dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Is Wasabi the New Salsa?

Why no one else is asking this inherently earth-shattering and universe-expanding question is truly beyond me? Several years ago, on a Gap television ad (I think), I was told by fashion-conscious promulgators that gray was the new black. Or grey, perhaps. Please, I recall thinking. Come on. Black is so thoroughly synonymous with cool, so chic or bad-ass, so Steve Jobs, it’s always ever going to be the new black, right? And to quote OutKast: “What’s cooler than being cool?”

Then, last summer, I heard a most suspicious declaration from the ad-mongers: Fifty is the new thirty, they said. Are you kidding me? As a 37-year old, there I was -- caught exactly somewhere in between this pithy and pitchy selling point.

(A pseudo-confession: The context for this pronouncement may or may not have been a promo for ABC’s Cougar Town. I really don’t remember -- in that Ronald Reagan way. Even if I did, what good is it to acknowledge that I am aware of a television show in which hot, older women with perky chests routinely prey upon hot, younger men with chests very different from mine? To repeat, I’ve never heard of a show like that. There's no way there's a show like that.)

Anyway, fifty as the new thirty must be the rarified cult of youth talking. Sure, maybe with enough plastic surgery and a recommended daily allowance of performance-enhancing drugs that could make a baseball player party like it's 1998.

But the question of wasabi -- and its ascendancy? -- surely carries a hotter intrigue than most so-called cougars. With Courteney Cox being the exception. Naturally.

June 9 || 5:17 p.m. EDT || Terminal A, Dulles

On the precipice of flying across the Atlantic Ocean, and while walking around in Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., my stomach was a million miles away from wasabi. Several million, to be honest. In fact, it was already sending me its own version of a Code Orange alert, not so gentle reminders of that lurking, sinister presence of airline-inspired food (oh the terror of Virgin Atlantic’s roast beef and mash!), which was waiting in the murky shadows of some jet.

(Let me say: regarding food that is warmed and served at 38,000 feet, realistically I can only speak to the food placed on tray tables in the economy class. I have no idea how they eat in First Class – except on one occasion when Amie and I were upgraded. How I happily remember using utensils made of steel and being served a dessert so decadent I found myself looking around for the attendant who, I believed, would inevitably walk down the aisle to inform me that the gig was up.)

In actuality, having progressed unfondled through Dulles’s security screening, having taken off my belt and shoes and placed my backpack in one bin, my BlackBerry and laptop in another, and that belt, those shoes and a few jangling coins in still another, I was channeling my energies more in the direction of Wahhabi than wasabi. Until, I saw him. The man who would prompt this silly cultural muse.

With World Cup 2010 set to begin in South Africa in approximately 48 hours, the group I was traveling with was already eagerly anticipating our landing in Johannesburg a mere six hours before the official kickoff to this massive spectacle of sport and nationalism. Not to mention nationalism-as-sport. It seemed rather fitting, then, that the first soccer jersey I laid eyes on in the terminal, as our team twitched restlessly near our boarding gate, was the famous dark green shirt of the Mexican national team.

Mexico would have the distinct honor of initiating the tournament against South Africa – the first time, as undoubtedly you’ve heard by now, that an African nation had been chosen to host this quadrennial showcase. (I learned the word quadrennial two or three weeks ago. You can thank me later.)

If “the national pastime” is the revered shorthand for baseball, on the eve of soccer’s month-long odyssey toward that illustrious cup of gold one writer cheekily suggested the planetary pastime as the normative shorthand for football, the game whose basic rules were codified by the English Football Association in 1863. Nowadays, of course, as most American football fans tire of hearing, soccer is a game played with unyielding passion and brilliant, sophisticated artistry on patches of grass, dirt and street on every continent this side of Antarctica. On the patch of earth belonging to Mexico, futbol was introduced in the early 20th century by English miners from Cornwall.

With apparently some distinction, Mexican supporters of their beloved El Tri are known to follow their boys around the planet – and with full-throated exuberance and fastidious flair to boot. In Dulles, I fully expected to see a healthy constituency of Mexicans preparing to fly across the ocean on their way to the bottom of the African continent – to represent. However, I did not (in the least) expect to see a solitary Mexican fan in line at a particular restaurant, which, in a town known for its emissaries and dignitaries, was dutifully standing in as the Japanese delegate.

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Who knew that some Mexicans eat sushi?

The question, yes, seems laced with your run-of-the-mill, vintage, stereotypical assumption. Which brings me to the earth-shattering and universe-expanding part: How did this guy come to like sushi in the first place? And should his Mexican national team jersey be stripped off his body and sent back to Mexico? Or should he be forced to bathe in refried beans for a month to prove his Mexican patriotism?

The paradoxes of globalization make the head spin. There he was – essentially wrapped in his country’s flag – standing in line at the airport’s sushi joint. What would Benito Juarez do?

Did this man’s friend or co-worker introduce him to the cooked rice wrapped in seaweed with any number of ingredients jammed in the rolls? Did he see it one day in the café section of a typical grocery market – for $5.99 no less, quite comparable to a foot-long sub or possibly cheaper than an Arby’s combo meal – and he just had to try it? Or was he an uptown guy who regularly consumed sushi at up-market restaurants in Mexico City upon his frequent business visits? Or, was it his wife?

You can strike that last question from the record. If this guy was married, his wife needs to be brought into the airport for serious questioning, straightaway. Growing out from the top of this man’s head – almost like a Brahea Armata – was a gorgeously large, straw sombrero. Honestly, I simply could not imagine how this man got by his wife’s "Let me look at you before you leave the house" screening with that behemoth hat resting on his head.

Generally my first inclination upon seeing a sombrero, any sombrero, especially one of that size, is to laugh. Outright. Usually I turn around out of courtesy. But I still laugh. Actually, that’s the only inclination I’ve ever had upon seeing a sombrero. I wish I was a better man, but for me it conjures up Mexican kitsch as fast as you can say piñata or talking Chihuahua. What I did not know was that in Mexico the straw sombrero – as opposed to the variety which comes ornately embroidered – is an iconic symbol of the peasant class.

Almost by any reasonable metric, then, a Mexican man with an oversized straw sombrero waiting to get his sushi on in the capital of the United States of America as he readies himself to fly to South Africa for the World Cup -- this is an exquisite paradox of globalization. Here, before me, the borders of the world lay flattened. Was this a sublime example of a man having been economically lifted up (after all, he could afford to fly to South Africa)? How much cultural harm to his sense of local identity could a little sushi cause?

Meanwhile, I was staring at the guy, ridiculously stuck in airport gawker mode. And I couldn’t get the stupid chuckle off my face.

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There is still another question about how this man might have come to like sushi, a question that I forgot to ask notwithstanding my very obvious surroundings. Perhaps it was the airport itself – that exceptionally modern passageway to and from the places of the world – providing his keynote inspiration on that promising day, a day when the world was so abuzz with cultural exchange and social amalgamation. Maybe, just maybe, it drove him (along with the very real threat of airline food) to make his way to a food court for something he had never experienced before, with a pinch of wasabi to go.

With the cup of the world playfully entreating the nations to come to South Africa and compete, I pondered the United States’ developing taste for soccer as a possible effect of globalization. It occurred to me that there really is no culturally appropriate time like the present to venture beyond the borders of the known -- no matter what hat you happen to love wearing.

Still, at the end of the long, hot June day, on one anecdote alone, don’t go expecting wasabi to suddenly conquer Super Bowl Sunday come February. That de facto American holiday, as we all know, belongs to the indomitable salsa, which, like soccer, curiously enough, was not originally from here.