I feel a little bad about giving only two stars to a book which I quite enjoyed reading, but even as I was enjoying it I was getting frustrated with t...moreI feel a little bad about giving only two stars to a book which I quite enjoyed reading, but even as I was enjoying it I was getting frustrated with the lack of there there.
There are two entwined parts of this book: a documentary of a class of sushi chefs and a history/natural history of sushi. The structure followed a class structure, with a chapter discussing a different area of sushi -- rice, nori, various types of fish, and so on -- bracketed by scenes from the actual classroom of the students dealing with preparing these types of sushi. Interspersed with these were documentary-only short chapters following exciting moments for the class or the restaurant out of which the class was based, such as a catering job or a lunch rush at the student counter. There were several characters in the documentary: three students, one teacher, one former student and current chef, and the owner; of all of them, only one student, Kate, really seemed to have a narrative, and it felt strongly unresolved at the end of the book, especially given the precarious career opportunities described by the epilogue. A fiction book about any (or all) of these characters could easily have been fascinating, but the writer of this book didn't seem interested in drawing in any personal connections.
The history/natural history sections were more satisfying. There were Japanese food history lessons, American commerce history lessons, biology lessons on muscle types and bacteria and fermentation, and natural history lessons on the life cycles of the various fishes. All of these were brief and fascinating. An angle which I found particularly interesting was the emphasis on how understanding of bacteria and parasites and the ways to control this in food production had shaped and were still shaping sushi devlopement. (There were also occasional recaps of issues of the Sushi Chef Kirara's Job manga, made to sound quite boring.)
And there was something which, perhaps, got under my skin more than it should have as an American who eats a lot of sushi. There was a strong message in this book which I am summarizing as: American people don't understand sushi, and Japanese people can't be bothered to teach them; American people spend too much money on bad sushi and Japanese people spend too much money on good sushi; in short, American = ignorant and Japanese = snobby. Ironically, several of the Japanese history lessons focus on the development of sushi as a fast, mass-produced food, yet many of the American history lessons decry the same trend on the American side of the Pacific. A number of asides discussed the "correct" way to eat sushi and the heart-breaking ways in which Americans kept getting it wrong, yet all of the success stories in the book were of chefs who had blended Japanese and American cooking traditions together. There even one digression into the ways in which Japanese sushi is changing so that some of the most purely traditional sushi is being made in America!
Another thing which got under my skin was the way in which gender discrimination was discussed. Gender discrimination is shown as a big problem for female sushi chefs, and the author clearly thinks that this is both stupid -- some of the silly "reasons" for preventing women from working as sushi chefs are held up for ridicule -- and incomprehensible -- there's description but no real empathy or outrage. The former student who was part of the documentary, Fie, faces a lot of fetishization as a beautiful woman working as a sushi chef; the owner of the restaurant where she works jokes about staring at female customers' breasts; there's no connection drawn. The current student, Kate, is turned down over and over for jobs, sometimes explicitly because she's a woman (just like the protagonist of Sushi Chef Kirara's Job) which clearly makes her furious, but there's no tonal shift in the narrative at all. And here's Kate's success story: "Kate grew serious. 'I had a really good time with you guys, especially being one of two girls.' In the end, Kate did feel like one of the guys, and it was clear that her classmates had accepted her." (p 303)
So: definitely an interesting book, but not one I particularly recommend unless you're planning to skim for the well-written natural history.(less)