Art of a Japanese Farm

A white-washed farmhouse with earthen walls, restored to its 200-year-old splendor and equipped with turn-of-the-century wicker baskets and pottery bowls recently dusted off for everyday use again: twenty-three years ago, Californian food lover Nancy Singleton married organic egg farmer Tadaaki Hachisu and took up with him on this working homestead in the Japanese countryside. Now a full-fledged farmer’s wife, she’s chronicled her daily life in “Japanese Farm Food,” a cookbook with all the right ingredients to make a proper memoir, too. Nancy lives as a “registered alien” on the land in which her new family (two sons, a husband, grandparents, inter-generational cousins, and close neighbors) claims roots, while the Hachisu farmhouse holds it all together: a small corner of rural Japan that serves as a common framework, drawing together generations, cultures, and distances and filled with the fragrances of a well used kitchen.

The farmhouse is a hand-built mixture of modern and traditional life. Erected for the first time more than two centuries ago, it was rebuilt by Tadaaki’s grandfather in 1930, using the original posts and beams out of economic necessity, and in a nod to more modern times, hiding them above hung ceilings and replacing the original papered doors with utilitarian sliding ones of solid wood. Magnificent by today’s standards, the house’s posts and beams are not unusual in older Japanese farmhouses, most of which are built from them -- with special honor given to the daikoku bashira, the robust beam around which all such structures center. (The Hachisu home was constructed around a beam of Japanese cypress, rubbed since days gone by with sesame oil to keep it strong and supple.) A decade ago, Nancy and Tadaaki gleefully tore out the false ceiling, bringing the weathered beams to light, and replaced those wooden room dividers with sonji doors -- traditional ones crafted from paper and wood that grant easy access to the breeze roaming in from across the hand-cultivated gardens just outside.

The hefty volume that details Nancy’s life is certainly a cookbook, but it’s no ordinary one. It’s filled with the moments, both hard and pleasing, of navigating a new culture first as a newlywed, and then as an integrated outsider: one well-versed in the food, manners, and routines of Japanese country life. Her tables of vegetables organized by cooking method, lists of Japanese food sources for those not in the area, and a glossary of Japanese produce are small gracious gifts to the reader. And to make sense of the recipes, one welcomes the supporting materials: stories of the three generations upon whom the farm depends, of Tadaaki’s ancestors, of the black Lab that pokes a friendly nose around the pantry -- and through categories like salt flavors (soy sauce, miso, shottsuru), seaweed (konbu, wakame, and nori) , katsuobushi (tuna thickly or thinly shaved), chilis (togarashi, kochujang, and rayu), soybeans (in seven forms), and rice (short grain, brown, sticky).

Scenes from Nancy’s days pop out throughout this book. Pounding moochi in the kitchen with friends leads to an after-dinner Tokanya routine meant to send the rice god to the mountains. Sunday mornings are reserved for strolls through rural flea markets, where Nancy’s taste for the large and old -- woven baskets, wooden buckets, oversize mixing bowls useless and forgettable in almost everyone else’s eyes -- net her friendships with her “favorite guys at the flea market” and hours sifting through messy jumbles of farm and household tools. Her payoffs are treasures like suinos (old fire-patinaed long-handled noodle-scoopers made of bamboo), prettily cracked ceramic serving bowls, hasams (butterfly-shaped iron scissors designed by ancient Romans), and an occasional alligator handbag. And, like the landscape in which they’re set, the food and the recollections that shape this book are roughly hewn with ragged edges, flecked with bits of Nancy’s characteristic wryness. Recalling the day she fell in love with the man who would become her husband, she shares the hours spent together gathering wild vegetables (to be cooked in earthenware pots filled with water from a nearby stream) alongside assessments of the onigiri brought along by fellow gatherers: so perfectly shaped they seem not to have been made by hand. Or, more precisely, “those rice balls lacked soul.”

The final chapter -- helpfully preceded by lighter ones with titles like Small Bites with Drinks and Traditional Japanese Sweets for Tea Break (crucial to Japanese farm living, insists Nancy) is a land-based coda: On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami and Fukushima meltdown (an officially safe if discomforting 215 miles from the Hachisu homestead) changed everything for the family’s landscape and neighbors. And through it all, the house stood strong, reliably welcoming her home after the days-long post-disaster travel from central Tokyo. As it has for more than two decades, Nancy’s spirit matches the farmhouse’s: “And in the aftermath, we try to pick up our lives. I am planting seeds for the summer and looking toward the future.”