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Home away from home

Nancy Singleton Hachisu

TheFarm Cook

Californian Nancy Singleton Hachisu took country-style living and cooking in Japan to heart, and now she shares what she’s discovered with the rest of the world.

The tofu is cubed, the scallions are diced, and the katsuobushi (smoked, dried skipjack tuna) is shaved and simmering on the burner. Fresh local red leaf lettuce is patted dry and torn sparingly. There are children singing in the next room. As soon as the song is finished, they pour into the dining room and mill around the wooden tables, pulling out chairs, sitting down, and unfolding brightly colored cloth napkins at their places. Today’s lunch fare is simple but incredibly wholesome and local, using ingredients sourced from the fields and rice paddies surrounding the little wooden schoolhouse. The children, aged one to five, dig in to the grilled ginger pork sandwiches and miso soup with strips of usuage (thin fried tofu).

Nancy Singleton Hachisu has a lot on her plate, including putting food on everyone else’s plates. Her first book, Japanese Farm Food, told the story of her family’s farmhouse, their community, and the food that fills every aspect of their lives. Published in 2012, the book has received wide acclaim from dozens of outlets, sold over thirty thousand copies, and was featured at a launch party at California’s famed Chez Panisse Café. That led to further book deals, international engagements and TV appearances, including a regular spot on a national variety show.

Hachisu first came to Japan from California in 1988, and soon met farmer Tadaaki Hachisu, the tall, lithe cowboy of a man nicknamed “Rodrigo” who would become her husband. Together, they built their first house on a plot of family land, a cedar structure with soaring ceilings and a loft under the rafters. Hachisu soon began giving English lessons out of their home while beginning to raise a family and helping out on the farm. Hachisu had always had a passion for food, and the idea of writing a cookbook was always there in the background. “I’ve spent my whole life cooking, since I was a child,” she says.

Her three children grew, as did her school and her desire to write a cookbook. After several years, the English lessons became a full-fledged, food-focused English immersion kindergarten, with daily home-cooked lunches. “The school has always been my mainstay marker, but food has been my constant driving force,” she notes, “so I always wanted to write cookbooks.” The family gave the cedar house over to the school and renovated the ancestral homestead to accommodate three generations. Hachisu also gave cooking lessons to local women, and remodeled the old farm kitchen in a concession to comfort and her passion.

Hachisu initially thought she might like to do a cookbook with recipes for things like gratins and stews and risottos. But as she got more entrenched in the farming community around her and the food traditions therein, it became apparent that she was destined to create a different book, one that encompassed her daily life of farming, raising food, teaching, and making relationships with the agricultural folks around her, especially the organic producers.

“Organic doesn’t just mean you’re not using pesticides in the field,” Hachisu says. “Organic means you have to put your hand in the field. That’s the difference for me, that the more a thing gets touched, the more there’s a human element in it.” Her miso and soy sauce, for example, are made from scratch in the community using locally sourced organic soybeans and wheat.

Making a connection between people, community and food is vital, and Hachisu worries about the overreliance on mass-produced convenience food. “My goal for all of this is to have a voice about food,” Hachisu states. “I would like people to cook more. And I worry about the children, and the fact that the air is not as clean as it was when I was growing up. The water is not as clean, either. You can’t do anything about that, so what else can you do to put clean stuff into their bodies? Well, food is something you have complete control over.” She tries to instill these community values, along with the satisfaction of good farm food, in her students—and in fact her school is known for its food and community focus.

Japanese Farm Food has been published in English and French, with a Dutch translation and a stripped-down Japanese version coming out later this year. Her second book, a pickling volume entitled Preserving the Japanese Way, will be released in August 2015, and her third, a Japan-wide cookbook, is currently in the works.

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