The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice

3.0 out of 5 stars American Sushi

This is a book, I think, for lovers of the American-style sushi joint. This is for people who judge a hot new sushi place on the different and exciting kinds of rolls they serve, and for people who think a “Volcano Roll” or a “Mango Chutney Roll with Spicy Curry Sauce” sounds like a delectable treat.

On the other hand, if the words “Edo mae,” “Otoro” or “Omakase” have any meaning to you, if the yellow insides of a sea urchin start your mouth drooling instead of gagging, you are probably best off staying away.

Trevor Corson’s “The Story of Sushi” is not a pure history book, but instead flip-flops between sushi history in Japan and its development in the US and between telling the story of a class of students enrolled at the California Sushi Academy. The California Sushi Academy offers a 12-week course that circumvents the traditional multi-year apprenticeship system of Japan and delivers sushi-bar ready sushi chefs who are able to meet the current high demand at US restaurants.

From amongst the students Corson chose to follow Kate as his main character. A young woman of around twenty, Kate lacks confidence, has an unspecified eating disorder, is shy and inward, is terrified of her own sushi knives, has no cooking skills and is disgusted at the idea of touching a raw fish, much less cutting one. Directionless and unsure of herself, Kate borrowed money from her parents to attend the sushi school on somewhat of a whim, hoping for a career where she could socialize with customers as her main concern.

Kate is where the book starts, with chapter one, page one, and Kate is where the book fell apart for me. Obviously, Corson saw in Kate someone he hoped his audience could identify with, someone for whom sushi was still slightly “yucky” and who would be grossed out by the concept of eating octopus and squid. I was personally just annoyed by her, and found myself hoping she would drop-out instead of persevere. Her constant whining and self-doubt got to be too much, and she is the kind of character you wish your could somehow reach into the book and give a good smack on the face too.

It’s too bad, because the other students who are relegated to the side-lines seemed so much more interesting than Kate. But we don’t get to here their stories; like Takumi, the hard-working Japanese student who is secretly a pop star in Japan but escaped to the US where his anonymity allowed him to study his true love, cooking. Or even the Japanese-American girl who dropped out halfway through the course. Why? We’ll never know.

As far as the parts of the book that actually focus on sushi history, they are interesting but nothing new. A bit of time browsing wikipedia would bring you the same information, such as the invention of the California Roll by Ichiro Mashita at the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in LA in the 1960s when he found himself out of fatty tuna and decided to slip in avocado as a quick substitute, or the ins and outs of the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo where the bounty of the seas is flash-frozen and auctioned to the highest bidder.

Perhaps the lack of any real new historical information or ground to cover is what gave Corson the idea of giving over half of the book to Kate and the California Sushi Academy. If you are a real sushi novice, then perhaps much of this will be new to you and the behind-the-scenes look at the sushi school will be valuable/entertaining. Personally I just didn’t find a lot here.

On one last note: When I bought this book, it was called “The Zen of Sushi” and I see that the name has since been changed to “The Story of Sushi” which makes me happy. For someone who has “resided in Buddhist temples in Tokyo” (as it says in his author’s bio) Corson should know better than to mis-use the term “Zen” in that way.

3 Responses to “The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice”

  1. Trevor Corson Says:

    Zack, I hope that you’ll allow the following reaction of mine, the author, to be posted with your review, granting me the chance to respond.

    As a writer pursuing one’s passions and using one’s best judgments about how most effectively to tell a story about real people in real-life situations, it goes with the territory that I have to possess a thick skin when it comes to the variety of reactions that readers have to my work. When I run across a comment or review about one of my books, I always try to respect whatever I encounter, because all readers are different and bring different experiences and interests to the books. Most of the comments and reviews are positive, which is nice. When they aren’t, I try to understand why.

    But this review particularly hurt my feelings. Not because you didn’t identify with Kate — you’re not alone: some reviewers respond to Kate’s story with scorn, while most readers find her to be a character whom, while flawed, they can root for. Rather, I’m saddened because I don’t understand why your portrayal of the book makes such a point of downplaying the book’s usefulness and relevance for understanding authentic Japanese sushi, and the Japanese history and culture behind it.

