(Con)fusion Food — Boudin (noir) and Whale Soup

I have just learned that Japanese people don’t really like to eat whale. I, personally, have always found it over-rated. The meat is fishy and chewy – exactly as one would expect.

It seems that whales were eaten as a last resort when the country was hungry after WWII, and the hunting of whales today is just a bureaucratic remnant of that trying time. For a generation of kids (of about my age), whale soup was a staple of school lunch.

Normally-constituted Japanese people today prefer beef or chicken or shrimp and there are only two whale meat sellers left in the Tokyo fish market. No one cooks whale at home; it would take months to get the deep dark smell of the sea out of the apartment.

whale-restaurantOf course, the good things you eat as a child are what you like and, thus, certain traditions are established and preserved until they die a generational death. My daughter is a pure cultural-fusion product and her food choices are totally outlandish and at first glance incomprehensible.

From the Swiss side of her family she has picked up an abiding love of boudin (noir). I used to serve this once a week in winter blood-sausage season. I, personally, ate only the boiled potatoes and apple sauce. One extremely embarrassing day, I was pulled over by the lady running the crèche as the morning’s diaper had revealed a product of the most alarming colour. I explained about it being Wednesday, and boudin day was Tuesday. I believe I was put on some sort of Crèche Culinary Watch List.

From my side of the family comes that old Canadian staple of wieners and beans on toast. This was eaten with my daughter exclusively when Swiss husband was absent – preferably out of the country and as far away as possible. Always a bit of a food snob, only Heinz beans were served and the best brand of wieners cut into perfect rounds. A little Swiss friend was brought home for lunch one day; she had never had such a wondrous meal. Departing for school she thanked me effusively for the nice soft meat.

Anyway, from where I come from whales, rabbits and horses are all left to roam around uncooked. Instead Sloppy Joes, shepherd’s pie, fish-fingers, macaroni & cheese, Yorkshire pudding, hamburgers and hotdogs and scrambled eggs with ketchup are grist for my version of the Canadian food mill. Coming originally from the north of England potatoes figure at least once a day; and the existence of Swiss rösti has contributed greatly to my perfect cultural integration and happiness.

Yes. We are what we eat—individual memories and comforting confusion. Whales included, one presumes.

Packing for Japan

As a general packing rule, a few weeks before departure you designate a surface where you arrange all possible portable objects that you might need – edible, wearable, electronic, recreational. As departure time approaches, you discard what will not fit in your suitcase, and make rational choices.

For example, I have learned that the little Tokyo apartment I will be living in does not have central heating. This fact, combined with the current (wavering) cold snap in the Far East, means that serious slippers are a must. Warm air is blown into each room from little vents up at ceiling height which results in the well-known hot-head-cold-feet Japanese Syndrome.

japanheatingSo, at the moment, I have two pairs of slippers on the packing bed – one a delightfully multi-coloured floozy pair, called “snoozies” with martini glasses printed on them, and a more refined second pair of white leather, lined with rabbit skin, and decorated with Native American bead work. A choice must be made.

Then there is the current (wavering) butter crisis in Japan so I’ll have to take a Swiss block or two. Due to “el Nino” the usual supply of New Zealand butter has dried up a bit. Japan’s own butter comes from its northern island, Hokkaido. Miniscule little delicately-wrapped pads of butter are arranged in tiny little hand-crafted trays of six. I think they might be numbered and signed by the individual cows. Despite their high price, they disappear off the shelves immediately, and I’ve only once succeeded in purchasing my own butter set.

Then there are the Swiss tube-staples that can be used for all emergencies – Cenovis (marmite/breakfast), Le Parfait (liver paste/lunch), Euceta, and Vita-Merfen. I was extremely shocked to find out that these last two items (medical rather than edible) no longer exist and replacements must be found.

The phrase book, Japanese at a Glance, is a psychological crutch, and can never actually be used, as people tend to run away (often moaning) when directly approached. It has been explained to me that this is because people don’t want to be embarrassed by 1) not speaking English 2) not understanding 3) and anyway don’t want their day ruined by an unpleasant event. I keep the little book with me at all times in case I ever want to phone an unknown number to tell the emergency services that I’ve just had a car accident and think I’m having a heart attack and would like to send a telegram.

