an open letter to my ex-toaster oven.

when my canadian friends brought you over to my place for the first time, i knew it was going to be a difficult transition for both of us.  they told me about your past, and how you had fallen on some hard times.  just by looking at you i could tell you’d done nothing but hang out in a tiny, dusty recycle shop for ten years.  i was saddened, but hardly surprised, when they told me you had sold for a measly 700 yen.

i guess in a tiny kitchen like mine, there is no room for pride.

a $7.00 toaster oven.  when i think “$7.00 toaster oven,” a dusty metal box with no door that somebody built a fire in comes to mind.

which, sadly, isn’t far from what you were when you came into my home.  but i am a cook who believes in second chances.  so i took you in.  i cleaned you up as best i could, and sat you atop my tiny little refrigerator.

i’ll admit, when we first met i doubted that you could ever amount to anything more than a kitchen fire.  but every time i used you to toast my rolls or finish a frittata, you gave it your all, and i couldn’t have asked for anything more.  you were a knight on horseback in a world which had already invented the gun.  you were like a receptionist who used punch-card computers for twenty years trying to compete in a windows 7 world.  you were a wooden, single prop plane in a world where men had been to the moon and back.

suffice to say, you were doomed from the start.  but i believed in you.

towards the end, we had our fair share of fights.  i yelled and cursed at you.  once, during a particularly heated argument we had, you melted the top of my fridge.  i still proudly sport the scars on my knuckles from when you burned the bejeesus out of me while i was toasting some dinner rolls.  remember that time i tried to make gratin with you?  man, did that turn out awful.

in retrospect, i wasn’t as understanding as i should have been.  i remember throwing your rack across the kitchen because apparently blind, stupid people who have never set foot in a kitchen engineered you.  but it wasn’t right for me to hold you responsible.  you were made that way, and it wasn’t my place to try to change you.

sure, my new toaster oven works.  yes, she’s bright red and gloriously shiny.  she has a temperature dial that doesn’t lie and a timer that goes past 15 minutes.   she even came with three different racks and an instruction manual.  but she doesn’t have even close to the same character as you did.  after all, you were born in the 80s.

goodnight, sweet prince.  thanks for all the good times.

sincerely, the poor man.

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mushrooms: a love story.

my mom wasn’t really big on cooking.

she cooked for me and my brother because she had to.  we were growing boys.  back when i was a kid, i don’t think she had the free time to sit down and really dedicate herself to the art of cooking in between all the working, helping with homework, cleaning, and weekend folk dancing.  we made a lot of boxed and instant foods because they were cheap and easy.  looking back, i know it was hard for my mom to raise us alone for most of my childhood.  but she made my life great one pan of slightly burned rice-a-roni at a time.

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love is a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie.

guess what?  i don’t like sweet foods.  sure, that might make me a curmudgeon.  yeah, you might be able to accuse of having lost touch with my inner child.  but in all honesty, right from the get-go, sweet was always one of my least favorite flavors.  i know lots of people are probably chomping at the bit, ready to lace into me for being such a cynic, but hold your horses and let me explain myself for a moment.

in my experience, the vast majority of sweet foods being produced en masse are highly processed.  sweet is one of those flavors that reminds us of “home,” and even if we didn’t have a mommy or a grandma who baked fresh goodies all the time, we like to imagine that we did when we bite into a tollhouse cookie or a little debbie snack.  commercials and marketing do their best to convince us that a tremendous room full of smiling grannies or joyous frolicking elves produce our snacks.  which of course could not be farther from the truth.

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an ode to makoto-chan (and mekemeke).

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i have this friend.  two of my really close (canadian) friends who, at the time, happened to live right next to the snack bar he owned and operated introduced me to him.  and when i first stopped by his restaurant, we instantly hit it off.

makoto has a little bit of a belly, a shaved head, and a laugh like a clown.  i have never seen him wear any shoes other than sandals, even in winter.  he loves to drink, he loves to sing karaoke after he closes up shop, and he loves to meet new people and ask them all kinds of questions (some of which are far from wholesome).  he has a collection of cell phone photos of himself taken in public places during the wee hours of the morning, in most of which he is super drunk and as naked as a newborn child.  in other words, he epitomizes the word goofy.

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an ode to okazawa-san.

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every once in a while, you meet someone rare.  and when i say rare, i don’t mean a person who stands out in a crowd because they make an effort to stand out.  and i don’t mean the kind of person who stands out in a crowd naturally.  i mean the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in a crowd at all.  which is to say, the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in the crowd because they never even set foot near the crowd.  they don’t even know where the crowd is.  and most likely, they don’t care, because they have their own amazing thing going on.

okazawa-san is that man.  i’ve known him for almost a year now, and i know almost nothing about him.  i don’t know where he lives.  i don’t know if he is married.  i think he might have mentioned that he had a daughter one time, but i’m not sure.   if i asked him about any of that stuff, he would tell me.  but i don’t push, because if he wants to tell me all that stuff, he can.  if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter to me.

what does matter is that he has potentially the sweetest set-up i could ever imagine.  he spends his days farming on a small plot of land next to a river and a bamboo forest.  between growing some of the greatest vegetables, herbs, and fruits i have ever had the pleasure of eating, he tends to the bamboo forest.  bamboo grows fast, and when it gets too thick, it can actually strangle itself and inhibit the growth of its own root structures.  he therefore takes it upon himself to keep the forest at a healthy thickness.  he keeps the strongest bamboo alive so it can put out shoots, and he culls the weak or inhibited bamboo.

but nothing goes to waste.  the weaker bamboo is carried up the steep incline to his homemade earthen kilns, chopped into segments, and split.  the split pieces are cleaned, and are then roasted in the super hot kilns over a long period of time to create charcoal.  and the charcoal has so many uses it will make your head spin.  i’ll save those for another post.

twice a month on saturday morning, okazawa-san gives me and a small group of like-minded people a bunch of alcohol, whatever local natural produce harvested that day, two grills to cook fresh fish and meats, all the bamboo charcoal we could ever want, and a spacious homemade gazebo to hang out in.  and in exchange, we give him a helping hand with whatever he needs done.  the most lopsided deal of all time?  maybe.  a boat load of fun for free?  you bet your butt it is.

he is a man who does not mince words.  if you don’t say anything and just sit on your butt drinking beer, he won’t bother you.  if you ask him what needs to be done, he’ll tell you and expect you to do it.  if you tell him you don’t know how to do the thing you just promised you’d do, he’ll teach you.  he is diligent and competent.  he is easy-going and mild-mannered.

okazawa-san is my botany teacher, my biology teacher, my local farmer, my drinking buddy, my host, and my friend.  and i can’t ask for any more than that.

here’s to you, good sir.  keep up the good work, and i’ll see you soon for some good eats and back-breaking hard labor.