Watching my son refuse food sometimes feels like payback for the trouble I caused my family. He is not polite in letting us know how revolting he finds a dish he has not even deigned to taste. I have lost much of the pleasure I used to take in cooking, frustrated by having my efforts in the kitchen treated with reliable disdain. His kindergarten teachers rave about his creativity and kindness, but then, with a lowering of the voice, remark on how poorly he eats compared with the other children. His grandparents prepare him meals out of special children’s cookbooks, and look on with barely disguised concern as he rejects the spinach lasagna or broccoli bake the author assured them would be a hit. My husband and I have taken to opening kids’ cookbooks, staring at the photos of Things That Are Not Plain Pasta, and laughing the hollow laugh of the defeated.
Still, the boy grows. He has boundless energy. He is clever and fun and loving. There is nothing visibly wrong with him. His doctor is unconcerned. When I see people try to cajole him into acting like a normal hungry child, I feel like I am the only person who really understands him, his one ally in a world of robust and unquestioning eaters. I know the frustration of being browbeaten into eating something with a texture or smell I couldn’t bear, of staring down a plate of unfinished food for hours. I recognize his stubbornness, the way he turns down even a food he loves if he feels he is being coerced. I resent that his eating habits so often overshadow his many good qualities, as though this one flaw weighed heavier in the balance than his curiosity, empathy, or devilish grin.
Their story was clear, and it was a strange and compelling tale. Around 600 A.D., Pope Gregory the Great decreed that fetal rabbits, or laurices, were not meat, and could be eaten during Lent, when meat was not allowed. Monks in France — where else? — quickly saw an opportunity and began to keep and breed rabbits as a meaty non-meat to nourish them through a cold and fishy Lent.
Lent, a period of penance and self-denial for many Christians, begins Wednesday, but anyone to whom this story suggests a new menu should stop right there. Apart from the scarcity of laurices at the supermarket these days, the whole story is wrong according to a new scientific report. “None of it is even close to being true,” said Greger Larson, one of the main authors of the report debunking the myth.
One cloudless Saturday morning, last February, I sat alone on a bench, in Long Island City, waiting for the bus. The street felt artificially still, like a stage set. I had forgotten to listen to my boyfriend tell me where he was going—to the office, maybe? I was distracted by the book I was reading: “The Idiot,” by Elif Batuman, in which the main character, Selin, is in her freshman year at Harvard and in love. It’s “an amazing sight, someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket,” Selin thinks at one point. And later: “It felt insane to make a plan to do something after I was going to meet with Ivan—like making plans for after my own death.”
Capitalism’s genius for absorbing and integrating every challenge to it is on vivid display in this thoroughly absorbing history. Behind familiar brands like Stonyfield (now a subsidiary of Danone) or Cascadian Farm (now part of General Mills) stand hippie ideals as well as pioneering organic farmers. As Gene Kahn, the hippie-farmer founder of Cascadian Farm, told me, somewhat ruefully, after he sold his company to General Mills, “Everything eventually morphs into the way the world is.” True enough, and yet the world is also changed in the process. Hippie foods may have been absorbed into the mainstream, and to an extent hippie farming too, but the big hippie idea about food — that our eating has moral, ethical and political implications — has lost none of its power, and continues to feed a movement.
For all that this sort of thing keeps you on your toes, The Melody sometimes threatens to become (almost literally) a shaggy dog story, with the novel’s central conflict between profit and justice settled offstage rather than in the hinted-at grandstand finish. Yet the book retains a lingering power – not least in Crace’s gentle reminder that, although the personal may well be political, it’s often easier to pretend otherwise.
Unlike Kant and the other high priests of the Enlightenment, today’s rationalist somehow has to make do without God or unfolding historical logic. This (as Nietzsche noted) makes science harder, not easier. The heroic ethos of science, of progress, is to carry on regardless, even in the knowledge that entropy will eventually win. Perhaps making this argument makes me a “leftist intellectual”, but I couldn’t help finding it a more appealing – even affecting – ethical pitch than the triumphalism that announces that the good guys have already won.