survival food

I got an alert on my phone yesterday from Yahoo weather–they’re the service I use to alert me of disasters, insofar as things can be broadcasted ahead of time. Typically, it’s about typhoons, but they also have a shaky-house icon they use after a major earthquake, anywhere in the nation. If you’re really close, your phone will ring. Sometimes in classrooms, a whole bunch of phones will go off, and get everybody into a tizzy, slightly before the earth starts to move in your exact vicinity.

The reason I got this new alert is to announce some changes to the settings. Apparently people in Kumamoto–which got hit by 2 big quakes recently–have been woken up night and day by the many, many aftershocks and settlings of these 2 bigger ones. Many people, especially older people, have now been living in temp housing for more than a week, spawning new outbreaks of old ailments, such as economy-class disorder, from people sitting inside immobilized, whether because of trauma, rain, fear, mobility difficulties, or all of the above. It seems like this communal life will be in effect for some time to come.

In addition to contributing in whatever way to volunteer efforts, it makes sense to think about how a similar disaster could play out in one’s home turf. Of course, nobody ever expected this to happen in Kumamoto, as Kyushu has never registered a level-7 quake before. But this is as good a reason as any to get things together at home, and to know what a range of possible realities is in various situations. One thing that’s clear is that canned bread and onigiri (the bulk of Abe’s promised 90,000 meals) may be comforting at first, but you can’t live on them for more than an immediate emergency.

I’ll be posting findings later on disaster food resources in Tokyo (and ones I brought from CA, where gourmet tech yuppies have ensured that REI and similar stores have an ample supply of coconut curries and various eclectic offerings that far outstrip what I have found here, at even higher prices.)

Here is an article I translated from a Nikkei publication, in which a reporter lives for a week on emergency foods, picks some better options, and finds some limits. Disaster, it seems, is bad for your stomach…so, all the more to support volunteer operations that are carting fresh food to underserved people in Kumamoto, as the physical and psychic costs of crappy nutrition are pretty apparent. Comments welcome!




What I Learned and What to Do About It—Canned by Canned Foods
2013/2/8 Nikkei shinbun Plus One

More and more households have started to stockpile supplies of emergency food since the 3/11 disasters. In the past, people had to make do with what they had on hand if they got stuck at home due to getting whacked by something like new strains of the flu. What kind of food supplies should people have on hand so they can get through a disaster of this kind?

This reporter (34) set out to see what it would be like to live on emergency foods for a week. I decided to keep the rest of my life “business as usual,” changing only my eating habits to fit the disaster scheme. On weekdays, I brought my emergency food as a bentō to work. I was lucky enough to spend my time in rooms with adequate heating, and to be able to jump in a warm bath—which I certainly wouldn’t be able to do in a regular disaster scenario, but I figured I would still be able to take some lessons from the situation.

Lifeline Sticking it out for 3 days

I spoke to professor emerita OKUDA Kazuko of Kōnan Women’s College, an expert in emergency food. She advised me, “you should experience what it is like to go three days without basic services (lifeline, in Japanese) like gas, water and electricity.” I decided to use a regular gas stove to heat my food after the fourth day, and to drink mineral water for the whole stretch of seven days.

At first, I had to think about what volume a week’s worth of food actually consisted of. SATŌ Kyōko, a nationally registered dietician from Sendai versed in emergency food, who advised me to eat, “staples like rice and bread, fresh foods like fish and meat, and side dishes featuring vegetables.” She added, “keep an eye out, as it’s easy to get constipation due to a lack of vitamins and fiber that you typically find in vegetables.”

I limited my food to those that had a shelf life of at least six months. As a reference, I used a menu plan for a week (21 meals) that Okuda-san made, and set out for a store that stocked a range of emergency foods. I was able to buy items that included canned bread and packaged food in pouches that you add hot water to. That cost about 10,000 yen (about $90 USD) for about a third of what I would need. It seems that things sold as emergency food are pretty pricey.

The rest I picked up at my local supermarket. Fish, like saba in miso, and canned vegetables like kiriboshi daikon were about regular price. I also bought freeze-dried spinach and dried fruits like prunes. Okuda-san also told me, “make sure to have some treats, sweet things that you like, to keep your spirits up,” so I also picked up some canned fruits, cookies and coffee candies.

