Tolstoy was only half right: while it is true that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, not all happy families are all alike.
Our sushi workshops frequently parachute me into the homes of families, usually those with young children, and, more often than not, into affluent homes, where families can afford to create one-of-a-kind sushi parties. (Part of the proceeds from these private workshops go toward subsidizing the work we do in public schools and libraries, high-risk communities, and charities that carry the workload of extending open arms to the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. It is our own small way of what we call “rolling it forward”, and Sushi Making For The Soul was founded with this in mind.)
When Charley was asked what she wanted to do for her 10th birthday, there was no question: a sushi party with her besties and her younger sister, Paige. It was an all-out Japanese affair: from the decked-out dining room, to the traditional kimono dresses and sun umbrellas, and finished with Charley’s mom’s jaw-dropping home-made sushi cupcakes.
From the moment I entered their home, there was unencumbered enthusiasm, Paige in particular wild with anticipation. Charley and her friends were savvy, smart, and, on this day, created sushi most adults would have envied. They were also unusually literate about issues around food insecurity and literacy. But there was also something else, something particular about the energy in the home—something that struck me as unique, and which I couldn’t put my finger on until days later. And this brings me back to the opening line of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina.
At workshops for children and young people, which comprises a third of the private events we do, I often feel like a sociologist working the “field”. From downtown condos to palatial residences on the Bridal Path or Rosedale; from dining rooms to church basements, backyards and libraries, I am making mental notes and mobilizing some inner Geiger counter to collect “data”- mostly qualitative- about the nature of happiness. The subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of a comparatively happy child has become an unofficial area of study for me. And having engaged with so many such children, I’m confident I have a good intuitive feel for it.
At Charley’s, there was a genuine sense of delight and curiosity, yes, but these qualities exuded not only from the children, but also her parents, Elyse and Dax, as well. Between Charley and Paige and their parents, it was a house filled with a touching light and warmth. To be frank, one of the better examples in recent sushi workshops of an examined family life, driven with an animated joyfulness at its core.
So, afterwards, I did something I never do: I asked Charley’s parents for insights into the “secrets of familial happiness”. I think it gave them pause, something more to chew on than just a California Roll. It is in our nature to get to the bottom of why we are unhappy and we do so with uncommon zeal. By the billions of dollars, therapists and pharmaceutical companies have banked on this quest. But how to articulate something so mysterious, possibly elusive, as happiness? After all, traps are sprung to catch rats, not kittens.
Elyse grew up in a Jewish household in Toronto and Dax in a Christian home in Sarnia. Both come from families with deeply-entrenched religious and cultural traditions, but Elyse is matter-of-fact about why they came together: “same values” that allows them to “make it work”. Marriage as a verb and not some rusty noun on cinder blocks in the not-so-proverbial matrimonial junkyard. “We also both have wonderful, loving, supportive families. My kids are so lucky that both sets of grandparents adore each other.” No question the relief that comes from averting this universal kind of familial anxiety. Most of us know what it feels like to gather with extended family in a space that is wrought with tension and distrust- think Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with the in-laws. The ramifications on Charley and Paige would have been predictable if their grandparents didn’t like each other. Invariably, rancor prevails, gets passed on like a germ, and modelling a mature look-how-famously-we-all-get-along becomes all too rare.
Bell Hooks, in her book All About Love: New Vision, explains what happens to the modern family when parents choose to make diametrically opposite choices from their own parents when it comes to marriage and raising children. Without knowing, they swing the pendulum the other way and model relationships to their own children and partners after that of their grandparents. It’s a two-generation cycle, she suggests, repeating itself without much self-awareness, without an effective self-critical apparatus. It is happiness hammered out of resistance. But we also know that the other way- the “linear” or imitative marriage model- fails almost fifty percent of the time in our country. That Elyse and Dax choose to follow an imitative model is revealing. That Elyse is also a refugee lawyer offers another insightful slant: “In my job, there is often great despair. But I find happiness when I am able to help others at their darkest times.” We do that, many of us; we come alive, a fire is lit in some prehistoric part of ourselves, when we genuinely offer hope to others in the face of crushing despair. Hence, the adage she and Dax follow to the letter: “a parent is only as happy as his/her most unhappy child”- a great nugget about parenting if ever there was one. At the heart of it is empathy, which has always played the most defining role in creating a happy family, a healthy community, a better world for our children.
Perhaps, it is my own comparatively unhappy childhood that has me seeking for answers from parents like Elyse and Dax. And perhaps it is the same reason why I find so much elemental joy in engaging with children like Charley and Paige in the sushi-making process. It’s child’s play, redux.
I have no idea.
What I do know is this: a family like this one is happy in its own way and for seekers like me it might just be best to let it remain inscrutable. But for Charley and her family, it appears every birthday will always be a very happy one.
Want to know how to make a great Hawaiian classic and have a few laughs in the process? Then check out this segment.
