Wellington Wednesday: Exotic Produce Edition
It’s mid-winter and the pickings at the farmer’s market have been morphing appropriately. It’s near impossible to find a decent head of lettuce, and a wrinkly cucumber costs for dollars.
It’s OK though, since my house has no insulation and the idea of eating a salad while I’m huddled under a blanket is laughable. Or nauseating. Yes, I’m so cold that it actually makes me ill to think about eating something cold for dinner. I’ll take my veges roasted or in soup form thank you very much.
So the menu’s changed. That’s fine, since I love brussel sprouts like a firstborn son and washing lettuce is annoying. This is sort of tangential, but salad spinners are rarities in New Zealand. Why is this? Does anyone know? Anyway, not having one is a real drag on salad nights. Such a pain to get the hair dryer out and dry each leaf individually.
Meanwhile: I was talking to an American friend not so very long ago, via the magical communicating powers of Google Chat, and told him I had to go. Off to the grocery store, I was. To fetch some victuals. Only I called it the supermarket to sound more antipodean. I’m like a chameleon.
And before I signed off, he requested I buy at least one piece of ridiculously foreign produce. Which is exactly the kind of thing you’re supposed to request of friends living abroad. It keeps them curious.
I had very low expectations for the outcome of this challenge though. What was I going to bring back? A kiwifruit? Lame. It’s not like New Zealand’s some exotic South Pacific island, teeming with diverse fruits and vegetables, right? It’s the same old stuff I used to eat growing up. But maybe that’s because I grew up here.
I harked back upon my 11th grade/5th form English class and that time we read To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a real treat, since most of the literature we read was drudgy old British stuff full of matrons and orphans, or else it was Shakespeare which may as well have been typed up in wingdings font for all the sense I could make of it. I was super stoked about reading an American book written within the past hundred years. I could understand it! Praise be!
Except I understood it too well. Our principal came in for some kind of observational visit one day (no idea why–that kind of thing never happened) and our teacher gave us a quick chat about vernacular–how even though it’s all English, we have a different way of speaking than the characters in the book. And then she wanted examples. So she asked the token American-born person to highlight six or seven hundred words and phrases that appear in the book and identify them as Americanisms. Also the token American had better get it right because the principal was watching.
So I flipped through my book looking for words that might seem out of place–anything that looked to be typed up in wingdings when planted in with the strings of internationally-recognised English. No good. It all seemed so hideously normal. Like something I would say. After a million years of awkward, anticipatory silence, I found something.
‘A scuppernog vine,’ I announced. It was easily the most foreign-to-me word in the whole book. It had to be an Americanism. Or a regionally specific type of grape. One or the other.
It’s a grape, as it turns out. Which is to say that I had failed. Not only had I not identified any of the exotic turns of phrase in the book, but it appeared that I had failed to grasp the fundamental concept of the assignment. Here we are talking about vernacular and that dumb American broad starts listing plants. Terrible.
The teacher made some kind of segue about how we should really be focusing on vernacular and not so much, you know, botany. Then she called on someone else who proceeded to list off all kinds of things that I’m pretty sure I had said that day. Things like ‘swell’ and ‘glove compartment’ and ‘drill baby, drill’. So I don’t exactly remember what they were. I just remember it was all really banal and that banality made me feel really different. Not in a bad way, just in a ‘you’ve brought great shame to your English teacher’ kind of way. I joke. The principal didn’t really project my poor performance onto the teacher, since everyone knows Americans are an unteachable people. I was just there for diversity.
It’s experiences like that that teach you of the drawbacks to an overly-expanded comfort zone. Sometimes it inhibits communication, which is illustrated in the example above. Other times it make one sound like a pompous ass such as when one requests fresh coriander in America, and then has to explain that ‘oh, that’s what we call cilantro in New Zealand’. Like one of those people that goes to Europe for a month and comes back kissing everyone twice on the cheek.
It was more the communication thing I was struggling with at the grocery store. I was fairly certain that everything there was exactly the same as it is in America. Especially since it’s winter and there’s nothing but wrinkly tomatoes and root vegetables.
So I started to think like an American, which is to say through a lens of perfect capitalism. Marketable food is non-threatening in appearance (hence fish sticks), so I looked for something that I didn’t think would sell well in a Kroger. I think I did it.
I’ll take foods that look like a venereal disease for 400, Alex.
Ummm… What is the New Zealand yam?
Yes, the New Zealand yam. Or, in New Zealand, the yam. Not to be found in a supermarket near you. Unless you live in New Zealand. In which case, they’re everywhere.
So that’s the power of a little deductive reasoning in the face of overwhelming normality. Not a lesson that comes in handy often, but still.
The yams: despite appearances, they’re actually really tasty. They’re a little bit tart, so I’ve roasted them in a honey/balsamic vinegar glaze for some sweetness. They come out with the consistency of a baked potato. It’s good, but I’m sure there’s more potential yet to be unleashed. Any ideas?