“What is kale?” The question is left as a comment on my Facebook wall after I post a photo of a sign from one of my favorite restaurants, Westville, touting one of my favorite green leafy vegetables on its outdoor bulletin board. At first I think it’s an ironic query, but the more I ponder it, the more I realize it’s sincere. The woman asking is a new acquaintance, one who barely deserves the appellation; we met once, for an hour, at a meetup I organize. She is living on her own in the secular world after being raised as a Hasidic Jew. She’s in her early twenties, sweet and extremely sincere. I’m 35 and a bit more jaded. My immediate reaction to her query, once I’ve processed that it’s real, is to laugh. Silently, but still – there’s no way I can pretend I’m laughing with her, not at her. My inner laugh is not the sparkling laugh I emit at comedy shows, but a darker, meaner one, with a clear target.
I’m stunned someone could get to adulthood and not know what this beloved vegetable is, and immediately after I have that thought, a much more troubling one occurs to me: I am a snob. Not just a food snob, but a plain old snob.
This truth leaves me panic-stricken. I immediately write to my closest friends and ask if, in fact, I’m the crazy one for wanting to laugh at her ignorance or if kale is more esoteric than I’d thought. I know that Julie & Julia author Julie Powell didn’t eat an egg until she was 31, yet I’m not talking about consumption, but basic information. To me it’s like not knowing what an orange is, and yet, is that a crime?
Between one of my best friends and I, “What is kale?” becomes an inside joke that leaves us gasping for breath no matter how many times we ask each other a variation on it. “What’s the internet?” “What’s a hotel?” “What’s a bus?” we’ll say in the midst of a conversation about any of these topics, and find it infinitely amusing. I’m pretty sure we will go on doing this forever, because by now the original question has morphed into something bigger. The food item up for debate has become a stand-in for anything we want it to, and fosters a way for us to feel better about ourselves while laughing at someone else. I can’t deny that even as my reaction makes me squirm, the broader humor still amuses me.
The open, honest question stumps me. It reminds me of the four questions posed during a Passover seder, from four different perspectives, one being that of the simple son. We’re meant to respond in kind to each type of query at the asker’s own level of comprehension, tailoring religious wisdom (or folk tale) so it makes sense. I don’t feel up to the task of figuring out a way to respond on her level, which makes me ashamed. That mocking, whether she ever knows I’ve done it or not, comes much easier than explanation feels like a character flaw. If this is my instinctive response, I might as well give up on the idea of parenthood, with what is sure to be an endless barrage of even more basic questions, now, well before it’s even close to a reality.
I’m sure plenty of people I know, and trust, and love, would be aghast if I were to ask, “Who is Luke Skywalker?” Unless I Google, I’m actually not sure which movie he was in. I haven’t seen Star Wars, Star Trek, Rocky or many other classic films. I often mistake “prosciutto” for a cheese, and haven’t read Dickens, Nin or Nabokov. I may know what kale is, but I have plenty of cultural deficiencies just waiting to be exposed. Maybe the biggest difference is that instead of asking so ardently, eagerly, openly, if it were me, I would pretend to know the answer. In person, I’ve been known to nod and smile, dodging a joke I don’t understand, prepared to either forgo the punchline or look it up later.
When responding to the unknown, is it better to expose one’s uncertainty and risk ridicule, or to try to ferret out the answer on one’s own, almost in hiding? Certainly the latter is safer, with only your browser’s history truly knowing about the gaps in your knowledge. What is humility? I better learn that answer fast.