Oct 282012

Of late I’ve been thinking a lot about kindergarten. My kindergarten, that is. I’m thinking about a practice we had during lunch time: We did not get to choose with whom to dine. Instead, after purchasing our lunch or fetching our lunch boxes (mine was a metal Holly Hobby number with matching thermos, the combo always reeking of American cheese and citrus, which, come to think of it, probably explains why my favorite color is orange), we had to take the next available seat in a long column of desks, two wide.

My kindergarten was at a predominantly African-American public school in Memphis, Tennessee. If you do the math, you will figure out that my single White mama sent my honky ass to kindergarten in 1979, during the era of a) wide ties and wider afros, b) White flight from chocolafying city centers to allegedly safe suburbs, and c) the launch of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. Which is all a long way of saying that the majority of my 5-year-old lunch dates were Black kids who were not going to put up with any racist bullshit from me, however honestly I might have come by it.

Instead, my African-American classmates–most of them, like me, hailing from single-parent homes and qualifying for (though often not accepting) free lunches–bridged our cultural differences by trading lunchbox items. In the first two weeks of my academic career (which would ultimately consume a full 24 years of my life), I learned that half my cheese-and-mustard-on-whole-wheat sandwich could fetch half a bag of barbecue pork rinds–a steal, by my lights. Half my navel orange was worth three Now-N-Later candies, whose sweetness and tang stuck to my baby teeth far longer. And if I played my cards right, I could convince some naif with a Dukes of Hazzard lunch box that my thermos of orange juice (my mom was into Vitamin C) was well worth his shrink-wrapped jumbo dill pickle (pronounced “pruckle”).

(Save the transactional pruckle jokes for my 40th birthday party, please.)

I was a child who liked to eat, born to a mother whose response to stress was not to eat. The divorce had been stressful. Raising two spastic little kids all alone was stressful. My Vietnam War-scarred father’s failure to pay child support was stressful. The night school classes to become a CPA were stressful. By the end of kindergarten, my 5’8.5”mother had shrunk to about 110 lbs.

But with the help of my lunch mates, I was maintaining my appetite and my fighting weight. I was also developing, it turned out, an enduring interest in race, class, and culture.

Just as important, I was gaining an early understanding of the limits of personal preference. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have always lunched with Susan of the ribboned chestnut ringlets and pastrami sandwiches, or with Connie of the white-blonde bangs and culturally okay Doritos, or Jennifer of the Little House on the Prairie braids and egg-salad everything.

Instead, I discovered new comfort foods with Roderick and Terrell, Reginald and Zuhara, Terrence and Zonna. I also mastered a new list of light conversation topics: Who do you stay with? (that is, which relative are you living with right now?) Which kind of Baptist is best? (options included foot-washin’, dunkin’, and clappin’) and, precociously, What things can White and Black people do together? (hold hands on the playground? yes; swim in the same pool? maybe; get married? maybe not).

Does this make me a better person? Probably not. It probably does give me an edge as a cultural psychologist, because I grew up alongside a culture (namely, urban, Southern, working-class African-American culture of the late 1970s) that some of my colleagues work for years to understand.

But my public education definitely made me a sucky consumer, at least in the eyes of Silicon Valley. I seldom listen to my iPod in my house, and never in my car. (My lowly ride does not even have a tape player.) Instead, I leave it to chance that the radio will serve up the acoustic equivalence of barbecue pork rinds or watermelon Now-N-Laters. I don’t insist on ordering shrink-wrapped pickles from the Interwebs, but instead will demur to almost anyone’s fermented foods, be they kimchi or natto or kefir. And though I insist on iron-fisted control in some domains (cf. my kitchen sponge rotation schedule and my color-coded project plans), when it comes to other people’s artifacts, I let go of the reins and try to take it all in.

And if I had a kid, I’d like to think–I’d dream to hope–that I would not overly curate his or her or his/her world to my narrow notions of how the accoutrements of daily life should be seasoned or arranged. I hope that I would give random a chance, as my mother did, as did all the struggling families in our community. Because from that randomness–and, in particular, the randomness of a public education–came experimentation, and creativity, and open-mindedness. From that randomness came the ability to appeal to the good side of each other. Maybe now, a return to faith in that randomness would lead us to talk, and trade, and trust our way to a little more peace.


Apr 072009

MP, CA — “Eat strange things.” These were my friend Lera’s last words to me before I departed for Tanzania. I knew I would disappoint her, for not only is Lera the world’s most brilliant, eloquent, and charming expert on language and thought (get a load of Lera on yesterday’s “All Things Considered”), but she is also the bearer of the most inquisitive taste buds and lax disgust reflexes that I know.

And I? I am a vegetarian, 20 years gone. Although I count myself among the most adventurous of my ilk, I stop short of rolling up my sleeves with Lera and tearing into the oxtails, or the entrails, or the offal, or the tripe, or the smoked sea monster.

Despite my chaste herbivority, Lera embraces me as both sputnik and dinner guest. When breakfasting in, say, Aceh, Indonesia, and served fish heads in spicy rice, Lera gets two servings of fish heads and I get two servings of spicy rice. Because she has mad Bahasa Indonesia skills, she delights in ordering “noodles in crab sauce without the crab” for me. Back stateside, she tolerates my gustatory shortcomings with admirable aplomb: although she wants nothing more than to roast a whole hog, and is lactose intolerant, she always has a vegan entree and six gourmet cheeses for her benighted plant-eating guests.

Traveling through Tanzania, though, I tried to snap pictures of things that I would eat if I had Lera’s omnivorous proclivities. I found the first candidate in the Stone Town meat market: unidentified ruminant heads, gleefully butchered. (see above)

Fresh squid? She would take two–one for now, one for the road.

Salted lake fish, padlock-style? Check.

Of course we would share the bicycle of jackfruit, although Lera would pass up the chance to ride the demon machine.

I’d eat the durian just to show that it’s not the smell of rotting flesh that bugs me, but the fact of flesh itself.

I’m a little embarassed to admit that what I ate over there strongly resembles what I eat over here: a bolus of starch coupled with vegetables spiced just so. In Tanzania, this combo is called “ugali and sauce.” The East African innovation is that the ugali–stiff grits–doubles as the utensil: Using the non-toilet hand (i.e., your right hand), you pinch off a mouth-size bit, roll it into a ball, press a thumb in to make a scoop, rake up some sauce, and pop the savory profiterole into your mouth.

(To round out the meal, you buy cashews wherever possible and eat eggs for breakfast because Tanzanians haven’t quite yet quite learned that “vegetarian” does not mean “does not need protein.”)

I also drank loads of Tanzanian coffee, such as the brew that this man serves in the center of Stone Town.

Recently, Lera has developed her weirdest yen yet: She needs blog posts. Two a week, in fact–one from me, and one from that beguiling Irish wordsmith, Dervala. Otherwise, blogmonster LB gets hongry. And we can’t have that.

So from now on, Dervala and I will be posting to our blogs at least every Tuesday, whether we need to or not.