Category Archives: Food

The Blue Lollipop

blue lolly

I have spent the past few years trying, with some success, to cultivate a sense of gratitude. I don’t mean Pollyanna gratitude: “Thank you so much for the one legged blind teddy bear that smells like old dog! It’s the best Christmas present ever!” No, what I mean is more a sense of finding what is unique or at least special about my life, my family and friends, the things I live my life among, and loving them for what they are, giving them the value they deserve. It’s also putting envy into perspective. I will always be envious of some things: people who are tall, people who can do math, people who can eat eggplant, people who can sing or juggle or Magic Eye. I know I will never have or be those things but I can envy those people without actually wanting to be them. I can see something beautiful in a store and enjoy its beauty, bask in it even, without wanting to own it, pleased that it exists but not needing it in my life, allowing my magic credit card to rest.

So now I am trying to find gratitude in the fact that I had my final radiation treatment today. There will be no more solitary morning walks to the hospital, no more taking off my shirt and lying on the table while people whose names I don’t know draw on me with magic markers. No more waiting in the pink paper line, no more pulling out my magic credit card and paying the bill, day after day after twenty-five days.  I can sleep in. I can take my time with morning yoga, finally start to work back toward where I was when this all began. I can finally start scrubbing the map of Arizona off my chest.

honey

(As a side note, one radiation treatment costs just about the same as a 1200 gram bottle of organic Acacia honey. Given a choice, I’d rather have the honey. Extra irony: my credit card is magical because it can somehow withdraw an unlimited amount of money from my bank account. The organic honey store only accepts cash.)

When I was dressed and opened the curtain, the radiation room was deserted. There was nobody to say good-bye to except the horrible machine but we had never really made friends. It felt strangely unfinished, like I should get a lollipop or a balloon, something to mark yet another passage through the surreal world that my life has entered.

So I walked back home, just another day, and got to work on the script for a program I will direct next week. In the program, three teams compete to make the springiest food they can come up with. One makes a gelatin-and-starch-based, multi-textured pudding (ugh), another makes a sticky rice ball seasoned with tomato and basil and topped with fish (blech) and the third, the crown jewel, is a blue, bacon-flavored lollipop made of mochi and swathed in mustard-flavored cotton candy. I kid you not.

monkey

Monkey Boy was minding his own business, having a nice nap in front of the kerosene heater, when I barfed on him. And then I realized I had something more to be grateful for. Nobody will ever force me to eat a blue bacon-flavored mochi lollipop swathed in mustard-flavored cotton candy. And as wild as my imagination may be at times, it will never go that far. For that, I am also grateful.

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Original

In college, I learned that there are no original stories, or at least no original story lines. It’s all been written before, just garnished differently. Pretty Woman is Cinderella, ET is Jesus with the whole death/resurrection/ascension business. The sexy boots and flying bicycles aren’t fooling anyone. (Or are they? Both those movies did really well at box offices. Yeah, I was an English Lit major, big surprise.)

romeo and juliet

Example 1: Boy meets girl, everyone lives happily ever after…in fairy tales.

Example 2: Boy meets girl, boy turns out to be a douche canoe and girl finally leaves him after he destroys her physically and emotionally but she survives because women are super-heroines…in every Oprah-recommended book I’ve ever read.

Example 3: Boy meets girl, it takes some effort but they find a way to compromise so they don’t kill each other…if they’re lucky. This story hasn’t ended yet.

Example 4: Boy meets girl, girl wisely runs for the hills. It could happen. As a species, we’re still evolving. And that would be original. Also a very short book.

Coming from the (supposed) land where free thought and action are (supposedly) good things, I had always thought ‘original’ was a good thing. Anyone from Pittsburgh can tell you that the Original is THE place for hot dogs and fries.

The O

And there’s the Colonel’s original recipe fried chicken, an icon of American culture. (Did you know the Colonel came up with the recipe in 1940? I wonder if that was part of the war effort. Perhaps he planned to firebomb Tokyo with buckets of greasy bird and win the war by hardening everyone’s arteries.)

bucket of chicken

Unfortunately, the word ‘original’ has caught on here, with everyone scrambling to come up with something new and thereby attract more customers. (“No, you may NOT replace the tomato sauce on my pizza with mayonnaise!”) Wasabi in a tuna sandwich. (Ugh.) Tartar sauce on a cheeseburger. (Gag.) Cabbage in a chimichanga. (Choke.) Raw, fatty beef topped with uni, the buttery, orange-colored sex organs of sea urchins. (There isn’t a word for the sound this makes me make. I tried to include a picture. You can google it if you really want to know. I don’t recommend it. *HORK! There it is. That’s close enough. It’s the sound the cats make when they’re trying to bring up hairballs.)

