Roots and Branches: Rice and resolutions

We are several weeks into January and many 2013 resolutions have already gone by the wayside for millions of Americans. There seems to be two camps of folks, those who make New Year’s resolutions and those who resolve never to make a resolution, which in fact is a form of resolution by definition.

I am of the ambivalent school of resolution makers. Some years I do, some years I don’t. I failed on making it all the way to midnight this New Year’s Eve so no opportunity to make a legitimate resolution.

Granddaughters Kendra and Aunika came to spend the night while their parents were out welcoming in the New Year. Usually staying up until midnight is not such a chore, but the older I get the earlier I hit the sack. Grandpa chose to crawl into bed around 10 p.m., no interest at all in watching the celebratory descent of a ball at midnight.

We three ladies crawled under blankets on the couch and built a roaring fire. By 9:30 we began nodding off to sleep, so we turned to an Internet viewing of the Time Square ball to hasten the process.

Slow downloading squelched our search for an early exit.

We entered into a five-game marathon of Candyland to help stay awake but Kendra and I could only muster one win between us, with Aunika giving us a thorough trouncing.

Back to the couch we trooped, flipping back and forth between the tribute to Dick Clark and the Time Square party, both equally boring. With eyelids drooping we slipped into bed at 11 and figured we would catch the ball fall on the news the next morning.

My resolution for 2013 will be to make it all the way to midnight on the next New Years Eve.

At least having a resolution you can’t break until the last few hours of the year gives one a sense of accomplishment.

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We postponed our Japanese New Year’s celebration until Saturday the 4th, allowing for Niko and family to join us upon their return from Kathy’s Hawaiian family reunion. It was the first Christmas without Aya or Ren and proved a little difficult for Grandma.

I understand the need to share with other sets of grandparents, and you would think with six other grandchildren around that I wouldn’t have missed them. But once those grandbabies get into your heart, there is no turning back. So it was accepted by all that if Niko and family couldn’t be with us at Christmas we would celebrate New Years on another day, which meant Saturday the 4th.

It is not about the date on the calendar, but who is around for the celebration.

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As I have for the last 45 years, and as my husband’s parents, their parents and preceding ancestors have done for hundreds of years, we celebrated the coming of the New Year, Shogatsu, by gathering friends and family together for a mega feast and the making of enough mochi for the masses.

I have written about this celebration in years past, and it is continually transforming. The tradition of making and serving mochi rice has evolved across new generations, new inventions and combined cultures.

The constant is the gathering of friends and family around traditions that bind you to past, present and future generations through the making of memories.

I don’t remember popcorn ball hunts and breaking ice in the koi pond as New Years traditions in generations past. But they are what excites this batch of grandkids and what brings them to the party as of late, along with the mochisuki.

We set New Year’s resolutions to the rhythm of a malleable blob of steamed rice being beaten by young and old hands clasped around beautiful silken mallets carved by Grandpa Kageyama almost a century ago. The mallets come off the wall where they have rested for the last 364 days.

Their wooden heads are soaked in water so the glutinous rice can be pulled from its fibers at the day’s end. We carefully slide the 300-pound fir stump or usu carved by Grandpa Kageyama into the center of the entry.

I have learned to place a rug under it for easier mobilization. The giant fir stump, still covered with virgin bark, is the centerpiece of our New Year’s tradition. It brings us back to old growth timber, cut long ago on the hills of Dee when the timber industry reigned supreme.

We break tradition of soaking the stump in water before pounding the mochi because we learned via the internet that we would lose the beautiful bark from the expansion caused by soaking.

We marvel at the carved bowl in the top of the stump, caressing it with our hands. We wonder whether Grandpa Kage burned part of it out like the Indians did when making dugout canoes. A romantic memory in the making.

A wet towel is placed in the center of the bowl, traditionally a cotton dishtowel that has seen a long life of service. Then a three pound blob of steaming mochi rice is placed in the wet towel.

With each mallet weighing at least 30 pounds, it is the parent that guides the handle as the children lift it precariously overhead preparing to pound the molten mass into a velvety textured rice cake. Niko kneels on the floor, ready for the dangerous duty of rolling the rice as each guest, young and old, takes a turn at its pummeling. We pull Japanese Hapi coats and headbands from the closet, making sure that each participant is properly enrobed.

It doesn’t take long for Niko to establish a rhythm — large mallet thump, small mallet whack.

Thump, whack, thump, whack.

We keep time as those before us did, and someday our grandchildren will hopefully orchestrate. I see the lines around Grandma Kage’s twinkling eyes as she grins with happiness and realize I am looking at my own reflection in the seeded glass of the door.

We are some of the last generation that remembers Kage standing over two inverted wash pans outside the house she and husband built on a cliff overlooking the Dee Mill.

She stokes the fire underneath the bottom pan, coaxing the water to boil in the top one. Balanced above that is a stack of wooden boxes lined by bamboo, each filled with mochi rice. She steams it carefully, along with a large octopus that is chop stick skewered across the boiling cauldron.

The men roll the huge usu up steep wooden stairs from the cellar. She has been cooking for days, and yet works effortlessly, tirelessly. The steaming rice goes into the wooden bowl of the stump and the men vie for the mallets.

Grandma fearlessly places her hands into the bowl to knead and turn the rice and the pounding begins. It is 1969 and I have fallen down the rabbit hole and come out in a world that I never knew existed.

A half century later it is the world, with many modifications, that I now inhabit.

It is my job to recreate that world for my children and grandchildren so they can pass it on to future generations.

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Mochi is the glue that binds our Japanese family and friends across the generations.

On the Finnish side it is the sauna. But that is for another column.

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