Plate Lunch

One cannot survive on papayas and pineapple alone so we have been exploring food options. We’d both been jonesing for teishoku, the standard Japanese meal of rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables and a main dish, usually grilled fish or meat, maybe a small salad. There was a tiny place in our old neighborhood called Take (Bamboo) run by a husband/wife team. It was top class without being expensive. We miss it.

We had been advised that a fine way to feed oneself in this land of high prices and junk food is the plate lunch. In most cases, they take the form of some sort of meat, a scoop of macaroni salad and a scoop or two of rice, all for a reasonable price. Most restaurants offer them but we have found our comfort zone is best served by drive-ins. For one thing, they’re self-service so tipping is optional and tipping drives Rochi nuts. Also, large quantities of rice are always on tap, enough to fill his hollow Asian legs.

Our current favorite is Blane’s Drive Inn. For one thing, it’s on Waianuenue Avenue, which I am now proud to be able to both pronounce and spell. For another, it’s just down the street from the Hilo Public Library, one of the most comfortable I’ve ever seen, an oasis in the middle of…paradise. OK, that’s an oxymoron but it’s still a very nice library.

Blane’s has good sandwiches, burgers, bentos and of course, plate lunches, all at very reasonable prices. The seating is outdoors, covered and reasonably quiet. Rochi is always pleased with fried eggs and Portuguese sausage. The kalua (pulled) pork is bounteous. The grilled cheese is hot and crisp. (I dare you to find a grilled cheese sandwich in Tokyo.) The fries are first rate.

Just don’t expect too much. And don’t expect any vegetables–you don’t go to MacDonald’s and order filet Mignon. The last time we went there, I tried papaya chicken and discovered that you can’t cook papaya; it turns into flavorless globs of watery kindergarten paste. And the miso soup is awful–more watery kindergarten paste, and my teacher told me not to eat that.

So a plate lunch is filling, reasonably priced and pretty close to home cooking. It just isn’t teishoku. No matter how many times you look at a papaya and say ‘banana’, it will still be a papaya. So the lessons learned are 1) the very best food you can possibly have is the food you cook yourself but 2) don’t cook papaya, 3) if you accept things as they are without expectations, you can’t really be disappointed and 4) ice cream can clear away the memory of just about any culinary disaster.

What’s Ahead

When I got off the plane at Narita airport in 1986 it suddenly struck me that despite my college education I was deaf, dumb and illiterate. I spoke not a word of Japanese and therefore understood even less. Reading was a total mystery. In time I learned to communicate pretty well, but never got beyond the reading level of a second grader. So part of the ongoing euphoria of life in my new home is being able to read. I still can’t do a “quick run” to the store because I have to dawdle in the aisles, reveling in my ability to read. The irony there is that I still don’t know what a lot of the stuff is. I recognize Stove Top and Pop Tarts and Kraft Mac and Cheese, but I have no clue about the Portuguese and Philippine stuff. The kiddie cereals and sugary drinks are just scary, although I do wax nostalgic at times. “Ah, Froot Loops. Never tried them; never will.”

Road signs are a source of glee. Tootling along the roadways in my little Honda, I challenge myself to interpret their meaning. I love ‘Mowing ahead’ (a guy on his John Deere, butt crack showing, anticipating a cold brewsky at end of day) and ‘Caution: Tree trimming’ (Mrs. Claus and the elves hard at work with tinsel and twinkly lights).

Sometimes, my own silliness overwhelms me with giggles.

Just around the bend there is a hill, waving a broomstick in the air, unable to make contact with an elusive pinata.

A driveway crouches by the roadside, its sweaty palms pressed against its eyes, thinking ‘They can’t see me so I’m safe,’ much like George hiding under the covers on our bed whenever someone comes to visit.

Sweet

For many years, I had believed that pineapple comes in identical rings packed in heavy syrup in cans. But today we found this prickly looking thing in the garden and inside it turned out to be as sweet and juicy as a baby’s bottom. Further, we learned that we should plunk the top back into the garden and in six months or so should have another. Apparently, this is normal. Things grow in the dirt, you eat the parts you like, chuck the rest back in the dirt and Mother Nature gives you more. Wow. If that’s not unconditional love, I will swallow my own flip-flops.

But in a moment of reflection, questions and concerns started to percolate like the coffee in the pot on my grandma’s stove. Was my understanding of order in the universe based on cotton candy spun across a chasm of false assumptions?

I spent some time with Mr. Google and discovered that meat doesn’t come into existence neatly wrapped in plastic and displayed under flattering light at the supermarket. Chocolate milk doesn’t come from chocolate cows. Processed cheese doesn’t have any actual cheese in it and calling it ‘food’ is playing fast and loose with Noah Webster’s patience.

