Eating Authors: Juliette Wade

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Juliette Wade

Full disclosure, I’m writing this more than a week before you will see it. Why? Because last Monday I was admitted to the hospital for my bone marrow transplant procedure, and based on several lines of probability, the odds were pretty good that I might be feeling like crap by today or maybe just completely brain fogged. So, we instead fall back on time travel.

One of the problems with time travel is that it creates unrequited anticipation. Which is almost a segue to this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, because I feel like I have been waiting for ages to feature Juliette Wade here.

Like me, Juliette loves languages. Over the years we’ve indulged in many conversations about English, assorted foreign languages (especially Japanese), and the way language is used, misused, and represented in science fiction. We done this in private chats, in groups, and even on panels at conventions. So, yes, I’ve wanted to have her for a long time, and now that her first novel, Mazes of Power, is being released tomorrow, she’s finally here!

LMS: Welcome at last, Juliette! Tell me, please, the tale of your most memorable meal.

JW: Choosing a single memorable meal was quite a task for me, I guess because I love seeking out interesting dining experiences! I love to explore the world and experience the way that food reflects the culture and people surrounding it. Today I’m going to tell you about a meal I had that reminds me of a meal depicted in my novel, Mazes of Power. In the book, one of the protagonists goes with his father to an exclusive club and dines in a private room with a cadre of specially assigned servers.

Our meal took place in 2001. I had been living in Tokyo with my husband for about a year, while he worked at Office Depot Japan and I did research on cultural clashes in Japanese language instruction for my Ph.D. My parents came to visit us. We decided we were going to host them and pull out all the stops, so we reserved a room at this fantastic sukiyaki restaurant in Asakusa, called Chin-ya.

Chin-ya is one of the most amazing restaurants I’ve ever been to. It’s been in continuous operation as a restaurant for 130 years, but before that it was a pet shop. If that change of mission seems surprising, yes, it surprised me, too! I can’t do better than to quote from their self-description: “In the Edo period (1603-1867), our shop was commonly known as ‘Chin-ya’ (‘The Pekingese shop’) because we supplied daimyo feudal lords and wealthy merchants with pets, including Pekingese dogs, and also operated a veterinary service. When the shop became a restaurant in 1880, we decided to retain the nickname ‘Chin-ya.’ We became a specialty sukiyaki restaurant in 1903.” Perhaps needless to say, Chin-ya has turned surpassingly good sukiyaki into an art form.

Mazes of Power

One of the things I love about this restaurant is that you can walk into it off the street and eat in their dining room quite easily as a tourist. That was how we originally tried the place. On this occasion, though, we got the private room.

We were escorted in and we had our own team of servers who were very formal about how they seated us, and also had a particular method of entering and exiting the room. Our family sat around a large table, one large enough to contain heating elements so we could cook our food on it. Sukiyaki involves large, beautiful plates of thinly sliced raw beef and vegetables, and you cook it on the table in front of you.

The server started by turning on the heating element under the pans, which were shallow and made of metal. She greased the pans with a piece of beef suet held in a pair of serving chopsticks. Then she added a specially prepared cooking broth called warishita from a small pitcher, and put a first round of food in to cook. After the first round, we were called upon to continue adding raw food to the pan for ourselves. When the food was cooked, we ate it by dipping it in a small bowl of beaten raw egg, and then eating it with white rice from a separate small bowl. It was delicious, and included familiar flavors like beef, tofu, and shiitake mushroom, but also the less familiar flavor of chrysanthemum leaves.

A truly wonderful restaurant experience is about so much more than just the food. It was wonderful to share this place with my parents, who were already fans of sukiyaki, and give them a really special gift for their visit. It was amazing for me and my husband to be in a place in our lives where we could be the hosts. And the full experience of the welcome, the escort, the service that both got you started on your meal and taught you how to continue it, and the experience of being drawn into continuing a practice that has been ongoing for over 100 years, just turned the whole thing into something multi-dimensional and legendary.

Thanks, Juliette. It sounds like a legendary experience. Still, I feel like they should have given you a Pekingese on the way out.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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