Food for Thought

Posts Tagged ‘Japan

As someone who cares about food, who has at one time made her own bread, her own bagels, and her own tortillas, I used to feel a certain level of guilt about my occasional longing for a McDonald’s egg and cheese biscuit.  Should someone who kneads bread by hand instead of using the Kitchenaid dough hook feel strange emotional ties to a Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunch?  Should someone who believes in the importance of knowing how to cook feel a certain nostalgia for food being mass produced in factories?  For lunches that some people look at and ask, is it even food?  I know I do.  I just had to figure out why.


I was trying to win a contest and get lots of free Taco Bell, the food I ate growing up, every single Saturday following religious instruction. I did not win, but retained a few embarrassing photographs.

When I had a strange fascination with trying Tokyo McDonald’s on a trip to Japan, a voice in my head wanted me to feel guilty about trying the MegaMuffin and the Shrimp-Fillet-O.  Why should I waste a single meal on this?  The friends I have that have longed for their whole lives to see Japan had the right to punch me in the face.  Punch me in the face and say, “Really, who goes to Japan to eat at a McDonald’s?”


Yes, I really ate this. It’s honestly even more filling than it looks like it is, which is already pretty filling. I don’t recommend eating this and trying to walk around a city afterwards.

I had to really think about it.  Why did my conscience tell me yes while my husband was mildly horrified?  Why was eating this MegaMuffin the stay-true-to-you thing to do?

It boils down to this: to me, there’s a certain magic to food that always tastes the same, food that transcends time, place, and who your grandma happens to be.  Eating a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar, for example.


Nostalgia bar.

As a teacher walking through the lunch room, so much has changed since I was a middle schooler, but there’s always that ice cream bar and it is always the same.  Oh, except now an accordion-like robot arm sucks the ice cream up out of an electronically operated freezer door when you put money into the machine.  It’s awesome.  The Strawberry Shortcake bar is something that ties me to those kids.  It bridges the gap between their childhoods and mine.  There may be a lot more cellphones hanging out of back pockets, and kids discreetly rolling by on sneakers that turn into roller skates, but at least there’s that ice cream.  I see that robot arm suck up that shortcake bar and I’m transported back in time to look up at Olga, the lunch-lady who would hand us our own shortcake bars when we stood on lines in the converted gymnasium, lunch money in hand.

True, there’s another deeper type of magic to your grandma’s tomato sauce, which you can’t even call a recipe, because you can never quite replicate it on your own.  That’s another story, but what I found was this: it doesn’t make my love for the Happy Meal go away.

The one magic ties you to your friends and your family through your shared experiences, the other ties you to the people you haven’t even met yet.  It ties you to the cousins who live on the other side of the country. It ties you to your worst enemy.  It ties you to the love of your life, ten years before you will ever meet, who always remembered looking forward to Halloween Oreos, just like you did.  And when your paths finally cross, you have no shared memories to discuss, and they haven’t tried your grandma’s sauce, although you tell them they must. So you find yourself reminiscing about those summertime ice cream bars with the gumball eyes that did not have any physical properties of gum, but were somehow irresistible.  Did they get the Tweety Bird bar?  Did they get the Spiderman bar just because it had more cherry flavor, or maybe the Ninja Turtle?  By my younger brother’s generation, it was Sponge Bob.  I’m the cheapest person on earth and I’ll still pay three dollars for one of those things.  It’s the worst gum ever and I love it.


The ghost of childhood past stares at you through gumball eyes!

When I moved away for college up to Albany, I didn’t know a single other kid going to my school.  I was away from everyone and everywhere I knew.  Everywhere except Friendly’s.  I always remember that my family and I went to the mall and ate at a Friendly’s when we first visited UAlbany and again when they dropped me off at school, right before they left.  That’s a big moment.  Everyone who goes away to school remembers those hours right before your family leaves.  This is when you know everything is about to change.  I think that’s another thing I love about these mass produced foods.  Everything in your life changes so much, but you always have these foods and these places.

Even the insides of these places are the same.  Being away from home for the first time, I felt a comfort in passing a Wendy’s.  In knowing that behind that same cream colored counter, they served the same exact spicy chicken sandwich I would get with my friends in 12th grade when we could finally leave campus.  They had bins full of the same honey mustard packets we would pour on everything.  Sitting inside an Albany Wendy’s, in those identical booths but surrounded by ten people I had just met, I felt at ease. I felt like myself.   I felt like the impossibly large distance between there and the house I grew up in was really not so far at all.

When a bunch of Friendly’s in my neighborhood started to close, I felt a sadness that doesn’t make sense for someone who almost never goes to one anymore.  I realized I wasn’t in love with Friendly’s itself. I was in love with the nostalgic idea of Friendly’s, with the idea that even though I now live in Albany, Friendly’s will always be there for me when I need it to be.  It will always be able to bridge the gap between the places I call home.