You Can’t Drink Cold Minestrone

Chart of the reporter's food intake over 7 days, with comments.

Chart of the reporter’s food intake over 7 days, with comments. (If it is hard to read, you can see the original here. And the E-translation original is below.)

E-translation, 1 week of emergency food

Finally the big day arrived. I cracked open a package of congee (okayu) with ume (plum) sauce, some sweet braised chicken stew (鶏のうま煮) and some canned kiriboshi daikon. It was kind of cold, but I managed to get it down.

NAKAZAWA Takashi, of the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, commented that “on a spacecraft, you eat that day what you want to eat from a set supply of food.” He adds, “you pick according to your mood.” I started with things that you can eat even when they’re cold.

There were some flops. Like the minestrone with an oil slick floating on top that was impossible to eat lukewarm. And the packaged curry that was advertised as “good to eat even cold” was pretty awful.

The best of the bunch was definitely the congee. It was good even when cold, and since it was full of liquid, it was easy to swallow. With bread you really need water, and I didn’t really like it cold. On the evening of the third day, I started to want to eat hot things. I tried to warm a package of congee by sticking it in my futon when I went to sleep, but it didn’t get warmed up.

On the night of the third day, I ate some packaged food warmed up with a heat pack. In about 30 minutes, my dinner of white rice and stew was piping hot, and I was able to eat a hot meal for the first time in three days. The heat conducted the cooking smell, and for the first time in a while it sparked a real appetite. It actually brought a tear to my eyes. Packaged food warmed with a heat pack is pretty expensive, but when you have no access to real heat it can make a difference. I vowed to make sure some of these were in my next stash of emergency supplies.

Sodium in Canned Foods—After 4 Days, My Stomach Hurts


Main takeaways from the reporter’s experience of living on emergency food for a week (translation below).


On the fourth day, I started to use a gas stove. I thought that would really give a boost to my eating habits, but just then my stomach started to hurt. When I consulted Sato-san, she explained, “you were living on salty canned foods for a while, so maybe your system just got tired.”

For the three days that I couldn’t use the stove, even when I didn’t have a real appetite I tried to keep a good nutritional balance, eating canned fish, meat and vegetables that I wasn’t used to eating. Without noticing it looks like I pushed it too far.

Satō-san recommended that I, “plump up some freeze-dried vegetables with hot water and add a little weak broth, to make a dish that’s easier on your body.” I felt a little better after I did, and this mild taste suffused my body.

Contrast to my expectations at first, I felt the worst around days 5 and 6. My stomach went back to normal, but I had no appetite. In my case, the intake of meat and fish was harder than vegetables. Even with the same canned product, the taste varies from brand to brand. I figured out that it would be best to start from the things that your family liked eating and work from there, so that you’re already eating things you’re used to.

Okuda-san says that, “eating things that are close to what your family usually eats helps give you strength to deal with things, especially in times of emergency.” My experience during this week really brought that idea home for me.

Reporter’s jottings

Time and time again I thought to myself, wow, I really had no idea. Before, what I had in the house for 3 people was 2 bottles of water, 10 packages of prepared “alpha” rice, and 2 packs of biscuits for kids. I had a portable gas stove, in but retrospect, that seems pretty optimistic.

When the end of my experiment with emergency food was in sight, I spewed complaints at my family. The whole experience really forced me to rethink how hard it is to live when you’ve been hit with a disaster. This has been a real learning experience for me.
–Sakamoto Yōko

Originally published in Nikkei Plus One, February 2, 2013

Fukushima vegetable curry

Array of spices in homemade curry powder.

Array of spices in homemade curry powder.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been visiting a wonderful organic farming program, located outside of Tokyo. Keisen Women’s University is one of the “YWCA” colleges, women’s colleges that boast a humanitarian agenda, and a curriculum that emphasizes peace studies and internationalism, a humanist vision of Christianity, and, most importantly, a four-year gardening curriculum. Here are a couple of photos I took in March of at harvest time, as both “eastern” spinach, which came by way of China, and “western” spinach, which came by way of the Jesuits and Nagasaki, were plucked out by student gardeners. The garden at Keisen was the first school garden to be certified organic in Japan, and routinely grows crops like sato-imo/taro, carrots, beans, and many many other things, all organically without pesticides.

