Last spring when I was choosing a theme for this issue, it popped into my head to do something with food. With the fall and winter holidays coming up, "comfort food" seemed especially appropriate. A quick check of the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as "food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal". Wikipedia goes into more detail: "food which provides a nostalgic or sentimental value to the consumer, and is often characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, and simple preparation. The nostalgia may be specific to either the individual or a specific culture". It also surveys psychological studies investigating the concept, and lists favorite dishes from international cuisines.
Touch, smell and taste are powerfully bound to memory and identity. We must all have at some point had the experience described by Marcel Proust: that surge of long-buried memory triggered by something as simple as a piece of cake or toast dipped in tea. As an American, I have my own memory triggers of childhood foods: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Campbell's chicken noodle soup, my grandmother's Scotch shortbread . . .
Friends have told me that Nutella is a favorite children's snack in France, and in Australia I've heard it's Vegemite. I like both, but the links to deeper memory aren't there. Specifics of country or culture may differ, but carbohydrates do seem to be a common denomator. An article in last year's Time Magazine article reasoned, "It's not just because these foods are tasty. It's because they make us feel less alone."
Haigaonline readers will have noticed that I've been using the themes as a way of exploring Japanese literature and art history, and of deepening my own understanding of haiku. Invaluable resources have included Gabi Greve's World Kigo Database and Washoku blogs. I was also intrigued by "10 Healthy Japanese Comfort Foods" in The Huffington Post, and am enjoying several informative features in The Japan Times, with recipes for traditional foods such as soba (buckwheat noodles), kuri (chestnuts), satsumaimo (sweet potatoes), and more.
And of course there's rice. In my childhood, it was an occasional side-dish alternative to potatoes and I haven't an intuitive grasp of its importance to the historical development of agriculture, social organization and religion of the so-called "rice cultures". As I'm reading and learning, I've found that haiku is what conveys these things most clearly:
Or, on another note, there's the resonant synaesthesia of this one:
There's more—on Washoku, Gabi has collected a page on famous food-related haiku. For Haigaonline, however, a goal of this excursion has been to select graphic images for our issue's "Comfort Food" theme. Here again the search has been rewarding. I've always loved Hiroshige's depiction of travelers eating in a roadside restaurant at Mariko-juku on the Tokaido, where tororo jiru (yam soup) was the local specialty. A similar establishment is still there, and there's also a perfect haiku to go with it:
Many woodblocks are devoted in some way or other to food, from depictions of edible flora and fauna in the environment to popular images of customers at the fast food noodle stalls of 19th century Edo. Finally, I came upon these two prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) that speak to childhood memories of being nourished and cared for. Click on the images for more about them, and look for snippets throughout the issue.
Before I send you off to enjoy the haiga, a more serious note: You'll notice that we've held to our theme throughout the issue, including our Collaborative haiga feature. I'll admit, on opening Nika's email my first reaction was shock, even trepidation—not because of the subject matter itself. Several years ago when I was new as editor, we received a submission with edgy content that caused a negative reaction when I showed it to colleagues. Their reasoning? That haiga "must not" include unpleasant or controversial subject matter. Ridiculous, of course—we could hardly claim to be a serious art form otherwise. My main concern was consideration for the privacy and dignity of the subjects, vulnerable homeless men who may or may not have given permission to publish their pictures? I did ask Jim McKinniss about permissions, discussed copyright with my son, a filmmaker who has dealt with the same question. I am satisfied that we're on okay as regards copyright, that the work is fully respectful while also confronting viewers with the plight of human beings who have been pushed to the margins of our society.
For me, Jim's photographs together with Nika and Colleen's haiku bring a much-needed perspective to an issue on food. We have just come through a divisive election that has left people throughout the world fearful of the future. This week we Americans prepare for a holiday celebrating plenitude, and soon after we'll be in December with gingerbread houses in every shopping mall. Entranced by sweet excess, we may easily forget that "Hansel and Gretel" is a tale about hunger.
Enough, though. My best Thanksgiving wishes to everyone, and my deep appreciation to all our participants for the creativity and variety they have brought to this issue. Do stay tuned for our Winter Gallery, which I plan to upload in December.
Yours for the haiga season,
Haiku and Image Credits:
Basho, "the beginning of all art— ": tr. D. Barnhill, 2009, quoted in Jim Wilson, "Poetry and Song", Shaping Words: Exploring English Syllabic Verse (30 October 2009)
Basho, "plum blossoms and fresh greens": tr. J. Reichhold, in Reichold and Tsujimura, Basho: The Complete Haiku (Tokyo, 2008), haiku rpt. G. Greve, "Hanga Nihonga", Washoku (4 August 2008)
Issa, "pounding rice cakes—": tr. D. Lanoue, Haiku of Kobayashi Issa (1991-2010)
Shiki, "I bite into a persimmon": tr. Janine Beichman, in Beichman, Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works (Boston, 2002), pp. 53-4; "Of Persimmons and Bells," World Haiku Club Translation Project, ed. John E. Carley, World Haiku Review (November 2001), rpt. G. Greve, Haiku Topics, Theory and Keywords (7 January 2006)
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, from the series Yodô shogei kyôsô (Instruction for Children in the Accomplishments, 1840, in W. Pearl, The Kuniyoshi Project, 2006-16)
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, from the series Shuzoroi onna Benkei (Women in Benkei-checkered kimono) 1844, in W. Pearl, The Kuniyoshi Project, 2006-16