February 2013

Charlotte Freeman


Tending the House Gods...

This month, solace dropped in at just the right moment, and it came from a cookbook. My nearly-102-year-old grandmother died in mid-December, which was a blessing for her, but has left the rest of us feeling deeply, existentially, unmoored. She was a true matriarch, a figure who loomed large in the lives of all who loved her. She died on our farm, a farm that's been in our family since the 1860s, where she lived with my aunt who made sure that she got to die in her own bed, as she wanted.

One of the most attractive cookbooks I've seen in ages arrived as we've all been working through this, Nancy Singleton Hachisu's Japanese Farm Food. In the introduction, I found this lovely passage, which I sent to my aunt who was feeling strange about inheriting not just the farm but the detritus of 150 years of family life:

Friends come for the relaxed feeling in our wide-open farmhouse, my husband's family home. Comfortably cluttered with stacks of books and pottery bowls, our house is the heart and soul of our lives. It is the honke, the main house of an extended family, and the place where the house gods reside...

It's your job now, I told my aunt, to keep the honke and to tend the house gods. Don't feel weird about all the "stuff" I said to her -- it's not "yours" -- you're just taking care of it all for the rest of us, tending the farm so we can come back and visit, so we all know where home is. She called me a week later to say thanks, that she'd been feeling a little frantic, and that the idea that she's just the caretaker gave her some real solace.

Both cookbooks that caught my attention this month, Japanese Farm Food and The Hakka Cookbook, have grandmothers at the center of their stories, and both center around the question of home, especially as it plays out in food. Where is our home? How do we know when we're home? What does it mean to make a home in a strange place, a foreign place? While Nancy Singelton Hachisu's journey took her from California to Japan and her story describes the experience of finding one's home in a strange place, where your very hair and face mark you as the stranger, Linda Lau Anusasananan's book traces the ways that the far-flung Chinese minority, the Hakka, have carried their food traditions across the globe, and how they know they are home when they taste the characteristic salty-savory tastes that define Hakka food.

Nancy Singleton went to Japan to teach English in 1986 and fell in love with one of her students, Tadaaki Hachisu, whose family has a farm. They raised three boys, while she opened an English-immersion pre-school and he raised organic vegetables and chickens. The book is dedicated to Tadaaki's mother, Baachan, who died in late 2011, and who appears throughout the book as the animating spirit behind these recipes.

Yes, I hear you saying, but what is the food like? It is delicious, simple, and clear. I've been eating the salt-massaged cucumber with miso and sesame for days, and I've been experimenting with using the same sauce and technique on the packages of greens I put away in the freezer from last summer's garden -- the results are equally delicious. There are several things to admire about this cookbook, but what I love most is that although the recipes are specific enough for even the most picky recipe-oriented cook, there is a wealth of headnotes discussing the origin of the recipes, and the techniques upon which they are built. She's also borrowed Michael Ruhlman's use of ratios as building blocks, so that, again, cooks can learn the principles upon which the recipe is based, and can then easily multiply or divide the quantities depending on what they have on hand or how many people they're feeding. This is very much a farmer's cookbook, in the best sense; that is, it's a cookbook in which what's available determines the recipe preparations. Hachisu describes her own evolution along these lines:

[As] a California girl, I never really knew about seasons. Until I moved to Japan. I couldn't understand why Tadaaki would bring me so many of one kind of vegetable when he came to visit. Later I found out why. When you have a lot of something, you eat it at every meal. You don't choose the vegetables, they choose you. My education was a slow process, and I was typically stubborn. It took me many years to wean myself off planning a meal around recipes. Or even from planning meals ahead.

If I have one thing I'm messianic about in the kitchen, it's getting beyond recipes. A recipe only teaches you to make that one thing. Techniques, ratios, these teach you how to cook. The cookbooks I love tend to be those in which I learn something I didn't know before -- like what characterizes Japanese home food, especially the home foods of the countryside -- and that teach me the techniques I can use to not just replicate recipes but to apply these characteristics to the foods I'm growing in my Montana garden or procuring from local sources. If there's an interesting story woven through, as there is with this book, then I'm really in pig heaven. My mania is to find out what people are cooking at home, how they're feeding themselves and their kids in the middle of real life, and this book is a treasure-trove of that information.

If Nancy Singleton Hachisu, with her blond hair, is the eternal stranger, even in the small Japanese town where she's lived for twenty years, then the Hakka people are the eternal strangers of the Chinese people. I first encountered Hakka food during the winter I spent in Taipei in 1988. When we'd see a Hakka recipe on a menu, my college roommate's Chinese husband, who had been raised in Hong Kong, would always order it (Wakin's ability to order was truly artful, one of the many things we admire about him all these decades later). The Hakka had long taken refuge in Taiwan, and, I have to say, one of the reasons I loved Linda Lau Anusasananan's The Hakka Cookbook is that in it I found those simple, salty, porky flavors that so blew me away when I arrived in Taiwan at twenty-three. Pork, soy sauce, and greens are not only the central flavors of this cuisine, but also some of the key flavors that characterize a lot of my own home cooking.

The beautiful The Hakka Cookbook, published by the University of California Press, is informative in the most interesting way. Anusasananan spent most of her career at Sunset magazine, and it shows in the lovely, simple informative layout, as well as in the text, which is explanatory, but never dry. There is a history of the Hakka migration that scattered the Hakka people from China across the South Pacific basin and as far to the east as India and to the west as Jamaica and North America. Anusasananan has gathered recipes from each of these subcultures, and like all the best fusion foods, they pick up interesting variations without losing that thing that makes them Hakka. So while the mustard green and pork soup has already been a hit in our house (made with mustard greens I froze last summer), and the noodles with mushroom pork sauce is going into regular rotation, it is the recipes for pickled and salted mustard greens that have me really intrigued. I grow a lot of mustard greens. They grow well here, don't need huge amounts of water, and the flea beetles that decimated everything last year don't seem to love their peppery bite. But I do. I blanch and freeze greens regularly through the summer, and last year I experimented with kimchi-type preserves, as well as a Burmese fermented kale that's been really good. But I've never found a recipe for the kinds of pickled turnip and mustard greens that characterize a lot of Chinese home cooking -- until now. While I can't testify to these recipes yet, I am very much looking forward to trying them out.

Since I'm mourning our matriarch, one of the other things that drew me to this book right now are Anusasananan's stories about her grandmother Popo, who came to "Gold Mountain" after having a preposterously late marriage at thirty to a man she hardly knew who could take her away from the war and famine that were becoming the norm at home. Popo sounds like a formidable and practical woman, and one who was particularly supportive of her daughter, Anusasananan's mother. Her spirit suffuses the book.

So in honor of my beloved Mommy Jane, who was a formidable presence in all of our lives, I'll be cooking these Asian grandmother recipes for the next few months (the less said about my grandmother's cooking, the better). Both of these are books that particularly resonated for me -- they are each deeply informative about how real people live and cook. They are each deeply personal. They are each beautifully designed with recipes that are easy to comprehend, and that work. There is good information about how to source ingredients that are not, say, readily available in Montana in the winter. I'll be tucking both of these away on my kitchen bookshelves, and I look forward to cooking out of them for years to come.