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  • Folklife Friday: Chuck Berry, “Ethnic Food,” and More

    Folklife Friday is a weekly digest of arts and culture articles, podcasts, and videos from across the web. Read on for a selection of the week’s best cultural heritage pieces, and don’t forget to check back next Friday for a new set of weekly picks.

    Chuck Berry Lives!
    “If you had tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon once said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” In this piece, the New Yorker’s David Remnick reflects on the highs and lows of the rock legend’s career and his longstanding influence on the genre—a force that shaped the work of countless artists, many of whom are featured in the Smithsonian Folkways collection. “[Berry’s songs] are to rock what Armstrong’s early recordings, the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions, were to jazz.”  

    From Chop Suey to Haute Cuisine: A Case Study in American “Ethnic Food”
    In From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, author Haiming Liu examines the complex history of contemporary Chinese American cuisine. Among the many ideas Liu considers, as Oliver Wang explains in this review, is that of a transnational sensibility, wherein “food practices become acts of ‘ethnic resilience rather than assimilation.’” Equally important is Krishnendu Ray’s discussion, referenced here, of a “hierarchy of tastes” or a ranking in which Chinese food is considered “ethnic” in a way German hot dogs and Italian pizzas are not.

    At This Staten Island Restaurant, a Kitchen Run by Grandmas
    What sets apart Enoteca Maria, an Italian restaurant in Staten Island’s St. George neighborhood, is its traditional, ever-changing menu. The small-scale restaurant serves a fixed set of Italian dishes and a rotating series of international cuisine—all cooked by grandmothers. The idea originated after owner Joe Scaravella lost his mother and resolved to recreate, as he put it, that “grandma in the kitchen cooking.” He calls the restaurant “a beautiful interaction…an exchange of culture and stories and recipes.”

    Balam Ajpu: Mayan Hip-Hop’s Political Agenda
    For the members of Guatemalan hip-hop band Balam Ajpu, music is helping to sustain the vibrant Mayan traditions that, if lost, would carry far-reaching consequences. “If we don’t share it, if people stop talking about it, it dies,” explains MChe, one of the band members. Balam Ajpu’s sound, which draws from marimbas and violins in equal measure, is a sonic tribute to the twenty nawales or spiritual forces of nature in the Mayan tradition. “We have been able to share with native people from across the world,” rapper Tzutu added. “We’ve learned much from them—not just how to deal with oppression but how to organize and how to love and respect each other.”

    In Armenia, “What Do You Want to Be?” Is Asked in Infancy
    To celebrate the appearance of a baby’s first tooth, families in Armenia engage in a ritual called agra hadig that involves placing a series of objects in front of the infant, each representing a different profession (e.g., a stethoscope for a doctor). The first object the child reaches for is believed to be a sign of his or her future career, explains Yulia Antonyan, a professor of cultural studies at Yerevan State University. “Parents may orchestrate the future life of their offspring by choosing only those objects that symbolize prestigious and desired professions.”

    Special thanks to editors Elisa Hough and James Deutsch and to Betty Belanus, Rori Smith, Amalia Cordova, and Jackie Flanagan Pangelinan for their contributions to this week’s digest.

    Photo courtesy of Universal Attractions, 1957

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