Thursday, January 11, 2024

Day Five Thousand Four Hundred and Ninety Three . . . Food For Thought.

Part One: Judy's World

I never understood radishes. 

My mom loved them. And she'd munch the little red devils by the bowlful. 

I can picture her slowly cutting the tops in a fancy manner with her trusty paring knife and soaking them in water. This magically made them look like little roses when they came out. Then tossing them in a white and green Corelle bowl with a paper towel underneath and then onto one of the many bright orange trays she "borrowed" from work. And finally, with a satisfied smile bringing them out into the TV room. 

Those suckers were loud, too. I could be sitting in one of our big, green armchairs with the changeable upholstery on them across the room and still be able to hear the "crunch,” which also drew the attention of our dogs who were never quite satisfied until trying a cautious nibble. I'd look over and there she would be chewing away in her little heaven. She was always so happy when she was eating. When I think of my mom often the image I see in my head is of her chomping on something delicious with raised eyebrows--a quick glance my way as if to say "isn't this something?" If the eyes are the window to one’s soul, I think one’s mouth is the window to one’s heart.

Though there were just as many things she didn't like to eat. 

Spaghetti, for instance. Yep, she claimed spaghetti (and noodles in general) reminded her of worms. For an earth science teacher, you'd think this would be a plus. But I guess I can understand it to a point. It wasn't the fact that it was pasta, mind you. Ziti, rigatoni, rotelli, those were all fair game. But spaghetti was out, no two ways about it. Rice, too, for that matter. Whenever we went for Chinese food (The China Royal, for those in the know) she would ask for "lettuce and tomato on the side" instead of rice. Some phrases are emblazoned in my brain. "Lettuce and tomato on the side" must have been said in my presence at least 100 times (we ate a lot of Chinese food). And for that matter, she didn't really like Chinese food, either. Her go-to at the China Diner as it was affectionately called, was a Spanish cod dish with a tomato sauce topping. I remember always feeling like it was so out of place amongst the crab rangoon, chicken fingers, chow mein, lo mein, and pork fried rice that would take up the bulk of our table's real estate. But that was how my mom rolled. There weren't too many gray areas where food was concerned. She either liked it or loathed it. 

Later in life, when I worked at a restaurant called Amber Waves, I'd sometimes make their version of lo mein (with egg noodles) and, that, she somehow managed to eat. I guess she thought she was living on the edge. That, and her boy made it for her, and it was hard for her to say no to me.

But as much as I tried I could never understand the radish's appeal. That bitter sting on the tongue and the rough mouthfeel. To me, they seemed much more like a garnish, though truth be told I eat a lot of things these days that were considered garnishes when I was younger. Kale leaves, I'm looking in your direction. 

For me, though, I'd much rather chomp on uncooked potatoes. And that's not me being facetious. I really liked raw potatoes--still do. 

Mom made mashed potatoes quite often and one of her favorite ways to prepare them was paring them (she hardly ever used a peeler for round things). Then she'd cut them into small cubes and soak them cold water in our kitchen sink. Cut to a six-year-old me reaching my hand up and into the water hurriedly fishing around for the perfect piece to chomp on on my way back to the TV, water dripping from my hands all over the carpet. 

For that matter, I also enjoy chomping on uncooked pasta. Or better yet, pasta that's just been dropped into boiling water. I think for a former fat kid it all makes perfect sense. Why wait for food to be "cooked" when it's right there in front of you waiting to go inside and make that brain (and heart) happy. 

But getting back to mashed potatoes, I don't know too many people who whip their mashed potatoes with an electric mixer at home. Most people just use a masher. But that's how Judy J. did it, adding in a copious amount of butter and milk and the perfect salt-to-pepper ratio. She called them “smash-em-up potatoes,” as she had to have a cute name for most everything. 

