Whenever I think of exquisite gourmet cooking I always think of my mother, Misako Shintani. Mom, learned cooking from her mother and went on to teach the culinary arts. Misako was charismatic, filled with fiery energy and unpredictable. Her classes were sensational, spontaneous theatrical performances.
Her unpredictable nature attracted her to a Jewish Russian American man 13 years her junior. He claimed he was a poet. She ran off with this man, leaving dad and me to fend for ourselves. I was twelve years old. After she left, her life as a star chef began.
With her flair for dramatics and knowledge of cuisine, Mom made a name for herself and was constantly in demand. I remember her touring a group of wanna be galloping gourmet cooks through China and Japan, listening to her on radio, and her stories of cooking for actor Pat Morita and other celebrities.
Perfectly at ease in front of the camera, she was made for the stage. She regretted being born in the wrong time when Japanese American women had few opportunities for stage, cinema and TV.
Mom never went shopping at just one market for her ingredients. She would go to a Hollywood Ranch Market for fruit, an Italian market for olive oil, wine, saffron, a Japanese market for the fish, rice, ginger and Asian veggies. Shopping for ingredients was a day long ethnic tour of the city.
She loved watching cooking shows and reading recipe books, but when it came to actual cooking, recipes were mere guidelines. The real deal was done by taste, smell, sight, and touch.
Her dream was to write a cookbook honoring her mother and their Japanese heritage.
I still have her unfinished cookbook filed away. I get sad when I read through it. And regret there wasn’t enough time spent together, but that was not our fate.
Almost every time I open up my spice and herb pantry, I think of Mom. Her paella with saffron and “sausages” she smuggled in from Spain, the fragrant ways she seasoned her spring lamb, and the flaky melt in your mouth crust of her lemon pies were out of this world.
Whether we like it or not we always have our parents with us; and I’ve acquired her habit of going to a host of markets… Saigon Market for lemongrass, turmeric, and basmati rice, Halal Markets for dates on the vine, pita bread, and fresh Feta cheese, Indian Sweets and Spices markets for spices ad infinitum. And finally Marukai market for everything Japanese.
Forty years after she divorced dad, she called me. It was winter and pouring rain. Dad had just died three months ago and she was sobbing uncontrollably. She wanted to leave the Jewish man and come live with me.
“Did Dad ever talk about me, did he miss me… did he love me”. She said she always regretted leaving dad but couldn’t come back. I didn’t know how to answer, you see…Dad had very few kind words to say about Mom. Whenever he was really mad at me he’d yell… “You’re just like your mother”. So I, I stuttered and stammered and then trying my best I said to mom…”He always loved your cooking”.
The following week Mom’s simple annual physical checkup turned into emergency open heart surgery. Minutes before the operation, we were holding hands talking of her recovery, “I’m going to take good care of you Mom, just like I did Dad”. She gave a knowing nod. She knew what I meant. But she never woke up. She died on the operating table. No one, not even mom knew her heart was weak.
Shortly after mom’s death, I found dad’s journals of long ago. In it were pages and pages of dad professing deep love and need for mom. He wanted to tell her but just couldn’t. Now I couldn’t stop crying.
In our hallway, on a tall black dresser, are mom and dad last driver’s license, together they look out of a silver frame.
Whether they like it or not, their journey was together.
Genie Nakano, revised.This was published in Rafu, Gardena Valley, Kyoto Journal and a few more…