Meals and Changing Identity

I am writing about food lots lately. Who could blame me, Jewish south Florida girl in Tokyo now, home among eight varieties of mushrooms and hanging, dried out squid?

I’m an eater. I don’t understand the people who stop eating when faced with stress. I could live in a drive-through. To type one essay, I empty whole pantries and snack cabinets. It’s busy and frenetic like as if I were smoking one Marlboro after another.

As we speak, I’m (delicately?) shovelling in pizza and taking alternative swigs of Sprite and beer.

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Five different essays on my turntable–we’ve got the draft on leaving an eighteen-year life of Vegetarianism for the freedom to nosh on beef or peachy flakes of fish.

We were vegetarians who gobbled scrambled tofu with turmeric and cumin. I reported to my tenth-grade class the dangers and irresponsibility of factory farming and quoted Upton’ Sinclair’s The Factory with the ease of a Smiths’ lyric. It wasn’t until age eighteen when my paradigm shifted and suddenly I did not need to keep my identity clutching this box called “I am a vegetarian”, I loosed my grip. Dramatically. 

There is the essay on strolling Paris as my mother and the tightness that loosened on our relationship with every outdoor meal of cheese and bread, and in my eighteen-year-old dreams, Sauterne. Vegetarian then, I scoffed at the prospect of veal or frog legs. No Quenelles de Brochet, but more pasta or whatever it is we ate. Bread. Lots of bread.

I traveled to Paris with my mother as a high school graduation gift. I skipped frogs’ legs, skipped escargot, walked past all of the city’s coq au vin, anything with a fin or bone. What did I eat? Crosissant and couscous. Yeah. And this nearing college girl I was becoming? This adult would find herself in more cities, with friends and relationships. I wanted to be flexible. I also wanted to be able to cook, to batter chicken for those I loved. To expand my cooking repertoire and CV of tasting.

There is sushi, a whole electric and old-school (good pun?) world of sushi here in Japan, exactly as one would suspect. Every market boasts sashimi and maki (the rolls) on plastic trays. Our family goes to a sushi joint in Akabane, famous for the wall of life fish/call it an aquarium. Yes, while we diners pluck pickled ginger and swizzle our pats of wasabi into shoyu/soy sauce, the cooks/aquarium men spear and pull our still swimming, breathing, “glub-glubbing” meal from the water. I had/have some trouble with this, as you might be perceiving. There is a whole long essay flopping in my head. It involves having to take many, many sips of beer. One of my family celebratory trips there also involves a particularly unlucky octopus, a hook, and a sheet of plexiglass.

There is the everyday need for me to feed my family and occasionally, pack an o-bento (like on special events at kids’ school like Undokai/Sports’ Day, probably the most elaborate day for o-bento, field trip days, odd days for my husband, park picnics, and absolutely the whole season, every day of cherry blossoms). I wrote about that here in my first-ever Washington Post piece.

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It is funny to see the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” just above my O-Bento Headline, but you know? How we relate to food can mirror and highlight how we internalize and act-out our place in this world, within our native or adopted environment, the marketplace, our fridge, stove, and place at the table with baby bird-like mouths to feed.

Food is base, it is beautiful. We are all part of this very human experience and I am a happy gal writing about the sauce and salad that came with my meal. I’ll include another bit from a piece, not because I wish to throw down my quotes like I would for Whitman, but because I don’t know what to do with all of these food essays!

I like that I could change those years ago, reimagining myself as a traveler and a lover, learning a whole other code called omnivore. A recipe, after all, can span decades and generations. New dinners can also be thrown together, a work of simple beauty and sustenance. The tomatoes gleam, skins thrown open by heat and expanding molecules. 

Here is to expanding, to getting and giving the full force of our existence, if even to prep the seemingly rote breakfasts and wash those dishes again for dinner. To becoming reignited by the senses and the part we play and plate.

Also, I will never eat those dangling frog legs parading with their “chicken taste”. I may always choose couscous and cheese over bouillabaisse. But I’m growing.

 

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