Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

He Preferred Manhattans

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My father, a few months before passing away.

Over a decade ago, my father said he had a secret to tell me.

My mind went to a dark place. Did I have half siblings somewhere?

“I have to tell you,” He slowly whispered, “we have Russian blood.”.

As my father was born to a Lithuanian father and a Polish mother, I remember thinking that his terrible secret seemed a bit funny. Having some Russian blood in the mix didn’t seem like a big deal to me.

He died soon after our conversation and never explained why this part of his—and my—heritage embarrassed him. Whatever the reason, with Russia now triggering the worst conflict in Europe since the second world war, slaughtering hundreds of innocents, and destroying cities, I think he would have been even more troubled by this part of his background.

My grandmother, the baby on the right, with her Polish relatives in 1907.

My father’s family members left Poland, Lithuania, and perhaps Russia at the beginning of the last century, driven by poverty and the aftermath of past conflicts to chance life in a new country. I don’t know as much about that history as I’d like. One of my aunts attempted to research the family genealogy but records from that time were very sketchy. New arrivals could be ushered like cattle through Elis Island, and immigration officials didn’t always properly spell those complicated Eastern European names.

My father told me our name was changed from Kasmauskas to Kasmauski because the immigration clerk told my great grandfather he would “Americanize” his name, turning the “as” to an “i.”   I’m not sure if it happened or was just a family story. Like so many immigrant families that had to move quickly, the records of their lives fit into one envelope or perhaps a small box. Photos, if any, were few. Documents were often signed in haste, by people barely understanding the officials talking at them.

How did Russia play into my own history? Did some earlier branch of my family have to leave their homeland because Russians threatened them, or seized their property? I often wonder how these DNA tests could be so declarative since past borders were often fluid. In 1000 AD Poland’s extended into what is now western Russia, and up through the Baltic states. Over millennia, those boundaries shifted westward.

My DNA was tested by two different companies.  One test indicated that my father’s bloodline was part Finnish, mixed with other eastern European groups, and maybe some Russian. The other test stated I was generally eastern European/Russian with a little Jewish thrown into the mix. Both tests said the same about my mother’s bloodline—that I was more than likely Japanese or at least northern Asia.

But learning about my ancestry didn’t reveal why my father felt conflicted about his. During World War II, Russia invaded both Poland and Lithuania, and Russia’s treatment of Ukraine under Stalin—another short, brutal man—caused millions to die from starvation. Was this history the reason he felt ashamed?  I’ll never know–he was gone before I had the chance to have a deeper conversation with him.

My father, in center of the front row, during training before being sent to the Philippines.

As a teenager, my father lied about his age, enlisting in the Navy when he was 17 and spending World War II in the Philippines as a Seabee, building airbases for the fight against the Japanese. He had no clue that planes taking off from those bases might be the same ones dropping bombs near a beach southwest of Yokohama, where a 10-year-old girl was playing. Nine years later, during the occupation of Japan, he met that young girl who had matured into an 18 year old. They married and became my parents.

My mother, the second girl from the right in the front row, on the beach in Sajima in 1943.

That was the first of three wars in which he was involved during his 33-year Navy career, with Korea and Vietnam coming later. He hated war. I often referred to him as the most pacifist solider. He never spoke much of his war time experiences. But as a teenager, I once asked him why he married my mother. As a Japanese person, wasn’t she part of the enemy?  He responded that governments made the wars, not the people. War didn’t turn my father against the Japanese. Stationed there after the conflict ended, he saw the destruction all around him and understood that the average Japanese suffered greatly for their leader’s ambitions.

My mother and father taking me to a family visit in Michigan soon after we arrived in America.

I don’t know if the mystery of my father’s feelings about Russia will ever be solved. Most of the older relatives on my father’s side of the family are gone. When I ponder my Russian blood, I try to think like my father when I see the carnage of Russians bombing hospitals and killing families on the streets as they  attempt to flee to safety. I try not to hate. One small and evil man triggered all this. Many Russians probably have no idea of the horror in Ukraine since the only media left is controlled by the state. Those whom the state claims are spreading “fake news” face imprisonment. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for those in our own country who’ve made names for themselves bellowing about “fake news.” Without truthful information a free society doesn’t survive.

My father never drank vodka. He preferred whiskey or bourbon made in America. His favorite drink was a Manhattan which I made for him every time my parents came to visit.  Tonight, I’ll drink a Manhattan in honor of my father and hope, that in the end, he was right. People are not the enemy.

 

A Manhattan–my father’s favorite drink.

My Father’s Manhattan:

I make his a bit sweeter by adding a dash of the cherry juice.

  • 2 oz of American Whiskey. Usually, we use Johnny Walker. Some refer rye whiskey
  • 1 oz of red vermouth
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • A serious dash of cherry juice. I use “Bada Bing” cherries.

Stir together in a glass container. Pour into a cocktail glass with a large chuck of ice. Top with a cherry. Sometimes I throw on a thin slice of orange (for excitement!). Serve.

 

 

Written by kasmauski

March 18, 2022 at 3:30 pm

Martini Memories

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My father and I always had a close relationship.

In my working-class family, sophistication mean drinking wine from a bottle with a cork. As an adult, when I’d return to my parent’s home in Norfolk, my father would celebrate, buying a corked bottle of red wine, rather than the half-gallon, screw top jug he usually purchased.

“Karen, this is the good stuff. It has a cork in it,” he’d proudly declare. I would smile and nod in agreement. “Yup, the good stuff,” I replied. My fondest memories of my father are drinking a glass of that “good” red wine with him. At dusk, the two of us would sit on the concrete steps outside the kitchen door, sipping wine and solving the world’s problems.

After marrying, I moved to the Washington D.C. area. I worked for National Geographic Magazine for over 25 years, first freelancing, and later as a contract photographer. Then—and probably now—Geographic attracted young and talented staffers. Many came from wealth, raised in far more rarified situations than my working-class roots afforded. At company events they’d order sophisticated drinks I had never encountered—brisk gin and tonics, sweet bourbons, or chilly martinis. Clutching a glass of white wine in my hand like an amulet, I was fearful of trying anything else. What did I know? I had no idea what to order or if I’d even like it.

Two years into my Geographic career, I was assigned to make publicity pictures for an upcoming television special about gold recovered from Atocha, a Spanish treasure ship. The photo editor for the television team was Karen Huntt, a lovely young woman. We Karens bonded immediately. She sent me to Key West, Florida to make pictures of Mel Fisher, who discovered the wreckage of Atocha.

Arriving in Key West was magical–my first encounter with palm trees.

I was thrilled. At that point, the two stories I had photographed for Geographic were on Hampton Roads—my hometown, and Tennessee—my adopted home. Key West sounded enticingly exotic. I arrived in January, a world away from snowy Washington.  The town felt like a movie set. My rental car was an open jeep, my hotel a bungalow surrounded by sand and palm trees. To my inexperienced mind, it seemed like I might have landed on some island in the south Pacific.

Sunsets at Key West evoked the romantic history of the Florida Keys.

The Nuestra Señora de Atocha went down in a hurricane off the coast of Florida in 1622, a time when Spain was a world power. The ship carried 40 tons of gold and silver, and over a hundred thousand Spanish coins. Treasure hunters had sought the ship for years, but in 1985 Mel Fisher and his crew found a huge cache of the ship’s precious cargo. Geographic television needed pictures of the gold and of Mel.

