Sunday, August 31, 2008

Return of the Kitchen Nazi

"See?" Big Dog tells our guests when I don't take them up on their offer to help in the kitchen. He'll raise his right hand in a "Heil!" salute just to irritate me further.

He and his family have been calling me the Kitchen Nazi for some time now. Guess that's what you become when you were raised in a Food Fascist household.

I didn't realize it while I was growing up. I thought all families were pretty much the same -- moms made everything from scratch, you ate together, talked about the food (alot!) I remember begging my mother to buy some TV dinners. As a child, the mass-produced flavors of these packaged meals were so exotic and exciting!

My brother is a Complete Fascist when it comes to dinner, too. Absolutely no TV! Sit up straight! Elbows off the table! Chew with your mouth closed! Are you going to talk or eat? You can't do both at once.
"It's important to instill proper table manners when they're young," he says of the Pupster, who at five can handle his chopsticks with more grace and dexterity than his aunt. But it's not just table manners. He's expected to have opinions of what he's eating, what he'd like as his entree or side for his next meal.

Instead of plonking down a bowl of cereal in front of him for breakfast, he usually gets a choice of Western or Japanese breakfast. On weekends, he can make individual requests. They rarely just put a heap of something in front of him and tell him to eat it, or else. My family has managed to make the Pupster interested and involved in his eating and because of this he'll eat nearly everything, and will eagerly try new flavors.

What a surprise when I found out other families were not like this! For the longest time, Big Dog made me insecure about my cooking because he would eat without comment.

"My eating IS the comment. If it were bad, I wouldn't eat it," he told me when I asked about this and kept eating without so much as a grunt of acknowledgment about the food. It cracks him up to eat with my family because we talk non-stop about the food.

I should be grateful for Big Dog's "training" because I've found that many people don't comment about the food they are eating. And it seems to be more so here in the U.S.

For as much food as the average American shovels into his mouth, he doesn't think much about what he's eating. And maybe that's it. Maybe America has so much food (and so much terrible food, too!) that it's no big deal. In cultures with a developed civilization but less than an over-abundance of food, we see more thought put into the food. People learn to use an incredible variety of ingredients, stretch what they have, make the most out of little. Kaiseki is all about making a Big Deal out of something as ordinary as a chunk of carrot.

I remember a conversation I had with a former colleague in Tokyo. He's from New Mexico and he was telling me how silly he thought the Japanese were with their obsession with food.

"A girl I used to date was always going on about 'let's go eat something oishii (yummy)' but we should eat to live, not live to eat," he told me quite earnestly, stuffing his face with a sad-looking salad at a franchise American restaurant in Tokyo.

"Why don't you just put steaks and tuds on the barbie?" Big Dog would suggest, watching me whirling around the kitchen in a dervish frenzy trying to concoct something interesting for our tidal wave of guests.

"Boooooring!" I'd say and continue rolling the 20th fresh-off-the-vine grape leaf dolma.
But after this summer, I am finally getting it. The guests really would rather have a nice steak than ten mysterious/exotic/scary new dishes, all completely labor intensive and exquisite. This is not a country brimming with gastronomic curiosity.

Undeterred, though, I continue to experiment in the kitchen. Walnut-sauce-covered-meat-stuffed-roasted-pasilla chiles, spicy poached peaches, strange new pickles, a different kind of bread each week, all kinds of chilled soups, fresh and aromatic herbs for salads, exotic meat rubs and marinades... I'm ready to buy a goat and make my own goat cheese! Or raise a pig for my own sausages!

"No wonder I'm so skinny," Big Dog sighed. "It's all this artsy fartsy food you're making."

If I were a real Kitchen Nazi, I would stop serving people like Big Dog. My diners would only be people like this.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A soul sister. Another kitchen nazi. I designed my kitchen. I built it with my own hands. It is efficient and compact and will only accommodate one. It is central to the house and commands all entrances and exits. It has a wood burning stove that provides heat in winter, all the hot water, all the meals, and warms bums on chilly nights. You may be a nazi, but I am the dictator!
I did all the food shopping and as it is 30 kms to the nearest store, had complete control of the family diet. If it wasn't imediately identifiable as animal or vegitable, I didn't buy it.
I think japanese culinary tradition has so much of value to teach western culture, but is rather overwhelmed by KFC et al advertising. I will have to research Kaiseki as I believe a 'chunk of carrot' has as much to offer as the revered delicacies.

7:49 AM  
Blogger bad-dog said...

It makes me happy to know there are others like me out there! You must go to Japan -- you'll have fun in those traditional grocers. A "kanbutsu-ya" only has dried or otherwise preserved foodstuff. It's really hard to tell if something is animal, mineral or vegetable, but most of it is very healthy, albeit a bit too salty.

I guess the key to a successful kitchen dictatorship is just not to have any room for anyone else!

Thanks, as always, for your comments.

4:38 PM  

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