Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sam Adams B(eats) General Tso (Chicken)

Samuel Adams organized the Boston Tea Party, but is better known as a beer brand; most people under 30 think of a nunchuck-wielding, orange-clad mutant turtle - not a Renaissance artist - when they hear the name Michelangelo. It's easy to see there's a long tradition in America of recalling history in a backhanded way, honoring people and places in ways that bear little resemblance to their actual significance - coincidental or not. In doing so, we recreate history and historical figures, remembering them in our own unique way.

For example, John Hancock should be remembered for large things (President of the Second Continental Congress), but his name lives on because of larger things – his signature on the Declaration of Independence and the downtown Chicago building. An O. Henry can be “A Gift of the Magi” and a gift of sugar high, as both short stories and candy bars are meant to be consumed. And one can assume that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show didn’t feature football games between cowboys and redskins, but the Buffalo Bills’ 2007 schedule featured contests against both Cowboys (from Dallas) and Redskins (from Washington).

Americans also seem to usurp foreign allusions easily. Homer no longer fathered just the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Can you imagine Cadillac rolling up the waters of the Detroit River in a canoe outlined in chrome and with spinners on the paddles? Most remember Casablanca as home not to Hassan II Mosque – the world’s second largest – but rather Rick’s CafĂ©. And one would think Marco Polo’s navigation of the Silk Road was slightly less happenstance than the pool game that carries his name.

Others references simply cross one of the oceans on their own through cultural osmosis. A certain Irish rock band may make more noise than the early Cold War spy aircraft they lifted their name from: the U2. Few people remember that Bloody Mary was first related to a Tudor, not a Mimosa. The Duke of Windsor’s scandalous abdication is long forgotten, but his debonair double-knot remains popular. And the end at Marathon now isn’t widely known for a crippling Persian defeat, but rather for crippling pains in da feet. And I'm almost certain that General Tso's troops didn't enjoy his delicious chicken during the Taiping Rebellion, but I sure do.

Current pop culture isn’t immune to their trend either. If I said, “I just finished Gray’s Anatomy,” you’d think I’d been watching a 43-minute drama dripping with sexual tension rather than reading a 1,000+ page document dealing with skulls and tendons. The original Madonna didn’t roll around in the innkeeper’s stable singing “Like A Virgin” while wearing a wedding dress before the birth of Jesus. And if my roommate tosses his Apple, Steve Jobs – not Johnny Appleseed – takes offense. The most famous white Bronco should be John Elway, not the one with O.J. riding in the back seat. And if a young Hollywood celeb told his parents he was in Paris last night, he might not have been talking about the one with the Louvre.

We’re involved in this cultural exchange every day. We’ve created a culture that might seem like our own, but it’s not; it’s inherently interwoven with history in entertaining – albeit less relevant – ways. While mostly harmless, this “reinterpretation” can be embarrassing, especially for well-educated college students. And I offer a final example to stave off possible embarrassment: Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, not just a collegiate drinking game, to played with – not against – Sam Adams.

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