Mel Fisher, proudly displaying relics recovered from the Atocha.

He was a truly a personable fellow. For our late-afternoon photo session, Mel showed up on the beach by himself, carrying gold bars and other gold items. They must have been worth tens of thousands of dollars. I arranged the gold bars on the sand, letting the tide wash over them. I can’t imagine this happening today without a squad of security guards surrounding me, scrutinizing my every move. But Mel was funny and cooperative, a perfect photo subject.

Starfish and seashells adorn weighty gold bars and chains from the wreck.

Back at Geographic, Karen looked over my shoot and invited me to have a drink with her. “We should get a couple of martinis to celebrate!” she said. Martinis? I told her I’d never had one. That was the last time I uttered those words. Karen took me to the bar of a nearby hotel and ordered two Gibsons. My first sip introduced me to a world of tastes I’d never encountered—sharply edged vodka, softly sweet vermouth, and earthy acidic cocktail onions. I was hooked.  “Next time,” Karen said, “try a martini with olives.”

I did.

Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel–one of my favorite places in Japan. CREDIT: Kakidai/Creative Commons

By the time I did my last assignment in Japan a few years later, I had moved on from olives, preferring my martinis with a simple twist of lemon. I thought of myself as a martini connoisseur. I was staying at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Most National Geographic writers and photographers working in Tokyo back then stayed at the Imperial. It was a comfortable old school hotel on the edge of the Imperial Palace grounds. The current version, built in 1970, replaced the earlier Imperial Hotel, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and had miraculously survived the WWII bombings.

My husband was with me, and on our last day, I suggested we have a farewell drink. We went to the hotel’s famed Old Imperial Bar. It was an elegant place of dark wood and sumptuous leather, using materials and designs that echoed the original Frank Lloyd Wright hotel. My assignment had gone well. I was feeling quite smug and amazed at my good luck to be sitting in Tokyo at this wonderful bar in the Imperial Hotel.

(Note to Karen, never feel smug about anything…)

Though I love martinis, I could never find the etched glassware like the ones served in the Old Imperial Bar.

We each ordered martinis. They arrived in delicately etched glasses, about half the size of a normal martini glass. How quaint, I thought, examining the intricate design that held my drink. Still glowing from completing what had been an amazing assignment, I drank the potent liquid quickly, without enough thought. The vodka went straight to my head, and then to my knees. When I got up to leave, I fell to the floor. My husband, less affected than me, pulled me up. No one around us in the quiet bar noticed. Or at least seemed to not notice.

Does smugness reduce your tolerance for liquor? I don’t know.  I have never fallen from a bar stool before or since.

Had my wits been about me, I would have asked the bartender where those small, elegant glasses might be found. But while my other work took me to many other places in Japan over the years, I never stayed at the Imperial again. When it was possible during my travels, I checked Japanese department stores and shops, but never found a glass that matched the one in my memory. Eventually I stopped looking, realizing that my memory of that place and that time in my career couldn’t be recovered by a piece of glass, no matter how elegant. Now, I’ve learned that the Imperial will soon close. A new version will eventually rise, but it won’t have that amazing bar, or that amazing martini that brought me to my knees. Memories of a wonderful career which took me to incredible places is what I now savor.

If I don’t see a thin glaze of ice I haven’t shaken it enough.

A Vodka Martini

Everyone one has their own way of making martinis.  I like mine ice cold and shaken. Not stirred.

2-3 oz of vodka (I have never taken to a gin martini)

½ oz or less of white vermouth

A few shakes of Angostura orange bitters

A twist of lemon sliced over the glass

Put the first three into a shaker with crushed ice, shake until one’s hands are painfully cold. Pour into a frosted martini glass. If you’ve shaken enough, a very thin glaze of ice should cover the drink’s surface. Add the twist of lemon. For me it’s all about the glass. It should be “V” shaped and very cold. I prefer a small glass. Two or three ounces of liquor is enough to enjoy a drink. More than that and it becomes more about feeling tipsy.

Layers of Memory:  Why I bought a Smith Island Cake

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Slice of a nine-layered Smith Island Cake.

I’m not a fan of yellow cake with chocolate fudge frosting.

So, I’m unsure why I pulled into the roadside market on Maryland’s eastern shore when I saw a sign advertising Smith Island Cakes. The cakes, if you’ve never had one, are thin layers of that same yellow cake. Each layer—there can be up to 15 of them—is separated by a coating of chocolate fudge frosting.

The taste wasn’t what made me stop. It was the memory. Seeing Smith Island Cakes took me back to a wonderful assignment I’d had a decade earlier for the New York Times, on “Crab Houses of Maryland’s Eastern Shore,” https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/travel/12crab.html  Shooting that let me spend a few days on Smith Island, a small speck in Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s only inhabited off-shore island. The cake, honored as Maryland’s “official dessert” was probably brought to the island back in the 1600s by the original England and Welsh settlers. 

A Smith Island entrepreneur makes the cakes in her home for mail order sales.

The practice of making them with many layers grew over time, perhaps as a way of keeping the cakes moist when carried by Smith Island men during the autumn oyster harvests. They might be out working for days at a time and the cakes provided them with much needed energy. I read that the original cakes had just four layers, but competition between Smith Island women eventually led to cakes boasting nine or more layers.  

For my assignment, I visited Smith Island and photographed the cakes being made, as well as documenting a waterman who earned his living by fishing and crabbing. Seeing the cakes at the roadside stand brought back fond recollections of the project, which I loved doing. I bought one to preserve the memory for few days. 

A ferry brings visitors to Smith Island and carries local seafood catches to market on the mainland.

 I wish preserving photographs could be as easy. 

Back home, I recalled that the Times had also produced a wonderful multimedia presentation using my pictures and audio. But while I could still find the print story on the website, the multimedia piece had vanished. Eventually, deep in the archives of the Times, I found the multimedia link, but it would not play. Instead, a message popped up proclaiming that I needed a now-obsolete piece of software called Flash. Once widely used to play media, support for Flash ended earlier this year. My multimedia piece survived only in memory.

Increasingly violent storms threaten the stability of Smith Island.

Digital’s ephemeral nature has always worried me. Unlike print, which can be read for centuries, reading a digital article, or viewing digital photos and videos depends entirely upon websites continuing to exist and software–like Flash–not going out of use. Storage devices holding a lifetime of work may not be readable a few decades from now, abandoned in the inevitable march to ever-newer technology. I wonder how our descendants will view our time—assuming they can read the records of it. 

Warming temperatures are contributing to rising ocean levels.

I started my photography career using film. My slides, taken over two decades, are easy to find, and I can make beautiful prints from them. Even in the slides that my father took almost 80 years ago, when he was a young man, the color is only slightly faded. Viewing them doesn’t require software that may only exist for a few years. I often think about the discovery of Vivian Maier’s remarkable body of work. A young man, finding boxes of her negatives in a storage locker, had the sense to buy them and share prints of them with the public. Had he not done that, this fascinating photographer would have vanished from the world. If her work was digital, it might have remained trapped on a hard drive that could no longer be opened. For today’s pictures, existing only as digital information, this may be their fate, the memories they preserve slowly fading away.   

