Tuesday, February 12, 2008


THE RECURRING SURPRISE OF NO DESSERT


I've been living in Japan for quite a while now and have gotten so used to the Japanese style of eating, and to the absence of any form of what even long-term expat Americans like myself at the end of their meals would honestly refer to as "dessert," and to the absence of any form of dessert-focused foodstands along the roadways of this well-driven land, like the Carvels etc. of my early years in America and the Ben & Jerry's and Cheesecake Factories of today, that I'd come to consider myself free of those calorific chains.

The early years in Japan were pretty frustrating, though, to a native pie-and-ice-creamist - if I wanted any dessert in 1972 Japan, I had a choice between a small dish of canned fruit or a golfball of ice cream (i.e. vanilla; hasn't changed much since). A request for chocolate was like asking if they had any moon fragments on the premises.

As a result of protracted denial in extremis, the Japanese approach slowly became my way of life, and over the decades I stopped associating the meal terminus with a sweet explosion. Indeed, dessert seems repellent to me from here, though when I go back to the states I usually have to try my teeth on pie a la mode at least once after an American-sized meal (enough to make it across the continent in a wagon train), to see if I can still believe I used to do that every day. Each trip, it gets harder to believe.

Generally speaking (when speaking of dessert, always leave a loophole), dessert now strikes me not so much like a chocolate creme pie in the face as somewhat of a death-defying practice, to top off an adequate meal (80% full stomach) with a calorific time bomb, and every time I go back to America I behold in the flesh the results of the great national dessert experiment. So I would have thought that by now the hefty finale would be fully alien to me, well erased from my way of being, but as I found out from within not long ago, I remain American at the core.

It happened not long ago, when the family went to a local restaurant that's part of a Japanese countryside food chain whose menu we enjoy when we're on the road-- all kinds of fish and vegetables cooked in all kinds of country ways, just good plain food. It's the kind of setup where you select your own dishes from the simple, tastefully prepared choices on offer in the bright, roomy place, you go along the counter and take the dishes you like, request rice and miso shiru and can heat up whichever of your selected dishes in a microwave if you so desire...

But this day, as I was cruising along and had reached the end of the offerings - the point at which only the water/hot tea selection remained - I was filled with a vestigial yearning, but I didn't know what for, as I stood there holding my small tray, in that kind of trance like when you reach the top of the stairs and stand there wondering what you came upstairs for... then it hit me like a ton of cellulite: there were no desserts!

There were no pies, no cakes, no cupcakes, no cookies even, no key lime pie, no brownies, no pecan pie, no fudge, no tubs of ice cream, no banana splits - no sundaes at all - no Devil's Food, no mousse, no banana cream pie, no New York cheesecake - my mind went automatically down the long list that I merely high-point here - no lemon/raspberry/chocolate syrup or whipped cream to heap atop any or all the aforegoing, no hard or soft candies even, no chocolate milkshakes or ice-cream sandwiches, not even a frozen Mars bar-- about the closest thing to all that arterial delight was a dish of fried sweet potato slices, and for a surreal moment I felt lost in that dessertless place, a foreigner in a strange land… I shook my head to clear it of empty-caloried visions, lamented the absence of ginger ale and got some water.

While working to enjoy my simple meal with nothing at the end of it, my old American appetite and I observed the many Japanese customers go through the line; not one of them, not even the kids, looked lost at the water. They were born here.

9 comments:

Mage And George said...

Perhaps one day, one of us should research the history of deserts in the US. I never used to eat them until I met my dearest George. We now are chocolate addicts.

But what a lovely essay. Thank you.

Bob Brady said...

Thanks, M&G.

Turns out I'm an addict too, of all those listed and intimated desserts (the length of the post would have at least doubled if I expanded even a little), to say nothing of chocolate. I have found a superb Italian semi-sweet chocolate here, though, to which I am not addicted, just internationalizing...

Let me know if/when you start your dessert research (a major project to say the least), I'm sure I could contribute in a small way, from around the world...

David said...

I, too, am an American-born long-term resident of Japan, and like you, living here I fell out of the desert habit. I do, however, tend to indulge at least a time or two when I'm back in the new world, but I agree that after a hearty meal desert is really not the thing. I've found that if one is going to do desert, it's best to make a meal of it. Cold Stone ice cream or (insert your favorite sweet indulgence here) makes a fine lunch once in a way.

Bob Brady said...

Cold stone ice cream David where you get Cold Stone ice cream, Cold Stone ice cream you said, just wondering...

Pam said...

How fitting that I read this post while enjoying my ritual post-dinner piece of chocolate.
I've noticed I'm fairly resistant to a full-fledged desert in winter, but in summer, when all the local seasonal ice cream pushers are in business, it's a whole different story.
In restaurants, ordering a salad as an entree and then ending with desert works for me sometimes. If I order a "normal" (make those extra big quotation marks in you mind) meal I usually can't fathom desert by the end of things. (Although I have been known to take home half or more of an entree if I spy some spectacular desert on the menu.)

David said...

Bob:

I get my Cold Stone in the States, of course. I've heard rumor of one in Ikebukuro (Tokyo) but I haven't sought it out.

D

Mary Lou said...

Not even RICE pudding? ;)

tracy said...

I NEED to live there in Japan...

Xibee said...

HAHHHHAAAAAAAHHHAAAAHHHAAAAAAAHHHAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA moon fragments!!!
HAHHHHAAAAAAAHHHAAAAHHHAAAAAAAHHHAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh, how well I remember those looks.