So while we’re on the subject of hairballs and what constitutes ‘original’ and what constitutes ‘gross’, I put the question to you, gentle reader. Nyan Puffs  are original, for sure, but are they gross?

three puffs hobby frame

*Credit for that word goes to my BFF, Scratchy.

Eye Candy Is Just as Sweet

I had promised myself ever since my diagnosis that I would not allow cancer to define who and what I am, but I have to admit it’s an uphill battle. The treatment seems to have a mind of its own and it’s a daily chore finding ways to cope with it.

pink elephant The best analogy I’ve found is the one I came up with last November when I was first diagnosed. It’s a pink elephant. He is comfortably seated on my left shoulder, gently wrapping his trunk around my throat with a slightly sinister twinkle in his eye saying he could tighten that grip any time he feels like it. And although he is always there, and I am constantly aware of him, only a very few others can see him. I hold my piece as my friends complain about the shortcomings of their husbands or the broken headlight on the car or the lack of pistachio ice cream at the supermarket. Those things will pass. Mine will not. The pink elephant is there to stay.

So I am doubly grateful for the rare moments that distract me from his infernal, pink presence. One such happened a few weeks ago.

Ghost college

Nihon University is one of the largest in Japan with campuses strewn across the entire Honshu area. With it’s affiliated schools, kindergarten through graduate school, the student body includes over 100,000 souls. Earlier this year, they opened a small campus just a few blocks from my house. It only offers two majors, Risk Management and Sports Sciences. Not to be too judgemental, it’s pretty easy to guess which is which among the students. The skinny, pimply ones are the risk managers, the others do sports. Since it’s new, the number of student is still very small, so I affectionately refer to it as the Ghost College, but I assume they’re expecting more students, at least hungry ones, because there’s a rather nice cafeteria on the first floor of the main building. Open to the public, it’s wide and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls and plenty of seating. The food is what you’d expect: curry, ramen, curry with a pork cutlet, ramen with a pork cutlet, salad.

We sat down by the window so I could survey the view and I tucked into my curry. There were two rather large fellas seated at the next table. Judo, I’d guess. Then I gradually became aware of others seated around the room. The risk managers must have been busy managing risk because the room was packed with tidy, trim bodies, not a pimple in sight. And it wasn’t just the students, either. I noted leather-patched elbows and the occasional necktie on what must have been instructors, and they were just as tidy and trim as the students.

And then a young fellow a few tables away stood up. I noticed his form, couldn’t help it really. A swimmer, without doubt. As he turned away from his table, he happened to glance at me, and as he did, he smiled, showing straight white teeth, pink cheeks, and, Oh, God, spare me please, dimples. I nearly swooned, dropping my spoon into my curry and knocking over my plastic water glass to spill all over my plastic tray. But despite all that, and just for a moment, the elephant flapped his Dumbo ears and gently floated off my shoulder. Now I know why the caged bird sings.

The curry was perfectly edible and nicely balanced with a small salad. The eye candy topped it off as a calorie-free, but completely satisfying, dessert. And all of this for around $4. Who says Japan is expensive? And what price can you put on a moment of freedom?

The Surreal Zone

crazy mirror

I generally ignore the TV, but I happened to glance up the other day and was alarmed to learn that my hair is not shiny enough, my towels are not fluffy enough, my bed is full of bacteria and my shoes are stinky.

Although the hair is a lost cause at this point, my mother always told me the rest of those problems could be solved with cider vinegar;  perhaps times have changed. Apparently, if I steep myself in magical chemicals that come in brightly colored bottles, all these horrors of the human condition will disappear and I will be blissfully happy.

Well, that’s a relief.  I’ve got enough to worry about.

Case in point: When I asked my doctor how we know that the chemotherapy is working, he patted my knee, smiled and said, “We don’t. If you’re still alive in five or ten years, then we’ll know.”