The veils of innocence have been swept away. As my wondering eyes slowly open onto a new and exotic world, I am full of wonder. Does Santa have an actual bowlful of jelly? Are visions of sugarplums actually dancing prunes? Does the Easter bunny really lay eggs? Do leprechauns not drink green beer? Do unicorns not poop jelly beans? Are Peeps actually birds? And if so, are the birds hopping around in my garden also stuffed with marshmallow?


With all of those tantalizing thoughts doing the fandango inside my head, I remember that my doctor has told me not to eat sweet fruit like bananas and pineapples.

Pineapples.

PINEAPPLES!

Where medical instructions go, I tend to be pretty obedient. I mean, doctors go to school for about a bazillion years so probably know what they’re talking about. But Mother Nature has seen fit to provide me with a golden gift conjured from mere sunshine and lava dust, and I dare not scoff at unconditional love. So thank you, Dr. Sara, you seem caring and dedicated and I deeply appreciate your concern for my health, but I am going to eat that pineapple, and others like it, and I am going to enjoy it.

The Almighty O

The air is thick with tension in the secret, soundproof room in the basement of the White House. The men seated around the polished wooden table are dressed in suits with thin, black ties or uniforms festooned with ribbons and metals. A hush falls as the loudest one speaks.

“Gentlemen, can’t we call this quits? I think we’ve wasted enough time here and I’m sick of listening to everyone blowing smoke. As we all know, I already know everything there is to know and nobody’s opinion but mine matters anyway. And here’s what I think. I’m tired of the little man with the bad haircut trying to push us around. We have more power than anyone else in the universe and I know from hard experience that the only way to get ahead is to ignore everyone and take what you want. It’s the Bull in the China Shop Theory and it never fails. So I’m going to open this alligator skin designer briefcase and push the button so we can wipe the little man off the face of the earth and I can get back to saying inane things on Twitter.”

And that’s just what happens. He places the briefcase on the table and snaps the fasteners open. Inside, though, he finds not one but two buttons. One is labeled “Nuclear War”. The other says “Nucular War”. The first will unleash several tons of horrific destruction and leave most of the Earth uninhabitable for generations to come, perhaps for all eternity. The second will unleash several tons of SpaghettiOs onto the head of the person who pushes it.

The future of humanity rests on this moment.

The man reaches out, hesitates, takes a deep breath and…

SPLAT!

Boys and girls, that is why we owe our souls to the Almighty O.

The Great Tree Massacre

I was in the kitchen this morning kneading bread, trying to work past my resentment of the chainsaws whining next door. The one, the only, good thing about the people next door was the magnificent monkey pod tree at the back of their property. Now they are having it cut down, branch by agonizing branch, week by agonizing week. I hear the gut-wrenching scream of the chainsaw and then a loud crack and then another stately limb falls to its death. It feels like the tree is being tortured, slowly and with malice, wounded stumps protruding from the trunk, slowly emerging bald spots in its scalp shorn of deep green leaves. I don’t want to look, but can’t not look.

As I worked, I heard a thump outside a front window, both too soft and to loud for the wind. Twitch, napping on a cushion in a patch of sunlight, looked up briefly but seemed unconcerned.

Clasping my flour-coated hands, I padded toward the window. I peered at the glass and saw a tiny feather stuck to it. Several others were scattered across the concrete ledge under the window. I guessed that one of the little grey birds that twitter around our garden had flown into the glass, perhaps intoxicated by the scent of the gardenia bush. Looking down, I didn’t see a stunned, quivering body. Looking up, I saw only a clear blue sky festooned with wisps of feather-light cloud. Twitch had already gone back to sleep.

As the bread baked, I basked in the comfort of the female scent of warm yeast, thrilled to the baby’s-bottom texture of dough against my palms, reveled in the anticipation of a warm, crusty loaf, sliced and crowned with butter and passion fruit jam.

This one fairly insignificant day in my life feels like a reflection in miniature of the world outside. Sometimes the largest and most powerful is at the mercy of something small, Goliath the Tree vs. Samson the Chainsaw. Sometimes someone small is battered by his own foolishness, my tiny avian Emperor in his New Clothes. Sometimes the simple combination of yeast and flour and milk and honey can make all of that all right.

Spam

Always a fan of new experiences, today I stood in my kitchen under the map of Hawaii and opened a can of Spam.

In my life, I have opened many cans, but never a can of Spam.

Then I made hash. I included the Spam and some sauteed breadfruit.

In my life, I have sauteed many things, but never breadfruit.

Then I fried some eggs and put them on top of the hash.

In my life, I have fried many eggs.

It was not a momentous occasion, but it was significant. From now on, whenever anyone asks if I have opened a can of Spam and eaten it with sauteed breadfruit, I can tilt my head and raise my eyebrows and say, “Why, yes. Yes, I have.”

I am a changed woman, slightly more sophisticated and worldly than I was yesterday, and all because of a can of Spam and a breadfruit.