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Nikkei Chronicles #1: ITADAKIMASU! A Taste of Nikkei Culture

"Look'it" Food

Come on, admit it. There is one in every family. You know at least one. I’m one. You may be one too. We’re called “squirrels,” “pack rats,” and in the most extreme case, “hoarders.” In my particular case, I inherited this trait from my Nisei mother.

Whenever our family got a special gift like that delicious white two-pound box of assorted chocolates, sembei, or manju, Mom always told us, “We’ll save these for a special occasion. This is only for when we have special guests come.” On that warning, accompanied with a delighted smile, she would then hug that precious prize to her breast and skulk off to hide it in a secret, well concealed, place. And believe me, I tried to find it a million times but never did. Yet, whenever a friend or relative dropped by she would invariably return to this mysterious place and bring out the “treasure” to be consumed by all. It was, therefore, a sound and reasonable custom.

Unfortunately it is not a sound and reasonable custom for all families. Once I had a family of my own, I thought to follow my mom’s tradition. Any morsel of hard-to-find or cultural treat would go directly into a safe, off-limits place in my pantry. The problem is, my husband and I don’t get many guests. We live too far from family and friends to just drop by and we don’t know our neighbors. We also don’t celebrate special occasions in our home. We go to my mother’s.

My husband has thus announced a fatal flaw in this handed-down custom. With no one visiting and no special occasions taking place in our home these tasty morsels can subsequently remain in their containers until only God knows when. My husband has thus coined my Christmas gift of two pounds of nuts and chews and box of Japanese arare as “look’it food.” He says my rule of not touching these special treats “until we have special guests” leaves him with no choice but to look at it with mouth-watering longing and desire, never to enjoy.

In all honesty my husband is right. It is a silly habit. He likes to relate the story of one rare occasion we had his family over for a bar-b-que and I brought out my hoarded container of highly recognizable gold wrapped candy. I set it prettily in a candy bowl on the family room coffee table. When my youngest brother-in-law arrived his eyes widened with pleasure as soon as he spotted them. “My favorites!” he exclaimed. Then he and my eternally patient husband unwrapped a piece each and popped it into their mouths. I watched them with satisfied delight, feeling proudly justified for keeping true to my mother’s tradition.

Unfortunately a growing suspicion seeped into my mind that something was wrong as I watched my brother-in-law chew and chew and chew with an increasingly odd and perplexed expression on his face. A deep sense of foreboding swept over me as I watched my husband exhibit a very similar reaction. Having to wait the few moments for him to finish chewing, swallow and explain what was wrong was painful. When he was finally able to speak he told me my preciously squirreled gold-foiled candy had been saved too long and despite the air-tight container it came in, the sugar had decomposed. They weren’t exactly rotten but they certainly weren’t fresh. So much for saving special treats for a special occasion with special guests. I quickly replaced the bowl with another, more recently received, box of candy.

I admit the above occurrence was an extreme case and I don’t believe my mother’s intention was to poison us all with stale food. Perhaps it was a habit honed from being a child of the Depression or from having lost everything when she was sent to the Granada/Amache relocation camp during World War II. I can only think this was just a habit borne of a family who never had a lot to offer but wished to offer their very best when the occasion arose. I had inherited a practice that became so ingrained I took impractical measures to live up to it. I was the child that hid my best Halloween candy for “later”, after my older siblings were done rifling through my loot and had gone to bed. Unfortunately, “later” never came because I could never remember where I hid the candy.

I’ve also heard this habit is not exclusive to my family or even to food. My husband has a friend who now coins his wife’s collection of crystal objects as “look’it” crystal. Those crystal goblets and wine glasses? They never use it. They just look at it.

Fortunately, since that experience with my brother-in-law I have made an effort to stop my somewhat wasteful habit. My husband is now allowed to eat those tasty morsels if they remain unopened for over two to three weeks. He’s like a child on Christmas morning as he tears into those packages. And in spite of a twinge of conscience when he opens my precious delicacies with no guests to share them with, the stress lessens as time goes by. Now, my only remaining problem is: How do I get my mother to stop gifting us with those “special Japanese cookies” she says “should be saved until special guests come”?

© 2012 Rachel Yamaguchi

food hoarding Itadakimasu Nikkei Chronicles nisei sansei traditions

About this series

For many Nikkei around the world, food is often the strongest and most lasting connection they have with their culture. Across generations, language and traditions are often lost, but their connections to food remain.

Discover Nikkei collected stories from around the world related to the topic of Nikkei food culture and its impact on Nikkei identity and communities. This series introduces these stories. 

 Our Editorial Committee selected their favorite stories in each language. Here are their favorites:

To learn more about this writing project >>


Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series:

#2: Nikkei+ ~ Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race ~
#3: Nikkei Names: Taro, John, Juan, João?
#4: Nikkei Family: Memories, Traditions, and Values 
#5: Nikkei-go: The Language of Family, Community, and Culture 
#6: Itadakimasu 2!: Another Taste of Nikkei Culture