Your Guide to Hoi Cultcher: Never Order Collards in Paris
A little more than 30 years ago my benefactor Uncle Sam decided I had soaked up enough education for a while and needed some military training. Twenty-two months, twenty-eight days, and eight and a half hours later, I pulled away from Fort Campbell, pockets stuffed with my last months’ pay ($236.00). I headed to graduate school at Tulane in New Orleans.
That was the beginning of this deprived Tennessee boy’s exposure to the cultures of the world. After years spent enjoying other cultures and places, I can boil down everything I know into just two rules.
RULE No. 1 — Never order collards in Paris.
RULE No. 2 — Bad refrigerator magnets are better than no art at all.
Let me explain.
EAT AROUND THE GLOBE
In the last 31 years I’ve been privileged to travel just about everywhere in the world except Africa and Asia—even to New York. My dear wife Susan, who has usually accompanied me, has taught me to take advantage of whatever delicacies the local culture offers. Life holds few delights greater than visiting a new place and discovering previously unimagined tastes. Forever after, the taste of that peculiar delicacy sends pleasant memories flooding over you.
New Orleans offers culture shock enough. If you haven’t ever eaten red beans and rice or pampano en papillotte or Cajun seafood gumbo or oyster poor boys or fresh oysters or New Orleans French bread, you remain deprived. From Tulane I got a year’s scholarship to the Free University of Berlin. My cousin Diane was living outside Paris at the time (1972), in a suburb called Maisons Lafitte. We visited her on the way and I can never forget the open market where she took us to buy crumbly white goat cheese, succulent pears, hard salami, and delicacy after delicacy. Later we visited a relative of her husband’s in Normandy, and drank cidre doux, sweet cider. The list goes on and on.
From Paris we headed south to Madrid, where the bars specialize in tapas, appetizers of all sorts. I can still remember the delicately deep-fried chipimares, tiny baby squid, then later the figs we bought at an open market. On the train to Barcelona we met a German who invited us to visit him at Freiburg im Breisgau. He drove us all around the area, where even the tiniest village inn has a 30 page local wine list and serves venison stew. They sell a wine taster there, with seven or nine glasses served on a little wooden frame. The colors vary from the deepest red to the palest white, and every one is produced in the neighborhood.
In Germany we learned to love wurst, and live on it—Rindwurst in Frankfurt and Knackers in Berlin and Weisswurst in Munich with sweet mustard. Any street vendor served better wurst than you’ll find anywhere in the US, except Milwaukee. Don’t forget those crusty Broetchen rolls, or stinking Tilsiter cheese, or Ganseschmalz spread on black Vollkornbrot and sprinkled with toasted onions. Don’t even get me started on the beers, different in every city and all delicious.
After Berlin we travelled south to Italy, eating our way from Venice, across to Tuscany, down to Rome, and then to Naples and Pompeii. Can I ever forget sitting in the amphitheater in Pompeii with Susan, eating oil-cured olives and Parmesan cheese and those little Italian loaves like crusty puffs of pastry? Hardly. Or buying calzone through a restaurant window in Naples? In Greece we bought bottles of retsina, a can of kalamata olives, and crusty bread. We opened the can by the sea, and sat there soaking up the olive oil with crusty bread—it was as good as the olives.
BUT DON’T ORDER COLLARDS IN PARIS
In all that eating I learned one thing repeatedly. Never buy German peanut butter. Germans are wonderful folks, but they don’t know as much about peanut butter as a Hottentot knows about Grand Opera—no more than the French know about collard greens and cornbread. And never ask anybody English to cook catfish. He’ll poach it, for heaven’s sake. (The only people who say a Frenchman will eat anything are those who’ve never been to England.) Try to explain grits to an Italian and you’ll end up with polenta—corn meal mush. It’s like ordering "barbecue" in Texas. There’s no telling what you’ll end up with, and sure as sin they will smother it in some kind of awful ketchup-based sauce.
Some things just can’t be transplanted. They’ll only grow on their native soil, no matter what kind of chemical fertilizers you pour to them. Try to transplant them, and you’ll just end up with a sorry counterfeit—no good in itself and no substitute for the original.
Three years ago this coming June a kind friend invited us out to Washington state. I’ve never seen such dramatic scenery—breathtaking. Beautiful. Adjective exhausting. I loved it.
Then I came home. Tennessee is not that dramatic, but I love the vistas melting away into hazy horizons full of mystery. The comparison made me realize that there are many kinds of beauty—some dramatic like Washington’s peaks, some mysterious like Tennessee’s hills. The only way you can ruin that beauty is to replace it all with only one kind. It is what it is where it is. Take it that way, or not at all.
DON'T MULTICULTURAL ME
If only Americans—and especially Southerners—would learn this! There’s a restaurant not far from us that bills itself one of the area’s "finest." On their menu you can buy cheese-stuffed jalapeño peppers and bogus calzone from Sam’s and frozen pizza, but there’s ne’er a fresh vegetable on the menu. Not one. Thirty miles from the Tennessee River, there’s no bass or crappie or catfish to be eaten there. In fact, the best restaurant in town is a barbecue shack where you have to stand on the gravel and order through the window. Why is that the best eatery? Because barbecue is native to Tennessee, and we understand it. I can’t buy crumbly French goat cheese produced locally, but in Paris I’ll never find those peach fried pies my Arkansas grandmother made with tart dried peaches and biscuit dough, or collards and cornbread the way my friend makes them. And there’s no fruit anywhere in the world as delicious as the blackberries in our high meadow in June.
The same holds true for people and culture. We’ve all been taught that "art" that happens in a museum or concert hall. If that’s true, I’ll stay a Philistine, thank you.
Back in October we went to the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee for the Tennessee Homecoming. We saw some fascinating native crafts, splitting rails and riving shingles and palings and making baskets and blacksmithing. These are not sophisticated things, but when done right and well they produce things that are at once useful and beautiful. If you’ve ever seen a weathered paling fence, you know that they become more beautiful with age. No, not as exaltedly beautiful as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, but beautiful still.
So looking for ever greater craftsmanship and artistry, I walked down the vendors’ line. With a few handsome exceptions, mostly in needlework and quilts, nothing rose much above the level of hand-painted mushroom people on refrigerator magnets. No imagination, no originality—canned art from the hobby store.
At that point I was waxing haughty when I remembered my friend Jim Kibler. If anybody can lay claim to representing "hoi cultcher," it’s Jim Kibler: tenured professor of English at University of Georgia, published critic, and accomplished author. He is "world class," as the NPR cultcher-apparatchiki would say. I’ve had the good fortune to spend some time with Jim Kibler, and I began to notice something. Whenever we were looking at the work of some aspiring artist or craftsman or writer, no matter how bad it was, Kibler always found something encouraging to say about it. Not something untrue, but something encouraging. I began to wonder about his eyesight.
Looking at those blasted refrigerator magnets for sale I finally realized that I had missed the point. What Kibler was doing was far more important than "art criticism." He recognized what I had not: like the God in whose image we are made, every human being wants to beautify his world. Can he do it well? Talent is not the point. It’s more important that he does it, period—otherwise Wal-Mart, Arts Councils, and National Public Radio will steal what’s left of our souls.
That, dear Readers, is all I know about cultcher.
Originally published February 2008