Then there are the presents. Fortunately, most of these (calendars, chocolates, prints, pens, and pencils) have gone on ahead. All I have to take at the moment is a little box of spices for the Swiss winter-time specialty “vin chaud”. This perks up no end a glass of ordinary (affordable) Peacock Department Store wine and is much appreciated by knowledgeable Tokyo wine experts.

So that’s already quite a good start an I’m feeling quite exhausted. Time now for a little rest and, hopefully, some serene cherry blossom dreams.

The French Quéstiôn

The circumflex accent in French is my favorite. I try to use it with aplomb and abandon. Much friendlier than the accent aigu or the accent grave—to a person who cannot tell their left from their right—it is just a little friendly hat that sits, preferably, over an “ô”.

Therefore, I am horrified that the Académie Français is finally, truly, abandoning it—fortunately just over the “i” and the “u”. For example, the old coût becomes the new cout. I, personally, would have liked it to become côut or, even better, côôt.

There are other exciting changes that also being seriously implemented some twenty-six years after the new rules were written. Numbers are being hyphenated, other words are being unhyphenated, and the two little dots over the occasional vowel (called a tréma in French and very close to my ü-heart) is being added or shifted to aid pronunciation—for example, the old gageure becomes the new gageüre--whatever it means.

As a Canadian, I am officially bilingual, but only write in English due to my timorous, yet perfectionist, nature. The arbitrary mysteries of the French language—the le and the la, the silent endings that contain many letters, the declensions, the conjugations, the agreements, the vexed question of tu vs vous, and many other social and grammatical points that I don’t even want to think about, put French into its own celestial cultural sphere of near incomprehensibility when written at its very finest.

Even paying the strictest attention, recalling all schoolroom language tricks, using spell and grammar checks, and the best brains of family and friends, I make mistakes. The missing “e” or “s”; the incomprehensible thought; the embarrassing blooper that I simply cannot see with my direct-vision Anglophone eye.

sbf20090701c005I blame it on my education. My high school French teacher was a haughty middle-aged English woman called Mrs Robinson. She had three Chanel-type suits that she wore on rotation with different scarves. She had a chignon and a nose that quivered. She made a great fuss about pronouncing the word plume perfectly.

These were the days of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and Mrs Robinson took her role seriously. She loved the garçons in the class, and the filles were just a necessary encumbrance. She handed out les cigarettes to the (male) smokers at recess time. I guess this was because plume rhymed with fume. Her first name was Irene. When the song Walk Away Renée became a Herman’s Hermits hit in 1968 she theatrically changed her name to Renée. Needless to say, all the girls hated her.

Sigh. I had a hard time in Mrs Robinson’s French class, and it didn’t really matter what you did with your accents. That the old événement has become the new évènement is my unexpected revenge.

In 1755 in an extraordinary one-man show, Samuel Johnson published the then definitive A Dictionary of the English Language. He is attributed to having said: “It is indeed a dull man who can think of but one way to spell a word.”


Retirement Rules or The Kirsch Bottle on the Ironing Board

As family members and friends gradually retire from their traditional workplaces they either disappear completely or pop up cheerfully from time to time with morsels of coping advice.

This generally has to do with not letting yourself slip—which is presumably what has happened to those disappeared people. There are several categories which must be addressed: nutrition, time-planning, health, presentability.

Life is made up of those intervals of time that must be filled between meals. Never is this more apt than with the retired community. Seriously healthy eating is a major activity involving visits to the vegetable lady’s barn, and much consultation of almost-pristine cookbooks.

retired_1710533cInappropriate foods should be avoided: for example, a delicious, huge kebab I wolfed down a few weeks back had lasting and nefarious consequences. And a reliable source has recently mentioned green eggs and ham in an entirely negative way.

