My husband’s hobby was eating in nice restaurants. He enjoyed reserving tables or sometimes individual rooms in Tokyo eateries. Some restaurants have a cover charge for which you get a small dish, they call this otoshi, usually some salted edamame, or a steamed egg custard with salmon roe, wakame and such in a ramekin. Me and the children would have to go with him on these expeditions, he would want to play happy families. He would book one of the small walled off rooms, with a table with sunken seats and cushions not chairs. These places always insisted on taking off shoes, swapping your dirty outside shoes for clean inside slippers.
Sometimes these places would have little rivers flowing under clear tiles, beautiful greenery, stunning muted decor, bamboo walled private rooms and tiny menus of jewel like dishes. I hated these trips and loved them too. I hated them because I had to spend time with him. I hated them because I never had good clothes, and the other patrons were impeccably dressed – as was my husband. I hated them because my shoes were never decent, they were elderly and smelly and wet with rain water.
I was ashamed of my shoes. They were invariably falling apart at the sole, they let in water from typhoon drenched streets, no amount of cleaning could make them smell alright. My husband’s shoes were new and smart and smelt of expensive foot spray he purchased from the Body Shop. My socks were worse. Since I had no access to money and was only given tiny amounts to feed and clothe my self and the children, I only had a few socks, generally an odd number, always the cheapest I could find, which always had something embarrassing like Pooh Bear on them, they were always drenched and holey. My socks humiliated me. I took off my awful rotting shoes, and slid my feet into slippers. Sometimes there were no slippers and I had to walk shamefaced across expensive floors in my holey socks, surrounded by the clean, the expensive and the well dressed. I would feel relief at the private room where nobody could see my old stained dress, worn out at the elbows.
The children were cheaply dressed, somewhat better than me, their shoes and socks more often acceptable, sometimes not. He didn’t much care about spending money on them either. The three of us would huddle together, as he would beam and order plate after plate from tasting menus.
There was one rule to eating off shared plates with Pig – eat quickly. He would inhale food faster than the speed of light. I would serve the children, and try and pick up a few morsels before the dishes emptied into his gaping maw.
We ate at tiny places with Michelin stars. Me with black eyes and broken fingers, two tiny children, and him, playing the indulgent, the good father, the appreciator of food. I would hate it. He would order me ume sours, which I loved, and tell me about the food and his work in loud boorish tones.
I started to judge places by the standard of their chawanmushi – the savory steamed egg custard made with stock. I did not enjoy the dish, slippery, slimy eggy and fishy, but I enjoyed noting when it was too salty, or too sweet, or the chunks sadly fallen to the bottom, or the empty chawanmushi with all the beauty on the top and underneath empty slippery barely set egg. I do not enjoy barely cooked egg, but I would sit there disapproving at custards which were solid and had a foam of bubbles cooked into them from too fierce a heat. Even worse, ones that had been precooked and cooled and reheated turning into a thick jelly paste! The game of sitting in holey ugly clothes and disney socks with my toes poking out, judging egg custard like a Michelin reviewer became my little hobby.
One day we went to a particularly plain looking place. I had no idea of it’s reputation. It was like sitting in someone’s front room. I listened straining to understand as the server told me about the dish. I knew what I wanted, in retrospect I probably failed to understand what was on offer on the tasting menu. I wanted to try the steamed egg custard. A neat pot of chawanmushi was set down in front of me with a small spoon. Steam rose from the surface, as chunks of fine seaweed and scallop poked out breaking the surface in a rocky sea filled promise. Dipping in the spoon, I came up with a silky custard, a mouthful of creamy goodness, the slime texture that the Japanese love so dearly, perfected. I hated it. It was perfect. I dipped my spoon back in, and was rewarded with a tiny chunk of star cut carrot, and again, a perfect tiny shrimp. Finishing the pot, tears came to my eyes.
My game was over. I had eaten the perfect chawanmushi. The server came to take my dish, I told him that it was perfect. The best. I wanted to tell him about my game and the thick pastes and the uncooked snot, and the empty pots that promised so much but gave so little. I wanted to tell him I hated steamed egg custard, but this was the most perfect thing I had ever tasted. Thank you. I hate it. Instead he saw the tears in my eyes, and my worn clothes, and my holey socks and my black eye, and gave me a smile. The rest of the evening passed in pure attentiveness. I felt they were cooking just for me. I didn’t pay attention to the conversation, instead I asked if I might have some warm sake, and ordered a plain dish of steamed fish. I almost ruined it by fileting it myself, but instead was stopped gently before it was whisked off and taken off the bone for me, returned in a perfect twinned confection. I just about gave up. They beat me. I knew I would never eat like this again
I felt human. For the first time in years I felt human. My husband restrained by the impeccable service which set food in front of me, the children entranced by morsels and coloring books, I could have fallen in love with whoever was cooking for me, and the kind man setting food in front of me.
I stopped wanting to choose, and instead wanted to know what else this place could do.
I later found out it had three Michelin stars. Three Michelin stars and treated me, in my holes and my cheap dress, and my disney socks and my black eyes, as if I was someone important. Someone real. Someone who mattered. I do believe they kept my spirit alive a while longer.
We left the restaurant into the Tokyo fall air. Mr Charming looked at me and said “well that was disappointing! I am still hungry! Anyone want a McDonalds?” I cried again. How could I be married to a man who had no soul?