I understand that doctors would rather not commit to anything, but I did read somewhere that losing my hair is a good thing, a silver lining, because it means the chemo is working. I may have written nice things about silver linings, but that one is a stretch, a tarnished, scratched and dented one lying under a pile of moth-eaten sweaters and mismatched socks on a rickety card table at a garage sale, because while the chemo monsters are, hopefully, gobbling up evil little cancer cells, they are also gnawing away at my immune system and doing their best to annoy many of my tender bits. In self defense, I have to paint my nails, use cuticle oil, moisturize from head to toe, figure out how to draw eyebrows, try to come to terms with hats, wigs and scarves, re-think my diet, re-learn how to do yoga and be very, very careful about how hard I push myself. Someone took my mirror and swapped it for a fun-house one that only reflects warped and distorted images. I have stepped through the looking-glass and landed in The Surreal Zone where nothing is as it was. Strawberries taste like oranges. Puppies speak Spanish and kittens speak French. Two plus two equals five. The Donald is my best friend.

Despite all of that piled on top of what the TV might have to say about my woeful inadequacies, a very kind friend pointed out that even a unicorn can get split ends in her mane and an occasional chip in her horn but she’s still a unicorn. Perhaps she’s a bit tarnished, scratched and dented, but then, aren’t we all?

So I have good days and bad and on the days when the bad is more than the good, there are butterscotch brownies.

butterscotch brownies

All aboard…if you dare

My dad was in the business of potato chips, as was his father before him, and I think another generation before that. Snack foods, particularly potato chips, were always a part of my upbringing.

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There was a whole drawer in my childhood kitchen dedicated to snack foods: pretzels, beef jerky, Slim Jims, and of course, potato chips. I was born with fried potato coursing through my veins. We mostly ate the salted ones, but if one was feeling particularly sassy, there were also Bar-B-Q chips and sour cream and onion for the truly adventurous. But that was it.

Enter Japan and its obsession with improving on what was pretty  much perfect to begin with. Now, to be fair, they came out with pizza chips a few years ago. Dusted with pizza sauce flavored chemicals and globs of chemically induced fake cheese, they’re actually pretty tasty.

Pizza chips

I could get on board with the pizza chips. But then something went horribly wrong this summer. The potato chip train started to careen dangerously fast along the rails of the acceptable.

I began to encounter flavors that could only have been imagined by sweat-covered minions stoking the engines of the locomotive bound for hell.

 

Wasabi flavored beef jerky?

Wasabi beef chips

Grilled eel?

Grilled eel chips

Green curry?

Green curry chips

As the express train bound for the outer reaches the unimaginable rattled toward its inevitable doom, I suddenly felt a horrific shudder as the train derailed and tumbled into the abyss when I saw this:

mikan flavored potato chips

Mikan chips

For all that is good and holy on this sweet earth of ours, how did this ever get past the censors? Granted, I’m a tad old fashioned and a bit of a purist, but what’s next? Soy sauce flavored ice cream? Sashimi served on a bed of cotton candy? Miso soup with marshmallows?

I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and plain old salted potato chips ain’t broke.

Happy Cake

In this morning’s yoga class, there was only one other student, who turned out to be a tour guide, the type that accompanies Japanese tour groups when they go abroad. But, she said, she hasn’t been very busy lately because people are not traveling much outside of commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. This is because there are too many terrorists in Europe and every American is armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and sub-machine guns.

Granted, many Japanese people are given to sweeping generalizations and melodramatic hyperbole but at the same time and for the first time in history, the governments of other countries are warning their nationals to avoid the States.

I told the other student and the teacher that not all of the States is a war zone and gun control is often a state-by-state issue. In fact, I told them, Hawaii has just recently passed some rather strict gun ownership regulations, thank goodness.

They seemed surprised that I felt that way. I was surprised at their surprise…and then deeply saddened.

So I came home and baked an orange cake because while warm cake might not solve anything, it makes things better, especially if it’s smiling.

I figure if cake can smile, I can, too.

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Honesty

When I went to Bali last year, I was once offered a beverage made up of Pineapple and Orange juices with coconut Water. Lets call it POW. It was heavenly. Until that time, I thought the little paper cup of guava juice I was given on an airplane was the best nectar of heaven to ever pass my lips. But guava is rather thick and sticky and can be cloying. POW is the delightful reward I get after morning yoga and a year later it has not cloyed even once.

The problem, though, is that in my car-free existence, it’s hard to carry such heavy liquids home. And coconut water is expensive. Enter Amazon. While the cost is about the same as the import store, delivery is free and doesn’t give me sore shoulders.

So we ordered a case of coconut water and it came. Then the next day another one came. So we wrote to the store and asked if they’d…um…made a mistake. They wrote back right away saying how much they appreciated our honesty and that we should keep the extra case at no cost.

