While my sisters and I were growing up in the leafy, affluent environs of the North Shore, my mom often attempted to point out our good fortune with stories from the past. One of her favorites was how she walked – rather than took the bus – from our apartment in Lincoln Park to Star Market (at the time, the only Japanese grocery store in Chicago) just so she could spend the extra money on a better cut of maguro for us.
Such stories didn’t really sink fully into my teenage brain (as it was filled with more pressing concerns such as grades and boys), but I never forgot them. Her sacrifice was a revealing one that underscores the important role food played in our lives. Her actions make sense to me in an abstract sense, but if I really think about it, would I have done the same? Freeze my toes off in flimsy rubber boots while lugging a shopping cart miles down Clark street in the drifting snow, all for a few moments of happiness that only great tuna can bring? Maybe not, but then again, I don’t have kids. I can only imagine that her sacrifice was made worthwhile not for her benefit, but for ours.
My mother, who in her youth looked like a movie star, hardly looks like someone who had to make sacrifices, or for that matter, spent lots of time in the kitchen. She was (and is) an excellent – if not natural – cook. I remember her reading Japanese food magazines, her brown knitted as if she were reading an incomprehensible riddle, as she decided on the day’s menu. Perhaps she was trying to figure out what Western ingredient to substitute for which Japanese one? Poor mom, she was not only thrifty, but had to deal with a foreign culture while feeding a family of gourmands.
The results were delicious, and we didn’t know the difference. Didn’t all Japanese make tsukemono out of cabbage? And have bacon with their tamago gohan (egg on rice)?
It was only after I moved to Japan as an exchange student and started my frequent transpacific journeys that I came to understand that the cuisine I grew up on wasn’t the same as my cousins in Tokyo. And I started to feel sorry that my parents couldn’t be with me to sample a meltingly soft square of ootoro (fatty tuna) or sip a cup of fragrant hiresake (roasted blowfish fin in hot sake.)
Such moments remind me that I’m still that spoiled and fortunate Americanized child who can’t fathom her immigrant mother’s sacrifice. The chasm of our worlds are so far apart. But as I grow older, I’m more and more grateful for everything I have – made possible only because of the hard work and thrift of my mother and father.
So today, in honor of mothers day, I have a message for my okāsan.
I love you mom. Thank you for your sacrifices and for your brilliance in the kitchen that never made we want for anything. You instilled in me such confidence in the world, and a feeling of abundance that are still with me today. Likewise, your healthy cooking, served hot every single night, helped me grow strong and healthy so that I never developed a taste for junk food or sweets. Thank you for all the bentos you made, and for running out of the house after me, barefoot, on the days I carelessly forgot them. No matter what I can do for you for mothers day, it’s not enough.
We’re here, together today with the whole family in your honor. Let me cook for you. What would you like?