Fish and Rice
Growing up in a household where Italian and Japanese food cultures were both represented, you can imagine my confusion as to which approach to food was correct. Should I gorge myself on all of the bread and pasta my stomach could handle without bursting? Or should I sustain my appetite on the more subdued sustenance of fish and rice? With the Italian side of my family living on the other side of the country, it became normal for the food of my Japanese relatives to dominate my palate. I remember having regular family outings to our favorite Japanese restaurant called Gombei, and always getting so excited when we would enter through the silk screen curtain and the manager would yell at us with an aggressive “Oh hello! Welcome back!” The smell of strong fish, rice and soy sauce was equivalent to the smell of home, and gave me just as strong a sense of belonging as walking into my own house. This continues to be what I consider my family food culture, and will always hold a special place in my heart and in my stomach.
In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver points out how for the new adolescent generation of today’s society, it is difficult to define who we actually are and thus identify with our food. She states how we would “surely do better, if only we knew better,” but it is indeed difficult to define our own food culture when “in two generations we’ve transformed ourselves from a rural to an urban nation” (8). This “we” is more all encompassing, including us as the new generation of adolescents born into a time of extreme technological advancement, to our parents and the generation before us who have assisted in making that advancement possible. The once farm oriented and rural nation that our grandparents knew to be America is more or less gone, having been replaced by the big cities and factories that now seem to run our lives. With as much separation as we currently have from our food and how it is harvested, produced, and brought to us, it becomes hard to identify with this process and as a result, hard to identify with our food. But as a means of coping with this ignorance, we have “also largely convinced ourselves it wasn’t too important” that we know about these things (9). She maintains that we now try hard to embrace “a powerful presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt,” when she says that in actuality they should go hand in hand (9). There is more than one type of education, and the knowledge a person can gain from understanding the food that fuels their everyday life seems like it should be considered invaluable.
Despite this fact, we as a society seem to prefer the sugar coated version of our consumerism, only acknowledging the pretty end product and refusing the reality of production and what it can truly cost. Nobody wants to think about the slaughter of animals and production of meat, but most people are happy to chow down on a bacon cheeseburger. Artificial flavorings and preservatives take a back seat to the temporary satisfaction of a Hostess cupcake, as we sweep reality under the rug for the sake of flavor and convenience. This is something I experience every day, from how my food is packaged and received to the way it is thoughtlessly consumed. A large part of Japanese food culture is the appreciation of food, fully recognizing what it took to bring about the miracle that is eating. Every fish, every grain of rice was once looked at with a reverence and gratitude that is rarely found in today’s society. Perhaps it is accessibility that led to this transformation, but looking back on what my ancestors had to go through for a meal, I am made to feel grateful that I have access to food at all.
Reflecting on the experience of my ancestors, more specifically my own grandparents, I am forced to recognize how lucky I am to have access to food in the way that I do. Although my grandfather is now deceased, I remember vividly the stories he would tell me about growing up on a farm in the once rural areas of California. He would describe the back breaking labor he was forced to do from the time he turned 12, going straight to work after he ran home from school and having to cram in his homework late at night so he could be up at dawn to do it all over again. He would talk to me about the hot sun beating down on him as he sowed the soil, planted seeds, and harvested crops. He told me about the seasons when the crops would refuse to grow and their family would feel blessed to even receive a full meal. This farm was their livelihood, and for the longest time it was all that my grandfather and his siblings knew. But for all of the pain it might have caused, it did give him an appreciation for food that is severely lacking in the new generation. I can’t remember a single meal he was served when he didn’t enthusiastically take his first bite and exclaim “Oh! This is good!” My grandfather was given the opportunity through his hard work and perseverance to go to college and become an artist. His family lost their farm during World War II, and my grandfather was put with his family into a concentration camp. It was there that he met my grandmother who had just turned 18. In order to leave the camp he joined the army, received a free education, and went on to become an extremely successful artist, winning awards for his work and thriving on his craft. But his appreciation for food and what it takes to produce it never diminished. Until the day he died he never failed to recognize that everything was delicious in its own right, and he continued to regard every meal he received as a miracle.
Relating back to the appreciation of even the simplest of foods, it was my grandparents who first taught me how to make one of the most basic staples of Japanese food culture: rice. I remember being 10 years old and asking to learn how to make the food that was present at almost every meal I had eaten since I could chew solid foods. My family never used a rice cooker, always washed our rice with care, and burning a pot of rice was a rare and shameful occurrence. My grandparents called me into the kitchen and told me to measure out a cup of rice from the 5 pound bag they always had stored next to the refrigerator. I did as I was told, making sure the cup of rice was perfectly level. Then I was told to pour it into a medium sized pot and take it to the sink. There I filled it halfway with water, and used one hand to hold the pot and the other hand to stir the rice in a clockwise then a counterclockwise motion. I watched as the water turned a foggy white color, and was told that it was crucial I always wash the rice before cooking it. I continued to wash the rice for 5 full minutes, taking care not to let a single grain escape. Then I was told to pour the wet rice into a strainer and let the dirty water run out. Once the water had drained from the rice, we put it back into the medium sized pot and I leveled out the top with my fist. Then my grandmother told me that the perfect amount of water for boiling the rice was when I put my index finger gently against the level top and filled the pot to my first knuckle line. We put the rice uncovered on almost high heat, watched it carefully until it started to boil, and immediately turned the heat down to a simmer and covered the rice with the pot lid. After letting it simmer and steam for 20 minutes, we had a perfect pot of rice. I was ecstatic to learn how to make this simple dish, and it continues to remind me of my grandparents every time I make rice.
As compared to my food culture now, I realize that what I am lacking which my grandparents had in abundance is a sense of appreciation for all of the food I am lucky enough to receive. As Kingsolver argues, the separation between production and consumption causes modern society to feel a separation from our food, and prevents us from fully appreciating the hard work that goes into its production. What I eat is no longer pure, and it does not come straight from a farm but rather straight from a factory. Depending on what I eat I might not know half the ingredients going into my snacks or meals. Furthermore, I might not know half the ingredients going into my body. This is a crucial change because with this separation comes a complacency that prevents us from wanting to eat healthy, and keeps us ignorant about what we are consuming. The corrupt aspects of the food industry that use harmful ingredients, preservatives and chemicals thrive on our ignorance, and when their only goal is to make money, our health comes second fiddle to the greed of consumerism’s profitability. We need to make ourselves more aware of what we are eating, and more aware of how it is made. If we can’t even stomach the process, how can we possibly stomach the product? The health of us and of future generations depends on recognition of these issues, and on the knowledge of what goes into our bodies. This is a crucial aspect of our lives, and we need to recognize it as such.