Kitchens by Sanae 06/05/2013



 
 
The kitchen is a windowless and narrow structure, an airplane aisle barely, with earthquake proof cabinets. But we fit easily, the women in my Japanese family are small, two hands can enclose my grandmother’s waist, and my mother was once called plancha in Argentina for her flat front and behind. We are in Tokyo, in the quiet residential neighborhood of Meguro, on the thirteenth floor, renamed 12A by my superstitious grandparents. We speak Spanish to one another, and if there are a few quibbles in Japanese between my aunts, everyone talks with a smooth argentine accent. My grandmother sits in a corner of the living room, her naked feet propped onto an electric foot massage. She stares at her many plants that have overtaken the balcony like a voluptuous jungle, while my grandfather rocks on his leather armchair and watches TV.
 

Not much changes when we visit: the household has been the same since I can remember. Grandmother sipping her daily glass of whisky and grandfather peeling soft-boiled eggs and popping dozens of vitamins that we say will shorten his life. I watch TV with him, and because of jetlag I can’t sleep at night, though Tokyo has an ability to keep me awake nights on end, through my mother’s rich snores and the grey mist hovering over the concrete city. The sky never blackens. It shifts through various greys and blues. My mother and I sleep side-by-side like sisters, on hard mattresses and under thick duvets. By seven in the morning, when light filters through the sliding glass doors, and my grandfather has silenced the portable radio that he sleeps with, I leave my bed for the living room, where I join him.
 
We eat toast with butter and jam and watch our fifteen-minute long Japanese telenovela, then the news, with its dramatic soundtrack and exaggerated zooms. I know only a few words of Japanese, and so I imagine hundreds of murders unfolding onscreen. We wait for the food shows with the anticipation of starved customers, and we watch from morning to night. Our bellies growl, we cry out in disgust, my mother yells at me to do something, Go ride a unicycle, she says, but I shake my head and stay on the floor, beside my grandfather’s slippers. There is for all appetites. We like the classics where contestants gorge themselves on endless belts of small plates carried by a black, snakelike conveyer belt. It delivers a strange assortment of foods. One woman rapidly peels a banana and pushes it into her mouth in one motion. The banana seems to melt like pudding, and somehow she survives, plopping sushi after sushi into her gaping mouth. She licks her lips with a heavy tongue and I expect her to catch flies. They have such talent, these contestants, and such slender bodies. There is the more thoughtful and civilized show of guessing which is the most expensive, high-end ingredient. One woman tastes two scallops and hesitates, as if deciding between shoes. The audience applauds, delighted. But I prefer the action and thrill of the conveyor belt.
 
There is a show where famous comedians gather for dinner at a high-end restaurant, once a week. The menu is presented without prices, and the comedians order, and then guess the prices of the dishes. The one who is farthest off must pay for the entire meal. I wonder if these men and women go into debt, if they giggle onstage only to fall into a quiet misery. We laugh. We rarely talk or touch, my grandfather isn’t interested in children, but here with these shows we are complicit and entertained. I think about how we take pleasure in the other’s humiliation, the Japanese version of schadenfreude. In Japan a small misstep can be a great embarrassment.
 
My mother cooks for us. On days when a meal is successful my grandfather grunts and eats like a king. On other days he pokes at the food, eats, but stays silent. We read his moods and utterings, our patriarch who sits at the head of the table.
 
This is not a typical Japanese household. My grandparents prefer western cuisine from years of living abroad, and oddly enough it is my mother who enjoys Japanese flavors the most. When we visit, for weeks on end, she takes over the kitchen and becomes the matron of the house, preparing traditional home cooking. Fried rice covered with a runny omelet; miso soup with pork, vegetables, and gobo; thinly cut beef cooked in butter; croquettes filled with mashed potatoes and minced meat; shredded cabbage and daikon to balance a meal.
 

 
My grandmother begins with beer at eleven for lunch, then whisky, and during dinner, glasses of red wine.
 
We continue to watch the shows as though our lives depend on them, in a desperate act to find common ground and share a few smiles. My grandmother, still sitting behind us over her whirring foot machine, appears uninterested in food. She’s had too many peanuts with her whisky, and by dinner she’s rarely hungry. At six we gather around the long table as my mother brings plates brimming with various vegetables and fish, bowls of white rice, and miso soup.
 
Two years later my grandmother is curled in her bed, fingers contorted like Buddha’s hands, she can’t speak or hear us and her face is bloated, though her body resembles a vein on an arm beneath the duvet. My mother is in charge of bathing her once a day. We no longer bother to dye her hair. My grandfather was the first to depart with leukemia, which they discovered when he collapsed from dehydration. He was too embarrassed of his bladder malfunctions to drink water.
 
We often joke that my French side of the family is obsessive and stubborn. The Lemoine blood is one that never stops working. And as much as my mother prides herself with a quiet nature, a Buddhist core that allows her to sit in silence for hours or study Tibetan, I also see a similar obsessiveness in her, partly in her spiritualism, but mostly in the way she relates to food. She endlessly reads about nutrition, she’s become a strange specialist of all things related to eating and the body: Macrobiotic cooking, Ayurveda, blood types, bitter Chinese teas, and so forth. She never serves salmon without a radish salad (it’s too fatty on its own), and she enjoys combining various flavors from the different cultures she’s surrounded herself with: South American, Asian, French, and recently, American. Fusion cuisine is the norm in our household, with soy sauce acting as a secret base for many Italian and French dishes.
 
My mother was born in 1945, in a Buddhist temple in the mountains, where her parents had taken refuge. She had me late, when she was forty-four, and over the years she has led me through her food experiments. There were the two months when all I could eat was brown rice with vegetables and stone fruits. My brother was allowed white rice. I never touched sugar at home. My father worked for an ice-cream company for five years and I wasn’t officially allowed to taste his products. But Japanese food, for the most part, we could eat in abundance.
 
As time goes by she grows more flexible, less demanding. There is sugar in her apartment, she eats cheese, and leaves me long voicemails describing how to make hand-pulled mozzarella. The sounds I associate with her are kitchen sounds, always quiet, soft notes, not my roommates from college clanging pots and blasting loud music as if cooking is an athletic activity. She washes each utensil as she goes, keeps ingredients prepped and separate in ceramic bowls, and even when she chops onions, it’s done with the attention of a monk and with perfect posture.
 
My father traveled, he was rarely at home. So it was always my mother and I, nestled deep in our kitchen, planning meals, cooking, eating, as if we were removed from the other arteries, the other rooms, aside from the one in which we cooked.
 
 
 

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