Leave no trace


May 26, 2020

I would like nothing more than to cook all day

cook with flowers

After so many years living in this same rural corner of Kyushu, I still stumble upon sights I’ve never seen before. A wrong turn on a drive to a nearby town took me down a narrow country lane. Camel colored fields stretched into the distance lined with rows of ripe barley. Their spiny heads like fat caterpillars reached for the sky. The harvest was underway and in fields stripped bare farmers burned the stubble. They kindled fires at opposing ends of a row and watched over as the flames bore towards each other. Leaving a blackened strip in their wake, the flames met in the middle, embraced in a final leap, and smoldered out. 

I am drawn to this cycle of impermanence. Fields are sown, the harvest reaped, and the land laid bare again. In the kitchen too, when we cook efficiently and eat with gusto, we leave no trace. I savor those moments just after the meal has ended. Our plates sit before us and all that remains is the memory of flavors and feeling satiated, nourished, and whole. It is a simple moment, subtle and profound.

Though I arrived more or less by happenstance, I often feel it was fated that I come to Japan. I immediately felt a deep resonance. The broad and tangible relationship to the natural world that flows through the spiritual, aesthetic, and culinary practices here captivated me from the start. The rhythms of daily life encourage balance between the needs and desires of humans and the powerful forces of nature that daily render blessings and affliction. An inherent reverence for the phenomena of the physical world dictates many aspects of daily life. This from the design of interior and exterior spaces and the appreciation of light and shadow to the crafting of objects, the arranging of flowers, and most notably the style and methods of cooking and eating.

I have always drawn my energy and inspiration from the natural world, from the mesas, mountain peaks, and canyons in the American Southwest I’ve traversed since childhood with my father to the abundance of my mother’s New England vegetable and flower gardens. A life spent immersed in and relating to the natural world through the tasks of daily life is for me most fulfilling.

cook with thistle

I often think I would like nothing more than to get up each morning and cook all day. This is probably the longing of someone who spends too much time facing a screen. I crave the physical act of cooking, of working with my hands while my mind wanders. I crave learning and practicing through creating something immediately tangible, necessary, and inherently impermanent. But beyond knowledge and facility, I’m after something else. It’s something elusive, teachings that I know the kitchen, specifically the Japanese kitchen, can offer me.

The national cuisine is built upon the alter of the passing seasons. Its food ways are inextricably tied to a lingering agrarian psyche that honors our place within, not apart from nature. Daily efforts in the kitchen tie me to a practice that feels meaningful. Beyond mere sustenance, it’s a way of being in the world that encourages expression of simple ideas through refined beauty. I’ve discovered in the rhythms of the daily meal a devotional practice. It satiates my gnawing existential questions. The ingredients I cook connect me to the oceans, to the fields, to the mountains and forests, to the sun, the wind, and the rain. Through them I receive communion and recognize my place as both consumer and steward.

I sometimes marvel at how I landed here, on the other side of the world, and managed to craft an unexpected life as a home cook exploring the subtleties of flavors and beauty all while nourishing myself and others.

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