Our world is so diverse now, that we could transport ourselves anywhere we want to be, simply by changing our surroundings, right there in our very own homes. Décor, clothing, music, even the food we cook and how we set the stage to serve it.
As a woman in my sixties, I could write many books about the places I have been, food and cultures I have immersed myself in, even some of the obscure things I have done. Such as, up and moving to another country when my last child (of four) was entering college. I didn’t speak one word of the language and knew very little about the culture. But in my three years living in Brazil I learned to speak Portuguese and I came to appreciate the importance of gathering to share a meal.
As a young woman, longggggg before I had children, I had an intense fascination with the Asian culture. While living in Washington DC, I signed myself up for language classes at the Japan American Society and began to study not only the language, but everything I could get my hands on about the culture: Novels, cookbooks, traditions, and history. Living in DC helped, in that museums and art exhibits are often free, and there are always events at any number of embassies or galleries.
Years later, low and behold, my first two sons were born of an Asian father, but that is a story for another time… maybe.
I learned to cook Japanese, Korean, and Chinese food both by association and instruction. Japanese was the one culture of the three that really attracted my interest. There was a saying in Japanese that stuck with me: “Nothing in nature is perfect, therefore imperfection is, in fact, perfect.” Symmetry, balance, clashing of colors were all things I had to relearn in the visual department from the Japanese perspective. Sound was also something new to me as well. Sound was said to influence the mood, induce peace, or remove it, and so the study of Japanese tea ceremony was a most fascinating place to be introduced to these points of view.
The western eye, and sense of sound was something I suppose I never paid much attention to until I learned to see it through a far eastern perspective. We seem to have a need for symmetry, balance, consistency. And yet, as I grew to appreciate the exact opposite in Japanese, I found myself also coming to appreciate my own culture for the first time. They were strikingly different, and I found, I liked that.
I am, by nature, a very visual person, and my senses are, (even at my age) keenly sensitive. It has been said that I could smell a neighbor’s dinner overcooking, and hear a squirrel breaking wind in the woods!
So, how does all of this apply to my passion for cooking and dining?
Whisk and Dine is what I named my little world here for several reasons. While as westerners, we know a whisk as a metal (or now even plastic) tool used to mix food. But in Japanese, the whisk I encountered that most intrigued me was the bamboo, short bristle, hand brush/whisk that was used to mix the green tea paste for, and in the tea ceremony. Its sound played an important role in creating the mood. The soft yet firm bristles whisking against the porcelain bowl are intended to delight the senses, calm the mind, and refresh the spirit. This quiet moment of waiting had an almost trance like affect. It reminded me of how busy life can be, and that a simple moment of being still to listen to small repetitious sounds are something I am rarely still, long enough to hear. Open your window at sunrise and listen for the repetitious chatter of the birds. It too has the same tranquil affect. Calming. Contemplative.
In the ‘dining’ of tea ceremony, it was not really about the tea, or even what may have been served to eat. It was about the human exchange. What the participants brought to the experience of themselves. An expression as much as a word. The items thoughtfully placed on the table, by the preparer, items that spoke in and of themselves, of a story.
Do we know how to dine like this? I fear we are losing the art of human exchange. Texts and emojis replace facial exchanges and words. The art of conversation pieces being placed on the dining table are nearly all but gone, because there IS no longer a table we prepare to dine. We eat out, we eat in front of the television, we eat on the run.
Yes. The art of the table, the importance of storytelling, the preparation to share a moment as well as a meal is something I want. Don’t you?