Recent Reads: Japanese, Japanese, Not-Japanese

Library books

I never stop reading, even in the midst of cross-country-move prep, but my interests rarely overlap with M’s. Which sucks, because sometimes you just want to talk about what you’ve been reading, you know? So, blog readers, you’re up. Here are some of my recent book choices and thoughts on the same. Agree? Disagree? Have other must-read suggestions? Feel free to comment!

Japanese Farm Food

Japanese Farm Food
Nancy Singleton Hachisu
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4494-1829-8
At a library near you

I was surprised and a little ashamed by my reaction to this book. Reviews were glowing, people were swooning, and I’d been putting off reading it because I wanted to savor the anticipation as long as possible. I believed I would fall completely in love with it. But… I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautiful book. I’m a total sucker for pretty pictures of places and food. The typography is good, the color scheme is lovely, and the use of Japanese patterns for page edges and spine works well. I brought it home from the library and immediately sat down to read (I generally read cookbooks like novels first, then note recipes to try after). The reviews I had read were not wrong. Hachisu’s writing draws you into Japanese farm life (with a bit of an expat twist) and immerses you. She talks about how their bicultural life requires its own rules, but also notes how much they insist on maintaining old traditions. It left me feeling a little unsure of her point (of course, maybe she wasn’t trying to make one), and that feeling extended a bit into the recipes.

Sometimes she dismisses haute kaiseki cuisine and assures you that humble ingredients are just fine. But she is also sometimes extremely particular about local (virtually impossible to get elsewhere) and organic ingredients. This tied in well with her anecdotes and essays about local farmers and specialty food artisans, which were delightful and informative. But I was somehow left with the sense that apparently the only way to be authentically Japanese was to be a rural farmer. I own several Japanese-food cookbooks written by Americans and Japanese who didn’t marry farmers and move to the country, and the food is still authentic. I have (or try to have) no illusions about Japan. I know that it’s not all geisha and master craftsmen and high art. But I’d rather not swing the other way and ignore that part, either.

It’s telling that my favorite page in the book included images of traditional ryokan architecture and artisanal charcoal. Long story short: Hachisu’s work is immersive and it is evocative of her lifestyle. It’s just not a lifestyle that appeals to me. And that’s perfectly fine! I’ll check it out again. The recipes were still attractive, and I made note of a couple dozen to try. As an Elizabeth Andoh fan, I’m interested to compare the two approaches, both by American women married to Japanese men and living in the country for decades. I wonder if it will show a clear town-country distinction, or if it will simply be Japanese.

Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook

The Ultimate Sashiko Sourcebook
Susan Briscoe
KP Books, 2005
ISBN 0-89689-186-0
At a library near you

As previously mentioned, I’ve been dabbling in sewing lately. As with most things, it didn’t take me long to want to move from the basics to something new. My Japanophilia drove me toward sashiko, a traditional Japanese embroidery style generally acknowledge to have begun as decorative mending in rural villages. It’s just so simple and graphic that it immediately drew me in. I started looking for books to learn more (my eternal m.o.) but was generally disappointed. They always seemed to be about machine sewing, and I couldn’t let go of the feeling that sashiko was meant to be done by hand, that the machine was simply approximating the look and not the actual craft.

Reviews on Amazon led me to Briscoe, and I am so glad. Though the book cover looks similar to any number of those machine-based titles, the inside is anything but. The pattern library alone is swoon-worthy. It may be a shallow generalization for me to make, but I believe the Japanese have a word for everything, and it’s so interesting to learn the names of all the patterns. It’s also fascinating how much meaning is (or was traditionally) attached to each pattern. Different patterns were applied in hopes of particular outcomes (good harvest, safety, health of a child, etc.), and their popularity waxed and waned throughout history.

Speaking of history, Briscoe opens the book with possibly my favorite part: eight pages of the history of sashiko, liberally illustrated with objects and photographs from her own collection. She succinctly demonstrates the inspiration of various patterns, talks about how trade may have spread the art, and explains why it evolved the way it did. I love me some strong history to bolster the learning of a craft, so it was a no-brainer to fall for this book.

Interestingly, the only thing I wasn’t slavering over were the projects. Oh, I definitely aim to do some, like the samplers and greeting cards. But a coast-swapping move precludes starting new hobbies that require an outlay for tools and materials, so for now, I’m just getting inspired. Lots of promise but not practical yet. When I’m ready, though, this book (and Briscoe’s follow-up) will be my go-tos.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes

How to Archive Family Keepsakes
Denise S. May Levenick
Family Tree Books, 2012
ISBN 978-1-4403-2223-5
At a library near you

This book surprised me a little. I earned my library science Master’s with a focus in archives management, and I’m used to seeing popular writing on the topic that ranges from incomplete to downright wrong. I was pleasantly thrilled, then, when I flipped open Levenick’s book.