Surrounded by spiky "eastern" spinach and the more familiar round "western" spinach.

Surrounded by spiky “eastern” spinach and the more familiar round “western” spinach.

"Eastern" spinach--look, it's spiky!

“Eastern” spinach–look, it’s spiky!

Daikon, lettuce, spinaches from the Keisen garden.

Daikon, lettuce, spinaches from the Keisen garden.

Keisen also has a number of spinoff projects, including a CSA, a café, and most recently, a cookbook made up of recipes created by students, including exchange students from a long-running program in Thailand. I translated one of the most interesting recipes, one for Fukushima “solidarity” curry, cooked up by the students in garden director Sawanobori-sensei’s class. Sawanobori-sensei is an agronomist, and a real pioneer in this field in Japan. As I visited in March, she was about to run off to Korea with the college president on an exchange visit, and was busily teaching the first of three seasons in a sequences of urban ag courses like our Master Gardener course. You can buy the original cookbook here.

Japanese curry came in to the country thanks to the British colonial diaspora. My friends and I used to call it “jelly curry,” because the consistency is a bit more viscous than a coconut milk-based or broth-based curry, it’s actually made with the flour thickener, roux. You can buy it in chunky blocks in grocery stores, but many people customize their curry, by mixing and matching blocks, adding pepper or fruit, jam or raisins, all over rice. The Keisen organic café recipe is on the far artisanal end of the spectrum, since it involves making curry powder, a spice blend, before making the curry base; and in turn, making the curry base before the dish itself.

Recipe background, from the Keisen Organic Café Cookbook:

This recipe was inspired by the desire to support organic farmers of Fukushima whose lives were uprooted by the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
In the phase after the reaction but before testing had begun on the effects of radiation contamination, all you heard about Fukushima was rumors, and the fear had an effect even on produce that had been harvested before the reactor spill. In May 2011, volunteers at Keisen decided to host an event, “Thinking of Fukushima @ Keisen,” featuring a special curry recipe that used rice and potatoes like yama-imo that had been harvested at Fukushima the previous year. When the festival was over, the student-run organic campus café kept the curry dish on its menu, and both used and sold vegetables from Fukushima that showed no radioactivity. The curry is now a staple on the café menu.
The really vital thing about this curry is its variety of spices. It’s easy to use store-bought pre-mixed curry, but we decided to make our own spice mix. For the spices, we reached out to student in Chiang Mai, where we have a long-standing relationship with Chiang Mai University as part of our Field Station program. Every year from August to December 10 students participate in this experiential education program, where they work alongside NGO staff, organic farmers, and farmers from hill villages. The students wanted to source their spices directly from the farmers, and this “Keisen original fair-trade spice” blend became part of that long-held dream.
The campus organic café is a student-run space that is planned to develop into a local community center. The curry offering will join a menu and a line of products that the face sells that supports its fair-trade mission—joining a product line that includes coffee, olive oil, muscavado sugar, salt, Japanese-grown green and black teas, and jam.
Graduates of these programs have gone on to work as farmers and work in organic agriculture. Our work with organic farming continues, forging ways for anyone to have a rewarding and healthy life and thrive in a society that supports it.

Fukushima Solidarity Curry

½ medium onion (100g)
1 turnip (100g)
kabocha or other squash (30g)
½ carrot (100g)
½ bunch broccoli (50g)
*any combination of veggies, including sato-imo/taro, potato, eggplant, etc. will do—it should amount to about 150 g per person.
2 cups+ curry base
½ knob ginger minced (5 g)
½ knob ginger grated (5 g)
minced garlic (10 g)
1 T olive oil
1 T salt (+ salt for blanching greens and broccoli in step 2)
pepper, to taste
1-2 t garam masala

300 g brown rice

How to:
1. Take leaves off turnips. Keeping turnip greens separate, cut onions, peeled turnips and carrots into chunks 3cm at their longest point by turning the veggies as you cut (this is called rangiri in Japanese).
2. Cut the broccoli into easy-to-eat sized pieces, including the stems, and add the stems to the turnip greens. Blanche in salt water.
3. Fry the garlic and minced ginger with the olive oil and onion.
4. Add the kabocha, carrots and turnips in that order, salt and pepper, and cook until still firm but cooked (and maybe a bit browned, for flavor).
5. Add the curry paste to the cooked veggies from 4, with a cup of water. Add a bit more water, if necessary, as you bring it to a boil for about 5 minutes.
6. When the sauce has thickened, add the garam masala and minced ginger, to taste.
7. Add the broccoli and turnip greens, and serve.

