Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Baba-Hera Ice: Rising Tohoku Food Fair Celebrates Japanese Resilience

The Peace Rose
One of my favorite flowers has always been the "Peace" rose, a blend of yellow to gold petals, edged with pink. The rose is aptly named, as its origins reveal. French rose breeder Francis Meilland developed it in 1935, a few months before Hitler invaded France. To ensure that his new creation was not trampled underfoot in the ensuing chaos of war, Meilland smuggled parcels of budwood onto the last plane out of France. The cuttings ended up scattered throughout Italy, Germany, and the United States.

Meilland launched what was left of his new rose in France, and named it, "Madame Antoine Meilland," after his mother. Over time, he learned that the rose was being cultivated in Italy, where it was named, "Gioia" (Joy), and Germany, where it was known as "Gloria Dei" (Glory of God). It was only after the liberation of France in 1944 that Meilland heard from Robert Pyle, an American rose breeder in Pennsylvania who ended up with one of the parcels of budwood, who notified him that the rose had survived the war and was being grown successfully.

A rose by any other name... ought to be made of strawberry
and banana ice! A vendor prepares baba-hera in the shape
of a rose at Mitsuwa Marketplace.

Meilland decided to change the name of his rose, and wrote to Field Marshal Alan Brooke, a British Army officer, to thank him for his part in liberating France from the Nazis, and if he would give his name to the rose. Field Marshal Brooke declined, and suggested that a more fitting name for the resilient bloom would be "Peace."

Given the Peace Rose's history, I was profoundly moved when I noticed a bright pink and yellow rose made of sorbet,  blossoming under the hands of a skilled vendor at a stall in Mitsuwa Marketplace last Sunday afternoon. His stall, which sold the "baba-hera ice," was part of a "Rising Tohoku Food Fair," which showcased the culinary specialties of the region of Japan that was ravaged by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011.

The words, "baba" - which means "old woman," and "hera," which means "spatula," belie the ethereal beauty of this unique treat. I almost missed baba-hera stall, walking past displays of richly marbled Wagyu beef, intriguing kiritanpo rice sticks, and colorful Japanese sodas.

Unusual tanabata decoration - kind of like a sumo
wrestler pinata.
Mitsuwa Marketplace has these food fairs periodically, highlighting the cuisine of various regions of Japan. The crowds are a wonderful mixture of native Japanese, Japanese Americans who in some cases, are just learning about the food of their parents' homeland, and the rest of us. The name of this particular fair, "Rising Tohoku" was particularly poignant, giving the extensive recovery efforts that the region has undergone in the last four years.

In July of 2011, three months after the earthquake and tsunami, the organizers of six traditional festivals in the
six prefectures of Tohoku, collaborated to present
for the first time ever, a combination of all of their festivals in the city of Sendai, in order to celebrate this northeastern region of Japan, and to encourage hope among the people.

At Mitsuwa that day, there were performances by dancers and drummers from Morioka, and Nobuta dancers from Aomori. A large empty space that for years used to contain a stationery store, a bookstore, and a couple of other retailers, had been cleared to create a common area, with tables and chairs for activities such as this. That day, it was festooned with elaborate tanabata decorations typical of Sendai, and paper lanterns of the type used in the Akita Kanto Festival.

Dancers and drummers from Morioka,
Iwate Prefecture. The colorful streamers
on the back of the drummers' outfits
are meant to ward off evil.
Mitsuwa is one of those fantastic ethnic markets where even on a regular day there, you almost feel like you've left L.A. behind and have gone somewhere different and often, rejuvenating and transformative. I had only stopped in to get a snack after a drive back from the Westside, where only a few hours previously, I enjoyed a wonderful brunch with a friend. I wasn't hungry for food necessarily, but needed to stretch my legs and a change of scenery from the 405. I didn't know the Tohoku fair was taking place, and it was a welcome surprise.

Although I hate waiting in line for anything, queuing up for my own baba-hera was an experience. There was something calming and magical about watching this iced confection being created in front of our eyes. A little girl asked for hers to be made of all pink strawberry sorbet. I couldn't hear what others in line before me asked for, but I saw more pink in some, more yellow in others.

The baba-hera ice was refreshing and pretty. Moreover, seeing someone making it by hand made me stop and if not smell the roses, enjoy the expertise that created them out of sorbet. And it made me think about the all-too-human need to reclaim a positive outlook after disaster and tragedy.

Three years later, recovery from the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku is far from complete. One can assess how far things need to progress, depending on whether one chooses to accept positive or negative updates. But one thing is for certain: giving up is not an option. If it was, no one would continue to find joy in festivals, foods that bring up feelings of nostalgia, or roses made out of sorbet.

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