Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for April 2010

Comfort Food

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When my father had the stroke that eventually killed him, I asked my mother if she could make me mochi.

Mochi are a uniquely Japanese food—small white cakes made of glutinous pounded rice, molded in gentle little mounds with the look and feel of finely kneaded bread dough.  Historically, making mochi was a community effort.  People worked together, pounding rice, shaping it into a pliable mass, and then cooking the cakes.  It truly took a village to make mochi.  They were considered a spiritual food, often eaten at the first of the year to insure that life and relationships remained whole for another year.  Today, mochi making machines, not villages, churn out the little cakes, which are often eaten as a snack without spiritual fanfare.

Mom making mochi. Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, f.2.8

Handcrafting a mochi. Nikon D3s, 24-70 mm f.2.8

Still, mochi are my comfort food, and this was a time in my life that I needed comfort.  My father, who was to me both parent and friend, was in intensive care.  In my heart, I knew he wouldn’t recover from the devastation done by the stroke.

So I really needed my mochi.  When I’m stressed, lonely or sad, I crave a mochi in the same way that others might crave chocolate.  I chew each one slowly, savoring the density and warmth as it fills whatever void I have at the time.

However, for the most part, I eat mochi because I want to.  I love their texture, the flavor released by mashing it into a mixture of slightly sweetened soy sauce.

Eating mochi also ties me to my mother’s roots, and connects me with my heritage.  She was from a small seaside village in Japan called Sajima.  The youngest of six sisters, her own father died before she was born.  She and her sisters all lived in her mother’s village.  Since her uncles were fisherman, they never went hungry during the war.  At nineteen, she began working as a typist at the U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, a city south of Tokyo.  There, she met my father who was in the Navy.  With her family’s blessings, they married.

I was born in Japan. With my mother, I moved to America when my father’s assignment in Yokosuka ended.  Finding herself transplanted into postwar America of the 1950s, my mother tried very hard to assimilate and blend into this strange new world.   She didn’t teach my siblings or me to speak Japanese, and I don’t remember her talking too much about life in Japan.   But food remained a conduit to her home culture that she kept open.

Life in the United States was not what my mother had envisioned.  My father soon had to return to sea.  He thought if might be easier if we all lived with his mother in Spring Lake, Michigan while he was gone.  He could not have imagined how wrong he was.   We lived on the edge of poverty.   My grandmother’s house was run down, and constantly needed repairs.  The first winter we stayed there, icicles hung from the ceiling of our room.

To make matters worse, my mother and grandmother turned out to be as compatible as oil and water.  My grandmother had emigrated from Poland.  Widowed at a young age, she had raised her seven children during the Great Depression.  From those experiences she had learned to make heavy food from cheap ingredients.

I can only guess that my mother must have written letter after letter to her sisters, complaining about her wretched life in America.  Soon after we got to Michigan, boxes started to arrive from Japan.

The best of these care packages usually came around Christmas.  They were always large, covered in brown paper and wrapped tightly with jute string.  The tops were decorated with twenty or thirty exotic looking stamps, and a weathered postmark with a month-old date.  Back then, packages from Japan came by sea.   The cost of sending anything by air was so outrageous that it wasn’t even considered.

My mother would eagerly cut the string, tearing off the brown paper and slicing open the box.  With those actions, we were transported through a portal to another universe.  Out tumbled candies, tangy soy-flavored Japanese crackers, and mixes for soups, sauces, and dark sheets of paper-thin seaweed called nori.  There would be towels with strange lettering that looked like drawings that I later learned were Kanji characters. Every box had a large pile of soft cotton hankies as though they were disposables that needed yearly restocking.  And oddly, her sisters would send pajamas for my mother.   Sometimes a toy or two would be included, but the box was mostly filled with food.  At the bottom there were always blocks of dried rice cakes—mochi.  After their month long journey, the cakes sometimes had a bit of mold on them.  Always practical, my mother just scraped it off and cooked them anyway.

My mother grilled the mochi on a dry cast iron skillet.  Fresh, the dough is silky soft, a fleeting texture that quickly dries to the consistency of hardened play dough.  Heating a cake on a hot grill or warming it in a microwave causes a remarkable transformation, as the firm dough softens to a texture resembling warm silly putty.

When ready, the cakes puffed up like little balloons.  She served them with a toping of soy sauce and sugar.  My siblings and I tore them apart with our small kid teeth, savoring the gummy texture and licking the salty soy sauce off our lips.

Mashing the mochi. Nikon 700, 50mm f.1.4

To the uninitiated, eating mochi may seem like trying to devour a large wad of gum after it’s been chewed a few times, but to me, a plate of mochi is pure comfort—a culinary delight.

After watching varied reactions from many friends that I’ve introduced to mochi, I’ve become convinced that, to be a true mochi eater, you must have some Asian blood—preferably Japanese—to actually relish the stretchy, chewy experience.

Of course, there are always exceptions.  Occasionally I encounter folks whose gene pool must have mutated somewhere along the line to tolerate—even appreciate–this unusual Asian cuisine.

The aesthetics of cooked mochi can evoke odd reactions from those who haven’t been raised with it.  My husband, who doesn’t have a drop of Asian blood in him, tried a bite once.  Only once.  Now, he looks almost frightened whenever I ask if he wants a taste of my mochi.  I ask out of politeness, knowing (actually hoping) that he will refuse.  On the other hand, our children eagerly devour mochi mashed in soy sauce.  They’d rather have that than a thick fluffy donut.  But they’re a quarter Japanese.

Watching this next generation continue my own love of mochi, I’m reminded of those times long ago in Michigan, when my own mother would serve us mochi.  Doing so transported her for a brief moment back to Japan with her sisters, where they’d laugh, share secrets and dream of what their future would bring them.

