plate until I decided that BLTs would be too repetitive given the prosciutto in this dish. I made the rolls anyway, thinking there’d be slightly more runny egg yolk to mop up. The rolls turned out to be as fast to throw together as promised (largely because there’s so much yeast in them):

Recipe: Quick Sundried Tomato and Asiago Rolls

Yield: 12 rolls

  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 1 t. salt
  • 3 T. melted butter, divided
  • 3.5 t. instant yeast (a little less than 2 pkgs)
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped sundried tomatoes (drained if oil-packed, soaked in hot water and then drained if dried)
  • 3/4 cup grated asiago cheese
  • vegetable oil or cooking spray

Melt 2 T. butter and set aside to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, heat the water to 105-115F combine it with the yeast and a pinch of sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the milk, butter, sugar, salt, and 2 cups of flour and mix on low for 1-2 min. Add remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time, mixing 1-2 min after each addition. Dough should begin to form a ball and clean the sides of the bowl. Mix on low for another 2 min.

Knead by hand briefly, either in the bowl or on a lightly floured surface, if necessary to bring it together, and then wipe the mixer bowl clean (it needn’t be perfect) and coat with vegetable oil. Return dough to bowl and turn to coat, cover with a towel and let rise 15 min.

Grease a 9"x13" pan and preheat the oven to 425F.

Once the first rise is done, knead in the sundried tomatoes and 1/2 cup of the asiago (or whatever else you want, or nothing at all for plain rolls) and then it divide into 12 balls. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/3 cup of asiago. Cover and let rise another 15 min.

Bake for 12 min, or until golden brown. Melt the remaining 1 T. butter, and brush the tops of the rolls (or just rub with a stick of butter if you’re running around and can’t be bothered). Return to the oven for 1 min. Cool on a rack—or don’t, if you forget, like I did. The bottoms might get a little moist but it’s not mean to be a crusty bread anyway

To complete the brunch course, I served a fresh tomato Ruddy Mary, which is differentiated from its better-known Bloody cousin by the use of gin instead of vodka. goodbye, garnishes

Recipe: Fresh Tomato Ruddy Mary (adapted from Martha Stewart’s recipe)

Yield: 4 servings, about 3 cups

  • 1 lb fresh tomatoes (about 4)
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 t. Worcestershire (could use diluted vegetable bouillon for a vegetarian version)
  • 20 dashes Tabasco sauce
  • 1 1/2 t. freshly grated horseradish
  • 1 t. celery salt
  • 1/2 t. pepper
  • 6 oz. gin
  • more celery salt and paprika for rims
  • celery stalks ( hearts would have been prettier) and cherry tomatoes to garnish

Core the tomatoes and pulverize them in a blender or food processor. Force the mush through a medium wire sieve about a cup at a time (you can use a fine one if that’s all you’ve got but it’ll take longer) and discard the solids. Combine the strained tomato juice with everything but the garnishes in a pitcher, taste and adjust seasoning as desired, and chill until read to serve. You can leave out the gin if you want to serve virgin versions or give people the option of having a traditional Bloody Mary, just top each glass off with 1.5 oz of liquor.

To rim the glasses, combine enough celery salt and paprika (about equal parts) in a thin layer on a small plate, moisten the rim of each glass with a wedge of lime, and invert the glass onto the plate and give it a little twist. Then, fill each glass with ice, add a celery heart, top with the cocktail mixture, and garnish with a cherry tomato.

I’m not usually a big fan of bloody marys, but I enjoyed this recipe a lot. The fresh horseradish is a lot milder than prepared horseradish and obviously fresh tomato tastes entirely different than canned tomato juice. I wouldn’t bother with a high-quality gin in a traditional recipe, because the other flavors will overwhelm any subtleties, but Boodles or something would probably be great in this.

