But there was a problem with this made-for-TV narrative—several, actually. Shortly after Oliver left, a study by the West Virginia University Health Research Center reported that 77 percent of students were “very unhappy” with his food. Students who relied on school meals for nearly half of their daily calories routinely dumped their trays in the trash. Some did it because they hated the taste; others because it became the cool thing to do. And while Oliver’s meals used fresh, high-quality ingredients, many turned out to be too high in fat to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards. Within a year, McCoy said, the number of students eating school lunch fell 10 percent, forcing her to cut her budget and lay off several cooks.
In almost every respect, it would have been easier for McCoy to drop this grand experiment in school-lunch reform that had been foisted on her. Her employees were overworked, and the fresh food was more expensive, even after McCoy abandoned the free-range chicken and organic vegetables that Oliver had insisted on (and that school officials say ABC Productions had paid for). There’s only so much you can do when you have $1.50 to spend on ingredients for each meal. But over the next few years, McCoy accomplished exactly what Oliver had set out to do himself: She saved school lunch in Huntington and proved that cafeteria food isn’t destined to be a national joke.
As proverbs go, “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush” seems particularly apt in Baltimore. It’s cautionary, but it’s underpinned by a notion of gratitude, and in a city that so mightily and publicly struggles with violence and poverty, there’s practically an ethical imperative to be grateful for what you’ve got. Yet, for all of the city’s well-known economic and social woes, in the two years I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed that many Baltimoreans love Baltimore in a way that, say, you’re average DC resident doesn’t love DC (particularly since the inauguration).
I won’t speculate as to why others enjoy living here (especially since this is well-worn ground: the city’s been written about and celebrated by people with far more Baltimore credibility than I’ve got), but for me, Baltimore’s appeal has everything to do with its affect and atmosphere. Put simply: Baltimore and Baltimoreans are generally unpretentious and they’re also pretty damned interesting, which are two adjectives I’d also use to describe Bird in Hand, the city’s new café and bookstore.
n the autumn of 2011, as the world’s financial system lurched from crash to crisis, the authors of this book began, as undergraduates, to study economics. While their lectures took place at the University of Manchester the eurozone was in flames. The students’ first term would last longer than the Greek government. Banks across the west were still on life support. And David Cameron was imposing on Britons year on year of swingeing spending cuts.
Yet the bushfires those teenagers saw raging each night on the news got barely a mention in the seminars they sat through, they say: the biggest economic catastrophe of our times “wasn’t mentioned in our lectures and what we were learning didn’t seem to have any relevance to understanding it”, they write in The Econocracy. “We were memorising and regurgitating abstract economic models for multiple-choice exams.”
Although the study of time has yielded few firm conclusions, one lesson is poignantly certain: most people complain that time seems to speed up as they get older, in part because they feel more pressed for it. “Time”, writes Mr Burdick, “matters precisely because it ends.”
Maybe because I’m older and many of my friends are raising strong and spirited daughters themselves, and maybe because of refugees still hoping to flee from war and disaster—but with far fewer choices than the women of The Joy Luck Club—I am slowly coming around to Team Chinese Mom. I understand now the need to invest your daughter with every wise word and cautionary tale to lead her to a successful and happy life. But as Lindo Jong says near the end of the book, it’s a difficult task to graft the old ways onto “American circumstances.”
Most of the series is gorgeous and disappointing. In each episode we’re introduced to a different type of habitat—islands, jungles, deserts—and shown how the various living things have adapted themselves to it in tiny six-minute vignettes, as if biological life were made up of little stories. But the final episode, showing animals in the city, is spectacular. The natural world is no longer out there, in the eternal wilderness, divided from our own lives by an absolute ontological barrier, and interacting with humanity only insofar as we destroy it. Instead it’s rising up from underneath with a mocking challenge to the world we think we’ve built.