My mother grew up in a large multi-generational Mexican-American household. The memories that she has shared with me often revolve around food– her grandmother rising early to make fresh tortillas every day, the chile being cooked on the stove– how they gave a bowl of beans to anyone who showed up hungry, despite the fact that they were not well-off themselves. Food is one of those defining cultural characteristics of people’s heritage. Often when language and even many customs are lost, people hold onto food. For me, Christmas would not be Christmas without the authentic biscochos and bread pudding I bake every year, the tamales that I sweat through the making of with my mom, and the big pot of posole that my cousin makes for Christmas morning breakfast. And so it is food that drives the memoir Bento Box in the Heartland by Linda Furiya.

Furiya is a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Bento Box focuses on her childhood in post-WW II Indiana. Yup, Indiana- where hers was the only Asian family in town, and where her father had settled when he came back to the US after the war.

This memoir is set up as a story of vignettes, usually revolving around one sort of food or a food theme. In those vignettes you find out about Furiya’s family, their history, and how food comes to be the main way that they try to told onto the culture in “whitebread America.” The book is brutally honest, and at times brutally painful. What is here is the voice of a little girl who never quite fit in– who was always aware of being Japanese-American, of being different (so afraid she would eat her Bento-box lunch in the bathroom rather than let the other students see the “weird” food that she ate.) As the book unfolds you discover her father’s hardship at having been a prisoner of war for years, and her mother’s hardship of giving up a career to marry a man she had never met in a country where she did not speak the language. Both grapple with the hard reality of being immigrant in America in a place where initially, they were seen with some hostility. And Furiya herself tries to make her way in a world with little extended family– most of them were in Japan, and she tried to move beyond her own narrow world and out into the greater world.

Furiya’s book focuses a lot of the act of eating, and getting ahold of traditional Japanese food (mainly when it entailed a 6 hour drive to Chicago) in a place where it was not easy to find the ingredients. There is a great chapter on a family vacation that they take just so her father can go fishing in Florida. Along the way, Furiya comes to grips with her Japanese past and her parent’s past, as well as the roles that they embody (fairly traditional.) There are moments when the book is heart-wrenching but it is also eye opening and powerful.

This is a really wonderful memoir about what it means to be a family and the immigrant experience in America. Highly recommended.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

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