Beyond Been There, Ate That: Sushi as Food for Thought

By Dr. Warren B. Roby

Christina Bunker - Salt and Pepper

by Christina Bunker

 

          I know a euphemism when I see one.  If we are to be completely honest, then we will admit that the main way we have been formed by food is that we have been fattened by it.  Food is indeed a gift from God, but we are prone to get far too much of this good thing.  Especially in this season of satiety that stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas, we need to remind each other that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins.

          Actually, I am no good at sermonizing.  Therefore, I will discharge my moral duty by recounting my first experience with a food that is healthy and that is far less likely to add pounds than the holiday fare that we are all overindulging in at this time of the year. 

          My story begins in March, 1982.  My wife and I were spending a week in southern California on our way to Japan.  She could not wait to get back to her native land for many reasons, but above all for this one: she had to have sushi.  I was perplexed by this urgency, but as a newlywed still in honeymoon mode, I gave in to her insistence.  The friends we were staying with in Los Angeles told us of a good sushi bar not far from their home, so we were all set.  That is, there was no escape for me.

           I should back up a bit and say that my two years in France had given me several forays into food terra incognita: frog legs, snails, kidney, brain, and horse had somewhat prepped me for raw fish.  Still, this was a stretch for a guy from Kansas who had grown up on meatloaf and potatoes.

          It was not just the edible exotica that awaited me that evening.  I was in for a dose of culture shock I had not expected. The sushi bar was located in a bowling alley.  That seemed a bit incongruous to me as we pulled into the parking lot.  But when we walked in the door I observed something else I had not expected:  every one of the bowlers was black.  We made our way to the sushi bar where the "cooks" and the customers were all Asian.  I was the only white guy in the place!  So I sat down to eat who knows what kind of slimy stuff with visions of the Watts riots swirling in my head.  My trepidation was double.

           I am no Proust.   Frankly, I cannot recall any other details of the evening.  I think that the clatter of crashing pins, blaring music, and obnoxious noise from arcade machines, to say nothing of the strange tastes that crossed my palate, put me into a state of sensory overload that obliterated most memories.  I ate everything set before me.  I did not gag.  I was not choked or otherwise assaulted.  I cannot say that I found the food to be appetizing. I got through the meal and told myself that perhaps sushi is an acquired taste.  However, my wife was obviously thrilled with what she had consumed, so the outing was a success for both of us. 

          I had ample opportunity to have sushi during our three years in Japan.  It was that subsequent reinforcement that elevated what had been an eccentric experience to the status of emblematic event.  That night in Los Angeles turned out to be a watershed for me.  An inauspicious beginning gave way to a fascination, a fixation.  It is beyond consumption for me.  It is a matter of contemplation.

           Sushi's prima facie oddity got me to thinking.  Why do people eat this stuff?  Isn't there a health risk involved?  Don't things need to be cooked to purge them of unhygienic elements?  Seaweed?  That certainly does not sound savory.  Rice is tolerable, but bread had always been my starch staple, and, after having eaten baguettes for two years in France, I saw no reason to venture further.  Wasabi and soy sauce.  Hot green paste in a muddy liquid.  Yet when these things are put altogether, the result is undeniably good!  It is certainly salubrious as well.

          Sushi's ingredients cover the range of how mankind had found nourishment over the ages.  Once I took note of that, I really got drawn in.  Hunting is present in the form of deep sea fishing.  Gathering is represented by the culling of seaweed.  Intense agriculture rounds out the dish with the cultivation of rice and the production of soy sauce from beans. 

          I must not omit wasabi, a rare root that is only now starting to be grown outside of Japan.  It naturally grows along stream beds and thus contributes a freshwater element to sushi.  But it adds much more.  That it is likened to horseradish is appropriate as a way of referring to its pungency.  But that does not do justice to the narcotic effect that it has.  Beyond the initial tingling sensation, there is a distinct aftertaste.  It fills the nostrils.  I think it is what accounts for my addiction to this great food.

          Sushi is much more than the elements that one consumes.  The eating experience can be a visual feast.  It is best to sit at the bar and watch the chef deftly slice up colorful varieties of seafood, which he combines with bright white rice and arranges on pastel plates.  There is a rhythm to his actions and there is no wasted motion.  He is a wizard who mixes magical components into objects of beauty.  Presentation is thus not just what is set before the diner, but the entire preparation process.   

          My working title for this essay was "I lost it in an LA bowling alley."  I backed away from this because I did not want to imply a loss of innocence.  Yet there was an undeniable loss that night:  of naiveté.  Prior to that meal, I was ignorant of vast regions of the food realm.   I have come not only to appreciate sushi; I love it.  I even crave it.  My initial repulsion has been overwhelmed by a full embrace of this delicacy.  I am gratified to see that my oldest son, who was born in Japan, shares my love of sushi and has taken it to a new level: he rolls his own and has gotten his wife into the act.

           That brings me back to the family reason that first got me to try an exotic dish I slightly feared.  So I will bring this bagatelle to a close with what will have to serve as the moral of the story.  I did the right thing that night in LA and I did it for love.  It was good for my marriage relationship, but I am not a profoundly better person because of what I ate.  The value of that meal was that it got me thinking.  It forced me to consider new gustatory possibilities.  By broadening my tastes, I broadened my mind.  And because sushi has caught on in this country and has become an evolving art form, I get many opportunities to indulge my passion.  I am still discovering new sights, tastes, and thoughts.

 

Haiku

by Stephen Neibling, student

 

how I hate sushi

plucked from icy lakes and streams

gutted, bland, fishy