Within two decades, Smith Island may be too marshy for people to live on.

Ironically, Smith Island where the cakes originated is also fading away as our careless world warms and oceans rise. Since Captain John Smith sailed into the Chesapeake in 1608, the waters have risen almost two feet (0.6 meters), enough to drown many of the low-lying islands and fishing communities that once thrived in the Bay.  No amount of frosting will be able to prevent that.

In 2008 Maryland designed Smith Island Cakes as the official dessert of the state.

Recipe from Maryland’s Department of Tourism:

https://www.visitmaryland.org/article/Smith-Island-Layer-Cake-Recipe

Water Gives And Takes Away

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We are often drawn to those things we fear.

When I was five years old, my uncle decided to teach me how to swim by throwing me into the chilly water of Spring Lake Michigan. As I struggled to stay afloat, I could see him standing above me on the floating dock. He was laughing. My survival instincts kicked in and I started paddling like a dog. He finally plucked me from the water.

Dreams about water recur in my family.

My father didn’t reprimand his brother for nearly drowning his daughter. The fear of that experience stayed with me, and I never learned to swim properly. Even now I feel uneasy around large bodies of water. My grandfather drowned in that same lake in 1949. Stories of that fateful day became part of our family mythology. Over dinners, my mother recalled that in the days before he drowned, my grandmother had a recurring dream that my grandfather was in a boat and moving away from her. In her dream, she called out to him, but he never responded. They had, my mother said, been arguing and had not spoken to each other for days. They did not speak that morning he left to go fishing. My grandfather was testing out a boat with my uncle Einar. Somehow, the boat flipped over. My grandfather didn’t survive, while Einar did.

I am often apprehensive.about the mysteries of water.

I read a news account on the incident. It is clear that their boat sank. Beyond that, details are murky. Apparently, Einar tried to drag my grandfather to shore. But it wasn’t clear what happened to my grandfather after that. Einar was picked up by another boat cruising in the area. Three days later, searchers found my grandfather’s body on the lake’s opposite side, submerged in 32 feet of water.

Clear water can be calming.

Growing up in a Navy family where my father went out to sea for months at a time, this tale chilled me to the bone. I sometimes had nightmares of my own, where my father’s ship sank. Stretching my arm out to his sinking body I tried to reach him but couldn’t. I watched in horror as he sank beneath the water with the ship. Then I’d wake up.  

When my father retired from the Navy, we settled in Norfolk, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world and we’d lived there earlier in his career. He was attached to different ships and later did shore duty at the close of his time in the Navy. After retiring, he took a civilian job and went right back to work in the same department where he’d worked in the Navy. It was as if he never left.  

Fresh pink Carolina shrimp, ready for steaming.

Living in Norfolk we ate seafood; crabs we collected, fish my parents caught, and shrimp. Shrimp was my favorite. I craved it. Whenever I was asked what I wanted for dinner, I always said shrimp.

When I was younger and living in Illinois, shrimp were too expensive for us. Back then, my father was a Navy recruiter in Chicago. He didn’t make much and worked two additional jobs to pay the mortgage and buy groceries. We couldn’t afford luxuries like shrimp.  

During our time in Chicago, my father often drove us all up to Grand Haven to visit his mother. She was struggling financially after her husband—my grandfather—drowned. After she had a few beers in her she told us stories. One was about cleaning tables at the local country club. With a twinkle in her eye, she told me she’d often eat the fried shrimp diners left on their plates. As a young teen who really loved shrimp, this seemed perfectly acceptable for me. Why let them go to waste?

Casting for an evening meal with a shrimp net.

When we moved to Norfolk, shrimp were abundant and affordable. During the season, pickup trucks lined roads in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. Hand-painted signs leaned against them, advertising fresh North Carolina shrimp. My father would stop by one of these trucks, or a local seafood market. I still viewed shrimp as a special dish—a birthday treat, or reward for a good job. When we went to a restaurant like Red Lobster, I would always order shrimp served three different ways.

Cooking Frogmore Stew for a family reunion.

Fifteen years later I was photographing a story for National Geographic Magazine on the Gullah people living on island off the South Carolina and Georgia coast. Many of the families I met grew or caught much of their food. Here, shrimp, steamed, fried, or served in casseroles was an everyday meal. For large gatherings, shrimp might be combined in a pot with sausage and seasonal foods like corn and potatoes to make Frogmore Stew, a delicious traditional dish. 

Returning from the tidal flats with a harvest of shrimp.

One morning I followed two young boys walking into the mud flats to collect shrimp stranded by the outgoing tide. Light and fast on their feet, the boys skimmed the muddy surface like water birds. I was not one of those birds. On my second step I sank up to my knee. Fearing I and my cameras could get stuck as the tide rose, I pulled my muddy leg loose from the muck and waited. Eventually the boys returned, bringing an impressive bounty. They invited me back to their house and their mother, after allowing me to clean up, made shrimp and grits. Her blending of bacon, butter, sharp cheese, scallions and of course shrimp was something I’d never experienced. I had what I could only describe as an epiphany. Shrimp and grits remain one of my favorite dishes.  

A Gullah fisherwoman mends a net.

Gullah hands seemed always busy. If they weren’t growing vegetables, catching seafood, caring for family, or cleaning their yards, they were repairing their shrimp nets. I spent a lot of my time with a kind woman named Helen. A community leader and Deacon in her church, Helen was a fisherwoman who watched children to supplement her income. I photographed her on a day she was repairing a net while watching a young White child whose mother had dropped her off unexpectedly. I commented that she and her family must have a special relationship with the sea since they lived so close to it and got so much of their food from it. Helen didn’t look up, but kept working on the net, mending a broken strand. Finally, she replied, telling me “The sea gives but it also takes away.”  “What?” I responded. Helen proceeded to tell me about people in her family, many never learning to swim, who had drowned. “I understand” I told her and thought of my grandfather.

Nothing matches the sweet flavor of Carolina shrimp.

Boiled shrimp are my favorite.

In my book, the best way to cook shrimp is with plenty of Old Bay Seasoning. I know some people don’t care for Old Bay, but I love it. I mix one can of light beer with an equal amount of water and a good shake of Old Bay in a large pot. Once the mixture boils, I add a pound or so of shrimp and cook until the shrimp just turns pink. I shut off the heat and empty the hot liquid. The key is not to overcook this fragile food. A barely cooked shrimp has a tender sweetness that is lost when boiled too long. I serve it with Aioli or cocktail sauce. Use the dressing sparsely—too much will overwhelm the delicate flavor. Whenever possible, I eat only wild caught shrimp from North Carolina.  

Boiled Shrimp:

One pound or more of wild caught shrimp, usually about 36-40 count size

One can of light beer

One can of water. I usually measure by filling the beer can with water

Two strong shakes of Old Bay Seasoning

Boil the liquids with the seasoning. Cook the shrimp until they just turn pink. Empty and enjoy!

Written by kasmauski

September 30, 2021 at 1:41 am

Crab Cakes: Sweet Reward

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Freshly steamed Chesapeake Bay crabs, ready for eating.

My Michigan-raised father liked meat. But he loved seafood. Scallops, shrimp and crabs were his favorites. 