    The book actually contains a great deal of information about the traditions of authentic sushi in Japan that has never been published in English before, and that brings new insight and knowledge to serious connoisseurs of sushi who don’t have scholarly interests or direct access to Japanese sources or experience — and indeed, knowledge that in my experience sometimes surprises even seasoned sushi aficionados and Japanese people as well. It was a major goal of mine to bring this material into the Western dialogue about sushi, and I spent much time and effort combing through Japanese-language materials to bring a variety of facts and insights to readers who want to go deeper with their appreciation of the traditional cuisine. My style as a writer is to embed these myriad bits of information into an everyday tale, sprinkled unobtrusively throughout so that the book doesn’t become a dry scholarly treatis. You personally might have preferred a different approach, but the book is nowhere near as lightweight or America-centric in the material it contains as most readers would conclude it is from your review.

    It’s certainly the case that I did try to appeal to Western readers who may not already be familiar with many of the basics of sushi in Japan. Most Americans come to this book having eaten their fair share of spicy tuna rolls and California rolls. Most of them are hungry to understand and pursue more authentic types of sushi, and my book is intended to draw them in and help them to do so, by arming them with more a sophisticated foundation of knowledge about the tradition. So to suggest, as you do, that the book somehow promotes the idea that sushi is primarily about “Volcano Rolls” or “Mango Chutney Roll with Spicy Curry Sauces” is an interpretation that I have substantial difficulty understanding. As a journalist it was my duty to report certain things about the state of sushi in the West as I found it, but I tried to deliberately highlight various comments and actions by characters in the book and provide information in strategic ways to show that these forms of sushi are bastardizations that, while popular and prevalent in the West, lack traditional Japanese culinary value. The majority of the reviews and comments from readers of the book in the U.S. tend to express a degree of appreciation for the way the book has enhanced their awareness of what authentic sushi is supposed to be. And it’s confusing to me that you chose to cite “otoro” and “omakase” as aspects of sushi that I ignore and that are what sushi is really all about. In fact, with the former, I not only write about otoro in the book but reveal, based on Japanese historical research, that otoro is not actually a traditional Japanese sushi ingredient at all. And with the latter, the book contains an early chapter that details omakase, as well as an extensive appendix that describes omakase in further detail as one of the most traditional and enjoyable ways to eat sushi.

    As for the story and the characters, you’re certainly entitled to your own feelings; I myself became frustrated with Kate from time to time while I was observing her in action. I’ll just say that one of the challenges of writing strict nonfiction, and dealing with subjects who are complicated, flawed, and real, is that to some extent I’m stuck with the situations and people that I encounter within the inevitable limitations of research in the field. As you note in your review, some of the other sushi apprentices in the story were certainly more skilled than Kate. The trouble is, most of them didn’t go through any sort of personal transformation in the course of their sushi studies, so in a way, trying to tell their stories would have been even less interesting. While Kate’s struggles were somewhat pedestrian at times, they were also struggles that she ultimately was able to overcome. Some readers have told me they’ve been moved to tears in the end by Kate’s perseverance; others, though, have disdained her for her weaknesses. I understand that different people will have different reactions, but I would also hope that a character — or for that matter, a person we encounter in real life — will not be judged simply for not being likeable, or simply because their all-to-obvious flaws annoy us. Above and beyond that, if you still felt her story had no redeeming literary or human-interest value, while I would disagree, I’d have to accept that as your personal feeling.

    I’d imagine you might have further rebuttals to these comments of mine, which I hope you will add and which I look forward to reading, since I would like to understand better where you are coming from with your assessments of the book. Thank you very much giving the book a read in the first place, and for being generous and open-minded enough to give me the opportunity to post a public comment here of my own.

  2. Zack Davisson Says:

    Hey Trevor,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on my review. I really appreciate it!

