Before anyone had ever heard of Masaharu Morimoto and before ready-made California rolls became a ubiquitous presence in every supermarket in America, my parents were discovering sushi for themselves.
To a young couple in the 1980s, raw fish was the pinnacle of exotic fare. It was also the first thing they'd fallen in love with together -- neither would have summoned the courage to try something so foreign alone, but as a pair they bolstered a shared sort of confidence. So began their affair with sushi.
Their story has been repeated and embellished over the years, but the basic premise goes like this: They find a sushi restaurant. They strike up a conversation with the sushi chef. They return one Friday, the Friday after that, and the Friday after that. The chef begins anticipating their arrival. On one Friday there is already a generous spread set out for them.
In every version, the tale always ends with this bit from my mother: The waiters would watch us, they'd wait to see what we'd refuse to eat or where we'd draw the line. But we'd always eat what they served us. We made a pact that we would.
That's how two people who'd never truly been adventurous in their eating came to love things like briny sea urchin with its faint minerality, salty globules of salmon roe that burst on the tongue, sweet and creamy raw rock shrimp and slivers of milky scallop dressed lightly in Japanese mayonnaise. What they'd first eaten on a dare they soon began ordering of their own volition, becoming aficionados along the way.
My parents developed a peculiar way of eating; a neighboring patron once remarked that they looked like "synchronized swimmers" because they ate their food in pairs, taking turns who picks the next bite. If my mother ate a slice of tuna, my father ate a slice of tuna. If my father ate a slice of salmon, my mother ate a slice of salmon. And so on.
My mother's crowning achievement was perhaps an exchange one night with another customer, who was sitting beside my father at the sushi bar. As my father giddily tells it, the man leaned over and said with a wink, nodding toward my mother as she popped the fried head of a shrimp in her mouth, "That's an adventurous woman you've got there."
I went to my first sushi restaurants as an infant, when my parents moved from their usual spots at the sushi bar to a four top. They'd eat on one side of the table and lay me out on a blanket on the other, and through my infancy I snoozed through any number of sushi dinners.
A few years later, I was clamoring to eat the stuff myself -- I'd been denied on the grounds that only adults could gamble with raw fish -- but my parents relented when I was about seven, and I was soon joined by my younger brother. What started as a coupled activity quickly became a family one. Soon, we'd found a new sushi restaurant and I'd gained a reputation with the chef.
"You're 'Chopsticks girl!'" the chef declared one day, with a broad grin. As it turns out, eight-year-old white Jewish girls who can use chopsticks with deft precision are a fairly uncommon sight. Neither are parents who make sure their young children are proficient.
The nickname stuck, and it was usually accompanied with a parade of gifted dishes that seemed to stream steadily from the kitchen. In time we tried charred jaw of yellowtail, quivering monkfish liver, deep-fried smelts bursting with tiny balls of yellow roe and heaven knows what else. For the most part, they were all delicious -- even if I wasn't quite sure what I was eating. Identifiable or not, down the hatch they went.
My parents' stories stayed with me then, when I was so full I could burst. Never turn anything down, my mother's eyes would tell me.
Sometimes I wonder if the sushi chef was testing me, just as my parents had been tested years before. Was he also waiting to see where I'd draw the line? It didn't matter, I knew. Graciously accepting new and interesting things would arm me with more than bragging rights.
Many food writers credit the lack of good food growing up as what drove them to seek it in adulthood, but I'm thankful the opposite is true for me. My parents taught by example that sushi -- and other foods, for that matter -- can broaden one's horizons in ways that only food can. Such lessons likely prevented me from becoming one of those picky eaters we read so much about these days. Food, even the dishes I didn't like, was always an experience, not a chore.
There's no better window into another culture, no more visceral an experience than supping in ways foreign and exciting. After all, taste buds need no translation. Having people to share it with doesn't hurt either.