Emilio Villarruel
Emilio Villarruel
Director of Marketing

Media Bites: Olive Oil and the American Dream

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Media Bites: Olive Oil and the American Dream

A new addition to the Amuse Bouche menu, ‘Media Bites’ is a reflection on the media we consume and how it changes the way we food. Whether it be a game-changing recipe book, a sentiment-shifting memoir, a televised cooking competition, or anything in-between.

Over time, our collective understanding of the American Dream has evolved. Growing up in America, the child of immigrants myself,  I never felt entirely connected to the idyllic version sold to the earlier generations of new arrivals, later sanitized in its retelling for subsequent generations to marinate in nationalistic pride.

In elaborate prose, the story is told and retold of hopeful immigrants huddled together clutching onto whatever valuables they could carry as they braved brutal journeys from distant lands. As the unfamiliar soil of Ellis Island grows closer, the fog breaks to reveal a massive symbol of hope and possibility, Lady Liberty herself. Larger than life, and encouraging aspirations of appropriate scale, the Statue of Liberty serves as a beacon, a bastion of hope, and a symbol of future prosperity.

It’s not difficult to understand where the disconnect began for me. I’ve written before about my upbringing in Detroit, but in short, how does one realize hazy visions of an aureate future while living in a metropolis past its prime? The stark realities of urban decay present a different view of the American dream, bright aspirations dimmed as city light poles are torn down by hand (one can only imagine how) and stripped of their copper wiring to be resold for sustenance or escape. My sense of identity wasn’t in the “new hope” of what America could provide because the brush strokes that captured the reality around me painted an America far more reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals than any John Falter illustration. Frankly, it’s difficult to walk amidst the aftermath of the Detroit riots and think, “This is the land of possibility.”

In the 2022 television series, simply titled Mo, the idea of the American dream is revisited through a different lens. The arduous struggle of an immigrant’s journey isn’t glorified in patronizing tones of grandeur and excitement which make light of a future of uncertainty and tenuous, hard-fought progress. In fact, as a serious it doesn’t make much of the American Dream, instead focusing on the story of Mo, a guy just trying to make it

The brainchild of Palestinian entertainer Mohammed Amer, Mo tells a story that borrows from his own past. Fleeing Kuwait in his youth to settle in Houston, he navigates the expectations of his upbringing along with the realities of his status as an asylum-seeker and attempts to find resolution with it all. While, for the sake of those that haven’t seen the series yet, I intentionally reveal little, even if I did it wouldn’t spoil the magic of it. 

In the same way that you can taste the difference when something’s cooked low and slow, you can feel the same love in the approach to storytelling. If the devil is in the details, then perhaps salvation is found in the same place. What Mo does best is draw out the best in simple ingredients, casual interactions between friends, the unimportant idiosyncrasies which are only picked up on by loved ones, a casual playfulness in presenting the entire offering which somehow works even against contrasting notes. 

The magic of Mo is in its balance of flavor. Too often in depictions of ethnically diverse stories we’re given a pasteurized version of culture, an indelicate and heavy-handed approach where the most recognizable elements of a culture are emphasized and the nuance burned away. A photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy until only the strongest lines are represented and the true image distorted to the point of almost caricature. It’s akin to pouring cherry coke, an orange chunk, and some bourbon together and calling it an “old-fashioned”, you can kinda see the resemblance if you try hard enough but it’s not worth the effort or the headache. An entire happy meal blended together is ultimately a sad affair.

Through watching the series I felt an almost bizarre sense of kinship with the titular protagonist, which underscores its wins at authenticity. Watching Mo casually joking in Spanish with his Mexican coworkers could largely be considered “throwaway footage” in its significance to the plot, but shows how in this melting pot of American culture, influences interact in unexpected ways. Mo is unapologetic in its presentation of culture, not just Mo’s own, but that of immigrants, the South, the Middle East, and more.

One scene in particular shows the creators’ willingness to water down their flavor for wider appeal - when an unwitting store employee offers a sample of (hopefully) fictional “chocolate hummus”, Mo responds as if presented with heresy - “the F&#$ you say to me!?”, brimming with a righteous fury only quelled when the employee finally agrees to try pita dipped in homemade olive oil instead. Mo nods approvingly with a satisfied grin as the first bite is met with wide-eyed approval, another affront to his culture righted by a love of authenticity. 

As Mo struggles with finding his center and sense of self amid personal turmoil and legal woes food is an anchor. From standing in olive groves reminiscent of his ancestral home to clumsily sneaking still-too-hot tortillas and eggs, it’s apparent that in those moments he’s nourishing his spirit as much if not more than his appetite. The wisdom of “you are what you eat” is made more evident when culinary labors of love contrast with the narcotic cough syrup Mo consumes until it begins to consume him. A crutch that dulls but ultimately exacerbates his difficulties.

The difficulty and struggle here are not glorified - there is no nobility to the savagery. At times the onslaught is unrelenting and you watch as good people are dealt bad hand after bad hand. You watch broken people break further, the unfairness of life personified, and at times the pain and frustration is palpable. Ultimately, you keep watching and rooting for the characters for the same reason they keep pressing forward - if there’s even the smallest chance the story has a happy ending; you’ve got to see it through.

Mo presents the story of someone experiencing culture, and serving as a living representative of it as he simultaneously fights assimilation while adopting flexibility as a defense mechanism. The “foreignness” of the character isn’t emphasized because in their household that’s what “normal” is, and in countless households across America there is an equally unique pastiche of cultural elements and influences that serve as the seasoning to their normalcy. These stories are weird and offbeat, and unlikely - and they should be! Because these weird, wild stories really do exist and when told correctly, they resonate with their authenticity, if not their familiarity. 

Ultimately, the hints at the brightest possibilities for Mo’s future come from a return to his roots. Though abandoning, or perhaps better phrased reprioritizing some elements of his past, a focus on the simplest of cultural relics -  the very same home-pressed olive oil which halted the advance of the aforementioned abominous “chocolate hummus”. Treated like a sacrament, the act of preparing and sharing food is the ultimate act of love and the purest connection to culture. A reminder of the past, but also possibility.

While retellings of “tempest-tost” families journeying to America in years may lack the luster of childhood recollections, that does not mean the concept should be abandoned entirely. For Mo, myself, and countless others navigating unique journeys the dream is still alive, kicking, and very real.  Sometimes, it simply takes a reminder, whether it be the brilliant patina of national landmarks or the sheen of freshly pressed olive oil, that sometimes it’s worthwhile to chase gold, and though, foreign, conflicting, or even uncomfortable – there is beauty to be captured along the way. 

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