All Photos this Post by Kenji Miura
Almost a year ago David Lebovitz used me as an example of a blogger who had a niche: “If you are someone who, say, lives on an organic farm in Japan, then you should write a book with 100 easy Japanese country recipes.” Last week Andrews McMeel offered me a book contract for the book I am (now) writing: Japanese Farm Food: Simple Recipes and Traditional Techniques from Our Sustainable Life. It will be published Fall 2012.
Sound easy? It wasn’t.
At the time David gave me that nudge, I was attending Food Blogger Camp in Ixtapa and seriously considering two other books before the Japanese food book. I was leaning toward getting published in Japan first with a how-to book for young cooks just creating their eating and cooking customs. I envisioned a book with master recipes such as I cook everyday in the school: stews, gratins, risottos, pasta, hamburger patties, salads, and simple vegetable preparations. And I thought I would really burrow into the core of why it is so important to get fresh straight-from-the source ingredients, be it farm, field, or sea. This is an easy book for me to write because I have been teaching and cooking this food for Japanese friends and kids for two decades. But as a first book, there is a little niggling disappointment in crafting words or staying true to my “voice” only to have some part of “me” be translated out in the Japanese version.
I live in Japan and I have contacts in Japan, so a little Slow Lunch cookbook made sense, but the Indigo Days stories kept building up inside of me and wanting to get out. I still have scads of them ready to be written. I’ve been writing about our life here in Japan since right after Christopher was born 19 years ago. And as the years wore on, my almost annual New Year Letter grew to 20 pages and about 100 recipients, until I finally turned it into this blog. But I still write a short personal note to a few hundred friends and family members, reminiscent of that New Year letter. There are some private reflections I don’t particularly want to air over the Internet…though perhaps not many. After all these years in Japan, I’ve learned to keep a certain part of me inside, that’s called self-preservation. But don’t we all do that to an extent?
Along with the letters, I often sent color photocopies of Christopher’s art, and imbedded color photos of the family in the letters. With the exception of my misguided attempt to detail my fix-up-the-house project and gushing that the “house looks fabulous” in the New Year 1995 letter (cringe), I usually wrote about bilingual education, bicultural kids, food, and Japanese life. And always in the back of my mind, I was thinking that someday perhaps these letters could be made into a book. I’m not so sure anymore. They aren’t as compelling as I originally thought—especially the callow early ones that would need a total rework from the “wise narrator.”
In the 1998 letter I announced my intention to write a cookbook with Tadaaki. In the 1999 one I added two more book ideas, this time in Japanese: kids cooking and international cooking. And in 2007 I put one more project on the list: a cooking show at our house that Tadaaki affectionately named and created a jingle for: “Panic, panic…Panic Cooking Show!” There is something about writing down intentions to keep you honest. So, cooking show aside, I have made some discernibly concrete progress toward shifting these food-related plans from fantasy to reality.
In the year 2000, Tadaaki and I started a house-renovation that changed all of our lives. I had been teaching about 80 students in my house during the afternoons and evenings and had reached the point where I no longer wanted to continue sharing our living space with the students. I proposed building a classroom on our property and Tadaaki countered with the wildly unexpected suggestion of moving in with his parents. My jaw dropped.
After my initial (viscerally) negative reaction, I agreed to a walk through of the farm house and was able to see beyond the dusty corners, piles and piles of stuff, and shoddy plastic “improvements” effected by my father-in-law fifteen years before. So I agreed to renovate Tadaaki’s parents’ house and devise a way to live “separately” under the same roof. It took nine months to finish and three years to recover. But that’s a different story.
In 2001, I started a Slow Food Convivium and Sunny-Side Up! Immersion Preschool/Kindergarten. And I also started reading books on writing a book proposal and query letters. And whenever I had a block of time—which was seldom since we were home schooling as well—I brainstormed on Table of Contents, title, and intro pages.
But the catalyst for launching myself whole hog into writing came with the Soba Dinner I helped Sylvan Brackett organize at Chez Panisse in 2008. I invited the editor of our Slow Food Japan magazine to come along with us; then he asked me to write a series of articles about the Soba Dinner, Chez Panisse, and the Edible Schoolyard. And that is how it started.
I poured my heart and soul into the Soba Dinner “article”—all 15 pages of it (yikes, what was I thinking?). The Alice Waters interview and Edible Schoolyard pieces were considerably shorter, but in the end it was easier for Slow Food to just paraphrase what I wrote into Japanese. Ah, the first lesson in the hollow letdown of merely being “translated,” my English words left to float without home, never to see print. A definite low point.
But those couple months that I spent writing every spare minute of the day that I could jealously snatch, left me zinging with desire to write more and more and more. And better.
So where did I turn? To Stanford, the place where my brain had expanded (once), a world where I was intellectually and personally comfortable. Home.
A year and a half of magazine writing and memoir classes later, I was deep into writing my book proposal for Japanese Farm Food. I had met a supportive, talented mentor at Stanford, a skillful and extremely helpful writing coach at Food Blogger Camp, a Japanese cookbook editor/mentor I adore and admire, an accomplished (and published) Japanese food photographer, and my wonderfully smart and creative agent at the IACP Annual Conference. And thanks to all of their guidance and all of your encouragement, I now have a publisher that I respect enormously, whose vision of my book is exactly as mine (with old cloth in the design, a collage of old and new photos and a memoir story each chapter of recipes similar to My Nepenthe); and an editor with whom I can talk easily, who also coincidentally lived for several years not too far from me here in Japan, in a similarly small town. It was that easy and that hard.
One of my writing friends wrote me recently that “there are ‘can do’ and ‘can't do’ people in the world, and it seems like you don't let anything stop you.”
I guess that’s true.