Yune's Reviews > Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo

Pretty Good Number One by Matthew Amster-Burton
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really liked it
bookshelves: culture, nonfiction, food, humorous

I was a little worried about what to read after Mary Roach's Gulp, and the last thing I would have expected to work was essentially a cultural food memoir. But I liked Amster-Burton's previous book, about the trials and delights of feeding his daughter, and fell back easily into his voice here: somehow snarky without any of the meanness, not particularly adorned and yet still vivid. Here he takes his family to Tokyo for a month in a 260-square-foot bedroom and fearlessly eats his way through it -- and he doesn't mean sushi, which he has only once while there. He means real Japanese food.

He's clearly a Japanophile as well as an appreciator of good food at low prices and lovingly describes, along with eel backbones and chicken livers, great food from 24-hour convenience stores, ramen-ordering systems (you pay before you even enter), inadvertently sitting down on restaurant tables rather than on the seats, sending his eight-year-old out to run grocery errands unaccompanied (I was particularly tickled to revisit Iris, who often offers sage commentary such as "If you're a sumo wrestler, you can do whatever you want. And if someone doesn't like it, squash goes the person") -- but with a wry self-awareness that shares his fascination rather than over-saturate readers with it. (Feel free to skim over the Japanese terminology as needed.) He describes not only the food, but the experience, and I don't mean the snobby swan-folded-napkin atmosphere of starred restaurants. Hearing about the different chefs and servers or neighboring diners was just as fun as what they ate and cooked and brought to the table.

Note that I spent several years in an East Asian country myself without being completely fluent in the food or culture, so that aspect was particularly interesting to me -- the navigation of different expectations (accomplished after careful observations and then with good-hearted gusto and a willingness to laugh at himself). And I was particularly pleased at the inclusion of the last chapter, "Reentry," which briefly but with a firm nod acknowledges culture shock upon getting back to the States and the privilege the author enjoyed. (Also, as he notes, having a cute foreign-looking young daughter makes for a great ambassador.)

Oh, and don't concern yourself with his introduction of his "literary alter ego" -- this is an existing fictional character who gets glancing mentions and is not the annoying omnipresent voice-in-head I was originally fearing. Amster-Burton's voice carries this gem of a book just fine on its own. Definitely worth picking up if you enjoy Japanese cuisine (or what passes for it in America) and want a humorous but enthusiastic tour of it.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 16, 2013 – Shelved

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