Sushi And The City

Sushi does not have a monopoly on beautiful men and women. Having worked in restaurants offering lighter, and more delicate, versions of classic French and Italian cuisines- cuisines almost always associated with romance- I have served food to my share of beautiful men and women. They came in all shapes and sizes, ages, sexual preferences, and socio-economic-cultural backgrounds. They were people who simply loved to eat good, healthy food. But, invariably, they liked to do this in the company of others.  It was only while peddling sushi that I began to notice a recurring trend: there was a growing number of that unduly stigmatized restaurant phenomenon – the solitary diner. They would often saunter in with a book tucked under their arm or, increasingly, earphones plugged into smartphones. Happy as abalone, and mostly women.

I have a theory for why Japanese restaurants seem to draw a disproportionate number of loners: the sushi bar. The experience is similar in spirit with the bar at your local watering hole. The fish in the glass fridge feels like the selection of beers on tap and the sushi chef is as present as the bartender behind the counter. However, here in Toronto, there isn’t the kind of banter across the sushi bar that you would get at a pub. There are reasons for this, not the least of which is the obvious language barrier. With so many sushi chefs being recent arrivals to Canada, they don’t always have the dexterity in English to carry on a protracted conversation. They work in silence most of the time, reading and executing the orders coming up on their printer just as you yourself are reading (Madame Bovary) and executing (I will never have a three-year affair with a dude called Rodolphe behind my husband’s back) the orders of your own life. Furthermore, a shared sushi bar etiquette is lacking here. A Korean sushi chef responds differently to a guest then a Japanese or Chinese one does. Part of it is about the nuances of cultural difference, but most of it is due to the rituals around eating sushi in public places in a city like Toronto. It is very unlike, for instance, public displays of sushi etiquette in Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai.

In my sushi making classes, 75% of the participants are women…and single. Most of them arrive either by themselves or with other single women. I know they are single because they tell me so. My last sushi making class, on Saturday May 14th, was no different. Mostly single women with other single women, looking to have some fun while learning a thing or two about one of their favorite cuisines. Between Jaime and Nicole; Tara and Samantha; Terri and Wing, only one of them had a “significant other” who was a man, and she didn’t bother bringing him along. Jaime Hackett, a young half Korean and Irish single professional, shared an insight that seemed to express a vital truth about the lack of male participation in my classes.

“I would rather do something fun with a girlfriend,” she said, “then go and drink beer at a bar watching UFC with a boy I’m dating. Chances are, he wouldn’t be interested in making sushi with me.”

It points to that soft spot in heterosexual relationship issues, even in this day and age, where men and women still play out their roles in the ancient rituals of gender .

“It’s a macho thing,” she said, laughing. “He doesn’t want to appear like some domesticated animal.”

The beautiful women of The Broken Heel Diaries were also in attendance that night, brought along by Jess Sanchez, BHD’s kind and formidable executive editor and communications director. Jess wrote up a lovely piece about the event, with some amazing photos: The Broken Heel Diaries. I didn’t have a chance to ask Jess, Andrea, Elyse, Safra or Maram if they had male partners in their lives and, if so, why they didn’t bring them along, but my sense was that, if they did, they were just as happy to leave them at the bar, watching sports. I assumed that it was just a “girls night out”. The fact that they work together may have also played a role: they wanted some extra-curricular bonding time.

Even still, the fact of the matter was that they were all women.

A perception, important more to women then men- and mostly right- is that Japanese cuisine, especially sushi, is not only good for you, but also keeps you slim. My personal experience corroborates this perception. In all my dealings with Japanese people, here and abroad, I have never met an obese Japanese woman. The only “fat” people are Sumo wrestlers- all men- who deliberately stuff themselves with thousands of good calories a day to transform the fat in their bodies into titanic slabs of immovable muscle. (There are, of course, like all the other cultures that truly pride themselves for their culinary offerings, some exceptions to the rule.) There seems to be an intuitive understanding of this over on this side of the pond. Hence, so many young people enjoy eating sushi because they understand one of the fundamental principles about living in a big and cosmopolitan city, where appearance is just as important as substance: if food is fashion, most young people prefer Calvin Klein over Christian Lacroix: lighter, more natural, lacking pretense, and with a desire to exhibit more flesh than textile. Most men, myself included, well, we’re too busy watching UFC and eating 5lbs of chicken wings, with sauce-stained over-sized sweatshirts, to think about these matters.

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