Curry base recipe—serves about 8 portions, at 1 c each:

4 medium onions (800 g)
4 t whole cumin (8 g)
knob of ginger (60 g) minced
6 cloves of garlic (60 g) minced
3 T homemade curry (35 g; recipe below)
10 T rhubarb jam (* or other tart jam)
400 g canned tomatoes
4 bay leaves
1 grated apple (300 g)
1 grated carrot (200 g)
1 T salt
2 t miso
5 c (1000 ml) water
pepper, to taste
6 T olive oil

How to:
1. Mince the onions.
2. In a frying pan, add cumin, ginger and garlic to the olive oil, on high heat until a scent arises, being careful not to burn the spices.
3. Add with the salt to the minced onions and cook until caramelized (* you may want to add water and deglaze at some point).
4. Add the homemade curry powder, and mix in with 3 or 4 additions of the water.
5. Add the rhubarb jam, tomatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook.
6. At the end, add the grated apple and carrot, miso, and salt and pepper to taste.

Homemade curry powder—makes about 20 portions of 88 g each
3 T turmeric (24 g)
3 T coriander (15 g)
1 T fennel seed (5 g)
2 t cinnamon (4 g)
2 t allspice (3 g)
1 t (3 g ) each of fenugreek, cloves, nutmeg
1 ½ (2 g) each of dill, cardamom, sage, oregano
1 t (2 g) each of chile pepper, star anise, thyme, black pepper
1 T olive oil

How to:
1. Mix all the spices together.
2. Heat the oil in a frying pan, and taking care not to burn the spices, cook for 5-6 minutes.
3. When cool, store in an airtight container. Best if used within a week; refrigerate.

Course blog for “Urban ag in LA”

My class has officially started, with the building/installation of eight raised beds in the UCLA garden, and 25 students enrolled. We will be starting our first seeds on Thursday–and sheltering them like crazy until this unseasonal cold spell fades away. Students will be posting their grocery store reviews, tracking the garden’s progress, and folding in current events posts and links here.

visual apostrophes

Posters are one of the most vivid and important kinds of public “face” that the urban ag movement presents to the public. I’m giving a workshop @ UCLA this weekend, to members of student food collectives from all over California, discussing this very issue–the public face of urban ag, as seen through its posters. I see posters as the visual equivalent of an apostrophe–the poetic device that in love poems, pop songs and here–in propaganda posters–addresses itself to you, and beseeches you to do something, write yourself into a story. Ideally, a story that involves a dialogue with the person who wrote it.

Much of this research is informed by my work excavating kinds of “rhetorical activism” deployed by writers, designers and politicos in modern Japan to make connections between text and world. It also draws on much recent work by Japanese feminists on the role of woman on the home front during wartime.

Here is one of the posters, dating from 1918, that has long been on my mind. Note the imperative, with exclamation, in the address.

The visual style of Liberty combines tropes of Columbia with the look of Lillian Gish.

Other posters of the day use human figures in their compositions, like this familiar fellow.

Sam is not so closely tied to the act of doing as Liberty is. The headline emphasizes his role in exhorting–he “says,” but does not plant.

The first poster is especially interesting to me because of the complex of icons it uses and cites–tons of neo-classical referents (Athena, Ceres), as well as other national symbols (Marianne). The statuesque nature and draped cloth, though, suggest something more along the lines of Columbia. Her image–the personification of America, just as Marianne personifies France–is likely familiar from movie credits.

And here is where things get interesting in terms of historiography, and in the way that the poster conjures as well as eclipses a community of roused, participating, planting citizens.

It turns out that the person who brought the classical rhetoric of poetics into dialogue with the contemporary American scene was none other than Phillis Wheatley–the (eventually) freed slave who was the first published African American poet, and a key neo-classical poet in the genre at large. She invented the trope of the Columbiad in a poem she wrote that was an apostrophe to George Washington, in 1775, when the United States were not yet a bona fide nation.