The next day--if there was any left--we'd have Judy's famous "rusty potatoes," which just meant she'd put them in a frying pan with even more butter, mix in some dried onion flakes, and cook them until they developed a golden crisp on the bottom. A few scrapes with the heavy-duty spatula and the process would be repeated, until these once smooth and fluffy as a cloud “smash-em-up potatoes” had some texture and character. These could be eaten on their own or as a side dish to a quick pork chop or her special "hamburg and gravy" dish that included a pound of ground beef, a couple of jars of mushroom gravy, and canned mushrooms. She'd also add in some canned peas for "color." 

When I think back to the days of growing up in the 1970s and try to envision what veggies we consumed, it was mainly either canned peas or corn and not much more in between save for a boiled potato or onion. We put that electric can opener through its paces. Crack open a can of Green Giant into a Revere Ware copper-bottom pan, and add a pat of butter and salt and pepper. Heat on low for ten minutes and there you have it--healthy eating for all! I used to enjoy drinking the "pea juice" when the peas were gone. Basically water with butter, salt, and pepper. Yum! 

And yeah, we ate a lot of beef. And you better believe my mom had her own version of a hamburger, aptly named the "Momburger." A few spices and (again) dried onion flakes were all it took to turn the average burger on its end. Growing up in Fall River we were never short of amazing bakeries, and the rolls for these burgers were simply perfect. They weren't buns, mind you. These were Portuguese rolls--thick yet fluffy and dusted with delicious, nutritious white flour. I can still remember how impossibly wide I had to open my mouth to try and fit one in--with ketchup, mustard, and hot American cheese dripping onto my chin down to my OshKosh B’gosh overalls. We'd pair these with dill pickle spears and either Wise potato chips or my mom's hand-cut french fries. 

Part One-and-a-half: Eyes On The Fries:

When my mom made fries it was the most dangerous time in the kitchen. If she had a biohazard sign it would have been hung along with an orange cone or two whenever they were on the menu.  

One of the hardest things to let go of was the famous, heavy-bottom french fry pot that spent its off time in the back of the fridge half filled with oil and draped with aluminum foil. She'd reuse the oil two or three times before it was tossed and I will posit that on each successive use, the fries tasted that much better. 

I can hear the sharp, midrangey pop and crackle as the potato strips--the size of a Lincoln Log--were dropped into the slowly swirling oil. Most of my memories of this time are from when I was too short to see it from above.

This pic is our kitchen which I grabbed off the web (she sold the house decades ago). They're recent photos but the placement of the sink and stove is the same as I remember (though the fridge would be to the left of the person taking the pic). 

But yeah, her fries were incredible. What she did with potatoes, in general, was astonishing. But growing up in the 40s and 50s with an English/Irish dad and a full-blooded Polish mom will do that to you, I suppose. 

For Judy's fries, she used long Russet potatoes. So while one might call them "steak fries" they were more than this. Cooked just long enough so the ends were a bit crispy and the middles bendable but not soggy. Salty but not shockingly so. Most were long and wide but, of course, the edge pieces were thinner and ended up crisped. I've never shied away from hyperbole and now is certainly no time to change my ways. So to say they were like a beautiful song, each piece having a place among the others—verse, chorus, solo and outro—is not far from the truth. It was a delicate maneuver to create such harmony with a bag of potatoes, and while it didn't need to be a special occasion for her to make her fries, whenever she did that's exactly what it was. 

Here's another pic of the kitchen, taken from where the seat was that nobody sat at because there was always too much stuff near the window. 

It's really incredible for me to see these, because while there have been some improvements over the years (flooring, a paint job, the sink backboard) that is the same damn sink from 45 years ago that I stuck my grubby little paws in. 

Like I was saying . . . 

Here's a pic of me from more than fifty years ago, as I can't be more than two. You can see the sink behind me, and you can also see my future in front of me--once a Cake Guy always a Cake Guy. 

It's the same ceramic sink my mom would empty a bag of steamers into (long-neck clams if you don't know) and then sprinkle some black pepper so they would "sneeze" out any ingested sand. I was once asked by a co-worker, "What does a clam sound like when it sneezes?" I laughed it off at the time, but I suppose the question was robust enough to stick with me for twenty years. 

And the kitchen is the room we ate most of our meals in as well. 

