When I was a first-year graduate student studying architecture in the mid-1970s, my professor introduced me to Experiencing Architecture, a small but mighty book by architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen. The author shares his many insightful thoughts some of which includes scale and proportion, rhythm, texture, color, and hearing architecture. In essence, he expresses how to experience architecture, and his observations continue to influence me, becoming my compass for all things aesthetic. When it comes to food, in addition to the above considerations, my compass broadened to experiencing meals by engaging all my senses–hearing, smelling, touching, seeing, and tasting.
In my book, COOKING FOR HER EYES, Transcription of a Sonata, A Story of Music, Food, Love, and Death, I described experiencing food through my senses at an early age hearing a symphony of sounds as my Japanese American mother prepared her meals for the family:
“At ten years old, my childhood bedroom was next to the kitchen. I’d never needed an alarm clock to get up for school because each day, I awakened to the quiet, gentle voices of a percussion concerto, and my mother was the solo percussionist as she created the beautiful sounds of preparing dinner for that evening.
Shooshing running water whispered in the background sounded like a wire brush’s soft, continuous, rhythmic circles on a snare. The slow, steady beat of her chef’s knife cutting through crisp vegetables on a wooden cutting board clacked like a temple block.
Her wooden chopsticks, answering the temple block, tapped staccato on a porcelain bowl while she whisked her sauces. When the vegetables eased into her hot, lightly oiled wok, they sounded like pebbles falling through an upended rain stick, filling the air with a burst of luscious aroma.
In between her symphony, sounds like cowbells, each with a different timbre, ever so softly tinged, dinged, and clinked as she quietly handled her bowls, kitchen tools, pots, and pans. Lovely sounds and spellbinding fragrances drifted into my bedroom.”
“…The sounds of my mother’s percussion concerti were the gentlest way of waking up each morning. That was what love sounded like. And over the years, hearing those cherished remembrances always brought me solace and peace.”
The tactility of food, coarse, fine, delicate, firm, hot, cold, crispy, soft is part of food’s magical adventure. Using my sense of touch while preparing meals is as imperative and satisfying as all my other senses–not to mention the food’s fragrances that hatch out when handling them. Feeling the resistance of fresh carrots compared to the fragility of tofu while cutting; assertively pressing pleats on the soft, smooth, round-cut dough while forming potstickers; chiffonading basil into slender strips releasing its intoxicating scent are all a part of experiencing food. Touching food makes eating even more pleasurable–tacos, ribs, corn on the cob, buffalo wings, and pizza–who can’t resist licking their fingers?
My mother’s presentation of meals to her family and friends was an art form, even with the simplest, most ordinary foods. Colorful vegetables were a staple in our meals, and cut in ways to bring out heightened flavors and visual beauty:
“Nishime, a Japanese village stew, prepared Hawaiian style, is filled with carrots chopped in triangular chunks; thick, diagonally cut slices of celery; thinly sliced bamboo shoots and lotus root; matchstick-cut gobo, small strips of konnyaku slit down the center and turned inside themselves; shiitake mushrooms, and chicken chunks. Kombu, once sheets of hard, dried seaweed, is soaked in water, reconstituting it into tender strips, then tied into knots. All are quickly stir-fried to seal in flavor, then simmered in a soothing dashi broth, lightly flavored with shoyu. Just before serving, she’ll sprinkle frozen peas in the stew giving it a shock of bright green polka dots. What a feast!”
Her go-to garnish was often fresh green onions and when cut perpendicular to the stalk added a spark of added flavor and a pop of color to soups–and when green onions were cut nearly parallel to the stem in long, elegant, narrow slices they created a bright contrasting color, complementing the flavor of a humble egg. Her caramel color chicken teriyaki, with a touch of grilled crunchiness, was often presented on a bed of lettuce leaves or surrounded on a platter by grilled fruit and vegetables.
Although all of our senses influence us in deciding whether we enjoy or do not enjoy our meal, our sense of taste and smell are often the most influential factors. Simply said, taste buds on our tongue and the interior of our nose each have their own set of sensory cells and working together when stimulated, both the tongue and nose send messages to our brain, which then make us conscious of taste. Sometimes the receptors in the nose stop working. For instance, when one has a head cold and tries to enjoy their favorite meal, they find that meal is not nearly as fabulous as they know it should be–tasting the food seems impossible. Eventually, the cold goes away, and the magic of taste returns.
But what happens when the tongue’s taste buds no longer function? What motivation is there to eat and keep well-nourished? I was challenged with reconciling that issue in COOKING FOR HER EYES. My back cover synopsis, in part, is as follows:
“Susan Rakstang recalls her idyllic life as a child of Japanese American parents and her mother’s cooking lessons of delicious tastes, exquisite fragrances, and the visual art of preparing food, through her fast-paced, frenzied years in battle with time juggling her responsibilities as a wife, mother of two children, and working outside the home as an architect–a pioneering path not often pursued by women in the mid-1970s. After retirement, life suddenly takes a dark turn when her mother has a stroke, and her friend Margaret, a pastry chef, receives a terrifying diagnosis of stage-four cancer of her tongue. With both women’s lives hanging perilously in the balance, she spends her days and evenings alternately tending to each of them. Learning Margaret’s cancer treatment will cause horrific pain and temporary loss of taste, Susan develops a pureed food preparation technique for her friend’s meals, focusing on the natural, visual beauty of food–and cooks for Margaret’s eyes.”
Margaret and I had been friends for decades when cancer turned her life upside down. I was her advocate in doctors’ meetings, and during treatment, I was her cook. Margaret’s doctors cautioned that her robust cancer treatment would likely cause dysphagia (trouble swallowing), intense pain, and loss of taste, but implored her to eat to keep her strength. I decided that the meals I would make would “do no harm,” and focus on her sense of sight as discussed in my book:
“Because radiation would cause open sores in Margaret’s mouth and throat, I didn’t use seasonings or spices of any kind, including flavorings like garlic or onions, nor acids such as lemon juice, orange juice, vinegar, or tomatoes. In other words, only the true flavors of pureed whole foods would come through in all of her meals.
“…Planning her menus, I’d decided on “comfort foods” as the theme for cooking. I’d hoped meals like beef stew, hamburgers, and French fries, pork chops, roasted chicken, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and salads would beckon Margaret to eat. Each meal will be beautiful–striking colors would be imperative, and three-dimensional forms, a must. Although Margaret needed all foods finely pureed, the appearance of varied textures would be a whimsical “trompe l’oeil,” fool the eye, component of the meals. And because Margaret’s taste buds would be temporarily lost, I’d decided to cook for her eyes.”