Knowing that I love Japanese food, my boyfriend surprised me one day with a worn copy of “American Cooking in Japan,” written by Elizabeth Patterson in 1952. He found it at a local used bookstore. The book’s binding is disintegrating, its pages tissue-thin and yellowed from age.
The foreword explains that the book was intended to serve as a tool for Americans residing in U.S. occupation houses in Japan after World War II. “Borne out of simple motives of self-defense and convenience,” Patterson writes, American housewives were supposed to use the book to teach their Japanese kitchen help how to prepare typical American meals. It was a way to help homesick families cope with being stationed so far away. As I read through the recipes, it occurred to me that many of the dishes in Patterson’s book resemble foods my father would make for me as he coped with being a single parent.
Similar to the audience of Patterson’s book, my father served in WWII, but was stationed in France, not Japan, and even stormed the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. I was born long after his return home, when he was 60. He passed away decades ago, when I was at an age more intent on watching MTV than paying attention to his descriptions of what war was like for him. I regret that now — my disinterest in his experiences; my lack of effort in understanding his struggles.
For the last seven years of his life, my father raised me as a single parent. Even before that, he always shouldered the daily responsibility of parenting me — he retired by the time I turned 5, and my mother worked. Memories of meals with him are few and fading now, as fragile as the pages of Patterson’s book. What was it like to be a senior citizen responsible for my snack packs? How much of how he fed me was shaped as a result of his time in service?
I recall one time after my mother left and I was missing her, I asked my father if he could cook some trout like she used to do. My mother is Filipino, and after my parents divorced, she went back to live in the Philippines for several years when I was growing up. One of my favorite food memories from my childhood is her trout, simply steamed, coupled with the time and care she would take to pick all of the tiny bones from the flesh before serving it to me with soy sauce and rice.
My father refused and acted upset that I had made such a request of him, saying the smell of fish reminded him of the smell of dead bodies during the war. I was 12 and that was quite a visual. I never asked him again.
The typical dinners were frozen, reminiscent of mess hall trays, with their individual compartments containing freezer-burned chocolate brownies or mushy corn kernels soaked in melted margarine.
Thinking about it now, I realize a great deal of what he cooked for me was nearly devoid of fresh food, and very light on actual cooking. I remember my father loving potatoes O’Brien, but the Ore-Ida variety, frozen in a bag. Occasionally, he would make a hamburger soup with canned peas and a stock made from instant bouillon cubes. Most of what he cooked involved merely opening a package or reheating in a toaster oven. I have no idea whether he had impressive knife skills because I don’t remember him ever slicing anything beyond the crust off my sandwiches.
The typical dinners were frozen. My favorites were Kid Cuisine or Marie Callender’s, reminiscent of mess hall trays, with their individual compartments containing freezer-burned chocolate brownies or mushy corn kernels soaked in melted margarine. If I was sick, he’d nurse my cold with packets of ramen, or Nissin cup noodles, with bits of rehydrated carrots floating about. My vitamins came from chewable Flintstones or glasses of Hi-C. Strawberry and lime Jell-O counted toward my fruit intake.
Like my father’s cuisine, many of the vintage recipes in Patterson’s book rely heavily on canned ingredients. These include American classics like tuna noodle casserole and tomato soup. Flipping through the pages, the recipes are humorous and even slightly disgusting, but they were nonetheless creative considering the scarcity of food at the time.
Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetables and always has been, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I finally tasted the fresh variety. Growing up, asparagus came from a can, and I loved it. Its dull, olive hue and metallic taste. The mushy texture. Patterson’s book includes a recipe for “creamed asparagus,” and out of nostalgia, I recently decided to try my hand at cooking it.
To say I “cooked” the recipe is a bit of a stretch, as the directions don’t involve much cooking or skill so long as you have a can opener standing by. The ingredients are only one can of asparagus, salt, pepper, and butter. You empty the can of asparagus into the pan, heat it, and then add the butter, salt, and pepper. Presto. It’s so easy, my father could have done it.
As soon as the heat hit the pan, the very distinctive canned asparagus aroma I remembered from my childhood began wafting through the house. Undeterred by this olfactory assault, I pressed on. I plated a few spears nicely, drizzled some of the liquid from the pan over the top, and dug in.
Patterson’s book was written for American housewives in Japan in the 1950s but mirrors the stuff my father was feeding to me in the ’80s. The war shaped how my father approached food for the rest of his life, which, in turn, shaped my own food preferences. Patterson’s creamed asparagus dish may not have been gourmet, but I savored it. The asparagus tasted precisely how I remembered it, which was exactly what I had been missing.
Danielle Laprise is a freelance writer residing in St. Louis, Missouri. Find her at daniellelaprise.com.