Ah, the bento box. One of my personal favorite Japanese contributions. Essentially the most organized lunch box ever! A little bit of sushi, some tempura, maybe some chicken and rice, and you have a well rounded, gorgeous meal.
Recently I was recommended a book entitled Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by one of my friends who happens to be half Japanese. Not only has she referred to me other great books both food and non-food related but she figured that since I very easily could have been born into an Asian family instead of an Irish one, I would enjoy this book. Well…she was right.
Linda Furiya tells her life story as a first generation Japanese-American growing up in Versaille, Indiana. The usual clumsy cultural exchanges, embarrassment-turned-fascination with her own culture, and of course food, provide the buffet-style reading experience we are hoping for given such a creative title. Being a “food memoir,” each chapter becomes essentially a short story and centers around a part of her upbringing that is ultimately tied into one of her food experiences. From her first memories at bringing her lunch to school with rice balls while the “white kids” brought their typical PB and J, Furiya tells her story with humor, candor, a tinge of embarrassment, and ultimately a journey of cultural discovery and appreciation.
I suppose there are several reasons I like this book. First, I would say that it sort of reminds me of me. I joke that “I should have been born Asian” and all that, but in reality, this is the kind of food memoir I would like to write some day, except, of course, as an Irish Catholic American. I touch on my upbringing in the past (donuts, waffle irons, cereal and such), and love to find ways to tie in my childhood to my food experiences. All of my best memories, seem to have a food connection as well. Large Thanksgiving dinners with lots of family, the inevitable Memorial and Labor day picnics, and the fact that my mom was feeding my sister and I wheat germ and bran before it came back into style! All memories that I will have, cherished or not, for the rest of my life, and of course centered around food.
Second, I find myself strangely drawn to the Asian culture. I travelled to the Philippines as a college student, and loved it, but I doubt that’s the reason. Maybe its the sense of family and struggle or maybe the fact that so many of them have immigrated to the US and have maintained a strong sense of their culture, heritage, spirituality, and of course their food customs. How else would you explain that the big mega marts now have whole aisles of Asian food products? All kinds of dishes and the hallmark being that such deliciousness can come from some of the poorest of experiences. I love Asian food. I love Vietnamese (Pho in rich, meaty broth), Taiwanese (newer favorite being the steamed pork dumplings from Din Tai Fung), Thai (swimming rama, phad thai, and any curry), and of course Japanese. I have really been into Korean lately too…sweet, sour, tangy meat served alongside a noodle dish, with fresh garnish? Such diversity of tastes, flavors and smells with such simple ingredients. Maybe that’s it…
Third, and probably the most truthful, is simply that I like this chicks story. I love that her folks worked so hard to become US citizens, dad providing for his family, while mom did everything in her power to make sure her two kids (the author had a brother too) didn’t just “conform” to the American food and cultural experience. Sure there was some adaptation, but her mom made sure that Furiya grew up to understand her culture, to shake off some of the indifference, and ultimately adopt a sense of pride in her Japanese cultural and food heritage. I love that, because at the end of the day, this book is about family. Like so many other great stories, relationship, understanding, cultural awareness and even national and spiritual pride can usually be traced back to the food that we eat. Yeah, that is definitely it…
If you are interested in picking up a copy, you can by simply clicking the following link. Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America