    I think that my opening comments may have been misunderstood a bit. I didn’t mean to imply that your book “promotes the idea that sushi is primarily about “Volcano Rolls” or “Mango Chutney Roll with Spicy Curry Sauces.” I meant that those people who know very little about sushi beyond the American-style rolls are the ones who have the most to gain from your book.

    On the other hand, if you know enough about sushi to be familiar with the terms “Edo mae,” “omakase,” etc…then you probably know enough about sushi that much of the book will be redundant. Your book does go into great detail about those concepts, of omakase and otoro, which is part of the problem. I don’t really need to read another book telling me of the wonders of Tsukiji fish market or how the original sushi comes from narezushi or how the word sushi refers to the vinegared rice, not the raw fish topping, or where California rolls were invented…all good information, but covered in a thousand places, from tourist’s guides to Andrew Zimmern’s TV show “Bizarre Foods.”

    You definitely had some facts and information that I hadn’t heard before, but it is tough to justify an entire book based on a few useful bits of trivia. Some of what you wrote actually confused me, like saying that salmon was not normally available at sushi places in Japan or that the rice in Tokyo is tarter than the rice in Kyoto. I never seen a sushi place in Japan that didn’t offer salmon, nor have I noticed any difference in the rice between regions. I asked several of my Japanese friends about this, and they had never heard or noticed that difference either, and these are people who will debate for hours over regional food differences and how their hometown does it right while everyone else does it wrong. I am not disputing you on this…but it was something that conflicted with my personal experiences.

    Realistically, my biggest problem was with Kate. I really didn’t like her, and I found it somewhat condescending that you as the author felt that she was a character I would connect and identify with. I assumed that Kate was supposed to be the stand-in for the reader, that her squeamishness and trepidation about sushi is what the reader must feel when encountering a plate of sushi, and that her overcoming this will give the reader some sort of courage to try the uni or the ikura next time they head out for sushi.

    Sushi just really isn’t that rare or exotic anymore, and so a character who treats it as such just rings false, or dated.

    So Kate annoyed me. And with about 50% of the book being Kate, that is a lot of annoyance. I disliked her so much I didn’t want her to persevere. I wanted her to give up, go home, step off the stage so we could go on with the interesting parts of the story. I wanted you to move the camera around to some of the other students. I wanted to hear everyone’s stories. You would drop little tidbits of things going on with other students, and I wanted to scream EXPLORE THAT FURTHER! but inevitably we would swing back to Kate, and her annoying, whinging little self. Why did Zoran leave, for example? Why did people drop out? What did the other students think about Kate?

    That style of writing, mixing personal stories with fact, is a good combination that keeps things interesting, but it helps to focus on several different stories rather than just one. I am reading a book right now, called “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” which does essentially the same thing, alternating between personal stories and factual history. I like it because several peoples lives are explored, not just one. You gave us glimpses of the other students and teachers, but with none of the detail given to Kate’s story.

    And that annoyance tended to carry over into the other chapters, unfortunately. Even the good stuff I found in your book was hard to swallow, due to the lingering bitterness of Kate’s story. It’s like some viewers did with “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” where they edited out all the scenes with Jar Jar to make a better movie. If I could go through your book and cut out every scene where Kate appeared, I think I would really like it. Even with the redundant information, I think that there would be enough there to make a good book about sushi.

    But I can only review the book you published, not the one I think should have been published.

    I probably wasn’t your target audience for this book. I have been to Tsukiji, I have eaten funazushi in Biwa, and have cut up live octopuses pulled from a fish tank at the izakaya I worked at in Japan. I don’t think you wrote your book for people like me, I think you wrote it for people like Kate who thinks that cutting out a piece of mango with a heart-shaped cookie cutter makes for good sushi. And people like that will probably learn a lot from your book and come away with a better understanding of sushi. But people like me will just get frustrated and annoyed.

