Sunday, March 31, 2013

Accidental ignorance

Last night, we had a vegetable for dinner and I thought I’d blog about it. That means links, and that led me to an American’s ignorance.

The vegetable is known in New Zealand as kamo kamo (or also as kumi kumi), and it’s a cultivar of the Cucurbita maxima family of summer squash which, if you follow the link, you’ll see it really is “one of the most diverse domesticated species” of squash.

The vegetable is often boiled or steamed and is quite bland, so I was told to put butter and salt/pepper on it. That was nice enough, but I think it would be good in a casserole, where it can absorb flavours. It’s most similar to courgette/zucchini/marrow, and can be used in pretty much any recipe that calls for that vegetable.

The vegetable is native to South America, and was eventually brought to New Zealand by early European settlers. It was adopted as staple food by Maori, and remains popular among Maori today, though it’s fallen a bit out of fashion.

All of that I pretty much knew. I’d probably already tried the vegetable, too, though I don’t think I’d had it in quite that traditional way before. It’s part of the culinary heritage in New Zealand, which is why I wanted to mention it, and that led me to search for more detailed information to link to—and to my temporary diversion into American ignorance.

I happened on a web page where people can ask questions, and one was from an American who was apparently married to a Kiwi. She wrote, “it is found in new zealand, and can't find out anything about it, bought it to try, but don't know how to cook it.” Bad capitalisation and grammar aside, a pretty straightforward question. A New Zealander answered with some helpful suggestions on how to cook it. All good.

Two days later, an American who claims to be passionate about cooking wrote: “No such thing. Kiwi is a fruit they produce. kumi Kumi is however an illegal liquor brewed in Kenya from sorghum, maize or millet.” Neither the questioner nor the person who answered ever used the word “Kiwi”, so I have no idea why this person so arrogantly lectured them on what the person clearly perceived as the only “correct” use of the word. While “kumi kumi” is indeed such a beverage, that doesn’t mean the same name isn’t used for something entirely different. To me, it’s the height of ethnocentric arrogance to declare that kamo kamo (kumi kumi) doesn’t exist because the person had, apparently, never heard of it (keep in mind, the comment was added AFTER a New Zealander talked about it and offered cooking suggestions!).

I mention all that because it’s an object lesson in how Americans so often get caught out on the Internet by assuming that their way of seeing things is universal, that the entire world follows the lead of the USA and does things the way Americans do. Sometimes they just look hilariously stupid—like declaring a vegetable doesn’t exist when it does—other times their ignorance leads them to make really stupid declarations about other countries they so clearly know nothing about (the healthcare debate is a prime example, or this hilarity, or when Americans declare in Internet comments that “the whole world” is converting to the US system of weights and measures—yes, they’re still claiming that).

For the record, kiwifruit (not “kiwi”) is the correct name of the fruit to distinguish it from the bird and people. When referring to the people of New Zealand, it should be capitalised, both to distinguish it and because it’s a proper noun. Kamo kamo (or kumi kumi) does indeed exist. It’s nice and also versatile. And, related, what North Americans often call “winter squash” is called pumpkin in New Zealand. I bet that American would deny that, too.

I tried the vegetable because I prefer to find out about things myself—and that includes countries and their culture. It’s disappointing that more people don’t do the same.

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