This post is dedicated to my friend, Rin, who has always shared an appreciation for the ways food, as an every day occurrence, can be imbued with storytelling magic.
Years back, when we were both living in a dreary New England college town jumping through PhD qualification requirement hoops at our dreary New England school, she would show up at my door through metaphorical and real snow with cute ass “coals” such as these to warm my soul:
This non-smartphone quality image captured circa 2012, aside from telling on my resistance to new technology, does not quite do justice to the earl grey lemon curd muffin she lovingly explained represented a certain Hetalia ship we both–as American educated persons born in British crown colonies–found resonated as a metaphor for certain cultural experiences. One of these was partaking in fish n’chips, shepherds pie, and beef stew at the local pubs run by immigrants and expats from the UK.
Aside from this, Hetalia-jokes also often provided happy premises for gathering. There was a period of time when Rin would carry over elaborately crafted Austrian-style cakes made by a friend who frequently borrowed her kitchen to practice his training in Southeast Asian pastry schools (there is no end of conversations that can be had about the culinary results of foreign and imperial presence in the Asian countries familiar to us by home and by research association). Tea time became a spontaneous tradition of which Roderich would approve. Once, I confessed to a senpai my fondness for Roderich’s nemesis Gilbert, the cartoon personification of Prussia in the series. She immediately offered to come over and teach us how to make Prussian meatballs, a recipe passed down to her through in-laws, and my apartment became a place for hosting dinners for a small group of women scholars in the program.
We embraced the feeds-my-belly-feeds-my-soul worldview of Yoshinaga Fumi’s works. While braving general exams, first teaching jobs, heartache, and living in an environment of anxiety and elitism, we shared meals rounded with miso soup inspired by Kakei Shiro’s cookery in Kino nani tabeta? (What did you eat yesterday?). Shitamachi, the old downtown area of Tokyo featured in Giant Killing, inspired the addition of oden and other shibui elements (such as shochu) to dinner party menus. Its mom-and-pop shops, small-town amusements, and yatai (food stalls) would become the subsequent site of many a pilgrimage during visits to Japan.
When I took my first steps towards field research in Japan, we laughed and ate our ways through conference woes and awkward Japanese conversations with scholars. We had soba in Kyoto in honor of Katsura and countless parfaits in family restaurants as tribute to his less uptight friend-in-arms Gintoki. It was in Ikebukuro, the furusato (hometown) of anime/comics/games fangirls, that she introduced me to two lovely and shibui women who are now close mutual friends. Their first social gathering had taken place in the dim-sum restaurant featured in Ai ga nakute mo kutte yukemasu! (More than love, food has made me so happy!) and we have revisited the site many times since in various permutations of togetherness.
I honestly don’t remember much of my years spent in that dreary New England town, but I do always recall sitting down with you and talking and laughing (sometimes to keep from crying) and eating and celebrating everything and god knows what with immeasurable fondness. I revisit the light of those moments every now and then in order to remember the joy and connection with which I embarked on this lonely enterprise. I know not where this enterprise will lead me in short-term or long-term futures, but remain happy that it brought us together and that it continues to link our journeys, how ever geographically far apart we may be.
A very Happy Birthday to you, friend. As we face our demanding presents, I hope that sharing food and stories continues to be a powerful form of comfort, self-care, and healing. Holding on to that rain check on fish n’ chips and stew–or whatever strikes our fan(tas/)cies–for whenever we next reunite.