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Saturday, May 20, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

How sweet it is -- or isn't


My wife bakes in flurries and when the storm hits hardest, our kitchen becomes a virtual hurricane of flour and dough, not to mention Category 5 aromas.

Yet almost no sugar.

"American recipes go overboard on sugar," she says. "I cut the cookbook amounts by at least half. Sometimes much more. The end product is not only good for you, it tastes better too."

And then she seeks my agreement. "Right?"

Here is where those marriage vows kick in. "Right," I tell her, and think that, in the "for better or worse" part, this is the worse.

Now I know too much sugar is not good for you. I know people link it with diabetes, overactivity, hypertension, depression, mood swings, allergies, constipation, headaches, cavities, ants and on and on. And, oh yeah, obesity too.

But I like it. I like it a looooot!

You see, I sort of/kind of need a few cookies each day. I am not addicted, mind you. Sometimes I can go on for hours and not even think of a cookie. And other times I would break through a concrete wall for one. If that's not take it or leave it, then what is?

Ding! Ding! Ding! That's the sound of my sweet tooth alarm. It's not a call for increased sugar. Rather it's a warning that Japanese sweets are near. Meaning I'll be unsatisfied.

Bean paste? Well, yeah, it's OK. When it's still warm and the amount of dough exceeds the amount of bean. "Yokan" adzuki jelly? Yes, it's OK too, especially if I don't have to eat it and can just sit and carve it into funny shapes. "Rakugan" rice-flour cakes? Well, I need some water -- let's say 5 cups -- and that's just to get it down. To make me like it, I need something in the water. Like Johnny Walker.

"Most Japanese men don't care so much for sugar," notes my wife. "Some consider it unmanly."

I can handle that. For some Japanese men like sea slugs, salted fish guts and working 36 hours a day. That's less than unmanly. It's inhuman. So there.

I do not need my sugar delivered in a wheelbarrow. Nor do I need to see it flashing in the cookie, like a strobe light. I do not even need to feel it crunch beneath my teeth.

But I do like it. For without it, how can a sweet be a sweet?

Now maybe, after three decades here, I do not like it the way other Americans do. Between soft drinks, candy bars and ice cream, many of my countrymen intake more sugar than air. The white powder that is causing the serious bulk of America's health problems is not cocaine. It's sugar.

But that's not me. I am not a sugarholic. I am a sugar connoisseur.

Fortunately, the hike-about life of an urban commuter, a fondness for various Japanese foods such as tofu and "chikuwa" fish-paste tubes, and a wife who talks about health even in her sleep have kept me fairly lean.

I do not even add sugar to the umpteen cups of coffee I swill each day. Nor do all that caffeine plus my handful of cookies push me to hyperactivity. I do not, for example, sprint everywhere I go with my tongue trailing in the wind. No, I use a pogo stick instead.

In the end, I just crave a little more sugar than is in the typical Japanese diet. I like my cookies sweet.

"OK," says my wife. "Here is a test. On the right is a plate of my very own oatmeal cookies. On the left is a Tupperware of brownies, baked by an American friend. Which do you prefer?"

A question to which my answer can only be, "Ummmphmhm."

"Ummmphmhm," because by the time she got to the words, "baked by," I was already stuffing the brownies in my mouth. "Ummmphmhm" is a brownie word. It means, "I am too busy to talk now, thank you."

"OK, here is another test." This time she has created her favorite: Christmas cookies. Which in her version come out as cute little bells and stars painted with natural yellows and reds. Yet a single sneeze contains more sugar than the entire box.

This time on the right are my two sons. The test will be who eats the most. Me, the sugarized American, or them -- half-Japanese in blood and all-the-way raised here in Japan.

"Ready," says my wife. "Go!"

Nobody moves.

"Go!" she cries again.

"Mom? Don't you like us?" says one boy. "Yeah," says the other. "Why not put out some plywood instead?"

Ah, they are half mine indeed! And whichever half it is, it includes their sense of sugar.

But their mother will not relent. "I have nothing against sugar," she says. "I just don't want it in my house. Or at least not much."

And where she hides it I never know. Once a houseguest asked for a little sugar with his coffee when my wife was not at home. I tore through every cupboard and drawer with no luck. Neither was it stuck behind my bookcase, plunked upon our tallest cabinet or zipped into the secret compartment of my bag -- each a choice spot for stashing cookies.

In the end, she had to show me. Our sugar, all of it brown, was concealed very cleverly -- in a dish atop the dining room table.

"See! Too much sugar has made you blind!"

Humbled, I can only say one thing: "This calls for a cookie."

And so she hands me one -- of hers. "It's good, right?"

Hmm. For richer or poorer, in sickness and health and for better or worse.

"Yes, it's great."

For in marriage, how sweet it is or isn't doesn't matter a lick. It's the thought that counts.

Besides, I've got Tim Tams hidden in my bag.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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