I found it when searching for works that bridged the scholarly-popular divide. I have a family reunion coming up, and lately there has been more discussion of the papers and (especially) photographs we hold that need some care. My training has taught me how to provide that care, but I do it almost exclusively in a library/archives repository setting. I’m unused to helping with the stewardship of private collections (aside from my own). I wanted some guidance on how to discuss the issues without, I hope, coming across as too academic or snobbish. (I also wanted a book I could just hand over for perusal, because let’s be honest: sometimes advice is easier to receive when it’s coming from a neutral party.)

Levenick’s book fit the bill so perfectly that, in a time when my impulse-shopping tendencies are firmly kept in check, I was ordering a copy on Amazon the day after I brought the book home from the library. Why, you ask?

Her chapters are concise and well-organized. She starts at the beginning (the idea of the family archive, the inevitability of someone becoming—not necessarily by choice—its keeper, the many and varied materials that might be involved) and takes the process step by step. There are plenty of checklists, worksheets, and resources to help keep track and take it further. Levenick addresses aspects of both intellectual organization and physical storage (including the dreaded plastic tubs), and she’s realistic in her advice.

That’s probably the biggest draw of this book as opposed to the more scholarly/professional books I own and consult for work purposes. The audience is not professional archivists but people who may abruptly find themselves caretakers of dirty objects, warped photographs, and disorganized files. Unlike professionals, who are expected (though not always able) to maintain industry best practices, the people Levenick addresses probably don’t have access to specialized tools and supplies, and she is matter-of-fact about that.

Her advice is remarkably thorough, covering physical objects, digital files, and genealogical recordkeeping in enough detail to be useful but not going so far as to be dizzying. It might help, frankly, that Levenick is not herself a professional. She does not have a library degree but instead pursued an informal education based on her genealogical and research needs. The information she collected formed this book, just as it informed her family archives stewardship. She learned these lessons honestly, and I hope I can share them with my family in the same spirit.

Note: This post was very spur-of-the-moment. I had some thoughts about a book and really wanted to get them out of my head and into a potential discussion. Though this is unlike anything I’ve written here before, I enjoyed it a lot and expect to make it an occasional series. There will be a brief break while we relocate, but my reading list for Portland is already nearing triple digits, so another Recent Reads post is inevitable.

BOS, PDX, and a Rich Chocolate Pudding

Fishing

A long, long time ago, this was a different post. It felt so good to write again with that last post that I immediately started drafting three others. I am a person who writes, and when the need builds too high, it has to be addressed. So I stuck with the spirit of doing things and did a lot of writing, and this post talked about doing that writing and other things. It situated that action in the relentless apprehension of the Layoff Life grind, especially how I was hitting the point of really missing financial security and really wishing for some certainty.

Unexpectedly, that state is no longer in effect. M has been offered a job, one that is right up his alley but far from our current home. So in a month, we will become residents of Oregon.

Lava field

To say that I’m terrified is a bit of an understatement. It is not to say, however, that I’m pessimistic about this change. I love the Pacific Northwest, and a relocation seems refreshing at the moment. The major hurdle for me is going to be the abrupt halt of my current career trajectory. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of my work lately, and I feel a frisson of panic at the thought of not having it to keep my brain occupied. Of course, becoming a sudden (if temporary) stay-at-home mom is going to challenge me. But it will be temporary, and it will be sweet to spend more time with our Little Bear, who is funnier and more articulate every day.

Besides, M and I both felt, upon hearing of the impending layoff, that good things were in store. M has found his, and now I get to seek mine.

Driftwood and mist

And in the meantime, I get to explore all the Portland/Oregon wonders I’ve heard about for years. Ice cream! Wasabi! Swedish food! But not doughnuts. At least not the big V. They just don’t appeal to me at all. I’d rather get a pan (finally) and hit up the farmers’ markets and local groceries and try my own.

Weeping tree

Speaking of cooking, there is pudding in this post. In the original version, there was plenty of context leading up to the recipe, discussing foundations that I feel are missing from my repertoire and the need I feel to distract myself from the rest of our stress. Now, all that has faded from my mind, leaving just chocolate. The pudding was great, so here is how I made it. It might be my last homemade dessert on the East Coast…

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Tenth Anniversary Edition

Until I tasted the final product, this was simply “Chocolate Pudding.” I added the “Rich” for a reason. I used one of the toddler’s little bowls for my serving, and I think I could have been satisfied with a single spoonful.

Ingredients for Rich Chocolate Pudding

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • scant ⅔ cup cane sugar
  • pinch fine sea salt
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

In a 1-quart or similar-sized saucepan, whisk together the heavy cream, sugar, and salt over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture begins to steam.

In a small bowl, whisk together the whole milk and cornstarch until completely smooth. Add to the cream mixture and whisk until smooth. Cook until the mixture is thickening and just begins to boil, whisking occasionally (paying particular attention to the corners of the pan).

Add the chocolate and stir until homogenous. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 5 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste.

Immediately pour the pudding through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart glass dish. Scrape it through gently but don’t push lumps through. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin forming. Refrigerate until chilled. When ready to serve, stir until smooth and spoon into smaller dishes. Feel free to sprinkle with fleur de sel or (as here) finely shredded coconut, or drizzle with raspberry syrup or honey.