Cropping rice by machine is faster, but less viscerally satisfying as grasping a handful of vibrant stalks top heavy with plump rice seeds, then stroking a scythe gently, but firmly across the base of the clump in a fluid upsweeping motion. Inegari, literally “rice cutting,” has become a sort of cult cool thing to do for city people. A way to get in touch with the land through the heart and soul of Japan: rice. The reality is that with the reconfiguration of Japan’s rice fields in the ‘80’s, most fields are cropped (and sown) by machine. By hand, means you need a lot of hands and these days the cooperative neighborhood spirit is petering out along with the small family farms. Inspired by a second year of hand planting veterans who wanted to return to help crop what they had sown, Tadaaki threw caution to the wind and didn’t reserve the rice-cropping machine this year.
The whole affair ended up spread out over two days, involving lunch and dinner for the cropping “crews,” then breakfast for the late night revelers who crashed in futons. Exhausted more from the cooking, than the cropping, I missed most of the fieldwork. Tadaaki had some wildly unrealistic ideas about doing the food this time. Curry rice, perhaps? Tadaaki thinks there are 36 hours in a day, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to take care of his free-range egg business, help with the rice cropping and also fix lunch and dinner for 30 plus. The compromise: I made stew and (of course) rice. I had hoped to cook the rice in an iron pot over an open fire, but gave up on that without Tadaaki’s help. As it was, he and the others didn’t come back from the hot spring bath until after 7. Baachan, (Tadaaki’s mother), thought we should buy onigiri from the local convenience store for lunch. She didn’t see the disconnect. Serve chemical-sprayed, preservative-laden rice balls to volunteers cropping our organic rice…anything wrong with that picture? Instead, I put together plates of rice with local tofu, our late field cherry tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs from our farm with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise. That worked.
The first crew arrived from Tokyo at lunchtime on Saturday and ate pasta with the kids at Sunny-Side Up!. They got the whole field cut by dusk. The cutting process is hard on the back, but there is immediate gratification as the work goes fast and you can quickly see the results of your labor. The next step, tying the stalks, was slow going and didn’t get finished even with fifteen people working from morning to night. The workers all went back to their lives, but Tadaaki and Christopher returned to the field the following week to complete the job. Andrew and Matthew, newly in school, somehow escaped the bulk of the cropping and were noticeably absent. Christopher, on the other hand, stood in for Tadaaki and instructed the neophytes (including me) on all aspects of rice cropping. On Sunday, we had mainly local people who knew what they were doing as well as some mothers and kids from the school. The mothers worked diligently, while the “wild ones” ran around the field chasing frogs. A few of the more enterprising kids actually got into ferrying tied rice stalks to the drying poles, though most just ended up accidentally kicking up the straw piles. Slightly annoying, but nonetheless tolerated all around. Kids should be there. Kids should know the work that goes into their bowl of rice, even if they aren’t actually doing the work.
I only came for a short time. It felt wrong not to be part of the cropping and I wanted to share in the satisfaction of the job, but the reality was, the cooking had to get done. Christopher made it look so easy. The first crew had cut small bunches of rice stalks and laid them down on the field in a crosshatched v-formation. The second crew was using last year’s straw (minus the rice) to tie the top of the rice stalks so they could be draped over a couple 40-meter long iron poles set up on the field as drying racks. The straw kept breaking, and frustrated, I figured out a way to make it stronger. I pulled some straw to the left and some to the right, thus elongating my makeshift tie. It did the trick and I saw how working with imperfect, naturally fashioned tools fostered problem solving. And I felt the quiet satisfaction of having made that discovery.
My little contribution was small compared to the other workers, but Tadaaki’s job wasn’t close to being done. He returned to the field at the end of the next week to thresh the rice stalks—a relatively simple operation, accomplished by machine in a couple hours. After egg deliveries the following day, Tadaaki brought out his family’s 50-year-old machine used for separating the rice from the chaff. I stopped by on my way to the school in the late afternoon as he was just getting started. The machine was a temperamental beast whose rubber belts persisted in flying off. In theory, Tadaaki poured the rice into the top hopper and the machine was to blow the husks down a 10-meter long plastic tunnel extending out from the ancient machine, into an awaiting blue nylon net bag. The hulled rice got spit out into oversized paper feed bags that hold 20 kilos of rice each. In theory. In truth, Tadaaki never came home for dinner, so Christopher took him some rice balls and Tadaaki worked into the small hours finishing the job.
So, why grow rice if it’s this much trouble? Good question. In recent years before he died, Tadaaki’s father had been advocating to stop. But for Tadaaki, growing the family’s rice is elemental to his existence. If he didn’t grow our rice, it would be like giving up on life. Money doesn’t matter, as long as we have our own rice. That is what gives meaning to his life as a farmer. Traditionally, the main farmhouse (honke) provided rice and vegetables for extended family members who had moved to the city. But now there are less and less farmers and more and more people in cities. Most Japanese still feel in their bones that Japan should be sustainable, but they still buy foreign fruits and vegetables at the supermarket.
Probably because they’re there.
Pork & Pumpkin Stew: Trim off most of thick, outside fat of 1 kilo pork shoulder or thigh meat and cut into 5 cm cubes. Heat a few tablespoons good olive oil on high heat in a heavy pot and sauté pork pieces until no longer pink and you can see some golden brown spots. Toss frequently. Keep cooking until the juices have evaporated and the fat starts to sizzle. Add sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Pour in white wine to cover and bring to a boil. Cook covered over low flame for about 30 minutes. Add 750 cc (or more) hot chicken or vegetable stock, cover and bring to a boil. Turn down heat to low and simmer for 1 to 1.5 hours to soften the meat. Thirty minutes before serving, add a few chopped tomatoes from the garden (or 411 gram can chopped Muir Glen whole tomatoes with their juice), 1 small heirloom squash, peeled & cut into 4 cm cubes, a couple tablespoons chopped garden thyme and 4 thinnish leeks, cut into 5 cm lengths (preferably Japanese negi). Simmer until vegetables are soft. Chop spinach leaves into 5 cm lengths and quick sauté in hot olive oil with a little water and salt. Ladle stew onto a dinner plate and drape with spinach. Serve with pristine Japanese white rice.