Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for June 2013

Sharing Soup and Stories

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A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft's recipe.

A hearty version of miso soup, prepared using my friend Lucy Craft’s recipe.

My father died several years ago.

In my grief, I needed comfort. I began craving mochis. They’re a Japanese food—rice pounded to a dough-like texture, then cooked over a hot grill, finally bloating into a crusty ball with an inner texture of chewing gum. Finally, the dough is mashed into soy sauce sweetened with sugar. Yummy!

I love these little treats, but you probably have to have some Japanese blood to start salivating at their description.

Now, I find myself stressed for other reasons and have started craving miso soup. Not the wussy little bowls of nearly clear broth with tiny cubes of hydrated tofu served in most Japanese restaurants. No, what I want is my own recipe. The way I concoct miso is probably rooted in my hybrid Japanese, Polish and Lithuanian heritage with a tad of Russian thrown in. My soup has to have mounds of sliced shitake mushrooms and a block of tofu big to make a vegan family happy.  If available, I also throw in a hand full of spinach.  I add slices of green onion, some MSG and of course the miso, about a half a ladle full. It serves 4-6 folks, depending upon the size of the bowl and how hungry everyone feels. It’s a meal.  Include a few Japanese pickles and maybe a cracker or two and I feel satisfied.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

Cutting tofu into cubes for the soup.

I learned to make this soup just a month ago when a dear friend of mine, Lucy Craft, an NPR and CBS correspondent based in Tokyo, showed me the simple recipe:

Heat four cups of water in pot.  Throw in a teaspoon of Hondashi, (aka MSG) found in any Asian food store, 2 or 3 finely chopped stalks of green onions, tofu cubes and sliced shitake mushrooms. You can add additional veggies as you prefer. When the broth begins to steam, mix in half a ladle of miso paste (also available in Asian food stores). Mix the paste slowly with the broth using a long pair of cooking chopsticks. Heat until the broth approaches boiling, but remove from heat before boiling begins. I often add  spinach to the broth just before I remove it from the heat.

I find it intriguing that I crave foods from my mother’s homeland whenever I’m stressed. Its like I’m genetically wired to need comfort food from a place I never lived, save as a small child. My mother rarely made Japanese food. When she did, she served it with a side dish of haughty arrogance and declarations about the superiority of Japanese people. My mother lived in her own cosmology, separate from the rest of society. Her stories were entertaining, but over the years I learned never to trust them.  Starting in fifth grade, I made dinner nearly every night.  If my mother was home, she would stand by my side, helping with some chopping and a lot of storytelling, usually about her childhood spent in a small fishing village during World War II.

My father was my best friend. After I married and moved away, we spent hours on the phone solving the world’s problems. Whenever we had the opportunity to be in the same location, we’d sit outside until the sun went down. He had his own tales to entertain me—stories of his upbringing on a farm in Pentwater, Michigan. Once he told me how he and his two younger siblings saw what they thought was Big Foot in the wild Michigan forest. They screamed all the way home. Oddly, no one else ever caught a glimpse of that creature. My father and I would drink glasses of red wine, watching day turn to dusk, appreciating the moment.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

Stirring miso paste into the soup.

As close as I was to my father, the only ethnic food I ever attempted to cook for him was black bread. I would spend days trying to master the recipe. It required fermentation and my house smelled like a brewery. My father had borrowed a vintage Lithuanian cookbook from a friend and made a copy. Then he made me a copy of his faded copy. This was the 1980s, and books on obscure ethnic foods were hard to come by.

Somehow I could never stomach making other Lithuanian or Polish treats, like the duck blood soup that his mother made for him during the Depression. Once I tried to make him Kugelis, a kind of baked potato torte brimming with butter, bacon, pork chops, milk and eggs. I felt like I was committing a criminal act. The cholesterol in that dish would have killed a weak heart in seconds.

As I get older I realize, like it or not, I am the sum of my parents. Not all of that is pretty. In fact, there are some parts I’d like to leave behind. But at my ever-advancing age, what I have accepted and embraced is my diversity. Growing up poor and enduring the stresses of my youth shaped me into the person I am today. Making food connects me to those two very different people who found each other in post-war Japan, married and became my parents.

