Soft clouds float by like a flock of sheep grazing in the wild blue yonder. I spot a small bamboo tray on Kuniko’s balcony that holds a few carrot peels drying in the sun. This is her admirable thrift, her equal regard for elegance and economy in the kitchen. In service to style, the carrot is stripped of its rough skin and rendered more elegant but in service to thrift she must repurpose the peels. Later, reconstituted with dashi, she’ll sauté them with the dried peels of a daikon radish and serve it as kimpira.
Kuniko, grew up in post WWII Japan and as the daughter of a merchant family selling kimono she was better off than many. But like everyone, she grew up learning to make the most of what she and her family had, which was little. She learned to be clever with resources and thorough in their use. Even when adulthood brought a certain affluence the habits of those lean beginnings persisted. She buys quality goods and uses them until they are utterly exhausted. A useful tool is never thrown away because a brighter, shinier one catches her eye. It is most evident with food. Like any one of us, she might let a vegetable languish too long in the fridge and find it limp and withered. But unlike so many of us, her faith in it never wavers. A wilting eggplant, turnip tops, daikon skins, all of these end up in her tokozuke (fermented rice bran) pot and later at the table in an uncommonly beautiful array of tsukemomno pickles.
Kuniko isn’t afraid of a price tag. She’ll freely buy herself a gorgeous sweater or ring to wear on a special occasion. But on an average day of housework she wears clothes older than I am that show their years less than I do. She treats all of her possessions, from vegetables to attire, with an admirable level of care. What I have learned form her is that with effort and patience we can build ourselves an elegant life and preserve it with careful attention. If I invest in quality made, beautiful items, I become more engaged with them. That, in turn, leads to a much fuller experience of and appreciation for what I have and less desire for new things. When we consider our purchases carefully and use our possessions lovingly, their quality and our contentment with them ensures their longevity.
I recently employed this theory in purchasing a beautiful wooden oke container for my own tokozuke pot. I’ve written about my trials and errors with making these fermented rice bran pickles in the past. And though my pickles and my passion for pickles will never compare to Kuniko’s, lately I’ve been craving them. But with her tsukemono loving husband home again, Kuniko has her hands full and it’s high time I provide for myself. So following notes I wrote out nearly a decade ago, I made a new batch of rice bran mixed with salt water, dried mackerel, togarashi chile peppers, and a splash of beer to jumpstart fermentation. I’ll mix in scraps of vegetables over the next week. They won’t be delicious but they’ll help develop the flavor and hopefully by mid-month I’ll be eating my own tokozuke tsukemono. But more to the point, my love of this gorgeous wooden oke and firm desire to take good care of it makes the entire process feel just that much more rewarding.
If we adorn our space with objects we love, we soon may find that there is no place we’d rather be. Considering myself the steward of our dwelling, the place where we experience comfort and refuge from other stresses, has even made housework more gratifying and less of a chore. I want to help the structure and its contents age well. I used to watch Kuniko wash, dry, and put away all of the dishes in her kitchen each night before bed and thought it excessive. But I grew to understand that tucking knives and bowls and handmade pottery in a safe place was a sign of her devotion to her home, to her things, her lifestyle, and to all the hard work she and others have put into building it.
We’ll invest great resources to visit a distant hotel, eat at a restaurant, get pampered at a spa, all in a quest to relax, to forget worries and to feel at ease. With some effort our own homes can do the same for us. And there may be no better time to make your home your haven than now. Just by staying home we can double the quality and halve the cost of our favorite cocktail or bottle of wine. And with a few basic skills, we can make food to rival our favorite restaurants. It might be as simple as dried carrot peels reconstituted in dashi and sautéed into kinpira, but heavens, what delicious thirft!