Scallops were expensive, even in seafood-rich southern Virginia. We didn’t have them often and cooking them took finesse. The key was heat, using a pan lightly oiled with butter to sear the scallop top and bottom without overcooking the interior. Properly done, the reward was a delicious jewel from the sea.

Fish was another story. For reasons I never understood, my mother could not cook fish well. Her efforts produced a sharp fishy taste and aroma that appalled my father, my siblings and me. She often ended up eating it by herself while the rest of my family scoured the cupboards for mac and cheese or dinners from the freezer. That awful smell lingered in my memory. Only years later, photographing a story in Alaska, did I work up my courage to try fish again when I discovered the wonder of salmon.

Thick gloves protect against the blue crab’s sharp claws.

But crabs were something we all agreed on.  Despite living in the suburbs, my parents did their share of hunting and gathering. They loved fishing—fighting a hapless creature at the end of a line. Crabbing, though, was a family pastime. Our favorite hunting ground was below a bridge where water from the Chesapeake flowed inland. My parents would buy a bag of chicken necks. They’d tie one to a string and toss it out into the water. Wearing old gym shoes—the crabs could draw blood with their pinchers—I would wade knee-deep into the water, holding onto the string. When I’d feel a tug, I’d slowly pull in the string, being careful not to dislodge the large crab hanging onto the chicken neck. Avoiding the clicking pinchers, my mother or father would pull the crab loose, and throw it into a perforated plastic laundry basket they kept submerged in water. That kept the crabs alive until we had a full basket. 

Tubs, each holding 400 Blue crabs, await steaming.

Like lobsters, crabs had to be steamed alive to preserve the sweetness of their meat. My younger brother took this to an extreme. He’d crack the crab’s shell open and rinse out the guts, then throw the mangled body into the steam pot, it’s legs still kicking. He said this had to be done quickly before the crab even knew it was dead. “The only way to get really sweet crab meat,” he claimed. His approach horrified me, but I did eat the results. Yes, it was very sweet, but I suggested he never do that again.

Steaming crabs was always a happy occasion for my family. It was one of the few times we came together to gather food and share a satisfying meal. Everyone contributed, working together to bring in a successful catch. My parents would lay the steamed crabs out on newspapers. My siblings and I would break them open with nut crackers, then use scissors and picks to pluck out the tasty chunks. Eating was a long process, accompanied with steamed corn and cold drinks. One of my uncles, visiting from Michigan, found them disgusting. “Why are you eating insects?” he asked when we took him crabbing. He watched, exasperated, as we munched contentedly on the bushel we’d caught and steamed.

Mealtime was always a guessing game at our house. Would it go well or would dishes be thrown against the wall? I never knew what triggered my father’s violent behavior, but I am certain my mother played a major role. Often, she blamed me or my siblings. But after the dust settled, and I talk to my father, he would just say,” Sometimes your mother pushes me too far.” For a man who spent his entire career in the military, he seemed to have few of the skills needed to be avoid conflict. Disagreements often flared into arguments. Meals could be a battleground for the two mismatched people fate had made my parents.  

Lowering storm clouds on a Chesapeake Bay afternoon.

When dinner went well, my father would tell stories of his childhood. He spent summers on his grandfather’s farm in Pentwater, Michigan, playing with his two siblings, Bill, and Lorraine. He told about growing up in Chicago where his father, a Republican, ran a bar and worked at the stockyards. Not to be out done, my mother would counter with her own stories about growing up during the war in Japan and how living in a small fishing village saved their lives, since the village was too small for the enemy to notice. The village fishermen brought back food every day, so her family experienced less hardship than many in wartime Japan. Dinner accompanied by stories were the good times. I ate those stories up. They nourished me more than the food on my plate.

But on other days, a dark cloud hung over the table. I could sense the storm before it happened, my flight response on high alert.  Triggered by something I never saw, my mother would set upon my father with constant nagging and criticism. Finally, he couldn’t handle any more and he’d throw his dish against the wall or turn over a table. As my parents screamed at each other I and my siblings would scatter. 

Steamed crabs piled high on brown paper, with cold drinks nearby.

Away from my turbulent family, eating crab was always a pleasant experience. As a young adult, working for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, I’d join other staffers on Friday nights at a beach bar called Ocean Eddies. Steamed crabs piled high on brown paper spread over a rough wooden table. We’d down frozen margaritas served in plastic cups. Ocean Eddies perched on an old pier and looking down between the loose floor slates, we could see surging waves. After I Ieft the paper, storms washed away much of the pier, carrying Ocean Eddies away. Both pier and Ocean Eddies have been rebuilt, but I never returned, wanting to keep intact my memories of a simpler time. 

Eating steamed crabs is now a rare luxury for me. My husband is not a fan of picking through their shells to get to the meat, an activity I find relaxing. And sadly, Chesapeake Bay has been over crabbed. Over the past twenty years the once abundant crab population has been threatened several times. Competition got so bad that at one point Maryland and Virginia crabbers threatened to shoot each other for crossing the state line running through the Bay. With fewer numbers, crabs cost more. As a child, I could pick them out of the water without a chicken neck. Now, a dozen jumbo jimmies—male crabs—can cost close to two hundred dollars. Even a pint of picked crabmeat costs anywhere from 45 to 60 dollars. Yet, when I really want the taste of crab, I’ll spend the money. I might make crab cakes, or to keep things simple, Crab Norfolk. That’s a simple three-ingredient dish of lump crab, vinegar, and butter (please use real butter). Mix all three together and warm over low heat. Sprinkle on smoked paprika. Eat it with chips or warm slices of a baguette. I suck up the meat like an addict.

Freshly formed crab cakes, ready for broiling.

This recipe was given to me by a friend who got it from a photographer who finally became well known later in his life as a chronicler of Baltimore area, thanks to a Washington Post magazine article. I’m not sure where it originated but I love that it’s not fried like so many other crab cake recipes and that it’s mostly crab with just a little bit of filler to hold the meat together while it broils to perfection. Apparently, these cakes were also called “Gertie’s Crab Cakes.” My friend served it with a side of Ken’s Thousand Island Dressing.

A finished crab cake, served with a dab of Thousand Island dressing.

Warren’s crab cakes:

1 egg

2 TBSP. mayonnaise

1 tsp. dry mustard

1 tsp Old Bay seasoning (I am NOT fond of Old Bay so I only use about 1/4 tsp

2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

Dash of tabasco sauce (I use several)

1 lb. lump crab

1/4 cup cracker (or finely ground bread) crumbs

Combine egg, mayo, mustard, pepper, Old Bay, Worcestershire, and tabasco sauce in a bowl and mix until frothy.

Put crab meat in the bowl and pour mix over it. Gently mix in cracker crumbs, coating all with egg mix but taking care not to break up lumps of crab.

Form crab cakes by hand into mounded balls and put on a greased baking sheet. There’s not much to hold them together, but that’s the challenge.

Put in a broiler (not too close to the flame – you need to give the crab time to cook) Broil until golden brown.  Serve at once. I would recommend 1 1/2 – 2lbs of crab meat for 4 people if that is the main course.

Written by kasmauski

September 18, 2021 at 12:21 am

Food Connections-Respect the Rice

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With our current crazy world, we all need comfort food. Mine is mochi. 