    So that’s why I said this book was for “for lovers of the American-style sushi joint.” They are the ones who need to learn what you are teaching, who have never ordered omakase and don’t even know the term.

  3. Trevor Corson Says:

    Zack,

    Many thanks for taking the time to explain your reactions further. Everything you say about your take on the book, and why you felt the way you did, makes sense to me. You’ve presented a cogent case defending your particular take on the book.

    What I wish, having read your follow-up comments, is that you had taken more personal responsibility for these opinions of yours in your initial review, and been more self-reflective about why you reacted to it the way you did, rather than turning so much dismissive ire on what the book offered. I don’t think your opening comments were misunderstood at all; I think they made your attitude crystal clear. You felt superior to the book and took satisfaction in that position, and no doubt justifiably so, given your expertise — very few people have had the experience of eating funazushi or slicing up a live octopus as you have. I just wish you had been more honest and forthright about that feeling of superiority, so that potential readers could judge better for themselves whether the book might be useful to them rather than to you — assuming that part of your purpose in reviewing books is to serve such a function for your readers.

    Maybe all of your readers are just as sophisticated and knowledge as you when it comes to the esoterica of Japanese culture, and maybe that’s the point of your blog. But even so, by comparison, I’d refer you to a review of the book recently published in the Southeast Review of Asian Studies, for an audience of Asia specialists:
    http://www.uky.edu/Centers/Asia/SECAAS/Seras/2009/30_Nagel_2009.pdf
    The author is an experienced sushi aficionado who has been to Japan many times, but you won’t find a such dismissive tone in his assessment of the book, and he seems judiciously focussed as a reviewer on what the book has to offer to readers other than himself who might not know everything he already does. So your approach to reviewing the book does make me curious what was in it for you personally, beyond simply providing an objective service to your readers. I say that because I don’t think it’s fair to me that you would exercise your sense of superiority by putting down my work, to the extent that this may have been partly what was going on. As an author, I would count as sophisticated a Japanophile as anyone, being entirely fluent in the language, having lived in Japan for a number of years, and having pursued academic Japanese studies at top institutions. Given that, I’m surprised why you weren’t more thoughtful and sophisticated about what merit I might have seen in taking the approach with the book that I did, and that thoughtlessness I found surprising and hurtful. As for the details about sushi in Japan that confused you and your Japanese friends, one of my main initial sources was a Japanese book titled, “Japanese People Know Nothing About Sushi,” which kind of says it all. That said, it’s true that all sorts of ingredients do show up in sushi in Japan these days, from salmon to hamburger, and with salmon I could have been more explicit explaining that while it was not used traditionally for sushi, now it does appear on sushi menus.

    As for your interpretation of my choice of Kate as vehicle for readers who might feel squeamish about eating sushi, is it the eating of sushi that particularly struck you about her activities in the book? If so that seems odd. The world that I took readers into via Kate wasn’t the eating of sushi but the behind-the-scenes preparation of it, and there we are talking about real reasons for squeamishness and a new degree of exoticism — butchering fish for starters. That is a whole other level beyond the passé matter of simply eating sushi that you refer to, and again I have to feel that you were so busy feeling superior to the book and to Kate that maybe you missed the point. You and I have both butchered sea creatures, but most people haven’t. Moreover, you made no mention whatsoever of a whole third of the book — the biological and anatomical descriptions and explanations of the various fish and other ingredients of sushi as the story of sushi’s preparation proceeds; perhaps you weren’t drawn to any of that, but plenty of potential readers might be, and much of that might be new and interesting information even to experienced Japanophiles.

    I am sorry I insist on being so strident and stubborn in my responses but I really do feel that parts of your review were not fair. Not because you didn’t like the book, but because I felt you weren’t putting yourself on the line enough in explaining why and contextualizing your reactions, which seems to me the least you could if you’re going to be so critical of someone else. You’re obviously a very smart guy, which is why I feel it might be worth debating this with you in the first place. We still won’t see eye-to-eye in the end, but I certainly appreciate you engaging me in the discussion.


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