Sure, we had a dining room table for special events, but breakfast was always eaten in here--usually Cheerios and milk with a cup of orange juice and a Pyrex percolator bubbling away with the weakest coffee anyone had ever put in a cup for Judy and Lynda. 

My mom would have the same breakfast I did, but out again would come the paring knife and I will forever be amazed at how she could slice a banana lengthwise, then slowly across from the outside in towards her thumb watching with wonder as the bite-size crescents dropped into the bowl clinging to any number of puffed wheat life rafts. 

It took me years to open myself up to bananas. That was always a Judy thing, and I was happy to let her have it. But yeah, I get it now, though I leave the sugar in the sugar bowl. 

And while I wasn't allowed artificially sweetened cereal growing up (Fruit Loops, Frosted Flakes, etc, all taste terrible to me) my mom wasn't shy with the real stuff, topping her otherwise healthy-ish breakfast choice with a teaspoon of crystalline glucose. We see cantaloupe here in Japan quite often. And that was another thing she liked to "accent." But yeah, no sugary cereal in the house. No sir-ee. :)

From time to time I come across a food here that reminds me of her cooking.

Just the other day we went to a buffet (we don't do this often, believe me) and they had--shockingly--a clam chowder that was very close to my mom's version. Super creamy and not too thick with a layer of butter floating on top that might have been enough to cook another meal with. 

There's a tsukemen place (like ramen but the noodles are separate for dipping purposes) that makes a bowl of spicy pork soup that reminds me of my mom's meat sauce. 

Now, if you remember what I said about Judy and noodles you'll know which part she'd ask to be subbed with "lettuce and tomato on the side, please." 

But her meat sauce had ground beef (of course) chuck, two kinds of pork, green peppers, onions, plenty of garlic, three kinds of canned tomatoes, loads of salt and pepper, and just the right amount of red pepper flakes (I can see her handwriting on the recipe sheets she gave me with giant squiggles under the lines "NOT TOO MUCH"). 

She had a special three or four-gallon pot (Revere Ware, once again--the choice for any self-respecting Yankee of a certain generation or two) that she would fill to the brim. It took half a day to make and when it was cooking I think the whole neighborhood knew (and longed for an invite). 

I'd enjoy this over a bowl of hot spaghetti. But Judy just ate it by the bowlful with a Portuguese roll (yes, the ones we used for Momburgers) torn up for dipping. The rest was portioned into freezer bags (or just plastic bags well before there was any differentiation). And as if we were in olden times and the hunters had taken down a wildebeest Judy's Famous Meat Sauce would be ceremoniously eaten throughout the following month or two. I think I learned a lot about enjoying what we have from the sad feeling I got seeing the last two bags in the back of the freezer and just knowing--nay, believing--there was more somewhere when there simply was not. 

Part Two: My World

 I haven't cried in a long time. 

Not that one can portion that sort of stuff and say "I got that all out of my system," but I had a lot of sadness in my life around when I started this blog (2008/2009). And there were days when the tears just never stopped. 

So I remember the feeling fairly well--the tingling, the energy shifting from my chest to my head and then out through my eyes, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand and then looking for a place to wash my face. There's that pain at the shoulders from how it makes your body tense, and then the aching neck that reminds you all day that you were, in case you had forgotten, sad enough to cry. 

It's a feeling I had really pushed to the back of my memory. Because for better or worse after going through all that loss and renewal I began cheating myself out of real emotions. At the sign of any negativity, my go-to has been to focus on the positives and possibly create falsehoods if necessary to buffet whatever fallout may tumble down the mountain. 

Some may call it, at best, being a Pollyanna, and at worst exhibiting toxic positivity. I don't want to look it up because, well, I would rather assume I know what it means and move on to stuff that's actually important. See? That's exactly what I'm talking about. 

Anyway, I just lost a part of my life here in Kyoto. 

I don't want to say too much, because it's really not a public matter, even though anyone walking around my neighborhood could see that something is different. 