A perfect bowl of white rice with a red pickled plum in the center.

Mochi is a rice-based cake, pounded into the consistency of play dough or a wad of chewing gum. At least that’s how my husband describes it. He’s not a fan. Neither was my father. But, like my Japanese mother, I crave mochi. So do my kids, especially my daughter. Maybe you need a few Japanese genes to appreciate the wonder of mochi. Soon after my father died, I needed comfort and asked my mother to make me mochi. She did, though it was the last time she made them. (https://kasmauski.wordpress.com/2010/04/ )

I grill the cakes on a hot skillet until they puff up. The crusty outer layer of each finished cake shelters a warm chewy center. Using a fork, I mash my cakes in a mix of raw sugar and soy sauce, rewarding me with a satisfying blend of sweet and salty flavors.

My mother making Mochis for me after my father passed away.

Rice is my mother’s comfort food. Growing up, rice was a consistent presence in our home. I remember when she returned from a visit to Japan with a rice cooker packed in her luggage. She didn’t cook a lot of rice–just a dish with her lunch each day. 

As an adult, photographing stories for National Geographic, I began comparing how different cultural groups consumed rice. In Hawaii, I found that Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry ate way more than Japanese living in Japan. Rice was served with nearly every meal, including breakfast. A typical working person’s lunch plate had two scopes of white rice, potato salad, macaroni salad and a meat like chicken, fish, or pork. In Bangladesh I sat down to meals where rice, mounded in a heap, was the main course, with vegetables and meats served on the side. But no matter the location, for so many people rice sustains life, providing strength for work. I always felt guilty when I didn’t finish the rice on my plate.  

When I was young, the quality of rice my mother could find was mixed. In Michigan, the local grocery stores only sold instant rice, like Uncle Bens. I’ll never forget the name or the texture. Even as a child I could barely stomach it. 

I seldom remember having rice at dinner. The family usually ate traditional Western meals.

I was nine years old when my mother flew to Japan by herself leaving my father alone with four children. I remember weeping quietly as I stood by a chain link fence at the airport, watching with my brother, sister, and father, who held my infant brother. As her plane rose into the sky I wondered if she was leaving us?  Only later she told me she had an ecotopic pregnancy. It had to be terminated in Japan as it would have been regarded as an illegal abortion at that time in the US. She also got her tubes tied. The last thing my mother needed was more children. 

When my mother returned two months later, she brought along a rice cooker. The instructions were in Japanese. A few years earlier, Toshiba had developed the first automatic rice cooker, making it easier for Japanese housewives to provide this daily staple. Luckily the voltage for Japanese appliances is similar to those of U.S. devices, so plugging it in didn’t burn down our house. With this miraculous device, my mother made rice every day. She had brought back as many bags of Japanese rice as she could cram into her luggage. I remember the wonderful taste—a world away from the awful instant rice we’d had up to that time.

My mother’s mochi cooker. When she gave it to me she added English translations for the important settings, as I don’t read Japanese.

After her imported supply was gone, she got my father to take her to a small Japanese store in downtown Chicago where she restocked with good (aka Japanese) rice. She also bought pickled plums there—another reminder of Japan. The Japanese love to put those bright red balls of tartness in the center of their bowls of white rice, symbolizing the rising—or maybe setting—sun of the Japanese flag.

Maybe the years of eating Uncle Bens rice had radicalized her, but my mother insisted on using only Japanese grown rice for her new cooker. Nothing else would do. She especially didn’t want Korean rice. Years later, when she’d come to visit me, she refused to go to sushi bars run by Koreans, which limited the places I could take her. “Not same!” she would declare when I’d ask her what’s the difference. I’m not sure if she really believed that or if it was just a remnant from her youth. My mother had grown up in post-war Japan, a time when Korean families living in Japan for generations were still considered Koreans, and not accepted as Japanese. Some of that attitude still lingered, even in the early 1990’s, when I did a National Geographic story on Japan’s then-dominant economy, I found Koreans were still treated as outsiders in Japan. In the often-chaotic household of my youth, keeping that sense of Japanese culture with her rice was a small piece of her life that my mother could control.

After the rice cooker became part of our kitchen, my mother usually ate a bowl at noon when my father was at work. She’d often fry up a small fish or vegetables in soy sauce. I’m not sure where she got the fish.  My father refused to eat them, and I could swear they were rancid.  The smell was so pungent that for years I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating fish. 

My mother eating a bowl of rice at lunch.

We lived in two different kitchen routines—one my mother cooked in for herself and the other where meals for the rest of us were made. Sometimes my mother would serve us kids a bowl of rice, in addition to whatever else was made for our lunch. We’d pour on the soy sauce throwing my mother into an angry tirade, “You ruined the rice, no respect for the rice.” We kept on pouring.

As an adult, I had a mixed relationship with rice. Unlike my mother, I didn’t make it every day. I ate plenty of rice on assignments to South Asia and Africa. Often it was one of the few foods I could safely eat in the rural areas where I worked. I didn’t miss it when I got back home and never thought to cook it. I usually only ate the rice that came with Chinese, or Thai take out or in sushi. When I had children, rice was on the menu again. Rice is a perfect child’s food, soft, bland, and white served with butter, soy sauce, chopped chicken, salmon or vegetables. My children liked rice so much, my mother eventually bought a rice cooker not for me but rather for my daughter when she was still a toddler. Later, when she left our home for her own apartment, she took that old rice cooker with her.

With today’s carb-obsessed culture, where phrases like “Keto” or “Paleo” diet slip into casual conversation, rice has now joined the outcast gang of foods we are told to limit if not avoid all together. We should all eat less bread, cereal, pasta, and rice.  As I got older, and found it harder to shed extra pounds, I started seeing rice as one of the “bad” foods I needed to steer away from. But it’s hard to live life with that much control.

My daughter Katie carries on the tradition of enjoying rice Mochis.

The large quantities of leftover rice from takeout Asian food orders became a moral dilemma. What to do with it?  Often, I’d freeze it, but that just postponed the problem. Sometimes I’d mix it in with food for our dog, Leo. Eventually I’d throw some of it away, but that always brought pangs of guilt for wasting food—especially rice, my mother’s sacred dish. I felt like a traitor both to the planet for wasting and to my heritage for disrespecting the rice.  

Recently, I discovered salvation. It came in the form of recipes for Rice Cakes. This was so simple and obvious, that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.  All I needed to do was disguise the rice, deluding myself that it’s a completely different dish.

Despite my mother’s disapproval of Korean rice, I love Korean food. My favorite is Bibimbap, rice, meat and vegetables cooked in a very hot stone bowl, with a layer of crispy rice at the bottom.  I don’t have stone bowls that can heat high enough to crisp the rice, but I can fry the rice cakes, and come close to imitating the crispy rice. The fried rice is transformed into a sort of sandwich bread.  Topped with egg, tuna salad or a dressing of avocado and yogurt, it becomes a tasty breakfast or lunch, and a new way to keep respecting the rice.

Rice always has a place–along with tofu, pickled vegetables and bacon and eggs– in a classic west meets east eclectic breakfast.

Karen’s adapted Rice Cake Recipe   

This recipe is based on several versions, and I’ve added and subtracted ingredients to match my taste.

