IN THE ABSENCE OF CULINARY MENTORS
by Kaori Fujimoto
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, every evening at five my mother donned her white apron and set about preparing dinner. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling and over the sink illuminated the whole kitchen, which was dismally dark during the daytime, and they attracted little geckos that flattened themselves on the outside of the widows. I would hear a clack-clack of the kitchen knife on the wooden cutting board and then, in twenty or thirty minutes, my heart would sink as I detected the usual smells of fish or vegetables seasoned with soy sauce, sugar, and sake—conventional Japanese dishes I never found appetizing. She also made Western dishes, like a beef stew, potato gratin, and spaghetti Napolitana, because my father loved these rich foods and so did I; I felt exhilarated whenever the aroma of gravy or white sauce wafted into the living room. Sometimes I hovered behind Mom to help, but she would nudge me out of the kitchen and do everything herself. She didn’t have the patience to teach me how to peel potatoes or cut up onions when she could finish the task in a minute or two. By the time I entered junior high school, I had completely lost interest in helping her in the kitchen.
On one rare occasion—I think I was in high school—Mom called me into her culinary territory. On the countertop were the cutting board and a white plastic bowl brimming with entangled raw seaweed.
“Watch this,” she said, and pulled a long strip out of the glistening black-green mass, placed it on the cutting board, and tore off with a kitchen knife the string edging the algae. Then she said, “You’d better know how to do this so you won’t embarrass yourself when cooking for your future husband’s family.”
She kept slashing the seaweed for a soup she seasoned with soy sauce. Standing by her side, I imagined my future self as the wife of my mom’s imaginary son-in-law. I saw only a murky picture that felt as dreary as our poorly lit home kitchen, questions whirling in my head: Am I supposed to slice seaweed, along with anything else that doesn’t interest me, because I have to?
For the first time I became clear about what I didn’t want to do with my life. I certainly wouldn’t cook food I didn’t find delectable just to please in-laws, let alone devote all my time to housework as Mom had done for my dad’s family, her dedication taken for granted. Before I was born, she had nursed her bed-ridden parents-in-law, taking care of all household chores, while also raising my older siblings. Every now and then she would grumble about how tough her married life had been, but she maintained that she was proud of having gritted her teeth against the desire to divorce because, coming from a single-parent household herself, she was determined not to have her children grow up in a divorced family.
Trying as it must have been, this way of life was her choice. And, after all the rough years, she and my dad became a pretty good couple. So, that evening, in front of the algae-covered cutting board, she tried to teach me a tiny part of what a good wife should know, perhaps hoping I would begin to prepare for the future that she believed I too would have. How futile the lesson seemed, after all those years of keeping me out of the kitchen. At that moment I determined not to learn cooking from Mom, and that I would, in the future, cook whatever I wanted in my own kitchen.
My grandmother was born in 1912 to wealthy merchant parents who made her learn dressmaking as a household skill, and that skill later became her livelihood after her two divorces. My mother emphasized how difficult it had been growing up without her, though I’m more inclined to imagine the difficulties an independent divorcee must have faced at that time in Japan. That, of course, didn’t occur to me when I was a little girl.
Grandma’s tiny one-story house was only a fifteen-minute walk from our home. Whenever my mom opened the small wooden door, Grandma—who wore kimonos as her regular clothes—would teeter out of the living room, her back stooped, her wispy gray hair pulled back in a bun. She smiled when she saw me, creases and wrinkles gathering around her eyes. During the summer, the TV was always on, playing the National High School Baseball Tournament. She would serve us iced coffee with lots of milk, and then sit on the tatami mat, watching the game and listening to my mother at the same time, while I drifted out onto the small veranda to read a book. Grandma, worried that I might be bored, would sometimes tell me to come into the room only to be told by my mom that I was all right, that I liked to be alone. I would keep reading, sipping the milk flavored with a little coffee and diluted by melting ice.