Four more courses to go: To Be Continued…

*Re: the name, my personal memory of this is fuzzy, but I have the vaguest idea that either my mother or grandmother, or maybe both, once upon a time cut a circle out of a piece of toast, cracked an egg into the hole, and either baked or griddled it, and called this a "toad in the hole." I may have imagined this entirely. But according to wikipedia, that is one of the names for that basic egg preparation, along with "eggs in the basket," "frog in a log," "hen in a nest," "Rocky Mountain toast," "Soldier in a Boat," "moon egg," "cowboy egg," "one-eyed monster breakfast" (!!!), "One-eyed Jack," and "Guy Kibbee eggs." Apparently in England, "toad in the hole" usually refers to sausages baked in a yorkshire pudding. So you have your choice of names, or, if you want to go upscale, call it Oeufs en Tomates.

Against the Whole Foods Boycott

Perhaps because Whole Foods looms large in my dissertation research, or maybe just because it’s actually gaining some traction, friends and colleagues keep asking me what I think about the consumer boycott some people are calling for in response to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s August 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about health care reform.

The short version: I don’t agree with Mackey’s argument, but I think the boycott is ill-conceived. I think a better way to express your disagreement with Mackey is to write your own letter/op-ed and send it to your legislators and news providers.

The long version:

Lest anyone think I’m taking the side of a great admirer of Ayn Rand who infamously posed as "rahodeb" (an anagram for his wife’s name, Deborah) on the Yahoo! Finance Bulletin Boards to talk up his company and his haircut and criticize Wild Oats, I’ll start with why I disagree with the op-ed. First, he confuses the "intrinsic ethical right to health care" that some people, like the UN (see article 25), claim people theoretically should have, with the constitutional rights people do have when they are citizens of the U.S. (or Canada, or the U.K.):

Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This "right" has never existed in America

Even in countries like Canada and the U.K., there is no intrinsic right to health care.

Woo tautology. Even if you don’t agree with the UN that medical care is a basic human right, you can appreciate this logic: any right intrinsic to humans is, by definition, an intrinsic right whether they live in Canada or Myanmar. Ethical claims about intrinsic rights address what rights people should have by virtue of being human, not what rights they do have according to a constitution. Whether a right is constitutionally protected or that protection is enforceable are separate issues with no bearing on their intrinsicness. Intrinsicosity. Intrinsicicity. 

Mackey is also blurring two different arguments here: 1) whether or not humans have an "intrinsic ethical right" to health care and 2) whether the government or the market would do a better job of providing health care. Although his logic may be muddled, it’s clear which side he takes: 1) no and 2) the market.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #1: Is Health Care an Intrinsic Ethical Right?

It’s very difficult to separate the right to medical care from the right to life (which even Mackey would have to acknowledge, as it’s in the Declaration of Independence). While frequently interpreted as the right not to be actively killed, there’s no effective difference between shooting a healthy person and denying life-saving treatment to a dying person. As some other UN covenant with a long and sober name elaborates (article 6), the right to life suggests that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life," and illness can be just as arbitrary as murder.

Of course, this gets complicated because some illnesses (like some murders) are not arbitrary, and some of the ways they’re not arbitrary depend on voluntary behaviors, like smoking or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Also, many things other than life-saving treatments are encompassed by "medical care."

It seems pretty clear that the right to life encompasses the right of children to be vaccinated against potentially-fatal diseases. It’s much less clear whether or not it encompasses the right to abortion, relationship counseling, sex change operations and hormone therapies, addiction treatment, erectile dysfunction, and conditions that may be largely cosmetic like acne or balding. And it’s probably safe to say that the right to life doesn’t imply an intrinsic right to free health care for anyone who can pay.

Like illness, ability to pay is often–but not always–arbitrary. Characteristics beyond a person’s individual control affect their ability to accumulate wealth, and fortune is fickle, but people also make choices that affect their personal wealth–for example, deciding to get a Ph.D. in the humanities instead of a J.D. (not that the latter is a guarantee anymore either).