You can read the full text of the poem, “To His Excellency, General Washington,” here. But for now, here are the first two stanzas, with flourishes of militant Athena fortified by heavenly authority:

Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,

Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.

See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,

And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!

See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light

Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:

Wherever shines this native of the skies,

Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

I would like to think about what this kind of claim on the president–an issue very much on time, given Michelle Obama’s symbolic stand on gardening and nutrition–might imply for the kind of public face we see and respond to in urban ag movements today.

ontario farm trip / urban ag summit

The Iceland Garden in Mississauga–named for the skating rink across the way. In the background, some of the large houses that are quickly filling in the formerly rural land outside of Toronto.

In mid-August I hopped up to Toronto for a few days to go to a big gathering called the urban ag summit. I had cased a lot of projects and talked to people in Montreal in the spring, and was quite curious about Toronto, regarded from afar as one of the most with-it cities going in terms of food policy. The sheer number of people involved in food issues was astounding; for the first time, I met an urban planner who specialized in food issues, in the way one might specialize in other infrastructure like traffic.

There was a long talk by Will Allen, whose most oft-repeated word was: “quantify.” There were meals thronged by people without dainty appetites. There were cool workshops about growing on rooftops. There were authors whose works I had enjoyed (Food and the City). There were lawyers who worked on “urban ag law,” prying land out of the jaws of vacancy, inventorying it, and turning it into gardens. The 596 Acres folks have an exceptionally awesome visual presence–large graphically striking newsprint mapping out the various areas in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. There were debate about interim use of such plots. And there were tours.

I took the tour of peri-urban landscapes, in homage to both greater Glendale, the vast stomping grounds I call home, and with deference to all of LA county in general, with its edge city qualities. We went to four farms. Iceland Teaching Garden, above, a community garden firmly planted in encroaching sprawl; a large perma-culture-based farm; Farmstart, an “incubator” farm, where people started with 1/4 acre, got bigger, and drew on minimal technical advice from a state-funded incubator that basically left them alone; and a farm-educational center with amazing covered-cloth tent apparatus.

FarmStart McVean Incubator Farm, in Brampton.

Awesome tent structure @ Albion Hills Community Farm, in Caledon.


Food hubs, then & now

Doing some research, legwork and reading on the subject of “food hubs,” and how urban ag might shift their sourcing a bit. SFO is, as usual, on top of things. Urban ag/food systems folks are weighing in on the expansion of the city’s wholesale produce market, built about the same time as LA’s. Food hubs are also cropping up in the most unlikely places these days. I’m seeing local-ish food distribution talked about in Forbes, and not only online GOOD dispatches, which makes me think there is money to be made…

I recently came across this 1963 documentary of the Central Produce Market in LA. It’s a bit Vertov, with its dawn-to-dusk timeline. And a bit “new american cinema,” with the gloamy lighting and the photographic look of the amazing Vilmos Zsigmond, working under the name “William Zsigmond.” This was apparently one of his first films in the US, shortly after his emigration from Hungary. It’s interesting to think how this industrial background infused the look of other LA pictures like the Robert Altman adaptation of The Long Goodbye.

“Swamper” is not a job description you hear much these days–it’s the term for all the guys unloading the trucks. The color scheme of this division of labor is pretty stark. A very revealing look at many kinds of market forces seen behind the scenes…

gardenspotting, SFO

A couple of weeks back, I went to SFO to get a sense of the city all over again. I had lived there through most of the ‘nineties, when urban ag was to be found in the lush confines of the Berkeley Bowl or Rainbow Grocery. Since then, farms like City Slicker, in West Oakland, and the Quesada Gardens Initiative , in Bayview/Hunters Point, have celebrated ten years on the map.

Funnily enough, though they are in California, you don’t hear nearly as much about these localish efforts as you do about things going on in Milwaukee (Growing Power) and Detroit (Urban Roots). Maybe you can chalk up this disconnect to typical So-cal desire to go it alone. Or, given the socially conscious edge of much of LA urban ag culture, maybe you can chalk it up to a perception that No-cal food culture is driven by white suburbanite bohemians and denizens of gourmet ghettos, since that drift is largely what registers in media here, and in synoptic accounts of whatever American food is. One example is the narrative of California cuisine you find in the chronicles of The United States of Arugula, which tracks the “big three” of Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard, along with assorted garnish such as nods to Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.