Much later, I realized that both baseball and iced coffee were quite unusual for a woman of her generation. As was the fact that she ran her fingers over lettered names on home appliances, like TOSHIBA, to teach me how to read the Roman alphabet. So I wasn’t too surprised to also learn from my uncle that Grandma in her younger days had played hanafuda, a type of gambling using Japanese playing cards.
When I was in kindergarten, my mother was hospitalized for a minor surgery, and so my father left me in the care of Grandma. Since I was only six, in my innocence I assumed Grandma could make all foods that Mom made for our family, including non-Japanese dishes. But when I asked her to make me an egg sandwich, she served me two thick slices of toast with a thin omelette and strawberry jam spread between them, instead of thin slivers of crustless bread stuffed with crushed boiled eggs and mayonnaise. Grandma had never laid eyes on the egg sandwich that I believed was universal.
Undaunted, I still had the nerve to ask her to cook spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner, my childhood favorite, and didn’t back off when she mumbled, “I don’t know how to make such a Western dish.”
I think she asked me how the food looked, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to cook up the reddish orange sauce with ground meat that she made for me, which looked totally different from my mom’s tomato-colored sauce that would dress a chunk of ground meat nestled in tangled spaghetti. As I timidly took a bite of the pasta soaked in the thin orange sauce, however, a pleasant sweet-and-sour flavor spread through my mouth. The taste of well-seasoned ground meat, onions, and shiitake mushroom rolled across my tongue, prompting me to devour the whole plate and ask for another serving.
To invent the reddish sauce I presumably described for her, Grandma must have used ketchup instead of canned tomatoes or tomato sauce. To make the ketchup look more like sauce, she likely added water and starch along with soy sauce, sugar, sake, and rice vinegar. The product of Grandma’s foray into Western cooking had such an addictive effect that, until she passed away when I was fourteen, I would beg her to cook the spaghetti and meat sauce every time I visited her.
A few years after her funeral, at which I cried my heart out, I made that high school promise to myself to keep traditional food out of my own kitchen someday. When I finally began to cook for myself, I hadn’t thought about her meat sauce in years, but I stocked soy sauce, sake, and rice vinegar on my seasoning shelves. I use these traditional Japanese flavorings to invent my own stews, sauces, and salad dressings, hoping to create by accident a taste as fantastic as Grandma’s eclectic concoction, though I never attempted to revive the fruit of her culinary adventure, preferring instead to keep that taste as a fond memory.
My mom has never talked about the food that her mother made during the few years they lived together before she married my dad in her late twenties. She only said that she had learned all the basics of cooking from television after marriage. I’ve never asked her if she learned any recipes from Grandma, assuming she had not. And I’ve never asked because, although I know she couldn’t entirely forgive her mother for refusing to stay married once she’d had children, I also know she still grieves.
I haven’t asked my mother for any recipes either, because conventional Japanese dishes still don’t appeal to me, and because I switched to a nearly-meat-free diet after I left my parents’ home almost twenty years ago. At first, whenever she came over and I served her Thai curry with tofu or enchiladas filled with sliced onions and green peppers, she would say I’d better learn how to cook standard Japanese dishes, like fish broiled with salt or pork stewed in soy sauce and sugar. Now, having seen me preserve my autonomy all these years, she no longer says anything about what I cook. When she visits, she asks me to have sushi—her favorite food in the world—delivered for dinner, or she volunteers to eat anything I have in my fridge. So I phone the sushi restaurant, or microwave risotto and stewed vegetables in Ziploc containers. I fail to tell her again and again that I wouldn’t mind her using my kitchen, and that, while she is here, I’m willing to eat anything she cooked for our family when she kept me out of her kitchen.
Born and raised in the suburbs of Tokyo, Kaori Fujimoto studied creative writing at colleges in Georgia and Hawaii. She was a fellow of the 2012 Paris American Academy Creative Writing Workshop. Her essay has appeared on the Brevity blog, and another of her essays is forthcoming in Talking Writing. She currently works as a freelance translator in Tokyo.