THAT SAID, a health care system that allocates care based on the ability to pay would undoubtedly cause some people to be arbitrarily deprived of life. So Mackey’s free market system would, in fact, violate the intrinsic ethical right to life-saving care, and that’s why he has to claim there isn’t one. I think he’s in the minority with that belief–there seems to be a pretty broad consensus around the idea that health care shouldn’t be a privilege of the wealthy, and that if you show up to a hospital in cardiac arrest, someone ought to take care of you whether or not you can pay them anything. And if we’re going to collectively pay for emergency life-saving care, it’s also in the collective interest to pay for preventative care. It hurts everyone when insurance companies deny coverage to people based on pre-existing health conditions or yank their coverage once they get sick. Several of Mackey’s proposed reforms were designed to ameliorate some of those problems, but his plan would inevitably leave many people uninsured.

Thing I disagree with Mackey about #2: Is the Market the Best Health Care Provider?

What strikes me as the most compelling reason for a public option, as a layperson whose understanding of this is admittedly incomplete, is that the fact that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on health care despite the fact that something like 46 million people or fifteen percent of the population are uninsured and still ranks lower than many countries with universal universal health care on "overall health system performance" according to the WHO.

Also, given that no one’s proposing getting rid of existing private plans, if they’re really so much better than the public option, they should be able to out-compete it. I know there are concerns about a public plan being so dominant that it could dictate terms to doctors and hospitals, so obviously there would need to be protections. However, I think it would inevitably be more efficient for consumers if people weren’t trying to extract annually-increasing profit.

The idea that competition and profit motives make businesses more efficient because they have to compete or die whereas public services that have no incentive to streamline their operations become bloated mistakenly assumes that efficiency is the only/best way to profit. As private health insurers have found, denying sick people coverage is an excellent way to save money, and sometimes spending a lot of money on things like lobbying and public relations delivers a greater return than simply providing the service they exist to provide. A taxpayer-funded insurer that didn’t have to spend money on those things would be a lot more efficient, and people might indeed be incline to switch to an insurer that wasn’t as likely to screw them to benefit stockholders or executives.

OKAY, SO NOW THAT WE’VE ESTABLISHED I HAVE NO LOVE FOR JOHN MACKEY

It doesn’t make any sense to boycott Whole Foods because of this op-ed. There are two primary reasons people are calling for a boycott: 1) they disagree with Mackey and/or 2) they are upset that he made his beliefs public or that he was given such a high-profile platform on which to do so. Unfortunately, even when the primary motivation is #1, the boycott only targets #2. That’s not "censorship," like some people are claiming (see comment threads on facebook and elsewhere), but both reasons are questionable motives for a boycott.

Ad Hominem Boycott

For any shoppers truly concerned about the political beliefs of CEOs, there was plenty of evidence long before the op-ed that John Mackey was an unapologetic libertarian who supports free market capitalism. In the 2000 election cycle, he gave $2K to Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne. But honestly, if you’re concerned that some fraction of the money you spend on groceries might end up supporting someone whose politics differ from yours, you should probably look in to self-provisioning.

Shopping at a store doesn’t necessarily endorse or financially support its CEO’s every political belief. Take any other CEO and any other political or philosophical belief: would it make sense to boycott Williams-Sonoma if its CEO wrote an op-ed or gave an interview or organized a street theater performance in which he expressed the opinion that all recreational drugs should be legalized or that the universe was created by a divine or supernatural being?

I don’t think it would. If the company discriminated against employees with conflicting beliefs, or in some other way caused harm and suffering with their business practices, sure. (Which some people think Whole Foods does, and that would be a fine reason to organize a boycott). But John Mackey expressing his opinion about health care reform =/= nefarious corporate policy. And as far as I can tell, neither John Mackey nor Whole Foods as a company are funding any direct lobbying efforts. All of which makes claims like the ones Russell Mokhiber makes particularly over the top:

The problem with Mackey’s campaign is that it results in the deaths of 60 Americans every day due to lack of health insurance.