But the other day I went by one of my favorite pastry shops. They made things that everyone here makes--cream puffs, chocolate cakes, cheesecakes, cookies, and pastries--but they made them better and they made them differently. That last part doesn't always work in this town, and I had been wondering about their sales since I started going. There was rarely anyone else in the shop on my visits. But really, that can be said for a lot of places that are still in business here. 

One of the specialties was marshmallows. Yep, craft marshmallows, sold in a small, clear, rectangular, plastic box. Sometimes they were raspberry flavored; other times they were yuzu (Japanese citrus) and Jodi loved them so much. They were seasonal, and the last time I went in they had sold the last container, but the woman who worked there found one spare in the back--perhaps one she was saving for herself--and gave it to me to share with Jodi. She was that sweet to me. And while her English was quite good, she'd always allow me to stumble through my elementary school Japanese and smile while repeating the thing I thought I was saying but the right way. 

They made the best cream puff—or Shoo Kureemu—in Kyoto (a very popular item) with the perfect ratio of custard-to-shell. The shell was crispy but not brittle and each bite was a cause for celebration until the last (usually one that could have been two) and then the cleanup of powdered sugar from my clothes and surrounding area. 

When I rode by the other day I noticed the lights were off. It was a Friday, a day they're usually open. But people take random days off here so my first reaction was, “Oh well, if they’re closed I’ll just come back tomorrow.”

I parked my bike and walked slowly toward the door to check. A hand-written sign hung in the window. I noticed their outdoor bulletin board was empty, with only a shadow from where their menu used to be. I pulled out my phone and opened my translator app, but as I awkwardly held it up to the handwritten sign my peripheral vision alerted me that the shelves inside were empty. 

Maybe they were just moving, I thought. Maybe not too far. Maybe to a bigger spot. Perhaps business wasn't that bad after all and I just went on off-hours. 

But the sign didn't say any of those things. It simply, politely thanked their customers for all the patronage and said they would be closing as of last month with no further information. 

I had backup places, of course, but none of them had the cream puff I wanted. And so I rode back home and made some coffee and texted my wife with the news. 

The pandemic had shuttered several places we cared for,  but anyone who was still around, it seemed, was in it for the long haul. This is Japan, where perseverance through adversity is the unofficial national motto.

The next day I stopped in at the bread shop next door to the bakery to pick up a loaf. I asked the owner if she knew what had happened. 

She lowered her voice and told me the owner had died.

He was younger than me. 

What? How could this be?

He was always so sweet to me, albeit from behind the plexiglass window that provided a glimpse into his magical workshop of flour, sugar, butter, and milk, mixing up the next batch of goodies. 

I was gutted, and at a loss for words even more so than usual.

But we chatted for a half minute more and I expressed my shock that he could have possibly be gone at such a young age. I fumbled for something to say—something to show I cared. But the best I could come up with was that they had the best cream puffs in town, to which she politely agreed  I thanked her for the info, wishing I could have said more but thankful I’ve learned the ancient art of when to stop talking.  

Then I went home and did what my mom would have done--what she taught me to do--I wrote out a small card thanking the couple for making me and my wife so happy with their food. I left out anything to do with condolences as this info was gotten second hand and people here are extremely private.

I rode to the shop, got off my bike--possibly for the last time--and approached the stairs. But this time, as I got closer, I saw some of the lights were on. I could have easily turned around and come back after hours when nobody was there, but something pulled me closer.

I peered in and saw his wife in the back. I tapped on the glass and waited as she hurriedly unlocked the door I had walked through so many times. But she didn’t welcome me in. Instead, she joined me on the stairs  

It was at that moment we both knew--at least on the surface--and as I handed her the card I said, in Japanese, "I just wanted to thank you so much for all the joy you brought me and my wife with your food."

After a few stumbles back and forth we switched to English--the most we had ever spoken to each other. 