My oldest school friend from Canada has just retired and thoughtfully shared a stunning Sunday lunch tip: she and her husband are not allowed to drink alcohol with that particular meal if they are still wearing their pajamas. This reflects, of course, their stubbornly ingrained Protestant work-ethic and I don’t think applies here in the Swiss countryside. She did report that they did it once and didn’t get caught, so perhaps the slippery slope has been established.

Yes, the alcohol question must be addressed. Everyone knows that liqueur chocolates and white wine do not count, and I have a file folder full of clippings about the undeniable health benefits of red wine (there’s a particular Danish report which I find most uplifting.)

I also allow myself unlimited quantities of beer while ironing. A time-consuming activity, the very idea of turning mellow and singing along with the radio while pressing creases out of shirts and trousers in a cloud of steam is undeniably attractive. This works very well on warm summer evenings. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to spare and so iron very rarely.

My sister has a lovely rule: you must not get out of bed before 8 a.m. Last weekend, for example, she said her husband only rose at 3:30 in the afternoon. Of course, you must check that people are still breathing, but sleeping, naps, and siestas must all be encouraged.

My old doctor (now retired, of course) once told me about his very oldest patient who was worried about going senile. She enquired what was the most important thing not to forget, and he told her lots of old folks forget to wash. The next time she visited him, she calmly informed him that she had solved that particular problem. She showered every morning, but in the evenings often couldn’t remember if she had, so always took another one.

So, in summary, enjoy yourself. Take a walk if the weather’s fine. Try to make a spinach soufflé every now and then. Change out of your pajamas late Sunday morning. Visit the junior family members from time to time wearing a smile and bearing gifts.

And, most important: try to stay under 80 for as long as possible.

February Festivities

You really have to search for fun during the January doldrums. Canadian friends, for example, have reported buying new martini glasses and changing their mattress. But now, in February, there are so many exciting things happening I don’t know where to begin.

Today, for example, is Groundhog Day. Traditionally, this is the day that the groundhog (a species of marmot—much hated by all farmers) wakes up from hibernation and pokes his head out of his hole to see what’s up. If it’s sunny and he sees his shadow he then goes back down to sleep for another 6 weeks and winter will continue. If, on the other hand, it’s a cloudy day and he doesn’t see his shadow, then winter is about to give up the ghost, and spring is just around the corner.

Here, in my village, the postman has reported that the hedgehogs are out running around and about busy getting run over. This is the same idea.

Happy-Groundhog-Day-Images-5Next Monday is Chinese New Year, and luckily, we have a Chinese restaurant in the next village. Often quite empty, it is extremely authentic. In winter, for example, you usually have to keep your coat on to eat as it’s so cold. They have integrated well into the Swiss world and serve pizzas on the weekends. However, I’m sure that their Peking Duck will be most delicious.

Then, the day after, is Pancake Day. Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, was the greatest day for lunch at our house of the whole year, as we ate our annual pancakes – orange slices, butter, and golden corn syrup–maple syrup was a luxury beyond our means. [For authentic Canadian pancakes beat 2 eggs, add 2 tbls sugar, 1 cup milk, 1/2 tsp salt, 3/4 tsp baking powder, and 1 cup flour. Beat everything for a couple of minutes and cook in a non-stick pan. Douse with butter, squeezed orange, maple syrup. Roll up and eat.]

Moving right along, there is Valentine’s Day on the 14th. This, of course, features chocolate and flowers which I have found one often has to buy for oneself in order to avoid disappointment. And this is followed by a relatively new holiday in Ontario, called Family Day. This is one of those odd half-holidays (i.e., not a national one), so there are some complaints that the kids are all off school and the parents have to go to work.

This is the same week as the Winter Break in the Geneva school system. Here there are 5 days off school and in the old days when there was snow, kids would be shipped off to ski camps. I don’t know where they will be shipped off to this year. Perhaps it will be a week-long Family Day at home.

So, altogether, there’s hardly a day free to work and worry about the usual mundane winter problems. The groundhog’s shadow, pancakes of different flavors and nationalities, flowers from shops and garden, the kids home from school. February is my favorite month.