"Big Momoka," sister "Rammy," and "Little Momoka"
Momoka Kanezawa tilts her four-year-old-cute face up toward mine, eyes brightly excited as she accosts me at the threshold of my English Immersion Preschool in the Japanese countryside.
“I wanna overnight Nancy’s house,” she blurts out, urgently awaiting my affirmative answer. I barely make it through the door when ten other preschoolers crowd around. They join her anxious pleas, which I palm off with my signature crunchy eyed-smile and a non-committal, yet hopeful, “OK!” knowing it’s not up to me. Alhough as their teacher, sometimes the lines are blurred, I’m not the mom.
Overnights at Nancy’s House happen a few times of year and attendance is a much-coveted privilege. What the kids don’t quite understand is that attendance at the Overnight is up to Mommy and Mommy’s willingness to pony up the extra fee. It’s as simple as that.
Why are the kids so desperate to go to “Nancy’s House?”
Since “what are we eating for dinner?” or “are we having ice cream?” are the most common questions kids ask before the overnight, I would say they come for the food. I believe in a no-holds-barred kind of attitude when it comes to kids and food. The butcher cuts me a few thick pieces of the best Japanese beef for tender marbled steaks cooked on the grill, I pick vegetables from our field and churn ice cream from local grass-fed cow cream, my husbands’ free-range eggs and organic sugar. That’s why the kids come.
But why do the moms send their little three year olds (on up to ten year olds) off for a night at my house? Like most of the special programs at my school, the Overnight “Camp” started at the request of the moms. I’m guessing they wanted a free night more than anything else. Some spend it with their husband, but others go out with “the girls.” In Japan, the babysitter system doesn’t exist. Parents rely on family members to watch their kids, so handing over a child and spending the night on the town is not really an option. Too selfish.
Never one to follow the rules, I hired a local mother to watch my babies while I taught. And I also found high school girls to pitch in part-time on the weekends so I could get some work done as we didn’t use a playpen, and parking the babies was not in the cards.But we never went out at night without the kids. Eating in restaurants (or traveling) with children is not what I would call “fun,” though it's a necessary rite of passage for parents to get through if they want to enjoy meals out with their kids in the future. For many years now, our sons have been delightful dining and travel companions, and the early years of harried meals and constant vigilance at the table, now barely a memory, were well worth it.
The Sunny-Side Up! kids are like my own, so table manners are taught relentlessly (sit on your butt, please…eat over your plate…close your mouth when you chew…turn around…don’t play at the table….the list is endless). I also encourage the teachers to actively promote conversation, since the table is a great place for language learning. As a result, SSU! kids are quite comfortable hanging at the table and just “shootin’ the breeze.” I feel strongly that everyone should sit down before the food is actually ready because I want them to soak in the cooking smells and get their appetite aroused. Also, I want the kids to have a visual reminder of the work that goes into a meal, and that it’s not just the push of a button (it helps that we have an open kitchen and dining space). Typically, the kids wait for about ten minutes or so as my assistant and I finish and serve the lunch.
Several months ago, I had a little oven disaster with a humungous Le Creuset pot full of cabbage balls. The bottom layer was almost cooked, but the top layer was virtually raw. It took another thirty minutes to get lunch on the table that day. And not one kid said, “I’m hungry,” or asked, “Where’s my lunch?” I looked over at the tables and the kids were chatting away, like they were born to be there. I was so moved that I put four fingers in my mouth and blew out a sharp whistle shriek to call their attention so I could tell them how great they were. And I gave them a round of applause. It’s their vocal appreciation and positive attitude towards the food that keeps me going back into the kitchen every day. You gotta love that energy (and those kids).
We had an Overnight last weekend and for the first time in three years, I did it at Sunny-Side Up! These past three years we’ve had our share of trauma and drama at SSU!, and it came to the point where I almost wanted to close the school. But I’m not a quitter, so I forged on, initiating a school garden project and increasing the school lunch program from twice a week to every day (except Sunday). Before you start thinking I’m a super woman, stop. I have an assistant who does a lot of the prep work for lunch and teachers who actually do the teaching at the school. I’m the “sweep in at the last minute person,” who takes all the accolades. Though I do hear from the teaching staff that the lunches are never as good when I’m not there. (It’s the love I put in.)
But Sunny-Side Up! has passed into a new era. We have an earnestly engaging new teacher, a young woman who is bicultural/bilingual and spent half her life in Germany. I’m writing every day, and find myself now able to work at the school despite (or because of?) the din. And we have two little boy kitties scampering around the house thanks to a friend twisting my arm (it wasn’t too hard). So Sunny-Side Up! feels like home again.
And the Overnight was a blast. The lot of us all hopped in the big inflatable pools we have on the patio for a night swim right before a storm whipped through. And while we were swimming, one of the BBQ legs fell off and the $100 steaks dropped into the dirt. Tadaaki washed them off and slapped them back on the grill, none the worse for wear. When it came time to change into P.J.'s, I sent them off with an airy, "Go get ready for bed." A far cry from the days of frantically scrambling to get the kids to jump in and out of the bath and at the same time keep all the clothes separated and prepared for the next day. I've let go of all that. And we had raspberry milkshakes with French toast for breakfast. Like I said, it was a blast.
Panzanella Bread Salad (adapted from Simply Recipes)
Elise Bauer, founder of mega-successful food blog, Simply Recipes, told me I’d love this salad, and I did, though I altered the recipe because of my mood and the vegetables I had.
I made this Panzanella Bread Salad for the overnight, and the kids liked it with varying degrees of enthusiasm. That’s OK, I just keep cooking regular food and eventually they all start to eat everything. I’m patient. In my version, I marinated the torn bread chunks in olive oil first and added homemade red wine vinegar (I was craving that taste). I also put in more cucumbers (about 4 slender Japanese ones), because that’s what we have coming out of our ears right now. And I wasn’t feeling the mix and sit idea, so tossed the vegetables into the bread about 15 minutes before serving. I also always slice basil with a super sharp knife because it bruises if you tear it with your fingers.
I started working on my youtube channel: nancyhachisu’s My Japanese Farm and was looking around at what other people are posting. I stumbled upon a few Jamie Oliver clips. He’s an engaging chap, wouldn’t you say? I think he said something about rubbing a steak with rosemary and garlic, so I gave it a go. As I suspected, there was no hint of either flavor in the cooked meat, though perhaps dropping the steaks into the dirt didn’t help. When kids ask me why the meat is red (we serve our beef rare, no exceptions), I tell them because “it’s supposed to be.” Their response, “Oh, O.K.” Who said kids are hard to cook for?