New Year’s Day 2019 may have been the last time I celebrate the occasion eating my mother’s sushi. Unless we pare down the guest list considerably, or subtract four or five other food options from the prescribed menu, I think an event like this in 2020 will be too much for my 86-year-old mother to handle.
Making sushi is a lot of work. I’ve helped my mother prepare it many times, but I’m less a sous chef than a scullery maid. My most important role is to fan hot rice as my mother sprinkles a mixture of vinegar, sake and sugar over it, which sounds like the kind of job you’d task an eager but useless child assigned to something simple like stirring the pancake batter.
Yet according to my mother’s theory of good sushi-making techniques, it’s a critical function. Adding the vinegar mixture to piping hot rice impacts its seasoning and flavor, while cooling it down quickly provides luminescence and better texture. My mother has a friend who sets the rice by a bowl of ice cubes positioned in front of a rotating electric fan; however, my mother sticks with the old ways, that is, having someone wave an uchiwa - an ovoid, paddle-like Japanese hand fan - like his or her life depended on it.
I’ve cooled pounds of rice in my time, and have wondered if this is how sushi chefs in Japan do it, or if it’s a technique my mother and her friends made up and adopted as essential. But I don’t dare ask questions because my mother is the unquestioned expert. A scullery maid doesn’t challenge the authority and methods of the head chef.
She can, however, bear witness to the enormous culinary effort behind our family’s New Year’s Day celebration, and is therefore qualified to wonder about its future. This year, for example, it was difficult for my mother to keep up with her own standards and traditions, and it wasn’t for lack of commitment. My mother is a die-hard when it comes to New Year’s Day. She hates to cut corners because she believes in the importance of launching any new year with foods that reflect celebration, optimism and excellence.
But it’s only a matter of time before she won’t be able to make those dishes anymore. I’m not lamenting that, nor am I grieving that her sushi secrets will die with her. In fact, it’s actually fine by me to be blessed with - at some point - only the memory of shrimp, egg, green beans, kampyo (dried gourd) and shiny, tender, seasoned rice rolled up in a sheet of dried seaweed. It’s equally acceptable to carry the memory of her labor and love into an era when her labor is no longer available.
I’m at peace with the idea that I will miss what can never be duplicated because the person who created those special foods was so unique in her vision and devotion that there are no substitutes for both the person and the product. I believe that a distinct skill set, developed lovingly over time, has an energy all its own - positive and inspirational, manifest and unimpeachable. In other words, some results just can’t be achieved by proxy. It doesn’t matter if I can buy sushi for New Year’s Day, or even someday make it myself. I know it will never be the same as my mother’s. But I’m OK with that. In fact, I’m actually grateful it’s true.
Grace Acosta is a longtime Town Crier columnist and Los Altos resident. ◆