Ah, Japan.

cocanut water

The Restaurant from Hell

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In the nearly six years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, I’ve been to this second floor restaurant three times. Each time it has been reincarnated: different name, somewhat different menu, slightly different decor. Each time it has been horrible. In my wide-eyed innocence, I keep expecting it to improve. I tried it once when we first moved to this neighborhood. I don’t remember what was so horrible, only that I kept reminding myself not to return. But two years ago, it changed hands and I blithely tried it again. I wrote about it at the time. Don’t read this if you have a weak stomach: Burger Blues

Not long ago, it transformed into a steak house.I donned my rose-colored glasses and climbed the stairs. I should have turned tail and fled when the water glass was made of plastic.

water glass

The steak arrived on a sputtering cast iron pan, a good start, I innocently thought. I took a bite. It was rubbery, half raw, served on a bed of bean sprouts, flanked by a tiny pile of humiliated canned corn, and accompanied by a plate of plain, sticky, white rice. Don’t get me wrong–sprouts are really tasty that way, and Japanese rice is delicious, but steak is meant to be served with potatoes. End of story. I left the restaurant full but with that half empty feeling you get when you know what you want but don’t get it.

Lessons learned:

  1. Even after nearly 30 years of living in Japan, I still have a Western bias about certain things.
  2. If I want authentic Western food, I have to make it myself.
  3. That building is cursed. Perhaps the bodies of innocent children are buried in its foundation or its constructed on an ancient Ainu burial ground. Whatever the reason, the universe clearly dislikes the property and it should be avoided.

The Silence of the Kitten

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At lunch today, we were sandwiched between two families, both with small children. People with small children are accustomed to a level of noise and chaos that we middle aged childless types find hard to stomach, especially when we’re trying to eat. We have to really focus on our noodles and try to tune out the rambunctious ankle-biters. I do the same thing when someone nearby is inhaling half of Tokyo as they slurp their noodles. I call it “Noodle Zen: the art of shutting out obnoxious noises and foul manners.”

So I was doing my Noodle Zen, finding inner peace, silence of the soul and a higher plane of gustatory harmony when it occurred to me that Little Guy doesn’t speak.

It’s not that he can’t; he just doesn’t.

When we first brought him home, I put the kitty jail on the floor and opened the door. Twitchy came over to see what was in it and the two of them immediately got into a rather heated discussion. Big meow, little mew, big meow, little mew. It went on for quite a while and probably included some mild kitty profanity. (“Your mother has sex with strays!” “Oh, yeah? Your father has tuna breath!”)

After a while, Twitch abruptly turned away and retreated to the top of the fridge. Since that day, Little Guy has said nary a word except for the time I stepped on his tail. That was an accident, not an experiment, and what he said was less “mew” than “HEY!”

Little Guy and Twitch love to wrestle, which they do with a great deal of gusto, rolling each other over and over, all the while biting and scratching. This goes on for quite some time, broken up with sudden spasms of chasing each other up and down the curtains and stairs, thundering along the hallway, jumping on the table and sending things flying in all directions. All that time, Little Guys says not a word except for an incredibly cute squeaky noise he makes when Twitch gets him into a headlock. I suppose it’s the kitten version of “uncle”.

The downside of all this silence is that Little Guy doesn’t purr. Unlike the wild and somewhat terrifying monster who used to scream bloody murder when she first came here, Twitchy has become much less vocal than she used to be. She likes to be picked up and cuddled and she purrs a chocolate syrup river as she rubs her head against my chin. Little Guy sometimes lets me cuddle him, but soon enough something catches his attention and he squirms away, completely purr-less. I’m hoping Twitch will school him in that gentle art. I’ve tried, but my purr isn’t very convincing.

And as I came to the end of that train of thought, I also arrived at the bottom of my bowl of noodles, satisfyingly full of both noodles and Zen. Namaste.

What the fork?

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In Japan, curry and rice is nearly always served with a spoon. This makes sense when you’re eating something as drippy as curry. But my Western orientation told me that only babies and invalids eat from a spoon. The first time I was given a spoon I thought I was being insulted. But I learned that this is standard practice and in time got used to it. You certainly can’t accuse the Japanese of being backward or childish when it comes to food. These are the same people who can pick up a single grain of rice with a pair of pointy sticks, not to mention the inventors and/or perfectors some of the world’s finest delicacies.

But I digress.

Yesterday, I ordered curry and rice for lunch. The eating utensil it came with was wrapped in a paper napkin. Imagine my surprise when I unfolded it and found not the expected spoon but a fork. My colleagues, all Japanese, just shrugged and said, “That’s how they do it here.”

Just when I’m finally getting the hang of things, they pull the rug out from under me. Or maybe it was the tatami mat.