Maybe the street-food tilt of LA, so evident in taco truck and food truck culture, has also impacted the way we tend to think of urban ag as something tied to infrastructures–intimately connected to eco systems (soil quality and water use), and the human landscape (food deserts, the foodscapes of indigenous plants and peoples). The term “food deserts,” of course, was thrown out by the resident of a Scottish housing estate in 1995, who likely had been no closer to a desert than a Road Runner cartoon. It is silly to use that term when you live next to actual deserts and are quite aware they are complex and vibrant eco-systems, but that is another post.

I hope to keep up a summer run of community garden road trips. Last year I visited Proyecto Jardin, Milagro Allegro, Francis Avenue Gardens and several others, all here in LA. This year I hope to go a bit farther afield, and see what else is up in near-ish cities, like Long Beach, San Diego, and Oakland/SFO. Long Beach has a whole network of growing/gleaning outfits, San Diego does interesting trans-border stuff, and I am curious about the self-determination legacies of the Black Power movement in No-cal.

Looking off over the row crops to the orchard hillside of Alemany Farm

Long story short, this summer I started with SFO, and went to check out Alemany Farm, the biggest parcel of land devoted to urban ag in the city; it clocks in at about 3.5 acres, 1 of which is directly under cultivation. It’s in Bernal Heights, and smack up against the freeway. You cut through a kids’ park and a dog park to get there, after a 15-minute walk from the BART station. Its organizers have been working not only on the 4 parts of their space–herbs, natives, orchards and row crops–but also on dialoguing about food security issues more broadly. For one, they have supported city legislation to make urban ag more possible on more land, without a wildly expensive permitting system. And for another, they have been working with their “owner,” the city’s Rec and Parks department, to develop a plan for more programming–it’s quite interesting to see what a far-reaching planifesto for a community ag space might look like (see their draft here).

Alemany Farm is a communal garden, meaning that people work according to what needs to be done, regardless of where it falls on the property. This is different than many community gardens, which use an allotment model in which people stick to their specific plots, while maybe sharing some basic maintenance tasks. It’s interesting that they report a higher crop yield, and don’t just cite community-building or ideology as the motivation for running things this way.  At the end of the work day when I was there, vegetables were weighed or counted, as part of a running assessment of how much food is produced. This communal model is also leagues better for a school garden than than individual allotments, given the ebb and flow of student schedules as well as the calendar year, with its changes of personnel every quarter or semester. And finally, communal work means that instead of tacking yourself onto the end of a 3-year waiting list, you can jump in and start getting your hands dirty immediately.

Other things I liked about this scheme were its incorporation of neighborhood stakeholders, and the eye turned to youth green jobs and entrepreneurship. School gardens have their own ebb and flow, with the school year, but that too leaves room for interesting minglings with community programming–I look forward to re-visiting, and to checking out more goings-on in the Bay Area.


March 11: singing sea shells with yo la tengo

Sea urchins anyway…this is a restored version of a lovely film by Jean Painlevé called, simply, “Sea Urchins” (Oursins). Score is by Yo La Tengo.

Some students from class have been watching some of the Painlevé films, released a few years back in a lovely Criterion edition. Other films include “Sea Ballerinas” and “The Love Life of the Octopus.”  We’re especially interested in sea creatures, because their poetic filaments swim so elegantly in Tsuchimoto Noriaki’s 1971 film on Minamata. One fisherman describes his intimate life with the octopus, from catching them, to biting into them live, to cooking them up with soy sauce and a bit of sugar. The music is pastoral, the fins gorgeous, but humans here are a part of nature–just as likely to bite you as to stun you with beauty and grace.

A bit blurry but a shot of Tsuchimoto in languid pursuit of the octopus.

Fisherman Onoue-san's exegesis of octopus form in the kitchen.

caramel japan

I’ve been preparing for a guest lecture at UC Riverside next week. I’ll be screening the film Giants and Toys, and then talking about the film’s pop art style and its story of the “caramel wars” set in late 1950s Tokyo. I’ve been looking up the histories of portable food and individuated food from the 50s in both the US and Japan. This is because the characters in Giants and Toys run around the city in a blizzard of ads and bright lights promoting the caramels of three rival companies.

