My essay in NY Times Mag: On Mediocre Sushi

What I learned as an accidental sushi chef

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The big news:

I have an essay in the New York Times Magazine in praise of one of my favorite things: cheap, mediocre sushi. The piece, which is this week’s Letter of Recommendation column, is online now and will be in the Dec. 22 issue. I make the case that mediocre sushi is not just delicious, is not just a marvel of human invention, but is in fact spiritually significant. Contrary to the view of “purists” who shell out hundreds of dollars for sushi as they believe it was meant to be, an ordinary California roll from Kroger is testimony to the fact that the highest good is always right here before us. I hope you enjoy the essay.

(And yes, I am thrilled to have an essay in the magazine! It’s one of those things I never imagined could happen until it happened. Thanks are due to my friend J. for help with some of the ideas in the essay and to A. and W., who encouraged this idea and read early versions of the piece.)

My interest in mediocre sushi goes back to 1999, when I started working at Tokyo Rose in Charlottesville, Virginia. As I recount in the essay, I ended up as a very accidental sushi chef after the owner, Atsushi Miura, who has been a major influence on my life and the lives of many who worked for him, called me from the kitchen to the sushi bar. I had no idea what I was doing. As it turned out, it didn’t matter.

I worked at Tokyo Rose until Atsushi sold the place in December 2004. The restaurant was much more than a workplace for me and my friends. It was our social hub; it was, I don’t know, what Facebook and Twitter wish they were: a place where you knew everyone would be, where you told stories and jokes and had arguments and shared the new book or album you were into and fell in love and broke hearts and had yours broken.

It was also a place to hear music. The list of A-list indie rock bands who played in the basement of the Rose in the 1990s is staggering: Cibo Matto, Cat Power, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel (those three all played in one week in 1996), Spoon, the Mountain Goats, Sleater-Kinney. I didn’t see any of those shows, because I didn’t live in Charlottesville at the time, and I wasn’t cool anyway.

I did, however, get to hear Atsushi perform often. On Tuesday nights, once the kitchen closed, he took up his guitar (onto which he had decoupaged the faces of the Beatles), donned a harmonica holder, and stood in a corner of the dining room singing a mix of Orbison covers, Japanese folk songs he translated into English, and his own compositions. I know of no other songwriter who can match Atsushi’s ability to express such deep emotion through such bone-dry humor.

For instance, there’s his song, “Pancake,” which is about eating pancakes (and having a dirty mind) in the face of ecological disaster:

Someday our grandchildren / May stand on the hill / And have no comment on / The end of the human race.

Thinking of such a thing / While biting sweet pancakes: / Am I just an opportunist / Who doesn’t change anything?

Listen, my little girl: / Yes, we should try to change this world, / Where my love for you lingers on / And where you make me pancakes.

Pancake, pancake, pancake, / As sweet as you. / Pancake, pancake, pancake, / As hot as you. / I just want to get something / I just want to get something / Sweet and hot from you.

Listen for yourself:

I want to share with you a paragraph I wrote for the first draft of the sushi essay that didn’t make it into the final version. I wonder what Atsushi, who was so worried about the environment, would say about sushi and sustainability:

We may not be able to enjoy abundant mediocre sushi forever. Tuna populations are dwindling. Yellowtail farming is unsustainable. In the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono complains that overfishing has diminished quality. Like driving, sushi-eating is something we ought to do less of yet can’t seem to stop. Fish prices will surely rise, putting sushi again beyond the reach of the masses. The Buddha also taught about impermanence. Like all things, we are here only for a moment. For this moment, we have the best.

For the record, I do like actually-good sushi, too. And if you’re in Portland, Oregon or Seattle or San Francisco or Denver or Phoenix and want outstanding, sustainable sushi, pay a visit to Bamboo Sushi. It may not be mediocre, but it’s still the best.

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