Kind of Crispy Rice Paddy:

2 cups of leftover rice at room temperature. If I have more rice, I increase the other ingredients.

2 eggs, beaten. If I have four cups of rice, I add another egg.

1/3 or more cups of chopped green onion

1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese (I’ve made it without cheese too)

1 cup of cooked spinach. Drain dry after cooking. I love spinach so I often put in more. (You can substitute finely chopped zucchini or a similar sturdy squash.)

3-4 tablespoons of chopped mint.  (Other herbs can be substituted)  

1 teaspoon salt or more to taste

½ teaspoon black pepper or more to taste

Butter to fry the cakes. (Olive oil can be substituted, though I’ve never tried it.)

  • Add about 2 tablespoons of butter to a non-stick pan. Place over medium heat until the butter is shimmering.
  • Place a scoop of the rice mix in the pan and press down with a spatula to form a patty about a half an inch thick. 
  • Cook 4 minutes, or until golden and crispy, then flip the patty. 
  • Fry another 3 or 4 minutes until crispy and golden.

Eat happily and without a guilty conscience. If you have leftovers, reheat the paddies on a dry (no fat) pan, flipping once, until the paddy is hot to the touch. (Do not microwave!)

Written by kasmauski

August 22, 2021 at 9:08 pm

Food Connections—Lithuanian Rye Bread

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Success! Two loaves of rye bread–a bit rough looking but very tasty.

Lately I’ve been wondering what to write about. Right now, the world seems especially crazy. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the “Groundhog Day” movie, repeatedly reliving the lockdown because some people feel like wearing a mask or keeping safely distant threatens their “freedom.” Or they’ve read an article that convinces them that vaccines are unsafe. If they’re that worried about what is going into their body, their time might be better spent thinking about what ingredients and chemicals are in the fast food or soda or snacks that they’re eating.

However, as I don’t want to get trolled by folks who find pleasure in being mean and cowardly online, I am going to write my next couple of blogs on food. These are foods that gave me comfort or helped me connect to my family and friends, or people I met on assignment, photographing for National Geographic or non-profit groups. Food is a universal connector, bringing us closer to those we know, and making friends of strangers as well as evoke life’s memories..

While I am not a chef, I love tasting new foods, then trying to cook them when I get home. The idea of giving nourishment to someone fulfills me, in much the same way as when I take a memorable photograph.

Certain foods remind me of particular moments in my life. Some are wonderful, others are not. Cooking helped me survive a dysfunctional upbringing, living under the sharp bitter tongue of a mother who seemed never to be happy and blamed everyone but herself for that. My father, a career Navy sailor, was a good man, but seldom around.

With my parents–the two people I enjoy cooking for, taken around 1996.

Yet despite my uneven relationship with my parents, I liked cooking for them. It made them happy and created good memories. With my Japanese mother I shared a love of mochis, a cake made from rice flour, which she made using a machine she brought back from one of her trips to Japan. Mochis were my comfort food. After my father passed, I asked her to make me a batch, which she did, one last time. She and I both loved takuwan, a pickled Japanese radish, along with tofu, oden, a Japanese hotpot and konnyaku, a rubbery food made from a taro-like potato that takes on the flavor of the dish it is in. Japanese crave it. On my parents visits to northern Virginia where I moved after I married, I’d make her ramen or take her out for sushi.

For my father, whose grandparents came from Lithuania and Poland, I made the eastern European dishes that he remembered from his childhood. I tried my hand at cream puffs, donuts, cabbage rolls and pork chops. From my cousin, I pieced together the recipe for a dish called Kugalas. Laden with meat, butter, and cream, it was delicious, though so loaded with cholesterol that it was doubtless a health hazard. I never made it again. I drew the line at duck blood soup, a dish my father said his mother often prepared during the Depression. My father loved Manhattan’s and I loved making that cocktail for him. My secret ingredient was adding a tad of cherry juice from the jar of cherries I used for garnish. I never told him how I made my version, but he liked it so much, that I could count on him asking for it every time he visited.

On those visits, the one place my dad always wanted to go was a Vietnamese restaurant called Four Sisters. During his long military career, he had two tours of duty in Vietnam. The second was just before the US presence came to an end. At that point, food was scarce, and my father and his group pooled their money to hire a local cook who made Pho and other savory dishes for the team. Despite my father’s intense dislike of the war, he loved the food of Vietnam. At the Four Sisters, he always ordered lemon grass grilled chicken and rice.

The copy my father gave me in 1980.

In 1980, my father gave me a copy of a Lithuanian cookbook that was published in 1955. The copy was printed on only one side of each page and the pages were bound together with a plastic spiral. Not long ago I rediscovered it in my library. Looking through the faded pages, I decided to attempt making Lithuanian Rye Bread once again.

I hadn’t tried this recipe in nearly 40 years and reading it brought back all sorts of memories. Back then I was living in Norfolk in my own apartment, but I decided to make the bread at my parent’s house. It was a turbulent time. My parents were fighting a lot and my mother was constantly yelling at my younger brother, calling him a failure. Distracted by these conflicts, all three of my attempts to bake this bread failed. The dough would ferment but not rise and the result left the house smelling like a brewery. Looking back, I wondered what I was trying to achieve. Did I hope making this bread would somehow bring us all together again?  At the time, I was a (marginal) Catholic. Had I been thinking about the example of Jesus breaking bread? Did all that negative energy in the house cause the failure of the bread to rise? After the third unsuccessful try, I put the cookbook away until last week, when I decided it was time for a fresh attempt.

Seasoning the bowl with onion, caraway seeds and salt–but how much?

I had forgotten how vague the cookbook’s recipe was. Actual baking temperatures were never listed, just suggestions for a “very hot oven” or reducing the heat to “a “moderate oven.” To make the dough I should use “enough boiling water to make a thin paste.” The only precise amounts in the recipe were for two pounds of black rye flour and a half of cup of vinegar. Everything else seemed like guesswork. The recipe called for the bread to be made in a wooden bucket. Not having one, I used a large wooden bowl. If the bucket (or bowl) was used for the first time, then the bowl should be seasoned with chopped onions, salt, and caraway seeds. Again, the vague instructions offered no amounts. Everything seemed to be done by estimating and then eyeballing the results.

Still, I decided to give it a try, pouring nearly two quarts of boiling water over the black rye flour, until it finally achieved what I hoped was the thin paste described in the recipe. As my wooden bowl filled to the brim, I realized why the large wooden bucket was recommended. Knowing that the dough would expand as it rose, I put several towels under the bowl and covered the top with plastic wrap. The next morning, to my relief, the dough had stretched out to the edges of the plastic but didn’t overflow.

The recipe then called for adding enough all-purpose flour to make a stiff dough. Now a stiff dough to one person may not be stiff enough for another. I ended up adding well over three pounds of all-purpose flour, finally producing what seemed like a “stiff,” if very sticky mixture. At this point I was looking at a five-pound ball of dough, which seemed like an awful lot of bread. I was frustrated by the vague directions and wondered if I was just wasting good ingredients.

A finished loaf-enough to feed a big family.

