Lots of Mustard, but Little to Relish
I live in Madison, Wisconsin, a place everyone thinks is really all weird and bohemian but really isn’t. Not much, anyway. Yeah, it’s a little more cosmopolitan than most other Midwestern places, because of the University of Wisconsin sitting right in the middle of everything—but that mostly just means we get fewer gay-bashings and more great Thai food than other comparable towns. And yeah, we’ve got our freaks, but they’re largely benign freaks, and there aren’t many of them; in our community of 200,000, maybe 10,000 of them are anywhere near weird, and most of them are high school kids who’ll change when they get older. Most of the people here in Madison are like everyone else in the state: Packer lovin’, Milwaukee avoidin’, fried cheese curd eatin’ ‘Sconsinites, and that’s that.
But we do have our local “personalities”, like any community, and Barry Levenson is one of them. (No, we’re not talking about the up-and-down Baltimore-based movie director Barry Levinson—what a difference a vowel makes!) Our Barry Levenson is a former assistant attorney general for the State of Wisconsin who is now the proud proprietor of the Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum, a charming little two-roomer on Mt. Horeb’s main drag (which is called, I shit you not, the Trollway) where you can sample mustards from around the world and buy them.
Barry is a presence here in the Madison area. When he’s not regaling museum visitors with wild tales of mustard scavenging in far-off lands, he’s on WORT radio shows telling absurd stories with bad-pun punchlines. He is engaging and infectious (in a good way); you should hear him tell the true story about getting banned from David Letterman’s show—Barry warned him that that one mustard was too hot, and Dave should have listened. We are proud to have Barry Levenson holding it down here in Dane County, because he’s weird but not too weird. Plus the fact that the MHMM is a great place to bring your dad when he comes to visit.
So I wasn’t all that surprised that the University of Wisconsin Press would want to do a book with Barry, and that it would be about food and law, and that it would turn entirely on his larger-than-life personality. And when I saw that the title was Habeas Codfish, I didn’t blink an eye. That’s Barry for ya. I asked to review the book, thinking it would be funny and just a little weird and that I could throw a local guy a little love.
Sadly, I can’t do that. Levenson proves to be an original and smart-alecky narrator indeed, which is good, and the general idea of examining the ways in which food is and isn’t governed by law is good, but nothing ever really comes together. It’s like the last big meal I made for friends: it’s got all the right ingredients, but it just doesn’t taste right somehow.
At first, I was thinking that the book just lacked focus. After all, it does skip around quite a bit. We start out with a chapter where little capsule descriptions for 19 different food-related court cases are thrown at us willy-nilly, ranging from ancient Syria to Lebanon, NH, almost like a justification for the book we’re about to read. Then we hear about tainted-food cases, then we hear about food-packaging cases for a chapter, then we plunge right into disputes over restaurants copying each other, etc. You don’t really expect narrative drive from a book like this, but you shouldn’t have to keep a whiplash neck-brace handy either.
But that’s not really so much of a problem as the way the book just keeps bouncing around. Most chapters examine one general sort of food-based law, but few of them show any sort of development or argument; Levenson comes off more as a Nexus-enabled cut-and-paster than a deep thinker or writer. He’ll bring up a contentious and famous case, lay out the facts, and explain the judge’s decision, and then move on to another case without pausing for breath. Sometimes these cases are related—Levenson does a pretty good job of explaining the McDonald’s hot-coffee-in-the-lap case and how it impacted a couple of other similar cases—and sometimes they aren’t, but all get the “on one hand but on the other hand” treatment. This may be scrupulously fair, but it just seems like he was afraid of saying anything controversial.
This becomes quite clear when Levenson is dealing with the issue of governmental interference. First he stands up for the rights of poor innocent consumers like us against big companies and their nasty ways: “Grandma never put carrageenan, butter oil, high fructose corn syrup, guar gum, dextrose, corn starch, and carob bean gum in the ice cream she churned in her kitchen. So how can they get off calling their products ‘homemade’?” But then, five pages later, he’s against over-legislation, quoting the three-page federal standard for ketchup in a mocking way. In another chapter, he thinks it’s disgusting when food contains non-food items, but he’s also a believer in assumption of risk. By refusing to take any sides (except on some simple non-controversial cases), Levenson ends up losing the reader.
Which is a shame, because this book could have been so good. Face it, nothing is more fun than reading about people finding worms and chicken tracheas in their food, and Habeas Corpus has those to spare. And Levenson’s breezy conversational style is a welcome change from pomposity; he’s always busting some horrid pun, or throwing in remarks about the superiority of mustard over “the lesser condiments”. He is at his best when he’s freestyling like this, and that’s perhaps what this book should have been. Levenson’s first-person investigation of prison food is funny and touching, and the pizza recipe at the end of Chapter 4 looks great. I can’t wait to try it.
But there is inconsistency of tone here to match the inconsistency of the book’s concept. Levenson obviously decided that there should be a lot of legal cases here, but he doesn’t know how much we know about law, so he overexplains some legal concepts and underexplains others. There should have been a stronger editorial hand here to correct things like that. Why isn’t the “too-hard roll” case lumped together with the “busted teeth due to olive pit in cocktail” case? And why is the last chapter just another compendium of unrelated cases thrown together with neither rhyme nor reason?
I think this is just another case of the book contract wagging the dog. At one point Levenson admits as much, in an anecdote saying that he’s been saving a bottle of 1988 Dom Perignon for three years, planning to open it at the book-signing party. Clearly, he had a great idea, and hit the wall with it, and couldn’t figure out a way to pull it all together. This is what editors are for, people; the U. of Wisconsin press should carve out some budget money for this important task.
Overall, if you don’t really care about a book holding together, this isn’t such a bad investment. But this is an opportunity squandered. Levenson should stick to telling stories, at which he could be quite successful—I’m seeing a Food Network show called “The Mustard Hunter”, and I’m liking what I see. However, sadly, Habeas Corpus didn’t do it for me, and the definitive anecdotally-based book about food and the law has yet to be written.