Friday, August 02, 2013

Lasagne, and Speaking the Truth in Love

Today’s coffee: Brazilian (at home again… I tried to go to my café, but they’re temporarily closed! Oh, the pain!)

I feel like I’ve spent the week recovering from lasagne. We had an outreach event at our church—a movie called Shiokari Pass and meal afterwards. I was in charge of the main course—there ended up being 7 lasagnes, all lovingly made from scratch, down to the pasta sauce and noodles.

My baking set-up, with all 7 lasagnes in progress

Lasagne is not a summer dish. I’m thankful that it ended up being not a very hot day—and the lasagnes were baked on the second floor of the church, and not in my house. But we did use my oven. It’s large by Japanese standards, but this is not the first time we’ve taken it out of the house for a major cooking project. It’s surprisingly portable. But in any case, we used fresh zucchini from our farm and our friend’s farm and fresh Hokkaido tomatoes (10 pounds of them)—I wanted the lasagne to be a 「旬を味わう」(shun wo ajiwau—taste the season) sort of dish, so I think we succeeded. It’s definitely better with fresh tomatoes. It was also a lot of fun to teach three other church members to use the pasta roller to make the lasagne noodles! The consensus is that we should definitely make fresh pasta again sometime.

Setting the table
The menu: green salad with balsamic vinaigrette, fried mushrooms, vichyssoise, lasagne, focaccia, babaloa, and orange cake (not pictured)
Actually, the story I want to tell today is about the test meal I made on July 5. Originally I hadn’t intended to make lasagne—it’s too fussy and hot, and we don’t have enough pans. My first thought was that we ought to make Hokkaido specialties to go along with the movie, which was set in Hokkaido, but the consensus was that Western food was more interesting to our guests. Therefore, the menu I presented to the committee was the following:
  • Individual Pasta Gratin
  • Summer Minestrone
  • Insalata Caprese
  • Beans with gorgonzola and basil
  • Focaccia Bread

We are blessed to be part of a church full of people who are passionate about food. They’re not food snobs, but they love to eat together, and to be creative in the kitchen. So, the initial reaction to the menu I presented was very positive. However, just to be sure (and because it was my first time putting together a meal for 30+ people), we decided to do a test lunch.

The test lunch in itself was a lot of work. I translated all the recipes into Japanese (and got them corrected), with a few alterations based on local substitutions. I went to Costco and several grocery stores to gather ingredients. I made yogurt-cheese using a tofu mold to substitute for the mozzarella, which is prohibitively expensive. And then of course the day of the taste test, I instructed all the helpers on how to make each dish.

At the time, the meal seemed to go off without a hitch. Everyone said it was good. We talked about portion sizes and how to arrange things on the dishes. Everything seemed to be moving forward.

Getting ready to eat lunch... and checking the video equipment while we're at it!
That night, we had supper with some friends who had been living overseas—our friend Mikiko and her Ghanaian husband, Curtis. Mikiko, who is something of an adventurous eater, shared about the challenges of learning to love Ghanaian food and how much she missed Japanese food, especially when dealing with morning sickness. Curtis, on the other hand, talked about his struggle to get used to some Japanese foods.

To some extent, that conversation prepared me for the phone call I received the next morning. It was one of the committee members—a dear friend, and fellow food lover. “It’s hard to know how to say this,” she began. “The meal was delicious, but we’re worried that it won’t suit the taste of the elderly guests whom we hope will attend the event. You worked very hard yesterday, but would you please consider changing the menu?”

In the short silence that followed, a wide range of emotions washed over me—first sheer exhaustion, then shock, then indignation, then hurt—but somehow in the midst of all of it, thankfulness. Why thankfulness? I was thankful that my friends trusted me enough to speak the truth in love. They know I care about food and hospitality, and they know I deeply value opportunities to learn about Japanese culture. The conversation was an invitation to learn new ways of showing love to Japanese people.

That’s not to say I wasn’t hurt. I think it took a week before I was able to think constructively about the situation. Food is very personal to me, so criticism can be very hard to take. Thankfully I was on vacation, so I didn’t really have to think about it. I kept repeating “It’s not about me” over and over and over.

It’s not about me, and yet it is—this is also a part of my training. Showing hospitality and cooking according to Japanese taste are skills I need to learn. Learning to cook Western foods in a Japanese style might be more difficult than learning to cook Japanese foods. I have a lot of ideas about what was “wrong” with the meal I prepared and about the differences between Japanese and Western cooking, but that’s a huge topic for another post, or maybe several.

So somehow we ended up making lasagne, despite its not being a summer dish. I suppose lasagne has less odd gourmet sorts of flavour combinations… and it is sort of a specialty for Keith and me. The challenge was that we don’t have a recipe. There’s a great expression in Japanese: 「冷蔵庫と相談する」(reizouko to soudan suru—to discuss with the refrigerator); that’s exactly what we do. We open the refrigerator… and what looks like it goes in lasagne? In it goes. We had no idea how many kg of tomatoes and such we would need. Somehow we ended up with more than enough ingredients, but not too much more than enough.

I think the lasagne went over well. The portion sizes were a bit large—the small-ish elderly woman sitting next to me very kindly finished the entire slice because she knew I made it, but I felt a bit sorry for her, because I was also feeling uncomfortably full. ;)

I’m generally feeling a lot better about the situation. The hurt feelings are gone, and I’m left with thankfulness for the honesty and trust shown by our friends and for the new cooking challenges ahead of me. I also have some great recipes which I translated into Japanese, if you’re interested. :)

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