Looking back on it, three hours away was an impossible distance in those first few months I moved away from home.  I felt as though I could imagine every step of the way, every unfamiliar inch of space.  Everything changes and Friendly’s is the cure.  Or Wendy’s.  Or walking by an aisle of Little Debbie Swiss Roll cakes in the grocery store, a snack my college roommate had as a kid every day when she came home from school.  These foods are a little piece of home that’s there for you.  It’s a connection that you share with those you love and those you hardly know and those you will never meet.

So yes, I had a lot of amazing food in Japan.  The McDonald’s MegaMuffin is not on the list of meals I’ll remember for all time, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. I know it’s on someone’s list and not because it’s the tastiest thing to ever be produced in a food lab at McDonald’s HQ.  I know that there are kids in Japan that sit in the booth with their grandmas who have taken them out for their favorite Shrimp Fillet-O.  I know that the adults remember the time they dared their best friend to eat that colossal breakfast sandwich I tried. I guess I just wanted a taste of that.  A taste of the mass produced, shared culture of growing up in Japan.  And yes,now I will go cook some real food, but I’ll still be dreaming about all of this.  It’s just a different kind of magic.


After a few of the Friendly’s in my area closed, I tried to make my own Friendly’s Conehead Sundae. I forgot the whipped cream collar!


I love traveling because I love experiencing other cultures, and there’s no place to better understand a culture than at its tables.  In Japan, there are lots of great opportunities for people watching.  For us, it was just walking by the local chicken skewer joint at 8pm to see the businessmen socializing after work, still in their long dark suits.  Or heading to Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world, and having sushi at 5am.  Do these things and your head will be fuller than your stomach.  I fondly recall trying to navigate through the sushi ordering process with the few Japanese words that I understood.  Luckily, the reaction to a good meal is a universally understood language.  Here is what I learned about Japanese culture by eating its food. 

 Food or Art?  Take a look at this awesome plate. 


It was a part of a local, multi-course meal in Kyoto called kaiseki( 懐石).  Each and every plate was precisely laid out, and each and every cucumber was perfectly transformed into a small bird.  I often picture the person who learned to do this: just how long does it take to learn to carve perfect birds out of cucumbers?  I don’t know, but this level of detail is everywhere in Japan.     

On the travel show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain grapples with how to make meaning from experience on his trips.  When asked what aspect of his culture he could not live without, his Japanese friend Hiroshi said, “Basically what this entire culture is about — it’s about detail.  We don’t have any choice because, compared to any other country, we have no actual natural resources at all… You can’t sell yourself in any other way except detail in anything that you do.”   When asked what was the greatest virtue of Japanese culture, Hiroshi said, “In the end, everything is beautiful.”

When I heard these words after my trip, they gave voice to everything I had fallen in love with when I was there.  I had no way to put it into words at the time.  All I knew was that I couldn’t help myself every time I came upon a bakery.  Yet another adorably crafted snack I wouldn’t see anywhere else.  Another yen spent.  Another calorie we would walk off as we explored the city.  Another example of attention to detail. 

ImageA Lifetime to Achieve Perfection 

If you have any interest in sushi and you haven’t seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you should.  No wait, I’m lying, you don’t need an interest in sushi: everyone should see this.  You can even stream it on Netflix.  It follows the man who is widely considered to be the best sushi chef in the world.  He’s 86 years old and still working.  His apprentices spend ten years there before they are even allowed to make an egg.  One recounted then grilling an egg 200 times before Jiro thought it was satisfactory.  People come from all over the world to experience this.   I find it amazing.  Our culture is getting more and more interested in multi-tasking, so the idea of spending your whole life perfecting one thing is romantic to me.  I know, I too might go crazy pretty early on if I spent that long doing nothing but making an egg.  I would also, at the end of it, know that I knew more about that one thing than anyone.  The lifelong desire to attain perfection is something I admire, especially the idea that you can always, always discover something new.  

ImageAttention to Ingredients  Ramen in Japan is completely different from the American conception.  I’m not talking about the bright packages of fried sodium-rich noodles kids live on in college.  It’s an art.  The places where lines form before they even open will often be obsessed with every small detail, for example, some will only use salt made on a tiny island by Okinawa.  They know, in detail, about everything.   One famous chef had another visit his shop to try his soup.  The other chef quietly told him to try increasing the water in his broth by 1%.  He tried it the next day and felt that it was a revelation. 

ImageWrapping It All Up

The Japanese even put their food in beautiful boxes.  I recall one time Ed and I tried to purchase a large pastry at a department store.  In Japan, the basement level of a department store has a huge food court.  Aisles of people call out to you as you pass from counters selling all kinds of delicious things.  How cool is that?  Anyway, we were hungry and planning to eat this particular pastry right away. The woman proceeded to spend over 5 minutes wrapping it in ribbons and bows, then affixing a colorful sticker to the beautiful blue box to seal it closed.  We looked at one another somewhat guiltily and decided to walk a respectable distance away to a nearby park bench before tearing it to bits.  Talk about attention to detail.  The pastry itself was almost too beautiful to eat.  Almost. It turns out that when you unwrap a snack in a new place, you can get more out of it than just a bite to eat.   Although that is reason enough to see the world.