While G&T itself is both delighted in and repelled by the image cultures that are spun out of marketing caramels, it is worth thinking for a moment about the little candy and its history.

Many of us probably associate caramels with the bite-sized plastic-wrapped Kraft caramel that used to be tossed into bags and pillowcases at Halloween, or bought for 2 cents at a “mom and pop” store. Here is a 1959 ad that touts the giveaway possibilities of America’s favorite industrial caramel.

The ad campaign links butter, wholesomeness, Halloween and Fudgies (sold separately; no comment needed on the caramel color line) (Source: Found in Mom’s Basement)

Kraft began making and marketing caramels in 1933; this makes it something of a candy-come-lately with respect to Japan’s mass production of caramels, which began in the Meiji era–in 1899 to be exact. The Morinaga “milk caramel” company began making caramels on the heels of a “boom” in trade with England:

The “history” section of the Morinaga milk caramel website

Today, Morinaga caramels still groove on the same sepia-toned “old-timey”-ness, and tap into a nostalgia that has lasted almost as long as the caramels themselves. Here is what Morinaga caramels look like today, in both “kurosato” (black sugar) flavor and “milk” flavor:

Morinaga black sugar caramels–think Okinawa, Taiwan
A current box of Morinaga milk caramels–think Hokkaido

Skipping briefly to other flashes of caramel from contemporary life, let’s look at the anime My Neighbor Totoro, by MIYAZAKI Hayao. Miyazaki’s films often feature characters feeding each other as a shorthand for nostalgia, community, empathy, and comfort (in a word, nukumori 温もり…ぬくもりなが?). It’s actually a 15-minute sequel to Totoro that expresses the caramel-emotional complex most clearly:

In Mei and the Kitten Bus (Mei to koneko no basu), caramel=gesture of simple friendship

And caramels play an intriguing part in 1960s leftist student movement politics, and their gender relations–female students complained that they were sidelined to the role of “caramel mamas” by didactic male revolutionaries. But that is a story for another day…

March 3: dashi workshop

A couple of weeks ago, after the frenzy of film screenings dialed back a little, I had a chance to attend a workshop on dashi that one of my collaborators gave. Sonoko Sakai organized a small troupe at a restaurant in Torrance, and talked us through the hows and histories of how to make various kinds of stock, and how to serve them in soups and other dishes. Dashi is basically the same thing as stock, but is usually made from a single ingredient, not the cocktail of things you might put in a soup stock. The occasion was a visit by some bona fide artisans of the Tokyo and Kyoto food worlds–a rep from a 250-year-old dashi shop, Yaguchi honten (main store), and another from a very esteemed maker of Kyōfū, or a kind of wheat gluten made for monastic cuisine (shojin ryōri). This shop, Hanbei, opened its doors in 1689. Also in the mix were an amazing miso from the island of Sado, seaweed from Tokushima, and Nagasaki mushrooms.

Sonoko and the rep from Yaguchi honten, a wholesaler of artisanal dashi materials. The photos above were taken in places where katsuo are fished; the packets behind contain wakame, nori and katsuo bushi

Along with the soups, we got a chance to look at–and taste and smell, and grate–a lot of the raw materials. We usually encounter katsuo bushi–grated katsuo fish–in its shaved form, when it looks like large, pinkish pencil shavings like you see in the cellophane bag here. Here is what the honmono–real thing–looks like, as a slab of dense, smoked fish that almost has the texture of petrified wood. We got to grate it on a gadget made especially for this, a wooden slab with razor-sharp blade through which the shavings drop into a neat wooden box. You remove the blade-lid and get a big fluffy pile of katsuo bushi. This then goes into water, with konbu, and is quickly removed, possibly to be used in a “second flush” for a less delicate soup, and then possibly third, chopped up and seasoned with salt and sesame, dried and used as furikake, sprinkled on rice.

A slab of high-grade smoked katsuo, ready for grating

And this is what one of the soups looks like with miso and little baked balls of kyōfū dropped into the soup. They float and gradually sop up the soup to a nice mochi-like consistency.

Aka (red) miso soup with wakame