Friday, March 29, 2013

What Would Wontkins Brew?

Although I  had quite an assortment of odd and interesting jobs as a student, my old school chum -- the late and great Jim Henson -- worked his way through college in a far stranger and ultimately memorable way. I should admit that I am using the term "school chum" very loosely: I attended College Park for only one year and Henson had graduated before I was born. Between his college days and my own, I was very active as an amateur muppeteer in my church, but did not follow his work closely until much later, and did not know of his coffee work until just a few years ago.

For the past few years, I have been sharing clips like those shown here with my geography of coffee students. Like them, I first assumed these were spoofs and was then astonished to find that these were real television commercials. Long before Kermit became a household name the remarkably similar character Wilkins was bludgeoning his companion Wontkins into a reluctant brand loyalty to the eponymous Wilkins coffee.

Scores of these 10 second television spots were produced between 1957 in 1961. This was the heyday of outrageous coffee advertising. With price competition driving quality standards ever lower, outrageous advertising was used to build market share. If anything Henson's work -- though violent -- stands out for its avoidance of the misogyny commonly used by other brands.

I am grateful to the blogger Open Culture for sharing even more of these disturbing clips and for telling the rest of the story, which includes Henson's subsequent work for regional coffee roasters throughout the United States. As with the unfortunate Wontkins, Wilkins coffee is no longer with us. Details are uncertain but it appears that the roaster was sold to A & P and the brand name absorbed by another regional roaster

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In the Art of the Sea

Vancouver Maritime Museum
Many thanks to the mother who went on television in Canada to protest her local maritime museum's inclusion of suggestive scrimshaw in an exhibit about the art created by men on long journeys at sea. Imagine her surprise that some of there etchings were erotic!

Without her protestations, I would not have known about the exhibit in time to share it with my students who are developing lesson plans around In the Heart of the Sea.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Getting from 7 to 9

New Agriculturalist is one of the very best resources for thoughtful scholarship related to food production and food security, particularly in developing countries of the tropics.

In this month's editorial, New Ag suggests that greater autonomy for women farmers might be the best place to look for new approaches to feeding nine billion people on a planet currently struggling to feed "only" seven.

Two (or more) Certs in One

I recently had the opportunity to participate in an interdisciplinary panel discussion on teaching about fair trade at the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society. It was a great chance to think not only about how to talk about fair trade with students, but also to have a critical conversation about recent changes in the movement and related branding with professors of sociology, business, and economics who had been directly involved in a variety of ways. A few weeks earlier, I had the opportunity to meet Barbara Fiorito, who has been involved in fair trade since it first became organized within the United States, and to discuss with her some of the current anguish within the movement.

These discussions have sent me back to the literature on certifications, which sometimes cause a great deal of bewilderment. What kind of coffee should a person who cares about birds and farmers buy, for example? Because most social certifications have minimal (if any) environmental requirements and most environmental certifications have even fewer social requirements, some coffees will actually carry two or more certifications, at additional cost to the producer. ("Social" in this context means requirements related to treating the farm workers humanely.)

So what is a thoughtful consumer to do? In the long run, many of us agree, we need to act not only as consumers but also as citizens, working in the policy arena to ensure that we can safely assume people, land, water, and wildlife are being treated fairly.

Since certifications have now been in place for decades without such a situation coming to pass, however, we are probably going to have certifications with us for some while. Sellers of coffee will still bear most of the responsibility -- and cost -- for demonstrating their good faith and good practices.

That being the case, I recommend the summaries provided by Ethical Coffee as a very good starting point for understanding the goals, interests, and limitations of each of the major certification programs.

And although this post is far from a comprehensive list, I can point to a couple of Nicaragua-based studies that have attempted to evaluate the impact of certification regimes on other outcomes of interest to coffee buyers, such as quality and yield. One is a 2007 study by Philpot et al that is cited and summarized on the Coffee Habitat blog. The other is a 2010 study by Ruben et al that is cited and posted on the Rainforest Alliance web site.

As I continue to follow up with the colleagues with whom I discussed these matters last weekend, I expect to be adding resources to this particular post.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Smashing Hand

I look to Jim Meddick's Monty for clever insights, but not often is it as political as it is clever. Today I was thus very pleased to see him take on the mythical, invisible hand of the market.
Monty, March 18, 2013

I have written earlier about the nefarious doings of this hand under the sheets of unbridled capitalism, and of the Ayn-Rand Right's obsession with the twin fetishes of privatization and limited taxation.

Today's Monty eschews perversion tropes in favor of puerile violence fantasies about the destruction of the icons of civic-minded progress. To great effect, I would say.

A World of Food

This map is a beautiful example from a multilingual compendium of excellent cartographic design. Many of the maps, including this one, are available in several languages, so the collection is well worth browsing. This particular map is elegant in its simple presentation of a wealth of information about the geography of food.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Serving Justice

As someone who writes earnestly about the geography of food and the preparation of food, I have enjoyed this satire of over-wrought locavores. The piece is a good send-up of my own approach to coffee, for instance, since I am only completely comfortable drinking a cup if I have been to the farm.

Writing for Salon, Matt Frassica suggests that diners concerned about justice might do well to think of some questions much closer to home. In Restaurant Horror Show, he explains how restaurant companies that are trying "to compensate low-wage back-of-house employees without actually paying them enough to live on ... often reach into the pockets of the underpaid waitstaff to do it."

