Sunday, April 18, 2010

Teacher's Pet

In the first grade I was a teacher's pet. I absolutely adored Mrs Reding, my red headed & freckled teacher who had a particular penchant for Garfield paraphernalia. At recess I had to fight off the other little goody-two-shoes girls in order to attain the ultimate Teacher's Pet Honor: holding one of Mrs Reding's hands as she walked around the playground busting little boys for doing naughty things. My family moved across the city after 1st grade, so I had to change schools, but I would visit Mrs Reding about once a year and bring her a pack of Garfield pencils. She even attended my Bat Mitzvah. She was the one, and I would never love another teacher quite as much. My career as a teacher's pet was short and sweet; it ended after a single year at Fairlands Elementary School.

But, 25 years later, it appears I am back to my old eager-to-please school girl ways. I realized this the other morning at my monthly cooking class as I painstakingly sliced carrots into uniform matchsticks.

"Very nice!" said Chieko, one of my cooking teachers, admiring the mound of orange shreds. I beamed a little too much. I longed to buy her a Garfield pencil.

From my very first class, months ago, I had an agenda: to befriend the middle aged cooking teachers, get them to teach me private lessons, and learn a bit about Japanese culture through their stories and recipes. It seems my stored-up teacher's pet powers are still strong since all of these things have come true. Chi-chan, a tell-it-like-it-is tough cookie of a grandmother (right), calls herself my "Japanese mom," has taken me on a couple of adventures and buys me gifts when she goes on weekend trips. Emi-chan, the always sweet and smiling grandma, gives me little photo collages of our experiences together and treats from her small garden. A true pet, I have reciprocated with chocolates, ice cream and crunchy snacks. 

On Thursday, Yoko and I arrived at the monthly group cooking class expecting the usual scene: a kitchen crowded with clucking hens chopping up vegetables and stirring bubbling pots. But it was only Emi-chan and Chi-chan. Strangely, no one else was coming this week. It was a teacher's pet dream! There would be no fighting for the choice cooking tasks and I could easily watch each dish come together from start to finish. We tied on our aprons and got to work preparing two home-style main dishes for a group of hungry lunchers: chirashi-zushi and kara age (pronounced: Car-uh ah-gay), Japanese fried chicken.

In Seattle, chirashi-zushi was a bowl of warm sushi rice covered with slices of raw fish and, if I was lucky, a heaping spoonful of shiny orange salmon eggs. But apparently there isn't always fish involved. Our version was vegetarian and involved carrot, shitake and gobo (burdock root) stirred into piping hot sushi rice. Each bowl was then topped with slices of rincon (lotus root, pictured) and ribbons of thin, crepe-like omelet. We garnished with shreds of shiso leaf, chopped snow peas and pickled ginger. Each bite was like a little rainbow: the red ginger, orange carrot, yellow egg and green shiso. It was simple, beautiful and took far longer to prepare than I expected since each vegetable is boiled separately in water spiked with different flavors.
For me, fried chicken falls into the same category as sour cream and onion dip and Lil Smokies: unsophisticated, unhealthy, delicious foods that I never make at home but will gleefully inhale at a party. Japanese fried chicken is exceptionally yummy; small chunks of thigh meat marinated in classic Japanese flavors and fried until the outside is golden and the inside ridiculously juicy. It is often served with undressed lettuce leaves and, in this case, wedges of tomato to counteract the artery clogging oil.

Maybe it was the magic of fried chicken that cast a spell on my teachers and caused a true miracle to happen at the end of this cooking session. Chi-chan hugged me. She hugged me. First! Without prompting! Let me explain. Japanese people are not particularly affectionate and they absolutely do not hug or kiss each other in public. I started hugging the ladies months ago. At first they responded by standing stiffly, arms at their sides, with frozen smiles on their faces as I squeezed their tense bodies. As the months went by they gradually loosened up and reciprocated with a little back pat or maybe a sideways squeeze, but I was always always the initiator. Until Thursday. Chi-chan hugged me goodbye. It was just as good as holding her hand during recess.

1 comment:

  1. I THOROUGHLY enjoyed this blog about your first-grade teacher - seeing as how I often have to fight off hordes of goody two-shoes several times a day - maybe I will be one of their Mrs. Redkens!! You look like your having a wonderful time and I'm happy for you...