When her grandmother dies and she is left truly alone in the world in her late teens, the only place Mikage Sakurai can fall asleep is on the floor of their home’s kitchen next to the comforting hum of the refrigerator. Yuichi Tanabe, a young man who had befriended her grandmother, reaches out to her in his strange but kind way through this haze of listless grief, and Banana Yoshimoto’s story of realism with a touch of the otherworldly, of light and dark, of shared moments and loneliness, and—most of all—of kitchens is set into motion.
Kitchen is one of my favorite reads of all time. It holds a privileged position on the bookshelf of my life, right next to A Confederacy of Dunces. In other words, it’s a re-reader. The way kitchens and cooking comfort and heal Mikage—and Yuichi, after he experiences a tragedy of his own—is parallel to the way I feel when I have certain favorite books within an arm’s reach.
Yoshimoto’s book has been on my mind more than usual lately as I rework my food plan, because I think it can be easy to forget the communion that cooking, that eating together, represents. I’m making a careful point of not suggesting that eating itself is the unifier, when in this book and in most real-life instances, it is the communal nature of meals prepared and enjoyed together that brings joy and comfort to the eaters. When immersed in a weight-loss venture, it is easy to obsess over calories and food groups to the point that we isolate ourselves from the benefit of shared meals. In Kitchen, the kitchen as a source of nourishment, and shared meals as a talisman against the cold loneliness of the universe, play a central role.
Soon after Yuichi befriends Mikage, she is invited by him and his mother, the dazzling and gracious Eriko, to move in with them while she recovers a bit from the loss of her grandmother. Despite the relative suddenness of the offer, Mikage knows she is in good hands, partly because of the way the Tanabes’ kitchen makes her feel: “I looked around, nodding and murmuring approvingly, ‘Mmm, mmm.’ It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight.”
Throughout one beautiful, idyllic summer, the unlikely trio share many meals after Mikage falls in love with cooking and applies herself to mastering the art with true passion. Looking back, she muses, “When I think about it now, it was because of my cooking that the three of us ate together as often as we did.”
Eventually, Mikage gets back on her feet, moves out of the Tanabe’s apartment, and obtains a job as an assistant to a well-respected chef. All the while, her love of cooking grows and the theme of sharing tea and meals remains central to the book. Her love of kitchens overflows into a love of the rhythm and soul of creating in them:
Memorizing the recipe, I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul. At the supermarket I would stare at a bright red tomato, loving it for dear life. Having known such joy, there was no going back.
When was the last time you appreciated an item of produce that much? I can’t remember when I genuinely rejoiced over a fresh vegetable, or really taken the time to appreciate a perfect apple.
I won’t give away every nuance or plot development here, but I will say that Kitchen is very touching and also quite whimsical considering the themes of grief and isolation that it explores. Every time I finish reading this little novella, I feel oddly comforted. I picture Mikage and Yuichi making and eating a meal together, finding joy despite the heartbreaks they weather, and I know that everything will be okay. Perhaps Mikage is right when she hypothesizes why she cherishes this one part of the home above all others:
Why do I love everything that has to do with kitchens so much? It’s strange. Perhaps because to me a kitchen some distant longing engraved on my soul. As I stood there, I seemed to be making a new start; something was coming back.
For those of you who consider yourself to be dieting or in some way restricting your food intake: Do you find that your food plan has an isolating effect, making it difficult for you to eat in a group with others? And for all of you: Do you take pleasure in making meals to share with others? Are you, like me, just now making tentative steps into the kitchen? Can you find happiness in the promise of a bright red tomato?