The Subconscious Pull of the Familiar

The Accidental Midwesterner

I started learning Japanese a couple of months ago. That’s a strong verb, learning—because I don’t know how much I actually retained before putting down my notepad of poorly drawn characters and flipping off my Duolingo. I may be able to recall “sushi” or “teriyaki” if I were to see them in public, or perhaps count to seven. Language is built upon daily usage, imprinting itself into your subconscious to where its recollection isn’t necessary to use it; it’s just there, involuntary action awaiting some other action to trigger its response.

Dili and I were getting married this spring in Chicago, with a fall honeymoon planned for Asia—hence the delve into Japanese language, custom, and culture. China was also on the itinerary but I figured I had my fiancée to lean on for that; she’s fluent in Shanghai dialect and can do a passable Mandarin, so I wasn’t so concerned about navigating that country. Maybe the censorship would be a hard learn, but I’d manage. Maybe it would give me a better appreciation of America.

Japan, on the other hand, was foreign to both of us but was long on our list of places to travel. We’ve never been one to shy away from anywhere we wish to visit regardless of barriers, cultural or logistic. Additionally, it was praised by everyone we know who had been there, and I began envisioning myself awash in Shinto shrines, taking in bowing, brushing up on Japanese knives, and dreaming of ultra-fresh sashimi.

Then coronavirus began its slow crawl across the seas from China, then Europe, to American shores. The outbreak was confined to a few small outposts on the coasts and seemed contained through the late winter. A small amount of cases in Chicago were treated and released. It seemed the worst would stay in the tiny enclaves of Kirkland, WA and New Rochelle, NY with sporadic clusters perhaps in other parts of the country.

Then work closed—initially for two weeks. Illinois followed suit two days later with its bars and restaurants. New York, Ohio, Louisiana…the dominoes began tumbling. Shelter-in-place orders came down the following week in Chicago. Work is still closed; business-as-usual is somewhere in an unknown future, and may not be near. Our wedding was postponed to fall, and there was no use to even consider planning for sushi in Tokyo or train fare to Kyoto or Buddhist temples in the mountains.

I consider myself a dreamer, but I couldn’t bear thinking of walking amongst the chaotic streets with 13 million people, indulging in the pleasures and relative luxuries of life when we can’t even meet our friends at the local pub for a pint, or have a date night in a restaurant, or play a pickup soccer game in a park. It seemed so trivial amongst the death and ruin, the despair and depression, the unraveling of hours that mirrored only previous hours. Wash and repeat, day after day. In this unknown, it’s not the exotic that grounds you, that stabilizes you, that throws the blanket around you and retains the warmth that you crave and gives you hope.

It’s the past. The silly nostalgic past.

So I went to my kitchen and started working.

****

We’ve always found comfort in the food of our homeland, but never have we found those little quirks of our history so necessary to our sanity. Within a week of shelter-in-place, I started thinking of traditional dishes to revive in our home. It started on a Monday, when I normally would be doing a 5k with my run group and knocking back a few beers with some chicken wings at a pub in Lincoln Park. With our little group going virtual I had to fend for myself in the food department and with an entire day at home I decided to go with the traditional Louisiana staple for Mondays: red beans and rice. True, I didn’t have to “revive” this dish—we eat it probably at least once a month, with leftovers for days—but that was the germ of an idea, to find other recipes from old cookbooks, photos from my mom’s recipe collections, Netflix series devoted to cooking, anything that could not only return me back to those furtive days of youth but also those dishes that enticed my palate and created my love of the culinary world. The next week was my turn at Hoppin’ John, the next a catfish menieure, then a chicken fricassée. Yesterday I had liver and onions for the first time since I was a kid and the flavor of that offal flooded back from the reaches of my hippocampus; I saw myself at my childhood home, finishing a whole plate and thankfully not processing (or not knowing) the origin of what I had just consumed.

It’s not just my Southern food. We’ve offset the southern dishes with a healthy dose of Asian cuisine, with my fiancée’s Chinese upbringing come back to the fore. I’ve found Sichuan peppercorns an absolute delight (and I’m upping its content in my next round of Mapo Tofu), blended gochujang into my mayo, and researching locally made tofu. It may seem exotic and to a degree it is; it’s also standard fare to my partner. She grew up on this food, and to her a warm bowl of congee is my cup of gumbo.

I’ve ceased dreaming of sushi, at least for now. The Japanese language is shelved for the moment, though I’m still expanding my language skills—just now in Spanish. I took two years in high school but it never stuck; there wasn’t enough cultural or personal Hispanic penetration in the south during those years so practice was futile. Here in Chicago, and especially my neighborhood, it’s almost equivalent to English in its usage. That’s cool, though. It’s like travel in your own neighborhood without ever leaving. We’re stuck together now in this surrealist landscape, so mi barrio, su barrio.

And when I do dream of escape, of the time when we can venture beyond our four-walled cocoons, our insular neighborhoods, our cities, our countries—I think not of where I haven’t been, but where I have, and where I love. The courtyard of Napoleon House in New Orleans, or chomping Parkway po-boys alongside Bayou St John. Sitting alongside the Rhône in Lyon, with cheese and Saucisson and a bottle of Syrah, the lunch crowd from the nearby businesses making their way to a brief serenity, the kids on the stone steps skipping school. Downing a pint post-match at The Bank of Friendship in north London, the Arsenal ground (both of them) a short walk away. Laughter; does anyone remember? I recall it vividly, one night on the Seine, as the sun sank behind the Eiffel Tower, and the whole of Paris seemed to straddle the river, and the sound of one side was a call to the other, and those notes meshed into one. A song of community, of happiness. My love and I looked at each other and smiled, aware of the enormity of the moment, that it was one of those for the videotape.

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