Just as Walmart makes its profits by having the taxpayer subsidize workers, some restaurants have the workers subsidize each other. The article reminds me that I should follow my father's example more often. Even when paying a restaurant bill by credit card, he always pays the tip in cash.

The article also examines tip refusal:
The reasons put forth for withholding tips for service are varied but fall into a few general categories. There are the ideological objections, often with a  libertarian slant. There’s the  misanthropic cheapskate defense. There are studies showing the influence of subliminal factors like  music choice, the customer’s genes, the weather, the proximity of the server or size of her breasts.
It is not fair that the printed menu prices include food, rent, utilities, marketing, and profit, but only a small fraction of labor costs. Until the restaurant business is reformed, however, conscientious diners should plan to take up some of the slack. As I have written previously, the situation in hotels is not any better. It seems that even as $100 became the new minimum for a decent (or even less-than-decent) hotel room, the cost of labor is no longer included.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


NOTE: In March 2013, I realized that I had not finished this post, most of which I wrote in June 2012, at the time of the coup in Paraguay. I rediscovered the draft as I searched my blog after reading Simon Romero's rather odd interpretation of Brazil's response to the coup, which contrasts strongly with his article cited below.

This cartoon is currently circulating through social media in Brazil (where I am fortunate to have quite a few friends, mostly geographers) and may be a bit perplexing for most U.S. observers. It will be all the more perplexing because it expresses indignation about the U.S. role in events that took place just a few days ago, but far from the attention of most people in the United States.

Aside from a very lucid description by Simon Romero of the New York Times (and a few stories on NPR, to be fair), last Friday's ouster of Paraguay's first democratically-elected president was widely unnoticed. Two days after events that many in the region are comparing to the 2009 coup in Honduras, the U.S. State Department web site has no indication of the U.S. position, aside from the brushing aside of a reporter's question during the daily State Department briefing on Friday. Neither the Miami Herald nor the Los Angeles Times include any mention of the crisis at all, even though both of these papers usually cover Latin America in some depth.

Several factors explain the vast differences in attention. First, U.S. economic interests in Paraguay are comparable to the interest we would have had in Kuwait, had its chief export been broccoli. That is, Paraguay does not have vital strategic resources for the United States, though its water and hydroelectric resources are tremendously important with the Southern Cone. Second, although Brazilian observers have coined the term "golpeachment" (from golpe for coup) in reference to last Friday's events, it can be plausibly argued that the removal of Paraguay's president proceeded within the requirements of the laws that provide checks and balances over the president. As Romero points out, enhanced oversight of presidents was actually a requirement for democratic progress following the very long tenure of Stroessner.

Two articles (in Portuguese) on the Brazilian political site Passa Palavra explain some of the Brazilian connections to the conflict that precipitated the impeachment. The articles -- Massacre de camponeses no Paraguai  (Massacre of farmers in Paraguay) and Guerra no Paraguai, um conflito brasileiro (War in Paraguay, a Brazilian conflict) explain that Brazilians own many of the very large estates that peasants have tried to occupy.

More commentary on the geography and politics of Lugo's ouster from COHA, BBC, and NY Times:

Land Reform Issues Intensify as Paraguay Enters Into a Political Crisis » Council on Hemispheric Affairs

BBC News - Removal of Paraguay's President Lugo draws strong reactions

In Paraguay, Democracy’s All-Too-Speedy Trial -

Paraguay’s Nascent Occupy Movement Cut Short by Political Crisis » Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Friday, March 08, 2013

A Park in the Walk

About a decade ago, I was involved in helping to develop management plans for parks and open space in my town. One of the biggest surprises for me was the importance of providing for the parking of cars in such spaces. After all, we were trying to protect space for walking, wildlife, water protection, and the like, so automobiles seemed a strange thing to worry about.

A key goal, however, was ensuring that people would actually have the opportunity to get to know the parks so that they could better value all the other things we were trying to do with the land. Bicycling in our town -- like most others in our region -- is fairly dangerous and General Motors saw to it that trolleys were ripped out decades ago. Most people do not own horses any more, and only a few of our parks are accessible by canoe. For parks more than a brief walking distance from someone's home, therefore, parking the car is an essential part of enjoying nature.

I was reminded of this when I went online to plan an anniversary hike on part of the Appalachian Trail with my sweetheart. She had recently read a book about the AT, and we decided we should go back on the trail! We did quite a bit of hiking when we lived in Arizona, and we like to walk in parks near home now. But real hiking lately has been limited to my Nicaragua study tours.

One of the first things I found on the interactive map provided by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was the availability of parking. In addition to identifying parking spots for two different segments to hike on the weekend, I was able to go online to reserve a Zipcar to serve as our shuttle, to let a friend know we would be stopping by her roastery before the hike, and to inquire about lodging options.

After the hike, not only will I be able to blog about it, I will be able to log about it. That is, I will be able to post a video showing our exact path -- including an elevation profile -- thanks to the wonders of GPS.

How things have changed! The last time I was on the Appalachian Trail itself, incidentally, my buddy (and fellow geographer) Mike and I used paper maps only. "Online" was not yet an option, and hardly even a word.

UPDATE (March 14, 2020): Despite the great anticipation with which we were approaching this brief Appalachian hike, our original plan was not to be. I had some sort of leg injury that resulted in us taking a very short back-and-forth hike, and we did not record it. We did not get to my friend's roastery, either. But we did have our only visit (so far) to the amazing MassMoCa.

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