by Sakura Nakashima
Kari-kari. I can still remember the clean crunch of freshly toasted hazelnuts.
I watched Halmeoni reach up with a short arm protected by a blue and white flannel sleeve and pull them off, one by one.
“Ouch,” followed the sting of the prickly husks. Like a paper cut, those tiny coats around each hazelnut left barely-perceptible spikes in bare fingertips.
In the dry sun-kissed summers of northeastern Washington, up near the border, I plucked green pods of hazelnut from the trees edging Halmeoni’s yard. It was summer vacation and the grasses grew taller, up to the band of my knee-high socks, while cheeks and shoulders were tanned a rosy bronze.
During those childhood summers full of crimson sunsets, walks through pine forest groves, and chilled puddings – sometimes jewel-toned Jell-o spiked with bubbly soda – I grew a curiosity for the natural world. Its bounty seemed endless to me.
After focusing on plumbing the moist soil for earthworms, I toddled on stocky child legs and picked bittersweet Saskatoon berries along the rocky road down the hill. Strewn with glimmering white stones, we called the steep drive “Splash Mountain” and I habitually held my little arms up over my head and mock-shrieked when we dove downhill in the old Subaru.
Now I see it’s not that steep at all.
Sometimes we still go up to the old house – a wooden two-story frame like a large cabin in the woods. It was somewhere only we knew, hidden up an unpaved country road surrounded by forest. Out here lived memories of my earliest years, when animals and humans passed by each other in a dance, and Wheel of Fortune was airing while Vanna the Cat was still pacing around the upstairs parlor. Halmeoni was sewing/washing vegetables to The Beatles; Grandpa was downhill in his studio firing and glazing pottery and listening to Joan Baez. I did a little bit of both.
Maybe a lot of both. More than once, she recounted the time when I was 4 and she asked me if I knew where Eric Clapton was from. Intuitively, I replied that he was British. She gradually let me, the mojimoji kid, handle all the small things with my small clumsy hands. Just like she had done with my mother. And over time I learned to compensate for my naturally ungraceful bearing with beam-like concentration.
Summers came and went. When Halmeoni and I went for drives to get soda pop or visit the post office near Canada, Norah Jones or Willie Nelson would play on the 5 CD changer. Sometimes Juanes. We laughed and made up jokes and nicknames on those drives, as I counted the number of logging trucks and speeding British Columbia-licensed automobiles that passed us. I counted the bridges and crossings to small islands in the river; one, two, three and four.
In between visits, I had been learning the metric system (with great disorientation) and playing the clarinet (horribly) and collecting homework assignments in Spanish and French at international schools in countries most Americans could not find on a map. I had seen them all with my own eyes. But somehow, despite my deficiencies, I earned the second highest marks on the sixth year science examination, and later received a commendation in Russian language studies. Each summer was meant to serve as a reminder of who I was supposed to be; what my passport said I was:
As the years passed and grew serious with heartbreak and too many good-byes, my limbs stretched into waif-like pre-adolescent spindles. My complexion cycled through sandy shades of beige as we moved between countries with wildly varying climates. The once-flat bridge of my nose set into a delicate German point, and my full natural eyebrows were finally pruned into two dark shapes framing unmistakable Japanese eyes. The question of my high cheekbones, inherited through maternal lineage, signified “Korean, somewhere” to a select few who saw its traces among a mixture of other traits. But regardless of what I ‘was’ or ‘wasn’t,’ I learned the most important lessons about my heritage in Halmeoni’s kitchen.
There was the afternoon when I was 11 or 12, after departing Southeast Asia but before beginning secondary school in Central Europe, when she taught me to make peach cobbler from scratch. To transform salted butter and fragrant fruit into something so delicious, with my own two awkward hands, felt a bit like power. The crisp cobbler vanished in two afternoons.
There were her stories, too, about the hanabata days in her uncle’s donut shop in Hilo, her neighbor’s garlic kimchi, and of course her young mother toiling to steam rice for their family of seven. The best story though – the one that turned her eyes and a smile up to the sky, was of the other neighbor’s famous Portuguese bread. The magical bread that I knew would hold a place in her heart for the rest of her life. “It was sooo soft!” she marveled. Each time we visited Monterey, she repeated this story as we rolled past the bakery on the main street.
Another summer she showed me how to make sunomono like her young mother used to in the 1940s and ’50s. Slicing Persian cucumbers (which were easier to get in the States) paper-thin, then slipping them into a bath of rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and shoyu to marinate took all of a few minutes. It could land on the table in precise coordination with the rest of dinner, like perfect choreography.
I especially loved those simple and zesty salads as a child, along with sauerkraut and mustard on toasted dark bread, and didn’t know that I was learning to prepare authentic dishes until a decade later.
When I made sunomono for my circle of Japanese mothers in my Kumamoto kitchen, their comments struck me with surprise; Halmeoni had taught me to make the real thing.
Nowadays, I cook and bake with my mother in her new tiled kitchen. During long weeks between countries, I have spent so many hours here, gazing out across the swimming pool at the lemon tree bursting with citrus. While twirling strands of natto, I imagine Greek coasts with walls painted as white as ours, and Californian beaches dotted with varieties of palms like the ones standing in this desert yard. Sometimes George Michael croons over my thoughts and I laugh when the wailing saxophone comes on. Sometimes Vivaldi’s Four Seasons dictates the cadence of the day.
We bake with nut flours only, and sugar alcohol in place of white sugar; each traditional ingredient sacrificed giving rise to an opportunity, like the baking challenges we love to watch on The Great British Baking Show.
Unexpectedly, Halmeoni’s decline led us to practice a sustainable way of eating by foregoing carbohydrates and glucose where possible. Removing sugar altogether even reversed her diabetes, but, unfortunately, she ultimately refused to give up the heavy Americanized lifestyle that is killing her. In the most unlikely of places and times, or perhaps out of the culmination of experience, I have learned about food – about lifestyle choices – and the relationship between place, time, our human genes, and the bloody sugar business.
As I write this, I don’t know how long Halmeoni has left.
I sit at the glass tabletop with a sugarless, flourless lemon scone – warm from the oven and dusted with crushed hazelnuts – and recall the summer under the hazelnut tree. Scenes from the novel I am reading are swiftly gathered and pushed aside by the image of a petite Asian woman’s hands deftly plucking hazelnut husks. Wind rustles the trees and clouds ply the bluest Northwest skies above. With eyes closed, I’m the young girl beside her in the garden again.