Ms.Etsuko Kobayashi (44)
"And now,it's my pleasure to declare the start of the Cafe Lunch Contest."
The woman MC's voice reverberated around the hall and there was an understandable sense of tension in the air.I had never even heard the words "cafe lunch" before,but I had made it through to the final round of the contest.
The event had been organized by the Agriculture,Forestry and Fisheries Department of our local prefecture to promote local produce,especially with the objective of encouraging today's younger generation to eat more rice.Entrants were asked to indicate which person they would like to eat their food and whom they would like to eat with.Images began to take shape in my head.I wondered how I could create the traditional flavors of Akita and who should taste them.I thought of my mother.Since my father passed away,she has been living alone.I wanted to invite her to our house and give her a taste of our local cooking.It would look splendidly European but would taste traditionally Japanese.This would be a cafe lunch for old people.Yes,that's it! That's probably just about perfect.I had decided the menu without a second thought.
There were three categories in the contest: open,high-school,and parent-child.This last one was the obvious choice for me to enter with my son.I told him,"I'll make everything and enter the competition.If we're selected for the final round,we'll have to make the food in person in front of the judges.Will you be there for me?" He agreed to appear without the apprehension I had expected.Now I had to put words into action.I got the entry forms.I went out and bought all the ingredients.Then I set to work making the dishes.I started by cooking the rice.It took half a day to complete all the dishes,but I quite enjoyed it.No,I really had fun making that meal! Then I waited for the kids to come home from school.They would help me serve the food and take the pictures.Then I could enter the competition the following day.I was satisfied with this food on the table.
Bringing up kids had consumed most of my married life.Shortly after our wedding,I had been diagnosed with a condition that would progressively blind me.Each day became more and more of a trial,but I did my best to make sure that I prepared the meals for the kids.I mostly used local produce and made dishes that were,to use today's trendy phrase,"slow food." But the local farmers use organic methods to farm,and sometimes the leaf vegetables are ridden with insects.I couldn't see the bugs,of course,but the kids would help themselves to the vegetables anyway,without saying a word.No,actually when they were really young,they made a big fuss and wouldn't even touch greens with their chopsticks.But as they got older,they would pick out the bugs in silence.The menu I chose for the cooking contest consisted of dishes that I had made over those years.
Three months passed after I signed up for the contest.Then one evening,as I was preparing dinner,I got a phone call.I was overjoyed! The voice was telling me that we had been chosen for the championship finals and that the organizers were looking forward to seeing my son and me there.
I was worried stiff.I would be expected to prepare four dishes inside 90 minutes.In a completely unfamiliar kitchen,those 90 minutes would fly by in an instant.Maybe I should withdraw from the competition.But this was a chance in a million.I wanted to take part with my son.
I told the organizers that I was blind and that I would need an assistant.They were very understanding.I was told that it was OK to bring along prepared dishes,so I would make two of the four dishes at home before the competition day.I would get my son to make the two dishes that could only be made on the day.We would get by somehow.I could feel the day fast approaching when I would be standing there cooking with my son.
The competition day came.After the opening ceremony,the live cooking performances began.The assistant arranged the utensils for us and operated the oven,but my son did most of the cooking.Somehow or other,we made it.We had to make a total of three portions for the judges and for a photo shoot.Again the assistant helped us in several ways,like wiping away sauce around the edge of the plate to improve the appearance.I was very grateful.
At presentation time,after explaining the various dishes,I added this comment,"Mom,from your daughter,who made the salad and the sushi,and your grandson,who cooked the meat,we hope this meal could satisfy your heart and your stomach.That's why we made it."
As I put down the microphone,I felt really relaxed and satisfied.And I felt so thankful to my son,who had taken me to the hall and looked after some of the more hazardous parts of the cooking.