Anyone who has ever attended any one of our sushi courses knows that the first five minutes of the powerpoint presentation is allotted to the issues of food literacy, childhood poverty, and food injustice in the Greater Toronto Area. (It is a grave problem, which I have addressed in many public speaking engagements over the years, including at TEDx and SIPO and Passages Canada, to libraries and universities across this province and Mexico.) These issues are also highlighted at every corporate sushi workshop, and companies with greater moral purpose have openly embraced this. As an organization, we have been on this mission for almost eight years and over 17,000 participants later. Let’s roll sushi and also briefly talk about bigger issues of food insecurity- who gets to eat (and eat nutritionally) and who doesn’t, and why. We do this in both stable and affluent communities and those that are vulnerable to the whims of the slightest economic and social forces.
Those who know me well, know how important this issue of food insecurity and childhood hunger is to me. It is the WHY of what I do, as it speaks profoundly from my personal life journey, one that is documented in my upcoming book “Woody Allen Ate My Kimchi” (Exile Editions, 2018). Similar journeys have been taken- are being taken today- by millions all over the world. I am overwhelmed by a great feeling of allegiance.
Therefore, it fills my heart when we receive letters and emails of thanks from the students. It bolsters our organization’s sense of purpose. And occasionally, inspired students will write a piece about their experience. On February 16, 2017, I was invited to do a sushi workshop for a class of high school students at Greenwood College, a progressive and ambitious preparatory school in one of Toronto’s most affluent neighbourhoods. None of these students in the class recalled ever knowing a day of real hunger in their lives; and with the almost certain trajectory to success, they likely never will. But this did not stop them from wanting to understand, empathize. Over the years, we have learned that our workshops are much more effective when we are not preaching to the choir (i.e. children suffering from hunger and food insecurity). It works wonders when “non-congregants”, with the moral courage to venture with genuine curiosity over to the “other side of the tracks”, wish to do something about it, in part because they have the resources to do so. Conor Alexander is one such young man. He wrote this kind blog about his experience of the workshop and the school gave us permission to share it. You can read his essay here. I want to personally thank Conor for the wonderful write-up (keep inspiring, young man!), and to Greenwood College and its tight community of parents, administrators, and teachers for inculcating and engendering this most pressing of human values in their children/students: that a successful education is not merely measured by how well-fed the bank account is; it is also about nourishing the soul. There are other such schools who in recent years have asked us to come “talk-and-roll” with their students (too many to mention here) and they deserve kudos as well.
Finally, with immense gratitude I would like to personally thank all of you (individuals and companies alike) who have paid to attend one of our workshops over the years. Part of the proceeds (5%) goes toward subsidizing our sushi workshops with children in schools, libraries, community centres, church basements etc. across this province. Through your contribution, and our workshops, you have brought a smile to a child’s day and one less nutritious meal to worry about.
Happy Pancake Day!
Watch the funny segment by clicking on the image.
And a simple, vegetarian kimchi pancake to share with your friends and family:
KOREAN KIMCHI PANCAKE RECIPE
(You can get these ingredients at any Asian supermarket ie. P.A.T, Galleria, TNT, Hmart etc.)
MAKES 6 PANCAKES
INGREDIENTS FOR BATTER:
1 cup Korean pancake mix
1 cup naturally-carbonated water
1 cup kimchi (look for one with no fish sauce), thinly chopped
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon mild gochujang (Korean chile paste)
1 teaspoon coarse gochugaru (Korean chile flakes)
1 scallion, sliced one inch segments, then cut lengthwise in half
INGREDIENTS FOR DIPPING SAUCE:
3 tablespoons of Korean soy sauce for soup
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Sprinkle coarse gochugaru on top
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, except for oil and dipping sauce ingredients
Refrigerate the bowl for 15 minutes
Add oil to skillet and set the burner to medium-high heat
When the oil begins to give off a nice sheen, ladle ½ cup of batter (enough for one pancake)
Bring the heat down to medium-low and fry for 4-5 minutes until golden-brown on the edges
Flip the pancake over and fry for another 3-4 minutes (longer if you like it crispy)
Repeat with remaining batter ie. slick with oil, heat up, batter, heat down etc.
Place finished pancake on a plate lined with a paper towel (to remove the excess oil) and cut into any shape you like.
Serve with dipping sauce
Three of our most popular classes are now up for the month of February. Book soon because it is limited seating and these classes are historically the quickest sell-outs. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
VALENTINE’S DAY LOVERS EDITION: COUPLES ONLY SATURDAY FEB 11th + TUESDAY FEB 14th, 7pm-10pm
Two classes are on offer. Begins with a presentation on the theme of romance and sushi. Edamame snack to begin. You and your partner make 8 sushi rolls together. Dessert treat at the end. Candlelight, great music. All about kindling and re-kindling that spark through sushi with your partner. Vegetarians, Vegans and Pescatorians all equally welcome! $100 (+HST) per couple. A selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are also available for purchase during the class.
FAMILY DAY FUN CLASS: FAMILIES ONLY: MONDAY FEBRUARY 20th, 5pm-7pm
Specially discounted class on Family Day. The workshop is 1.5 hours long. Everybody makes four sushi rolls each- this is your dinner for the night. This class is all about bonding between children (8-18 years of age) and between parents and children. *Parents do not have to participate. This workshop is nut, shellfish, dairy, MSG and Gluten-free! Children: $20 (+HST). Adults: $25 (+HST).
NIGIRI + SASHIMI CLASS: SATURDAY FEBRUARY 25th, 7pm-9:30pm