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Mirukashi is a pastoral, a gastronomic journey through the seasonal rhythms of the kitchen and the table in the heart of rural Japan. Take a seat and read along.

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Gratitude and devotion

Filed in: winter

As long as we’ve kept track of time, the day on which we reset the calendar has been celebrated as an occasion for reflection, for mental, physical, and spiritual renewal. Hemp fibers twisted into rope figures adorn the entryways to purify and protect the home. Inside decorations made of rice and boughs and bamboo, each with a meaning tied to agricultural rituals that pray for providence and abundance, are set out for display. On the mantle a figurine of a rat takes the place of a boar in a changing of the guard according to the Chinese zodiac. Rounds of mochi, made of clay in our home, topped with a small sudachi citrus from our tree are flanked by salt, sake, and incense – offerings to the gods in a prayer for protection and good fortune in the coming year. We gather around Kuniko’s table for the first meal of the year. I set a tray at each seat and moments before we begin I pull a precious box form the freezer and run cold water over delicate frozen chopsticks fashioned by hand from the freshest bamboo. They are a deep and vibrant emerald green, a symbol of new beginnings. Laying the table with these chopsticks gifted annually by one of the first artisans I interviewed in Japan always inspires a moment of reflection  upon the wonderfully unexpected direction my life has taken since moving here.

In the kitchens of ancestral homes, hands fly as fast as they can in the final hours of a waning year. Dictated by tradition and steeped in symbolism, the New Year’s meal known as osechi must be set before the passing year expires in order to greet the first dawn in relaxed contemplation. As much as I’ve explored the food customs of Japan for work and pleasure, I’ll likely never delve into the realm of osechi. Kuniko and my two sisters-in-law are the guardians of this most specific meal. Osechi is an oblation, a gift of foods made in reverence to nature’s many favors, the benevolent winds and rains, the sun and swelter that draw crops forth from the earth to sustain us. These first foods to touch our lips are an edible recitation of prayers for the coming year, each an epicurean parable passed through generations. A Japanese tiger prawn with curved back and far-reaching antennae harkens longevity in the bent frame and long beard of a man wise with years. Tazukuri, the dried sardines once used to fertilize rice fields, denote an abundant harvest and success in the efforts of work. These first allegorical bites pair well with sips of sake, affording comforting ties to a collective heritage. But times and tastes are changing and we are a blended family with links to the customs of different lands as well. And so alongside such ancient edible emblems we warm Mont d’Or atop the wood stove and dine on pork rillettes, olives, and bread that I bake and wash it all down with champagne to assuage our contemporary predilections.

With spirit beholden to the past and a heart hopeful for the future, we eat, we drink, and we meet this good New Year with gratitude, devotion, and celebration.

comments +

  1. Mora Chartrand

    January 1st, 2020 at 12:53 pm

    Happy New Year, Prairie!
    I’m always a huge fan of your expressive writing, but “…edible recitation of prayers for the coming year…” stopped me mid-read. It perfectly captures the essence of this article. Wishing you much happiness and health for this new year .
    Kansha always… Mora

  2. Prairie Stuart-Wolff

    January 1st, 2020 at 8:28 pm

    Thank you Mora. I’m always grateful to know that you read these pieces with such care and interest. Wishing you and L a very happy new year!

  3. Peg Alden

    January 2nd, 2020 at 6:29 am

    Happy New Year, Prairie. Thanks for this lovely reflection on the new year. -peg

  4. Prairie Stuart-Wolff

    January 14th, 2020 at 3:49 am

    Thank you Peg, and a happy 2020 to you too!

  5. Lari Washburn

    January 2nd, 2020 at 9:58 am

    Happy New Year dearest Prairie and Hanako! All throughout the lead up to Christmas and New Years I thought about you celebrating and observing in your various ways. Tradition is so important during the holidays. I try not to get caught up in superstition, while observing certain traditions. It’s a fine line sometimes! We wish you both all good things this year, and look forward to fun with you in Maine.
    Much Love,
    Lari

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If Kuniko, my mother-in-law, were to write the story of her life it might read more as a menu than a memoir. 

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