Pasta not rice

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil  & her parents

Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil & her parents

“I ate pasta, family ate rice,” says Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil, who comes from a Filipino-American family and wrote that phrase as a contribution to the Race Card Project and as a way of characterizing one aspect of her cultural identity. As a girl Melanie was embarrassed that she couldn’t offer visiting school friends main-stream American snacks like hot dogs or Tater Tots – such things weren’t to be found in her family kitchen.  Melanie’s friends were mystified (and she was mortified) by the huge rice dispenser which was the centerpiece of her family kitchen. Her family ate Filipino food, and rice was served with every meal.  In middle school Melanie told her family she wasn’t going to eat rice any more and her accommodating mother made her pasta instead.  Her story is not unusual for immigrant families.  Fortunately, Melanie’s subsequent story is common these days as well.  In her 20’s she came to discover that her Filipino heritage made her special, and she has since embraced Filipino cooking. Ironically, as she told NPR, she is now making sure Filipino traditions are kept alive in her extended family, making sure the young people in her family know how to make the traditional dish of lumpia, (similar to an eggroll):

“I would prepare my grandmother’s lumpia recipe and kind of set up a lumpia sweatshop, if you will,” Ramil says. “For each of my cousins’ children … there are about 25 or 30 of them — I would put a place mat in front of them, lumpia wrappers … a little bowl of raw meat.”

Melanie is making sure such traditions have some permanence and extend beyond her family, writing a blog, Lola’s Journal, based on her grandmother’s life (and cooking).

For many of us food is an important part of our cultural identity, which may or may not be tied to ethnic backgrounds. Melanie’s story shows us that sometimes that connection is complicated and changes over time.  I’m writing this on Thanksgiving and I’m looking forward to a new tradition my family started last year:  the 10-minute instant Thanksgiving dinner, consisting of a purchased roasted chicken (how great that our main grocery store is open on Thanksgiving), boxed stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and gravy, heated-up rolls. No gourmet feast, but it does allow more time for socializing, games, and emptying my growler, not to mention eliminating the 5 a.m. turkey preparation – a tradition I’m willing to pass up.

Rich and Poor

Pope Francis & his Ford Focus

Pope Francis & his Ford Focus

Pope Francis today issued his first written document, the Evangelii Gaudium and in it he takes on an issue of concern in many parts of the world, the growing gap between rich and poor. “How can it be”, he writes,  “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” The Pope’s “apostolic exhortation” is in large part a stinging rebuke of unbridled capitalism, juxtaposing the real lives of the poor with the focus on ever increasing wealth. Pope Francis practices what he preaches, living in a modest guest house rather than in the ornate Apostolic Palace and riding around Rome in a used Ford Focus.  Last month he suspended a German bishop who had spent lavishly on remodeling and decorating his residence.

This week-end the Swiss voted on one of their many national voter referendums, this one stipulating that CEO’s could not earn more than 12 times the pay of their lowest-paid employee.  The measure did not pass, but that it even came up for a vote in a country that values highly the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates its rich multinational firms is an indication of how wide-spread the concern over the increasing gulf between rich and poor is in many European countries. In fact the Swiss passed a referendum in March that already placed restrictions on CEO pay.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., as the NY Times pointed out in an article this week-end, the mere mention of “redistribution” is political poison.  The article points out that a leading candidate to chair the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Rebecca Blank, had her name withdrawn when it was learned that 10 years earlier she had not only used the word in print but had dared to assert, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system”.  A statement in harmony with Pope Francis’s epistle and one that Christians would seem obligated to support, but seemingly so out of step with American popular opinion that not even a Democratic White House could embrace it.

Norway’s joy

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

If you happen to be in Oslo this week-end, don’t try to buy a chess set – they’re likely to be sold out. Norwegian Magnus Carlsen has defeated the defending champion, India’s Viswanathan Anand, to be crowned chess world champion.  In Norway it’s not just a personal triumph but a heroic achievement that a small country would produce such a champion. It’s what small Iceland dreamed of when it almost made it to the 2014 Soccer World Cup, but was upended this week by Croatia, which got the ticket to Brazil instead. For Norway, it’s a bit of good news to displace the story that still haunts the country known for tolerance and slow TV, the mass murders committed by right-wing extremist and Islamophobe Anders Behring Breivik, who was sentenced last year to 21 years in prison for the murder of 77 people in 2011.

Norwegians were glued to the TV to watch the deciding chess match.  It must have been a welcome bit of excitement compared to other Norwegian TV fare such as real-time knitting or firewood stacking.  It’s so rare that we in the U.S. get any news from the Nordic countries and when we do, it does make the way of life there seem quite different from ours.  The only other big story this year from Norway in the U.S. media has been about the village that installed a huge mirror up on a mountain so that they could have at least a little reflected sunlight in winter. More evidence that Norwegians and other Scandinavians have to adapt to an environment that doesn’t always make life easy. It may not be surprisingly that Greenland has the world’s highest suicide rate.  All the more reason for the Norwegians to celebrate their chess hero.

Sacred values

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that he had set a “red line” for the negotiations his country is restarting with Western countries over Iran’s nuclear program.  His remarks echo similar comments Iranian officials in recent weeks concerning Iran’s “right” to create nuclear fuel through uranium enrichment. The U.S. and its allies are hoping that offering Iran a strong incentive, namely the easing of crippling sanctions to its economy, would bring Iran around to the point that it would agree to forego uranium enrichment.  The strong language from the leaders in Iran indicates otherwise.  While many observers might point to national pride or fervent nationalism as the explanation, a recent piece in the NY Times explains the Iranian recalcitrance by citing it as an example of the power of “sacred values”, defined as “moral imperatives we’re unwilling to compromise on, be they political, religious or personal”.  Evidently for Iranians nuclear power has become such a sacred value and no amount of logical persuasion or financial incentives is likely to have any effect.

The U.S. is no stranger to the strength of sacred values, as the battles over gun rights and abortion have demonstrated.  We may be seeing the playing out of a sacred value among those who are now so vociferously attacking “Obamacare”, who are not just upset over the botched roll-out or the bad policy they believe it represents, but view it as an assault on the strong belief they hold relative to the kind, size and power of the federal government.  Clearly when sacred values come into play negotiation and compromise goes out the window.  Of course in negotiations the trick is to determine when intransigence is a negotiating posture and when it is due to running up against a sacred value. The article cites pioneering work in behavioral economics that challenges the traditional assumption of economists that people act in their own best interest when it comes to financial transactions. It’s not just that people don’t always recognize their own best interest, in some cases that interest may be clashing with values so deeply held that nothing else matters.  The presence of sacred values can be important to recognize not just in political or diplomatic negotiations, but in personal interactions as well. It’s good to know when you might be hitting your head against a brick wall.