The Skitters

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source:  Thornapple CSA

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

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

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

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

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

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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