She told me he had died after a more than year-long battle with cancer. She also confirmed that he was younger than I was and that while it was unexpected he did his best to fight it while keeping the shop open. She told me how these last few months they had only been open a few days a week so he could rest from the treatments, and it reminded me of my mom, and how she insisted on trying to maintain a semblance of normality through the most harrowing time in her life  

I was beside myself. I didn't know what to do or say and as the tears slowly ran down my cheek she began to cry as well. I told her how I had lost my mother and most of my family to cancer and how dreadful a disease it was. I tried to refrain from saying things like "I know how it feels," because nobody wants to hear that, not when their pain is so fresh. 

A deep feeling of confusion arose from trying to filter what I should say from what I shouldn't say and filtering that through the language barrier so I did what any full-blooded American would do, I leaned in and gave her a hug. 

Normally, this behavior is frowned upon here, but it was the only thing I could think of and she obliged and we stood in an awkward tearful embrace over this man who I had only seen and waved to from afar. 

I said I would let her go but she told me to wait. Then she went inside for a moment and came out with a small, brown plastic bag branded with their store's name.

"These are some of his last chocolates. I want you to have them. Enjoy them with your wife. Have them with a glass of wine or coffee and be happy."

I mean . . . yeah. This really happened. And as I'm typing this I'm in tears again. 

I stood there with the box that she had taken from the freezer and cried some more. I knew this would most likely be the last time I saw her--at least in a situation where we could clearly recognize each other. I told her how I would miss her and her husband and the cream puffs they made, feeling slightly ashamed that one of the last things I could impart to her was how much I would miss a piece of food. 

She smiled and told me that he was so proud of his work and that what I said--while unfortunate--would have made him so happy to know. 

I thanked her again and wished her the best of luck in the future. 

I stopped short of saying one of the many trite things people say in these situations like "Please let me know if there's anything I can do," because, really, what was there?

But I gave her my card and said that my music is there and I wrote much of it with love about people I care about--including my mother. I told her I hoped I would see her again. 

I took one last swing at trying to connect and said, “So . . . what will you do now?” knowing full well that was about the dumbest question I could have come up with  

“I will have to find a new job.”

I lowered my head and said, “I’m so, so sorry.”

She thanked me for all the times I came in and bought something and wished me the best of luck. 

I turned and walked down the stairs and waved slowly. Then I got back on my bicycle and rode out the driveway and back home, the bag of chocolates securely fastened around my wrist.. 

When I got home I put the box in the freezer which is where they still are as of this post. 

Part Three: Made With Love

When my mom died on January 11, 2007, she left a freezer full of her food.

Soups, chowders, and, of course, her meat sauce. This was all food, mind you, that she made while pancreatic cancer and the chemicals used to battle it consumed her. 

There was a lot of it at first, and for many months it stayed put, neither me nor my aunt able to bring ourselves to defrost a "little piece of Judy." But we did eventually start eating it, enjoying it, and talking about her while we did. I know she would have been tickled pink to see it all transpire, as my aunt and I had for years been at odds, only recently really overcoming it due to my newfound sobriety. 

But food has that innate ability to connect people--to remind us of places we visited, people we knew, events we celebrated, and even mundane everyday things like weekday breakfasts before trotting off to another day of elementary school, wondering what it must be like to get to eat colorful, sugary, crispy cereal. 

So when the last bag of meat sauce finally made its way from the freezer to the fridge to defrost it was as sad a day as it was sweet. I remember staring at it in the little Revere Ware saucepan we brought back from her house and wondering if I could ever make it as good. 

But I tried, and I got as close as anyone who wasn't her could get. Each generation, I'm sure, suffers that same uncertainty: "Did I make it as good as _____ did?"

But life is, if anything, an eternal uncertainty. And that's something that I think keeps it interesting. Because it leaves as much room for failure as success, and what tips it one way or the other is different for everyone and for everything. 

So as I sit here writing this to remember my mother on the 17th anniversary of her passing, I'll wonder, once again, if today is the day to take those chocolates out of the freezer and enjoy them with Jodi. 

I don't know if it is, and I don't know if it isn't. But I do know that once they're gone, they're gone.

As are we all. 

Thanks for reading, and helping keep these memories alive.

And thank you, Mom, for everything else.

Your son, Frederick

For Judy: 5/14/41-1/11/07