The stateside Kameis (my brother Bob resides in Singapore) are about to gather tonight at my brother John’s for our annual Christmas Eve dinner and gift exchange. That my family always has celebrated Christmas on December 24th instead of the 25th has nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with January 1st, which is Japanese New Years.
A very important Japanese tradition is that your first meal of the new year must be “ozoni” in order to insure happiness throughout the year. Ozoni is a seaweed-flavored soup with “mochi,” which is, well, rice pounded into small disks. Hang with me, here; for centuries my people have taken this very seriously.
The preparation of mochi is its own tradition called “mochitsuki.” Mochitsuki is a special time when family and friends gather for everyone to pitch in and help make mochi. My dad’s six brothers and sisters either stayed in farming or worked in produce, married into families who also stayed in farming or produce, or were landscape gardeners. The only day they could all reliably count on not working was Christmas Day, so that was the day the Kameis all met at my Auntie Kay’s house for mochitsuki.
In the heyday, we were making mochi out of 700 pounds of rice because each family was in turn giving away mochi to their extended family and friends. This meant soaking the rice in several large buckets in advance. My dad drove our rice to my aunt’s home the day before. Early early Christmas morning my parents packed our car to the brim. Somehow we all were shoehorned in a sedan with my mom’s potluck contribution, presents, and all our mochi gear, and we made the drive from Anaheim to West LA.
Over the years my dad and uncles built an area in the Nakamura backyard especially for mochitsuki with an outdoor fireplace, an overhead covering to keep us dry in the rain, and electrical and gas outlets to be able to steam and grind the rice. My dad the engineer configured a meat grinder to make mochi the modern way, not pounding it with mallets the way they did it when my parents were growing up. All the men handled the hot rice, and all the women lined up with mochiko flour on the table and hands ready to mold the blistering hot rice into smooth little patties. One aunt and her sister-in-law were considered the most experienced and took turns standing in the place of honor at the head of the table to “cut” the steamed rice into just the right chunks for molding. There is a definite technique to making beautiful mochi, and the best examples were admired throughout the day.
The older cousins had the job of packaging the cooled mochi in wax paper and transporting them into the house to have ready for families to take home. I gradually worked my way up from the packaging line to the mochi table to be allowed to make mochi myself. It was a badge of honor to end up the day with palms red from handling the hot rice. The last batches were filled with “an,” or sweet bean paste, still my favorite.
By mid-afternoon, after the last batch of rice had made its way through the mochi transformation and while the men turned to clean-up and take-down, the women migrated into the kitchen to put out the end-all of potlucks. We all looked forward to my grandmother’s saba-zushi and my aunts’ maki-sushi.
In the dark, we helped deliver cardboard boxes of mochi to everyone’s cars and say our goodbyes. Looking back, I imagine how bone-tired my parents must have been when we finally made it back to Anaheim that night. But this is what Christmas Day was for us – not running to see what Santa had left under the tree, and cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate, or re-enacting the Nativity.
These days we are exchanging very few gifts; just for the nieces and nephews, really. For a number of years, the best gifts for me are not the kind you can put a bow around: gifts of the spirit, of love, of friendship, of time. I have had this in abundance from many these past months. This Christmas eve I also hope for the gift of answers, “coherence” for a treatment plan. My platelets have risen again to a normal count but I’m waiting to hear what the Dana-Farber doctor thinks of that and my treatment options.
We will have a Christmas prime rib tonight, but definitely will have ozoni for New Years breakfast. It’s an acquired taste, I think, but if you’re interested, I will make it for you. Merry Christmas!