That Trevor Corson, he’s pretty fly for a white guy. Continuing on with my food history kick, I just finished reading his book The Story of Sushi. This book definitely had a fast foody, summer movie slant to it, but in an enjoyable and somewhat edifying way — sort of like the feeling you get from eating baked potato chips, or watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Or eating California rolls at your typical American sushi place, come to think of it. I’m pretty certain this is intentional. I tore through the book in a few sittings — the language was down-to-earth (if a little simplistic at times), the narrative was mostly entertaining, and the huge lineup of fascinating informational tidbits was presented in a pared down, accessible manner. He does a pretty good job of coming at the topic from an angle that’s both respectful of Asian culture and understanding of Western confusion over it. I rarely got annoyed with wordings or descriptions (***with one notable exception, which I will come back to later) at all, and y’all know I can get really ranty when it comes to these things.
The Good: I especially liked how Corson took the time to explain and reiterate the importance of rice in Asian culture, and how even wasting one grain is seriously uncool. This comes from a long history of rationing, as well as the idea that there are seven gods in each grain of rice. He also talks in depth about the time and effort involved in rice preparation and maintenance, something that a lot of Westerners don’t think about when they pop their Uncle Ben’s in the microwave. Now, I was never told any stories about rice gods growing up, but my mom had me washing pots of rice as a kid until my hands were wrinkly, and would frown upon our leaving any of it uneaten on the plate because she knew how valuable it was. I winced at the description of the excess rice being tossed out of the restaurant at the end of the day. This also reminded me that I really need to ask my mother for her recipe for sushi rice — I’m curious as to what ratios she uses — apparently, Kyoto leans towards sweeter rice while Tokyo prefers a more tart mixture. I think hers fell in the middle — it’s definitely not as sweet as some of the stuff I’ve had in restaurants.
The Bad: I really wonder what Corson’s intention was in picking the protagonist he did — an underachieving, squeamish, utterly clueless white girl who seems to half-ass her way through most of the classes. Probably an attempt to connect with the people that will make up the bulk of his audience — white Americans who dump wasabi into their soy sauce and eat large clumps of ginger as an appetizer before ordering multiple fatty rolls filled with spicy sauce and mayonnaise. I suppose, if seen as a parallel to the American diner, it’s somewhat heartening — the character does end up learning enough by the end of her class to not shame her teachers, and I’m sure that those who read the book will learn a lot more about their food as well. This does not stop me from wanting to slap the character silly every time she whines, wibbles, or flakes. Which is a LOT. Why we couldn’t have focused on a wider variety of students — more capable ones — is beyond me. I just found myself skipping over paragraphs dealing with her inner angst, which seemed like filler material in between the more interesting historical and cultural paragraphs. I also wasn’t overly impressed with the need to focus on a hormone-driven high schooler from Colorado whose only goal for learning to make sushi was to meet and pick up pretty girls. Between these characters and the occasional lewd jokes, it feels like he’s trying too hard to play to the lowest common denominator. Ugh.
The Ugly: This is probably the point where I most strongly realized that I was NOT the demographic meant to be reading this book. The main character lists these three things as her “top most disgusting moments” in class — peeling a live shrimp, hacking at a giant fish, and octopus. They probably would have had to physically restrain me to keep me AWAY from any of those. I think I’ve noted in this blog my very frequent use of live crustaceans — I admit that sometimes the still-twitching live spot prawns I’ve peeled ended up becoming spur-of-the-moment snacks instead of making it to dinner. Mmmmm, amaebi. Alright, so I might have been desensitized at an early age — I remember my mother taking me to the local Asian market when I was… oh, 7 or 8 years old? She’d pick out a live fish or two from the tanks, then we’d watch as the butchers would slam the fish to the ground and start beating their heads with clubs to kill them. Then we’d take them home and I’d watch my mother gut and clean them, letting me poke at the twitching fins and entrails while she worked. Eels, carp, mackerel, catfish, clams, countless crustaceans — talk of fishmongers and gutting makes me smile nostalgically. Lord, what I wouldn’t give to find a good local fish market here. Yes, the several paragraphs on squeamish students not wanting to poke a slimy eel or stick their hand up a squid were just completely lost on me. Grow some frickin’ balls, my tiny former elementary school self would tell them. Where the hell did they think their food came from?
To wrap up, this book has a bit for everybody, whether you’re a complete sushi noob or have been in contact with the stuff for most of your life. I scoffed a bit at the classroom portions of the chapters, but there were just as many paragraphs devoted to awesome explanations of how miso and soy sauce are made, how restaurants and food carts in old Japan operated, and the chemical compounds which trigger umami. Having a resource like this available can only help lead to a more knowledgeable consumer base, which will in turn encourage a higher quality of product from restaurants who have historically felt the need to “dumb down” their food for Western customers. Plus, y’know, it’s a pretty fun read.
***There was one throwaway line during the section discussing soy fermentation, which was called the cheese-making equivalent of Japan. It basically said that there was a lack of dairy products in Japan “because the cow never caught on”. Which just completely glossed over the whole problem with the island being a, y’know, ISLAND and not having the space or resources to farm cattle in any way that would produce a large red meat eating population. Or that historically Asia as a whole has not had a thing for cows and the vast majority of the population have the lactose intolerance to prove it. And, oh yes, there’s also the large vegetarian Buddhist contingent. Given these issues, why the hell would they really have cared if the cow caught on, for most of history up until modern times when McDonalds started building their cholesterol-laden stores of doom? Sigh.
Edited 4/6/2015: Now linked in the VK Store!