“Culture is not a commodity, it is a necessity.”
Unless someone can correct me on the source of this quote, I am going to attribute it to the last person I know who uttered it – Midi Onodera the lesbian Japanese-Canadian director of the film “Skin Deep” in which I played a transsexual woman over a decade ago. The film explored sexual, ethnic and social archetypes.
It has always stuck with me, because it highlighted something we at some point took for granted yet had already become so prevalent in our collective, dare I say, North American mindset: “culture festivals,” “a shot of culture” – the idea that it was something you went out and got a dose of, like a soul drip mainlining into your consciousness.
“Freedom fries” is perhaps the most chilling prominent example in recent memory of whitewashing the diversity that exists in life.
I just stopped by Mashti Malone’s, the Persian ice cream store on La Brea and Sunset, that serves “homemade” flavors that include lavender, ginger rosewater saffron, pomegranate, Turkish coffee, so that I could pick up some black currant juice. This is the only place in Los Angeles I have found where black currant juice can be found. There is a reason for this.
“Blackcurrants were once popular in the United States as well, but they became extremely rare in the 20th century after currant farming was banned in the early 1900s. The ban was enacted when it was discovered that blackcurrants helped to spread the tree disease White Pine Blister Rust, which was thought to threaten the then-booming U.S. lumber industry .
The federal ban on growing currants was shifted to individual States’ jurisdiction in 1966. The ban was lifted in New York State in 2003 as a result of the efforts of Greg Quinn and The Currant Company and currant growing is making a comeback in several states including Vermont, New York, Connecticut and Oregon. However, several statewide bans still exist including Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.. Since the federal ban ceased currant production anywhere in the U.S., the fruit is not well-known and has yet to reach the popularity that it had in the U.S. in the 19th century or that it currently has in Europe and the UK. The first nationally available black currant beverage in the U.S. since the ban was lifted in many states is a powerful health-food nectar under the brand name CurrantC. Since black currants are a strong source of antioxidants and vitamins (much like pomegranate juice), awareness and popularity are once again growing in the U.S.”
In article by Ann Baldelli about the return of the Blackcurrant, farmer Allyn Brown III points out the irony “that the federal government banned commercial cultivation of the Ribes species, which is native to America, to protect the white pine, which was imported from Europe. While commercial crops were eradicated, the currants and gooseberries thrived in the wild.”
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to serve us blackcurrant juice daily. Rife with antioxidants and more vitamin C than any other juice (except perhaps Kale juice which would be really unpleasant). It was as common to me as Kool Ade or Tang may have been to others. We were in Canada so the laws around its production were different.
As I left Mashti’s, I noticed a little Middle Eastern restaurant. Hungry, I walked in a found an incredible, albeit brief menu of cornish hen kabab with sour cherry rice, saffron chicken and so on. I exclaimed, to no one in particular that it was a lovely menu, and the gentlemen standing in line before me asked if I had not ever been there before. I replied I hadn’t. He confided that it was one of the oldest Persian restaurants in Los Angeles and that the food was delicious. What was interesting was that he started to say “Iraqi,” but stopped himself and opted for the politically cooler “Persian” qualifier instead.
As he was leaving, he gave the proprietor, a large burly man, a kiss on each cheek, said some words to him in Arabic, then turned to the cooks at the take out counter and wished them well in perfect Spanish. Why this filled me up so much is, I suppose, the motivation for this piece.
I left a message for my friend in French the other day, in response to her French accented outgoing voicemail message. She called back to say how much it turned her on. This made me wonder – why is it so exciting to hear someone speak a non-English romance language? Because it is rare here in the US? Because it belies culture?
I was fortunate enough to be raised in an Ecuadorian/Polish household and was thus exposed to an already fecund environment for diversity in tradition, sentiment, nuance, music, literature, history and there’s that word again, culture. I learned French in school (being that I lived in Canada, French was always an option in school). All of this gave me a much richer understanding of the world, of food, of poetry, and most interesting to me, a way to think and say things that could not be similarly conveyed in English.
English is an incredible language. It is vital, complex, malleable to a fault and extremely effective for communication. But it easily lacks in certain departments. Note the almost inherent surrealist and analogical perspective of Spanish speakers, or the wry, didactic attitude of the French speaker, the sensual, familial sensibility of Italian, or the efficient, inclusive grammar of Japanese. Though the observation may threaten to engender stereotype, it only appears that way because it has to be parsed through the observational calculation of English.
This all to underline a disturbing phenomenon starting to spread like so much White Pine Blister Rust on the internet – localization of content. Is it ironic that a discussion on heterogeneity should be wary of the threat of localization online? Does the original world wide web not resemble more of a WTO than a UN? Perhaps from askance, but really it was just an lifting of borders. At the dawn of the browser, suddenly the curtain was lifted on the world, and without the barriers of money, Customs officials and mainstream media, we were afforded access to the thoughts, feelings and approaches of our contemporaries around the world.
With the advent of localized content (something already implemented at YouTube and MySpace) we restore the idea that what is immediately around us is of most interest, thus renewing an insular, incestuous perspective.
POM is all the rage now, but pomegranate juice was a staple in Arab countries for eons before it became a major industry in California. Like the Amazonian rainforest, we have no idea what other virtues and gifts exist within it mysterious borders, until it is perhaps too late. Every day another language goes extinct and with it all the nuance, perspective and wisdom of that culture.
It is imperative that we remain open to all of this and understand that all of it is required for the full experience of life, rather than treat “foreign” custom as a sideshow attraction.