But then I started thinking about the community who created this cookbook and what a woman using this recipe might be doing. Lithuania is largely Roman Catholic and big families were common back when this recipe was written down. With six to ten mouths to feed, baking big loaves of bread was probably an everyday chore. She’d likely buy big sacks of flour—25 or 50 pounds worth—and add handfuls from the bag until she got the texture she wanted from the dough. With that much experience, she didn’t need the recipe to provide more than a few general directions.

Adding the all-purpose flour softened the taste of the rye.

For me, however, this was unfamiliar territory. I thought about adding more flour but then I remembered the recipe said to first cook the dough on very high heat to brown the top, followed by moderate heat for three hours to cook the entire loaf. I assumed the dough still had to have plenty of moisture to bake that long. But what was moderate heat? 300 degrees? 350 degrees?  And how would I know when the bread was done? Without a Lithuanian grandmother to consult, I turned—as we all do these days—to Google, where I read that once the center of the loaf was 190 degrees it would be hot enough to be safe.

The cookbook recipe with the somewhat vague instructions.

To my delight, the recipe worked. The finished loaf, brown and crusty on the outside, was moist and richly textured, if a bit crumbly. I’d baked my way through this whole long COVID ordeal making sourdough bread, pizza, pancakes, and rolls. It was time to return to my heritage—and perfect my version of “stiff dough.”

Written by kasmauski

August 10, 2021 at 6:22 pm

Good-bye Little Buddies: See you in Seventeen!

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Will in 2004 (left) and in 2021, contemplating a cicada at close range.

Seventeen years; a lifetime for cicadas and time enough in my life for major changes. Back in 2004 when Brood X last emerged, my children were entering the infamous teenage years. I took silly photos of my son with a cicada perched on his nose. He and his middle-school friends made a mock horror film about the invasion, called “Day of the Cicada,” casting the little creatures as ravenous flesh eaters leaving behind only their victims clothing. It’s still fun to watch.

During the 2004 emergence thousands of cicada exoskeletons lay clustered around a tree trunk.

That previous plague of cicadas was a diversion from the devastating events then unfolding around me. I was reeling from the death of my brother, claimed by a drug overdose—an early victim of the opioid crisis. And my long career at National Geographic, which had accelerated as the cicadas emerged in 1987, was now unraveling. I spent 1987 on the west coast photographing a story about San Diego while the bugs were emerging in the east. The 17 years that followed, up to 2004, were the most secure of my time at National Geographic. I had a contract with the Magazine. I proposed and photographed stories about the environment, women’s issues, and global health, traveling all over the planet. But in 2004 all that changed. Changes in Geographic’s management and political maneuvering forced me to balance my family’s security with my suddenly imploding career.

Cicada emerging from its exoskeleton. Once the wings unfold and harden it’ll fly off in search of a mate.

Amid my personal crisis’s, the cicada arrival was oddly comforting. They didn’t bite. Other than their annoying numbers there nothing to fear from them. And unlike the political intrigue I was witnessing, the cicadas had productive effects. After 17 years of underground growth, drinking juices from tree and plant roots, the inch-long nymphs excavated tunnels to the surface. Their amazing internal regulators marked time, letting them know when 17 years had passed.  As the soil warmed to an acceptable 64 degrees, cicadas emerged by the billions. In the process they aerated soil, the first of many gifts these little creatures give our planet.

Adult cicadas massed together, waiting until the day warms enough for flight.

On emerging, they climbed straight up trees, fences, anything vertical and then molts one last time. Leaving its brown shell behind a small white creature with bright red eyes appeared. Soft and tasty, many made feasts for birds and other animals—their second gift.  But within hours, the surviving cicadas turned bluish-black, ready for flight and mating.

Cicadas mating on a leaf. The female will then deposit eggs inside a tree branch. Once hatched the nymphs will drop to the ground and burrow beneath the soil.

The males called out to the females creating a cacophony of sound that I enjoyed as if hearing nature in progress. After mating tail to tail, the female laid up to 30 eggs at a time on a soft tree branch, depositing as many as 600 on a single tree. Soon after, the cicadas died. Their bodies fertilized the soil, providing a third gift. Almost two months later, eggs hatched into tiny nymphs which dropped to the ground where they burrowed below to feed, molt, and start the cycle all over again, emerging in another 17 years.

This harmless life cycle miraculously gives back to the earth, hopefully making us realize that all things in nature have a purpose. Yet we humans so often seem intent on disrupting such cycles, and then wonder at the negative consequences.

In 2038 Brood X will re-emerge, and a new generation will continue the cycle.

As the 2004 cicada cycle ended, I realized that my National Geographic career cycle, also ending, didn’t matter. Our family needed to survive, and our children needed to feel secure. I decided to reinvent myself and go in new directions. I found work with other publications and non-profits. I produced two books, got grants and earned my master’s degree on a Knight Fellowship. Our children graduated high school and then college. Seventeen years later our family thrives. My beautiful daughter works in an interesting design field, is getting her master’s degree and gave us an adorable grandbaby. My preteen son with the cicada on his nose is now a Navy doctor and recently married. My husband and I continue working. The cycle of life goes on. We just needed to figure out how we fit into it. I hope and pray that we as a family will be alive and healthy to meet Brood X in another 17 years.  And when they re-emerge, maybe a few of us will have again reinvented ourselves.

 

 

Written by kasmauski

June 25, 2021 at 6:23 pm

Irregular Observations on Health and the Environment-Civility in Crisis

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Elderly Japanese couple carries their belongings to a shelter following the January 1995 Kobe Earthquake

The scenes of our Capitol under attack at the start of this year leave me deeply worried about the future of our country. We have big differences. But how can we find our way back to the civility we need to resolve them?

People can remain civil in even in the worst crisis or disaster. They just need to make that choice. A quarter century ago I witnessed another city in crisis, this one on the other side of Earth. There, citizens chose civility. In the midst of disaster, they treated each other with kindness and respect, committing themselves to a community and transcending individual behavior.

My story began with a very strange moment. Late on the afternoon of January 16th, 1995, I was finishing a proposal for National Geographic Magazine on the city of Osaka. I was editing a sentence about the city’s underground walkways that connected to shopping areas when a moment of sheer terror seized me. My hand froze over the document. I could barely breath. I had a vision of the walkways collapsing and people being buried. It lasted only moments but left me shaken. Where did that come from?

Owner comes to reclaim items from her collapsed home.

I finished the proposal and submitted it. The next morning, January 17th, I learned that a huge earthquake had devastated Kobe—a city adjacent to Osaka. I realized that my moment of terror occurred at almost the exact moment—5:46 am on January 17th (Japan being ahead of the US by 14 hours) that the earthquake hit Kobe. 6,000 people were killed within minutes. Over 48,000 were made homeless.

Geographic’s editors set aside the Osaka idea and within a few days decided on a story about Kobe’s recovery and the current science of earthquakes—can they be predicted and what sort of construction offers the best protection?

I was assigned and asked to leave immediately. But Kobe’s recovery would be a longer-term project, not a breaking news story. The immediate pictures of disaster and fire had all been taken in the first 24 hours. Before I could go, I had an important personal priority—my son’s birthday, just two days off. He would be five. Gifted with a memory like an elephant, he would doubtless always recall that his mom left just before his birthday. I stayed for his party and left the next day.

