A small town boy moving to a big city and finding new adventures is not a new plot point in stories, but my experience was fairly different from the movies. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where the weather was as unforgiving and about as predictable as an ex-girlfriend. The brisk winds of fall, the harshness of winter, the rebirth and purity of spring, and the sweat drenching heat and humidity of summer are rarely found in one location. I personally did not fully appreciate the changes in climate from season to season until I discovered you can, amazingly, get sick of 70 degree sunny days for 2 years straight. I describe this change in weather because I want you to understand the unique contrast from the food found in them. Here, in Pennsylvania, food is very consistent; a lot of comfort food to warm the body and spirit. This is most likely due to the similar cultural heritage of Pennsylvania Dutch and Eastern European. However, in California the styles and flavors of food are incredibly diverse. This is primarily due to the many cultures which share the areas. While there may be some political and idealism based conflicts between these different cultures, the varying flavors, styles, and types of food are more in harmony than most barber shop quartets. There are still three experiences that my taste buds will not soon forget. These did more than just expose me to different flavors and tastes; it exposed me to new cultures. Before I begin, I am writing this to show how something as simple as trying new foods has allowed me to experience new cultures. In turn, this allowed me to notice and respect the small changes between myself and them; I celebrate these differences, as opposed to holding on to man’s natural tendency of resenting anything new or different from their culture.
Cilantro: Love It, Hate It
Oh cilantro (sih-lahn-troh), what a love hate relationship we hold. I had had cilantro prior to living in California, particularly at the chain restaurant Plaza Azteca, whose guacamole I would marry if it was possible to do so. The intense lemon/lime flavor of the herb makes it an ideal taste to top nearly any dish. However, Californians have adapted a seeming addiction to it by putting it in literally, literally, everything. I was especially surprised to find it in a local Chinese restaurant in Redondo Beach, California (the area in which I lived). I love the sweet, creamy taste of orange chicken; a boneless chicken dish tossed in a sauce made of orange zest (the peel). However, when I took my first bite, the green herb on top of the chicken was not parsley, as I had suspected, but cilantro. The cooling rush of citrus ran from the roof of my mouth down and into my lungs as I breathed. I wondered why a traditional Chinese restaurant would use a Hispanic herb. So I asked my waitress:
How come you put Cilantro on this?
It’s an old trick the owner’s mother had taught him. He says that the intensity of the cilantro makes the orange seem sweeter by comparison.
This route of logic is one which I could not disagree with. The flavor of orange had grown to a veritable explosion as the cooling mint flavor of the cilantro receded. Apparently, cilantro holds a place in many cultures aside from that of Spanish origin. I certainly have added it to my shelf of spices and herbs myself.
The flavors and dishes which come out of each culture are exponentially different, but I still find it amazing how they use a number of the same ingredients. Despite the incredible changes in the result product, the ingredients and unique aspects that make the dishes are identical, in some aspects. I realize that this is the perfect metaphor of human culture and the perceived division that is devised. If so many cultures can share a similarity, such as the herbs to their cooking techniques, then how come we always focus on the things that separate us, instead of what unites us?
Watermelon & Hopefully Nothing Illegal…
It was a beautiful day, and my friends Allen, Sean, Stephen, and myself were spending it on Hermosa Beach playing volleyball. The gloomy weather that comes around every year in June had passed by mid-July, and the sun was beating down on us with no relief aside from the cooling winds from the Pacific. After a couple of games, my friend Allen walked off the court and grabbed a small container from his bag. I asked him:
What is that?
I packed some watermelon, you want some?
Before handing me a slice of the cooling fruit made of water crystals, he pulled out a container of some sort of powder and sprinkled it all over the entire piece.
What is it? I ask while he hands it to me.
Just try it. It seems too weird until you taste it.
My mom had always taught me to typically be wary of this sort of thing, but I was willing to try new foods….and I was hoping Allen wouldn’t poison or drug me. As I take my first bite, I first feel the gush of sweet liquid from the watermelon and then a slight fuzzy feeling throughout my mouth.
See cocaine isn’t that bad, said Allen; making me nearly choke as I let out a spurt of nervous laughter. It was a strange spice that somehow got more intense the longer it was in my mouth.
So what is it actually? I gargled through a mouth of watermelon and hopefully not an addictive drug.
It’s something mi Madre taught me. (His Spanish heritage still shows up in little phrases). It is red pepper flakes. The spice of them adds flavor and makes the watermelon more sweeter.
Probably the simplest and also strangest thing I could’ve thought of to pair with watermelon, but I can tell you from personal experience, it is delicious. It got me to start appreciating the little changes in the same type of foods that exist in my hometown that make such a huge difference. It got me thinking that, maybe the differences between cultures and people just seem drastic when looked at on the surface, but when examined and you get to see what makes us different, it could be as little as a pepper flake.
We Are All Cacti
I know that the title is a weird statement, just bare with me as I explain to you just what I mean. After roughly 4 months of moving to Redondo Beach, I had finally found employment at a local seafood restaurant. It was honestly a dream location. The edge of the restaurant was so close to the ocean that I could have jumped off of the roof into the harbor. Every night, the sun would set over the pacific and the huge glass windows would intensify the beautiful layers of color across the horizon of water as the waves began crashing higher up the beaches. As I walked into the restaurant for my shift, I was greeted by the amazing scent of one of Manny’s (Manuel, a cook in the restaurant) creations for the staff. At least once a week, he would come in two hours early and organize a dish from his Mexican heritage for all of the staff to enjoy. Today was extra special, because it was the world cup final between Germany and Brasil. Brasil is the proper Portuguese spelling of the nation, which I learned out there and have never written the same again. He had prepared something I never knew you could eat, cactus. I asked:
How did you make this?
It’s sort of like carving a pineapple. You gotta get all of the prickly parts out first then it’s got a sweet center.
Sounds like most people, I said jokingly.
However, looking back on it, I realize that it is true. We all, no matter what culture, or part of the world we come from have a sharp, tough outer shell and a softer inside that we are very cautious who gets access to it. Across all cultures, we all have very similar mannerisms and tendencies. I wonder if the discrimination between cultures would exist, if we were blind.
What’s the Point?
The reason why I shared these stories was not to show the changes in food, nor to tell stories from my life. I wanted to show you that food is a pathway to understanding the changes between cultures, and that if we all focus on the little flavors and things that make us special instead of what divides us, we can create something beautiful. Much like the cilantro and the orange chicken, the red pepper and the watermelon, and the cactus; diversity and differences can combine to make something special. You just have to be willing to let them coexist. So the next time you get the chance to try something new, understand that it is an invitation to share in someone else’s culture, and it is not something that should be turned down.