On a recent trip to San Francisco I ruined fun.
That’s a bit dramatic. I killed the sense of wonder, romance and belief in the local Vernacular of the Pacific Northwest.
And I lay it all at the feet of Wikipedia.
My parents and their friends convene annually for a gathering known as “Wretched Excess”, the origins of which lie somewhere in the 1980s at various history-related conferences all over North America. One of the most fun things about Wretched Excess is the constant discovery and interrogation of vernacular, as the venue for the gathering changes every year. The group is made up of both Americans and Canadians, and so we’ve visited friends all across North America. Every visit unearths some new local vernacular: some turn of phrase, some local dish, or some obscure history. Even the differences, small and large, between American and Canadian culture and politics uncovers some new vernacular we take back home with us.
This time, we found ourselves in San Francisco, staying in the home of our friend, who I will refer to as M. He and his partner, who I will refer to as B, had just treated us to a large and delicious dinner, and our merry party of 10 sat around the dining room table rubbing our bellies, telling stories, and laughing together. The time had come for dessert, and M and B appeared from the kitchen with a parlour’s worth of ice cream. Having recently returned from a trip to Oregon, the ice cream was from a local creamery named Tillamook and the array of flavours was truly dazzling – Chocolate Peanut Butter; Oregon Strawberry; Mountain Huckleberry; and most curiously, Marionberry Pie.
We all somehow loosened our belts even further and prepared to feast again, and I could not help but be drawn to the Marionberry flavour. What the hell was a Marionberry? M and B were surprised we had never heard of a Marionberry. They were the pride of the state of Oregon, a blackberry-like fruit that grew best in the climate of the Pacific Northwest. Proudly they produced a jar of Marionberry jam, and they described Marionberries as perhaps a bit more tart that your standard blackberry, but still sweet and juicy. We were all terrifically excited by the bounty laid out for us, and most of us elected to try a scoop of the Marionberry Pie. It was indeed delightful, sweet and creamy and just a little bit tart. It had a delicate aroma and an appealing swirl of purple-blue through the white. There was not a single thing about the Marionberry Pie ice cream that aroused suspicion or dissatisfaction. But this raised yet more questions – why hadn’t Marionberries made their way across the country?! How could those Oregonians horde this incredible bounty of nature to themselves?! So, as everyone around me shared a rare, precious moment of togetherness, I unlocked my phone and opened my Wikipedia app to get the answers I so desperately needed.
As I sat there amongst friends, with my spoon resting in my empty ice cream bowl, I learned a horrible truth. For a moment I held a powerful secret all to myself, and a terrible choice- unleash that horrifying truth in the name of the greater good, or keep the burning fact to myself and spare my friends in their moment of peace and happiness! But I couldn’t. I couldn’t let my hosts live the lie they had been told by those scurrilous Oregonians. M and B and all the other Excessians were my dear friends; wouldn’t I want them to enlighten me too if I believed in a fantasy, a fairytale to distract us from the harsh reality of life?
I proclaimed in disbelief: “Marionberries are just Blackberries.”
I hesitate to call the reaction to my pronouncement a furor. It had to be impossible! M and B were particularly astonished. They had been eating Marionberries for decades! They were a local delicacy! Surely I was mistaken, they said. We all wondered aloud if the “Blackberry” itself was a cultural construct, a myth, an umbrella term for any dark-coloured berry with an attached torus. But no.
Marionberries are a cultivar of blackberry that was released in 1956 by the USDA Agricultural Research Service breeding program in cooperation with Oregon State University. It turns out the name is derived from Marion County, Oregon, where the berry was first tested. And it’s not like the Marionberry is some small-scale local legend; the cultivar accounts for 90% of the global blackberry acreage. The Marionberry was the literal definition of an industry plant. After a series of intense interrogations from our party, I put down my phone, and slumped in my chair. M, seated next to me, looked a little glum, and murmured ruefully, a little smile playing at the corner of his mouth, “And after all these years, all it took was a Canadian with a smartphone to shatter my sense of romance in the world.”
I felt truly terrible. We all contemplated our empty bowls in our melancholy before B passionately spoke up. She declared the Marionberry was a triumph of science! Even if the government was behind its engineering, it had come so far beyond that. The berry was globally successful, yes, but Oregon produced 90% of the United States’ blackberries. It was a local industry, the pride of the state! And it was born and bred in Oregon, not some import or invasive species. The Marionberry was a true American success story. And it was fucking delicious!
A second round of ice cream was called for, and more scoops of Marionberry Pie were served out. The great lie of the Marionberry wouldn’t be forgotten, but we could all joke about it, and M and I even laughed about it with some more of his local friends at a party later in the week. And I kept eating more Marionberry Pie ice cream every day until it was gone.
Wikipedia is the enemy of Vernacular. And It torments me, because Wikipedia is one of my great loves. The number of papers I based primarily on Wikipedia articles would horrify you. But I also love Vernacular. I love the local, the peculiar, the vulgar – and I love Marionberries. So while I may never settle the battle between the two wolves that battle inside my soul, I know that if I feed them Marionberries (or just good ole blackberries, but by law of probability, they’ll be Marionberries) everything will be fine.