Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Infinite City: A San Francisco Treat

The commercial jingle Rice-a-Roni: the San Francisco treat catapulted rice pilaf, the underdog side dish, to fame in the 1960’s. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, with its fluorescent orange appeal, was dominating grocery store sales at the time. Everywhere children were eating gummy pasta, devoid of nutrition, a shameful staple in the American diet. Everywhere people identified the pasta with Italy. It became a false and unjust representation of Italian cuisine, contributed to negative stereotypes, possibly even led to the production of Jersey Shore. (Research TRUTH about Italian cuisine and Italian culture and place research here in order to push back at the negative stereotypes.)
The rather murky origins of Rice-a-Roni have never been examined, despite the fact that they are important to California history, the diets of American children, and serve as an example of commercial marketing genius. One day the Italian widow of one of the founders of Golden Grain Macaroni Company walked into her elderly neighbor’s apartment and smelled the delicious air of rice pilaf. Her neighbor was Armenian, this was an Armenian dish, and she was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. (Research TRUTH about Armenian history and insert research here in order to push back on ethnocentric readers who don’t know about Armenia and don’t care.) The Italian widow immediately recognized a winner. Her family’s pasta factory began producing rice pilaf and thanks to her Armenian neighbor, they could finally compete with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. By going outside her own Italian culture, the widow destroyed the monopoly Kraft Macaroni and Cheese had on side dishes in America and introduced an Armenian food staple to our diets. The widow expanded her 1960’s dietary worldview and our own as a result.
I am being facetious. In part because I grew up in a desert outback with little knowledge of urbane environments like San Francisco—in part because my earliest sense of SF came from those Rice-a-Roni trolley-car commercials. I was, as they say, a country girl. But I am also trying to make a point: Rebecca Solnit writes about important matters. Choosing what she would like to include in her San Francisco atlas she considers the underdog, the forgotten tribes, the marginalized ethnic groups, the queens, the environmental disasters, the trees and butterflies. She criticizes the War Machine, the destruction of the environment, the extinction of salmon, and the stupid way we ignore global warming though it threatens our shorelines and our lives. She is a serious and earnest thinker who feels it is important to seek out forgotten histories. She researches. She compiles facts. She quotes intellectual writers—Thoreau, Borges, Calvino, and Rumsey, on the first page of her introduction alone. She loves a good argument.
I enjoy Rebecca Solnit’s writing. I especially appreciate that she dismantles harmful myths that have to do with my own culture: she has repeatedly skewered the myth of the vanished American Indian, the myth of an empty wilderness that needed to be tamed. She grew up in an era when American schools taught versions of history she didn’t enjoy, from a perspective she found unsettling as she grew older. Prior to the 1980’s, in many states, ‘cleaner versions’ of history were taught, versions that left out our country’s dark asides. As her worldview expanded, as she wrote, read, and traveled, as her sense of being human tied into different demographics of people, she needed to rewrite the history she learned in school. Thus she told stories that embraced the forgotten ones, stories that enabled her to live in America and feel part of the country in a way that made her proud. I suspect that Solnit had very personal issues at stake in her early books—that she was learning as she wrote. In other words, it wasn’t knowledge that she ‘gave away’ but knowledge that she was surprised to learn. Watching her language meander across the page gave the reader a shared sense of her discovery.
In terms of her new Essay-Prize nominated work, it was not all I hoped for it to be. Though I loved the maps and the ghost-like sense of place that gets evoked in the introduction and in the discussion of ‘moving films,’ and though I loved the idea that civilization is ineffable and ever-changing, I was ultimately disappointed that I did not feel as much passion at work in “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” as I have in her other work. I don’t know if the diffused emotion is due to the collaborative effort, the overall tone of the work, or the fact that not enough of the topics selected for the maps relied on whimsy and imagination. The introduction claims that “maps are always invitations in ways that texts and pictures are not; you can enter a map, alter it, add to it, plan with it.” With the exception of the final “plan with it” I did not feel any of these invitations while I read the atlas. I felt somehow unable to enter the argument, to see myself existing in this world. I suspect that a sense of shared discovery did not come through as strong as the authors might have liked. I believe the atlas failed in its universal appeal. It did not hit like a catchy jingle or become a treat that non San-Franciscans could understand and celebrate.
Finally, I suspect that my younger peers here at Iowa will complain that older progressives have lost touch with their generation. Many of these young people had Howard Zinn’s version of history included in their high school curriculum. Not only do they know the names of obscure tribes, feel well-informed about the LGBT community, and have friends from every ethnic group, many have fought a sense of liberal guilt from a young age. The result is that they hate forced binaries and didactic writing. Though young students may be progressive themselves, they do not want to see finger-wagging liberalism in anyone’s writing. Especially if the authors don’t show enough negative capability: counterbalance may be one of the most prized characteristics of a modern essay.
“Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” will be popular among those who know and love California’s northern half, or perhaps among those who share Solnit’s singular vision of the city. For those readers who like a bit of contradiction or feel the need to admit disparate voices into any argument, it may be enjoyed a bit less.

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