Damage to the Port of Kobe which is built on landfill.

Arriving in Osaka, I met two staffers from the newly created Japanese edition of National Geographic Magazine. We took a helicopter to Kobe, landing on an undamaged pier in mid-afternoon. From there, we walked for ten hours through the damaged city. As night fell, the temperature dropped. In the dark, we used flashlights to make our way through rubble-filled streets. Electric power and water supplies were cut off for most of the city.

Clearing out goods from a damaged shop.

The following morning, daylight brought the damage into full view. Stores were wide open, windows broken, doors ajar. I passed a liquor store with hundreds of unbroken bottles spilling onto the sidewalk. A jewelry store had diamond rings sitting in open display cases. But everything was calm. There was no looting, no gangs roaming the streets. I was carrying a bag full of expensive camera equipment, yet I felt perfectly safe.

I wondered how this might have been had the quake been in the United States, thinking about how often theft and looting accompany natural and social disasters. Japan operates with a collective sense of shame. To steal or to damage property would bring shame to the family. It wasn’t done. There is something appealing to that. Time and again I witnessed kindness and civility from people who had lost family members and most of their material possessions.

Jitters after the Kobe earthquake sent one family fleeing to their van, they were too frightened to stay in their damaged apartment above the family laundry.

Lack of housing forced some 1,100 homeless people into an unheated municipal gymnasium where they fought flu, boredom and irritability.

In January’s frigid weather many Kobe citizens, afraid to return indoors, lived for weeks in their cars. Other families sheltered in school gymnasiums, each holding over a thousand people. Everyone stayed within the space measured by their sleeping futons, laid on the floor in neat rows. From above the arrangement looked like a giant patchwork quilt. Shared bathrooms were kept clean and no one fought over space. People patiently lined up for daily serving of a hot protein-rich soup, without pushing or demanding to be fed first. Residents of one shelter where I photographed insisted that I take the first bowl, though I didn’t need it. But their hospitality towards strangers had not been blunted by the trauma of the quake. I had to accept the bowl, giving those watching a sense of normalcy, no matter how fleeting.

At Kobe’s Hyogo High School the waiting list for a relaxing soak was long. Volunteers bath an 84 year old woman in a tub that was refilled daily with water trucked in from a hot springs 125 miles away.

A woman gives comfort to her elderly mother  who shed tears of joy when she realized she could take a bath.

Rather than bringing guns to the disaster zone, Japan’s army—the Self Defense Force—brought a fleet of tank trucks filled with water from nearby hot springs and set up temporary bath sites. Baths are sacred to Japanese, particularly older ones. As people signed up for baths, I saw another act of kindness. A woman showed up with her elderly mother just after all the bath slots were filled. As the woman started to cry, wanting the bath to help her mother’s mental state, the team running the baths talked to those in line. Could they make room for the older woman? Everyone agreed. Learning she would be allowed to bath, the old woman grabbed the attendants’ hands and wept.

Food provided for Kobe citizens made homeless, A hot bowl of soup, the only hot meal those living in shelters would receive, was delivered daily to various shelters.

I saw just one flash of anger. In the food line of one shelter, an old man pushed forward, shouting. He wanted to eat. He wanted to go home. I could sense how people lined up became alarmed. The negative energy of this one man could affect the carefully balanced community cooperation. Then, the leader of the food delivery team came forward. He listened to the agitated man, then hugged him. Instantly the old man calmed down. He was taken to the front of the line, given a bowl of soup and was visibly grateful. The crowd gathering around this scene gave a collective sigh. Order was restored. Everyone knew they all would be given soup. Waiting a few moments to resolve this issue was worth the price of harmony. Impressed by how quickly the team leader defused the situation I  thought about that old adage that violence begets more violence, and anger creates more anger. Here, the opposite was true.

In the wake of the Kobe quake, police officers comb through a demolished apartment house as a woman waits to learn the fate of her husband. His body was never found.

Constant aftershocks from the quake kept everyone on high alert throughout my time in Kobe. Once a wall collapsed less than thirty feet behind me. Yet in the midst of this disaster, everything remained calm. People realized they were all in this together, I rarely saw anyone trying to get in front of a line or push someone aside or take anything from a store. No one yelled, shouted at strangers or threatened them. I never saw a gun, not even with the Self Defense Force.

My experience with Kobe’s crisis makes me think about the way we respond to the traumas affecting our nation. Can we find a way to recommit to our communities and our country, and act with civility, kindness and understanding?  We can only truly be safe and secure when we learn to act together.

Irregular Observations on Health and the Environment-Myths and Realities

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An underground storage site for high level radioactive waste at the Hanford site in Washington state.

I’ve always wondered how myths emerge.

In college I studied Anthropology and Religion, exploring those beliefs that connected different societies to eternal themes. Oddly enough, decades later, my journalism career connected me to similar explorations of the eternal. In the late 1980s, while photographing a story on Radiation for National Geographic Magazine, I learned of discussions scientists held on warning future generations about nuclear waste.

Decades after nuclear weapons tests, signs at the Nevada Test Site still warned of dangerous radiation levels.

These researchers at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna envisioned a time thousands of years from now. By then, languages might have changed. Technological civilizations might have vanished. Yet the waste would still be dangerous. How might our distant descendants be warned?

Their idea was to create a mythology designating forbidden places. Oral traditions and warning symbols carved in rock could foretell of evil falling on any people entering such areas. Whiles barbed wire and metal signs would soon rust, perhaps such myths would endure.

Before the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site were used to see how they would affect existing structures.

Such long-term thinking and the idea of creating a mythology or religion around a power discovered by science intrigued me. It influenced the way I photographed the story. I tried to make my images beautiful. My hope was that beauty would attract readers, first seducing and then informing them. In Washington state I photographed a highly radioactive waste site after dark, as artificial lighting transformed the scene, creating an eerie other-worldly feel. In the Nevada desert, I used the setting sun to depict ruins of a town devastated by a nuclear weapons test as pieces of abstract art.

At the conclusion of the August 6th ceremonies in Hiroshima, paper lanterns, representing souls lost during the bombing are floated past the A-Bomb dome out to sea.

In Hiroshima I photographed glowing lanterns floating down a river, past the remnants of a dome that is one of the few structures surviving the atomic bomb that killed some 70,000 residents. That skeletal dome is now surrounded by a vibrant modern city, with wide streets and open spaces. When I’ve taken visitors to Hiroshima, they always ask if the land is still radioactive. It’s not.

For years, raw sewage from Tijuana has been polluting the waters off Imperial Beach in San Diego.

Yet for those places remaining radioactive long after we are all gone, I wonder if we will ever actually use enduring symbols or mythology to signal danger. We seem to have lost the ability to think critically about information, even when it is stated plainly, much less presented as myths. I sometimes feel like warnings act as lures for many of us. I remember watching surfers in San Diego walking past signs warning of raw sewage in the water, then plunging into the surf and paddling out to enjoy a day in the ocean. Now, our inability to understand and apply simple techniques like hand washing and mask wearing has caused the Covid outbreak to be far worse than it needed to be. Rather than concocting myths to guard against our past and future technological mishaps, wouldn’t it make more sense to renew our focus on the critical, fact-based thinking that originally propelled us to prominence as a country?