When I’m in the field working, my most enjoyable moments are sharing a meal with the people I meet. Often they’ll ask me, “Are you hungry?” When I hear those amazing words, I know that I’ve been accepted into their extended family and a wonderful evening is about to begin.

Despite our crazy schedule, my husband and I try to share a meal with whichever of our children happens to be home. If we’re lucky, they’ll both share the table with us.  Our meals are often filled with laughter as the kids who have inherited their dad’s gift of humor try to outdo each other with exaggerated stories about their day.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water--is a tasty side dish with the soup.

Edamame-soybeans boiled in salted water–is a tasty side dish with the soup.

I grew up seeking story—my parents sharing stories of their upbringing, my children interpreting their days, or the tales told by my subjects who allow me to photograph their lives. Food is a wonderful way to begin that sharing.

Written by kasmauski

June 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Staying Flexible

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My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

Some years back, my husband and I interviewed all of my family members for a video on my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. I remember asking my father the secret of a successful marriage.  He smiled and said, “Be flexible.”

When we decided to have a child, our lives were transformed.  It was our turn to be flexible, adapting to the needs of our son and a few years later our daughter. Nurturing two small children was a wild ride, especially since I traveled so much for National Geographic and my husband was a full time editor.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

But all good things must eventually end. Our kids grew up. The familiar chaos of responding to our children—whether hustling them out the door in the morning, or racing home at night to get them before day care closed, or following their college sports and performances—drew to a close.

Or so we thought.

With both kids in college my husband and I became empty nesters—except of course for our children’s monthly trips home to do laundry, raid the food supplies and meet old high school buddies.

Since they were out of the house—sort of—I decided to return to academia. I always wanted to get a masters degree for teaching or managing a visual department. That became possible when I was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University. I was apprehensive about the decision. While I’ve had a strong freelance career, I feared that disappearing for a year might not be a wise business move. But I approached it with a flexible attitude and my fellowship year turned into one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

At the end of that year I graduated from Ohio and my son Will graduated from William & Mary within weeks of each other. Pictures of both of us in our caps and gowns are on the Facebook sites of our friends and family.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

In the fall Will applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to Uganda. He left this spring. At the same time Katie decided she wanted to come home to finish college. Our daughter, a smart gorgeous girl, turned out to be a homebody!! Go figure, but my husband and I were secretly pleased to have her back. We count ourselves lucky to have a daughter who wants to be near us. We love having children at home. The weekends are lively with their friends dropping by. Will leaving for two years left us deflated, but having Katie move back home pumped us back up again. We couldn’t be happier.

I guess full-fledged empty nesting will have to wait for a while. But we’re flexible.

Being flexible is one of the more important qualities for a successful career in photojournalism. I used to say if something could go wrong it will. I just need to deal with it since there are no second chances in the profession.  If I didn’t return with the pictures on an assignment, I wasn’t getting hired again.

Among other things, being flexible means changing direction if a job doesn’t materialize or a contract can’t be finalized. In the ever-changing profession of photojournalism, flexibility is a mantra. This week another newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, dumped their staff of 28 hard working and talented photographers.  Hearing about such outrages saddens me and I pray that my fellow photographers who lost their jobs will be flexible and smart about finding something that can keep them in the business, or find something else that makes them productive and happy.

After all the years I’ve spent working as a photographer, I guess I once thought that at a certain point in the profession I wouldn’t need to constantly stay flexible. But I now see that isn’t true. I went back to school for a masters in visual communications to keep my skills competitive. I loved immersing myself in modern multimedia techniques and seeing the energy and creativity of the next generation of journalists.  Seeking out flexibility expanded my horizons.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

I hope that I have passed that trait onto my son. He will need it.  Like a dutiful mother, I gave my son advice as I dropped him off in Philadelphia this spring to join his fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Of course I cried uncontrollably. I’m a crybaby. I admit it. Through my tears, I struggled to give my kind and handsome son a few pearls of wisdom for whatever they were worth. I’m sure he wasn’t listening. He was probably focused on the fear and excitement of embarking on an amazing adventure. But it made me feel useful.

My advice to him echoed what my father said to me years earlier:  Be safe, be kind and be patient. Most of all be flexible.


Written by kasmauski

June 4, 2013 at 4:30 am