A parable for our time

Once there was a large apartment complex where a thousand people lived. They led independent lives: Some were working, some raised families, some went to school, and some had retired. It was a diverse community with people of different races and ethnicities, wealthy people and poorer people, and it was not unusual to hear languages other than English spoken in the hallways.

The one thing they all had in common was their need to eat, and every evening, they gathered in the large dining hall where they were served a communal meal prepared by professional chefs.

One day, the chefs quit, and the residents had to choose new ones. Thirty of the wealthiest people got together and said to each other, “You know, if we got our own dining room, we could persuade the chefs to make gourmet meals just for us and we wouldn’t have to sit with everyone else.” So they interviewed teams of chefs and found one they especially liked, one who promised that the wealthy group would enjoy the best meals ever.

Then began the most intense campaign to hire new chefs that the residents had ever seen. There were rallies, articles in the complex’s newsletters, scrumptious sample meals — everything that the wealthy group could think of to sway the vote to the team they wanted. And lo and behold, the campaign worked! Chefs Paul and Mitch, along with special assistant Elise, were selected.

It wasn’t difficult for the wealthy group to secure their own dining room — they told the other residents that they had mysterious, contagious illnesses and needed to eat by themselves. No, the difficulty that arose was when Paul and Mitch discovered that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to cover gourmet meals for the wealthy and regular food for everyone else.

So Paul, Mitch and assistant Elise put their heads together and came up with a plan. After each meal, they would empty out the compost bins and bake the contents into a large pie to be served at the next meal. This way, they could use the money they saved for the wealthy residents’ gourmet meals.

Not surprisingly, the other residents noticed their food didn’t taste very good. But when they asked Paul, Mitch and Elise about it, they were told that this was a new recipe that had been vetted and approved by the country’s top nutritionists. It might not be as tasty as the food they were used to, but it was far better for them and, in fact, would help cure the sick and disabled people, make the kids smarter and help everyone live longer. They produced articles and testimonials by professionals and even had experts give talks for the residents, complete with PowerPoint slides, graphs and videos of athletes and celebrities extolling the benefits of “American Health Pie.”

This quelled the residents’ discontent — after all, who didn’t want to be healthier and live longer, even if it meant eating somewhat yucky food?

After a while, the wealthy group started grumbling. While they enjoyed their gourmet meals, they felt that they ought to be getting more perks from Paul, Mitch and Elise, especially since they had poured so much money into the campaign to get them hired. Some even suggested that they might want to hire another team.

Paul, Mitch and Elise grew worried.

“What can we do,” they wondered, “to make the wealthy group happy?” They formed a plan, which they put into action the very next day. They would find even cheaper ingredients for the pie! Then they could give the money they saved to the wealthy group. Surely this would satisfy them!

So Paul, Mitch and Elise formed a partnership with a local dairy farmer, who was happy to deliver the new ingredient that would cut the cost of the pie even more. The first night, they used only a little of it, and while a few people thought that the taste was “off,” most didn’t notice. Over time, the chefs gradually increased the proportion of the new ingredient, and by the end of a week, many people were beginning to complain.

“What is this stuff?” they demanded to know, “It tastes terrible. This pie couldn’t be as good for us as you say it is.”

Paul, Mitch, and Elise held firm: “We’ve improved the pie. It is the best pie ever made by human hands, and it is even better for you than our previous recipe!” They brought in the experts, the PowerPoint slides and the videos, and again tried to convince the residents that they would love the pie once they got used to it.

This mollified some, but a small, dissident group decided to take matters into their own hands. They sent a sample of the pie to be analyzed by an independent laboratory, which confirmed what they had begun to suspect.

The next night, after the pie was served, the dissidents stood up and demanded that Paul, Mitch, and Elise come meet with the residents. At first, they didn’t want to.

“We’ll meet with individuals or small groups,” Elise said, “but not with more than 10 at a time.”

This didn’t satisfy the residents, who by now were feeling angry, especially since the lab’s analysis of the pie’s ingredient had begun to circulate. They demanded that Paul, Mitch and Elise come into the dining hall.

As the tension mounted, residents stood up and shouted, “This pie is made with manure! What you are feeding us will make us sicker than ever!” Gradually, their voices merged into a single refrain, “You’re fired!” chanted over and over. Paul, Mitch and Elise, sensing that things could get ugly, quickly fled the complex.

The din was audible in the wealthy group’s dining room, where the well-fed diners were just finishing up.

“Well, that was swell while it lasted,” one remarked.

“Yep,” said another, “I guess we’ll have to go out and buy us a new team of chefs.”

Henrietta Jordan lives in Keene Valley.