Mackey is responsible for these deaths as much as anyone. (@ Common Dreams)

It way overstates the power of Mackey’s personal beliefs and his op-ed, to call it a full-on "campaign" or hold it responsible for the fact that people right now may be dying due to inadequate insurance. Mackey has not, with this op-ed, personally denied anyone health care. The most damage this op-ed could have done is convince someone with political leverage that a public option is a bad idea (and it seems unlikely that this column would have been the deciding factor—it’s just not that convincing). If he has, you’re not going to change their minds by throwing a tantrum, attacking Mackey personally, or refusing to shop at Whole Foods.

If you disagree with Mackey and want to address the potential harm done by the op-ed, the best thing you can do is to write a letter of your own. Explain why you think his proposed reforms would be inadequate without a public option. Send it to your legislators and local papers. Post it on your blog. Send it to the Wall Street Journal. Boycotting the grocery chain he oversees doesn’t do anything to address the claims he made in the offending op-ed, it’s just an attempt to punish Mackey for his personal beliefs about health care reform.

The real target

Effectively, the boycott doesn’t punish Mackey for having stupid, tautological beliefs about the human right to health care, it punishes him for expressing those beliefs in a highly visible way. Which, apparently, a lot of people calling for the boycott are totally fine with:

If Whole Foods shareholders were to start to wonder whether having their corporate brand dragged into the health care debate is really a smart use of their assets, I would call that a good thing. (@ Yglesias)

He has his right to speak his point of view. I have the right to take my money elsewhere.(@ Daily Kos)

as long as this dispicable preson [sic] of a ceo makes statements like he did, and now as long as this same ceo sits on your top foods board and represents your company, i refuse to buy from whole foods market any more (@ Whole Boycott)

In principle, I don’t believe there should be economic boycots [sic] based on political speech that doesn’t rise to the level of hate speech or the like. In reality, there are large scale boycotts by rightwing corporate America of progressive media outlets and rightwingers have no qualms about boycotting progressive business owners. (@ Comments from Left Field) 

The last one is my favorite: "In principle, I think this is a bad idea, but if rightwingers do it…"

Sure, not everyone gets to air their personal beliefs in such a high-profile way, but if the concern were really about where he got to express his opinions, the boycott probably ought to target the Wall Street Journal for giving Mackey column space. That would raises a whole separate set of issues about privilege and political influence, newsworthiness, and op-ed balance, and I think ultimately, the editorial choice is pretty defensible. Mackey is the CEO of a company that provides different kinds of health care benefits to thousands of employees in countries with different kinds of health care systems. That doesn’t make Mackey’s opinion the only or most worthwhile one, but it’s certainly a reason to think he might have some sort of useful perspective, and publishing his column is neither an endorsement of his opinion nor does it preclude the publishing of other, contradictory opinions. But that argument is moot anyhow because I haven’t seen any calls for a boycott of the WSJ.

Boycotting Whole Foods instead suggests that executives ought to keep their political beliefs concealed, even when they might have something to contribute to the debate or when publicizing their beliefs might alert consumers to policies and political contributions that might actually be unfair or harmful and really would merit an organized response. We’re better off being able to keep tabs on the politics of major companies’ executives and using boycotts to protest unfair, harmful corporate policies. Sure, some people are taking this opportunity to complain about Whole Foods union-busting again, but that’s a sidebar. The message of this boycott is "Shut up, Mackey," and maybe "rightwingers have no qualms" about that sort of thing, but I do.

I’ll write about my general ambivalence about Whole Foods some other time…suffice to say I don’t shop there often enough for my participation, or non-participation, in the boycott to make even the most trivial difference. However, I think this boycott does more harm than good, and it makes me want to shake my fist impotently at people whose political beliefs I probably mostly share and tell them to get off my side.

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