Maltby: Table tents for the birds

False sense of community built on dead pigeons

“Legend has it that pigeons will explode if they eat dry rice.”

Yale’s table tents really do teach us something new every day. This particular sentence greeted me as I sat down for lunch last week. Clearly my parents had neglected to pass on a crucial aspect of my Western heritage. Who knows what other legends, fables, folktales and proverbs I’ve missed? Thankfully, I have the Yale Sustainable Food Project to re-educate me.

The ubiquity of YSFP table tents provides an unparalleled opportunity as yet untapped. Visible to all students, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, whether they actively search for it or not, no other media has the ability to engineer community so completely. If causes that the University promotes, like YSFP, are allowed to dictate our daily reading, then we would all benefit from a reconsideration of what we’re ingesting.

In the interests of full disclosure I should state that I have a history with exploding pigeons. Some people have dope-dealing roommates. Others endure the antics of nymphomaniacs. I, dear readers, spent last year living with an amateur taxidermist.

Actually, I’m very fond of her, and she was really a great roommate — probably much better than I— not in the least because she usually restricted her gory activities to the labs at the Peabody Museum. But imagine the scene one dark February night last year, when, shivering from the cold, I turned into a corridor on my way to my room. Even from the far end I could detect the eerie scent of something unfit for human contact, emanating from the door to my room. As I approached, and my eyes grew wider with anticipation, my nostrils became overwhelmed. I swung open the door, and there lay the worst half of a pigeon, its insides spread all over the bedroom floor.

Now there’s a story that could become a legend — but only if afterward, in my shock, I had run off to become the celebrated founder of a village or initiator of a traditional anti-pigeon ritual. It’s got plenty of exaggeration, demonizes someone entirely unfairly (after all, she only did it once) and it sprinkles events within the limits of human possibility with a hint of the uncanny.

So sure, the main problem I have with this particular table tent is that it reminds me of images I’d rather not remember while eating. But I’m also bemused by the assumptions it makes about student culture. As a Lit major I specialize in folklore and with the righteousness of a pedant can tell you that an old wives’ tale about the effects of rice on pigeons does not constitute a legend. A legend is colored by historical sensibility, contains allegedly historical narratives and tells us something about ourselves, about our origins and about our culture. That’s why so many legends are foundational. The image of an exploding pigeon, dramatic as it might be, contains no narrative. It’s not even an episode; it’s a split-second event. The Tarantino Table Tent.

Yes, not many people would get hung up about YSFP’s inadequacies as folklorists. It’s much more natural to complain about the room those flimsy structures take up at the table — thanks to space restrictions, I might have to remove my five plates of pizza before I make the trip to fetch my second waffle. But these strident little promotions are among the only opportunities the University authorities have to bombard us with a centralized message. On a campus rich with academic dissent and debate, few Yale phenomena can match the table tent as a manifestation of dictatorial orthodoxy. As it is, one is unlikely to eat more grass-fed chicken breasts simply because the tent tells us how nicely the little animals are treated, when there is no tray of battery farmed alternatives lying beside them. But when we are told that the closest thing we have to a community legend is an irrational fear of unstable poultry, we cease to appreciate the legends that really do draw us together as a group.

Yale doesn’t have many foundational legends — has anyone spent a moment on Nathan Hale since that earnest tour in freshman year? But if I’m going to suffer an infusion of cultural propaganda, I’d rather it was a tale of Yalies confounding their enemies than an explanation of rice farming. When our common reference points become so obscure and lose any relevance to student lives, we being to question whether communality has any role to play in Yale culture.

Anyone up for planting exploding pigeons in the Harvard stands at The Game next month?

Kate Maltby is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at katherine.maltby@yale.edu.

Comments