Attempting to eat a mochi. Nikon 700, 50mm, f.1.4

Written by kasmauski

April 24, 2010 at 11:24 pm


with 3 comments

I took this picture of my father in Michigan about 1975 with an old Nikon FTN.

I got the phone call that I’ve dreaded for years.

My father had a stroke.

Though he was 84, and I knew he wasn’t going to live forever I could never visualize a time when he would not be here.  He was vital, active and living a full life with my mother until the moment of the stroke.  After struggling to live for several weeks, he finally died peacefully at home, comfortable and without pain.

For his family, those weeks were harrowing, with tensions that can occur in even the best of families.  But that’s not what this blog is about.  Here I want to remember my father.

During World War II he joined the Navy.  That was his ticket off the family farm in Michigan.  Just 17 years old, he was sent to the Pacific and built airstrips in the Philippines.  After the war he returned to Michigan, finishing high school and attending college.  But he was restless and started thinking about the Navy again.  His girlfriend didn’t like that, and gave him an ultimatum—“the Navy or me.”  Luckily for my siblings and I, he decided to set sail.  I sometimes wonder what happened to that woman.

The Navy opened the world to him.  His enlistment stretched to 30 years.  He traveled through the Far East, served in the Korean and Vietnam wars.  In the 1950s, he was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan.   There he met Emiko Fukumoto, a cute, smartly dressed 19 year old who worked on the base.  They got married and nine months later I arrived.  My three siblings soon followed.

Our life was that of a military family.  Dad was frequently at sea.  Without email, video conferencing, or Facebook, those long months when he was gone seemed to last forever.  We loved opening the packages he sent, filled with gifts from places we barely knew existed. He had purchased a Nikon S rangefinder (yes Nikon did make a rangefinder) while stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base.  He photographed everything in his world during that time including his young family.

Dad used an old Nikon S rangefinder to take this winning picture of Nikko Lake in Japan. He took it on his honeymoon with my mother in 1952.

On my parent’s honeymoon he photographed Lake Nikko, north of Tokyo.  The image is a stark one, framed by the bare tree limbs of winter.  The scene must have reminded him of rural Michigan, where he spent much of his childhood.  He was very proud that the image took first place in the “Far East Photo Contest.”  He became an avid amateur photographer and shot rolls of vintage Kodachrome 25 film.  When he was home, we’d spend evenings watching slides or super 8 film clips of his travels. I’m sure my own love of travel began during those evenings.

Dad loved tasting different foods.

As an enlisted man with a growing family, he had to moonlight to make ends meet.   But on payday, he would often bring home a box overflowing with enough goodies to make a Polish grandmother proud; huge cream puffs, delectable cheeses, flavorful sausages, firm and chewy breads.  Since our normal fare was Velveeta cheese, Wonder bread and canned pork and beans, that box was a magic treasure trove.  Growing up during the Great Depression, such treats were out of reach for him.  He wanted his children to taste and experience what he never could in his youth.

Dad was also an early “foodie”, before anyone used that term.  He ate locally, whether he was stationed in Japan, Vietnam or Boston.  By then we lived in Norfolk Virginia.  I would get his letters filled with tales of grilled seafood, chowders, and a strange noodle soup called “Pho.”   Despite being a port city, Norfolk was not much of a culinary center in those days and my knowledge of “unusual” foods was confined to his letters.

Now I live in the Washington D.C. area and finding a bowl of Pho is almost as easy as going for a burger.  When my parents came up to visit, they’d time their arrival for lunch. We’d head over to the “Four Sisters” a popular Vietnamese place that my parents enjoyed.  Dad always ordered the grilled pork cooked with lemongrass. They timed their return home so they could stop for lunch at Pierce’s Barbeque in Williamsburg, Virginia.  My father loved pork.

In a way, I’ve become my father.   Like him, I’m a photographer, a traveler and a “foodie.”

As my life unfolded, I started a career similar to his.  Instead of the military, my ticket to the world was National Geographic Magazine, where I worked as a contract photographer for twenty years.  My husband always knew where I had been by the style of food I’d cook soon after returning from an assignment.  Coming home after a trip to New Mexico, I made posole using peppers I purchased there.  It may be I added a tad too many.  My father dutifully forced down a few bites and then screamed out in protest for water!!!   I loved bringing back foods, recipes, and different liquors for him to taste so he could experience my travels through food and drink.  He was such a sport, tasting everything even if it meant a night of running back and forth to the bathroom.

Dad in late 2009, patiently being my subject while I test two Nikon SB-900 speedlights.

He was also my willing victim when I tried out new photography gear, patiently sitting through photo sessions.  Last winter, his knees were aching, but he stood patiently outside until I finished testing a couple of new strobes.

What I inherited from him that I treasure the most was his curiosity and engagement in the world.  He was an avid newspaper reader.  He not only read the news but thought about it.  He had a great sense of morality and justice, which he passed on to me.  When a topic engaged him, he wrote letters to the editorial page, many of which were published.  He instilled in me a sense of humanity, to judge a person not by the color, religion or ethnicity or what they might pontificate on but rather how they actually lived their lives.

My most enjoyable times were the long phone calls we often shared.  Some lasted for hours, as we solved the world’s problems.  The last one was the Monday before the stroke; ironically, we were talking about the need for health care reform.

I will miss those lively phone calls and the joy he took in the small pleasures of life whether it was working in his beloved garden, tasting a perfectly cooked steak or sipping a Manhattan that I took pleasure in making for him, adding a extra drop or two of cherry juice so it could be perfect.  Not that he would ever complain if it weren’t.

I was testing the Nikon D2X when I took this picture of my mom and dad on a walk through Maine’s Acadia National Park in 2005.

Written by kasmauski

April 3, 2010 at 5:52 pm