During the ongoing trials of the prolonged Coronavirus crisis, it’s been well recorded that many people, imprisoned indoors, have turned to food for comfort. The Japanese use the word “coronabutori” for the phenomenon of piling on the pounds due to Corona restrictions.
I was suddenly reminded of a little piece called “That Which Nurtures the Soul” which I translated for Yoshimoto Banana (the popular Japanese novelist) to be presented at the Milan Expo at 2015. The Expo had the theme of “Feeding the World” and invited 104 women authors from countries around the world to write on the subject of “nourishment” by means of stories, memories, essays or recipes.
I seldom do translations and I can’t actually remember why I agreed to do this one. I was surprised to hear this piece was singled out by the organizers to be read by Yoshimoto Banana at the opening ceremony.
I never attended the Expo and later discovered that the conference was embroiled in considerable controversy. The organizers did a variety of odd things, including asking women to write exclusively about food as a bizarre form of “female empowerment”.
To be honest, Yoshimoto Banana’s piece had little impact on me at the time. But rereading it, with its meditation on the connections between being personally sick with flu, having family members die around you and finding a reconnection with life at a time of sickness through a rediscovery of the zest and flavours of food, I think it’s a piece that resonates in the age of Covid-19.
That Which Nourishes the Soul
I succumbed to the flu for the second time in a short period just as my father fell into a near-unconscious state. My temperature rose to as high as 42 degrees, and I couldn’t walk or even stand up.
Faced with the realisation of my dad’s imminent passing my appetite disappeared, and even when I did eat, I couldn’t taste anything.
It sounds unbelievable, but even when I tried to cook something the pan seemed too heavy, and I just couldn’t move it. Wow, such things do happen, I realised.
My elder sister usually comes and looks after me when I’m like this, but she also fell ill. Shivering in the wintry cold I lay in bed with an empty stomach and didn’t think about anything. I just don’t care, I thought. My husband fretted and bought various treats he thought I’d like on his way home from work, but I was unable to eat any of them.
A friend’s mother worried about me and sent over some miso soup she had made full of vegetables and pork. Finally I could taste something. My stomach suddenly warmed up. The soup was delicious. I sensed keenly that this was the flavour that had nurtured my friend since childhood, and I was grateful that the soup’s power was being extended to me.
I was gifted the strength lent by someone else’s mother.
In their house this soup had an everyday, familiar flavour, nothing unusual about it; it was exactly as it was meant to be. But this elemental flavour had been infused into the very flesh of these family members, making them have the same feeling about home: their souls were constantly reset by that food giving them a sense of belonging to one place.
I wasn’t brought up in their home, so I felt no nostalgia for it. But when I think of that soup’s flavour, even now I almost want to cry. The way the vegetables were sliced, the amount of miso, the quality of broth – there was something special about their mother’s unique, endlessly repeated way of making it that will disappear with her when she quits this life. There was lots of that unique, intangible ingredient contained within the soup.
Once I’d eaten the soup I gradually regained my health and was able to go and visit my father.
However, I was only able to eat a little every day, so I was somewhat unsteady on my feet.
Near to the local hospital where my father was a patient, there was a famous soba-noodle restaurant.
The soba shop had been there in front of the hospital for years, and I remembered it fondly because we always went there as a family when I had medical tests or if we had to visit someone in the hospital.
At least I should be able to eat some soba, I thought, and one of the staff kindly drove me over. The completely plain kake soba had a flavour unchanged since my childhood: those slender noodles in that intense broth. Laughing and talking as normal with the person who had driven me there, we ate the noodles together. I felt a keen sense of gratitude for this person caring about me and helping at such a difficult time.
Then I thought.
I never would have believed when I was little that I would be coming to this restaurant in such a distressed state.
Whenever I went to that restaurant, Mum or Dad was always there with me. Usually it would be the whole family of four, me with my elder sister. We would eat a variety of noodles and laugh and chat and banter. We’d worry about the person we had been to visit and talk about the situation together. Compared with those days, I thought, how wretched I feel now.
But a new strength I had never known before began to well up inside me. Whatever happened I would take proper care of Dad until his death. In my wretchedness there was a taste of truly becoming an adult. So let’s eat, I thought, then I’ll go and visit Dad. He was still alive; I had to give him encouragement.
In this way good food gave me strength and provided sustenance for my soul. I think that’s the way it should be.
During this period I found I particularly appreciated the taste of food. It’s probably because I wasn’t eating with dulled senses, as I would usually, so when I did occasionally put something into my mouth I clearly noticed the flavour and attempted to extract its strength. I noticed the stew my husband made; the delicate flavour of the Pad Thai specially made for me by a friend who works at a Thai restaurant and, because I was weak, deliberately made using a smaller amount of oil than usual; the powerful soup made by the kind man who runs a small ramen shop nearby, using lots of seaweed and fish in an uncompromisingly strong broth; and the sweet tomato sauce of the Italian restaurant opened by a former secretary who went out of her way to deliver it to our door.
Flavouring all of them was a warm, smiling humanity and concern for me.
Dad passed away, Mum passed away, but I am still alive. Now when I eat my older sister’s cooking I eat it with memories of my family. I eat happily, feeling as if we were all eating together even though it’s just me and my sister. And when I do, I feel strangely energised.
Perhaps it’s because of this that, since that time, no matter what I am doing, I would never think of eating food without seeing the face of the person who made it. Such food has a taste without a soul.
The soul, too, requires food.
And I wish to give food to my soul.
(Copyright Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Damian Flanagan)