by Josh Schlachet
A Bustling Stove for Everyday Relief Foods
As we prepare to commemorate the environmental tragedy that befell the Tohoku area of northeastern Japan on March 11th, 2011, it is worth remembering the key role that food and its distribution played in alleviating a historical environmental disaster that ravaged the same region almost two centuries before. The Tempō Famine (1833-1837), the last of the Three Great Famines of the Edo period, made many of the common grains and vegetables that composed the rural Japanese diet at the time near-ungrowable, and Tohoku residents had to resort to an emergency diet of only the simplest ingredients. Nourishment was hard to come by. Yet the drive to grow, distribute, and advocate for famine relief foods demonstrated the resilience and resolve of the local community as well as the community of cooks, agriculturalists, doctors, and scholars who found shared purpose in offering their guidance on how to stay nourished in a time of scarcity.
A Bustling Stove for Everyday Relief Foods (Nichiyo joshoku kamado no nigiwai) was one such effort, by prominent agronomist Ōgura Nagatsune (1768-1861) in the early stages of the famine in 1833. In it, he provided recipes for a variety of mixed rice dishes and porridges cooked together with sweet potatoes, daikon radish roots and leaves, and other ingredients that could grow in less-than-hospitable soil. The passage below, on Food for Farming Households, promoted sweet potatoes and satoimo, a type of starchy mountain potato that resembles a small taro root.
Although they say that the food in farming households does not change anywhere, there are differences between villages close to cities versus those in far away provinces, or villages near castle towns versus those up in the mountains. Many farming households around the western provinces grow satoimo, give them a quick wash…add salt, boil them and leave them [overnight]. In the morning, they remove them, light a fire in the hearth, remove the embers, and cook the potatoes in it. Eating only this and drinking tea, they go out and do their farming work. If you eat this, your stomach will fill up. If you reduce the size of your breakfast when rice, barley, and millet are scarce, it is good to add a little satoimo to them. This is not limited to the countryside. They also do it around Edo [present day Tokyo], where they prepare satoimo the same way as a means to stretch rice.
Like many guidebooks to emergency foods throughout times of scarcity during the Edo period, A Bustling Stove for Everyday Relief Foods prioritized concrete, specific preparations that taught local readers to make the most of the food (and energy) they had. Ōgura’s advice also followed a trend of championing all sorts of potatoes as a viable supplemental crop to rice and grains. Potatoes were rightfully credited with preventing famines in western Japan (where they were more often planted), especially the satsumaimo (sweet potato) that got its name from the southwestern province it helped to feed. Ōgura was one of many cooks and botanical specialists to suggest planting potatoes in Tohoku en masse. The best part was that it was not an either-or between potatoes and grains: farmers could plant them in the crevices between their rice paddies or on steeper terrain where rice would not grow.
In the past, it was popular to [distribute] sweet potatoes, which we now keep for ourselves. Sometimes sweet potatoes produced in the country were put in a basket and hung from the entranceway, and people could take them to eat on their way out to the fields and on their way back. If they took one, it helped the food supply, so they made it clear that it was alright for people to take them…Preparing sweet potatoes to supplement one’s food supply when the prices of rice and grains are high is something that should be done in every house. Peasants who grow rice should also eat grasses and plants at times when the rice does not ripen. When you bear these things in mind, eating a bowl of nothing but rice is quite a blessing.
The sweet potato baskets that Ōgura write so fondly of here are less recipes than they are community food programs. For him, feeding a village felt like a group activity. But a bowl of rice was still prized in Edo period farming communities, especially in times of scarcity. And it was uncommon for a reason. For all practical purposes, rice was money—the wealth of domainal lords, samurai stipends, and the value of taxes were measured and paid in rice. As the commodity on which the Tokugawa economic system rested, rice was often more valuable shipped away as a unit of financial exchange than kept as a crop grown for a family’s own consumption. It was only in the modern period that rice became a staple food available to everyone. By the twentieth century, potatoes slowly became an integral part of the Japanese diet as well, from trucks selling roasted sweet potatoes on the roadside to satoimo in steamed and boiled dishes to white potatoes in the popular one-pot meat and potato stew nikujaga.
Texts like A Bustling Stove for Everyday Relief Foods show how scarcity went hand-in-hand with plenty in shaping eating habits in regional Japan, and to this day Tohoku food culture incorporates many dried and preserved vegetables that helped the local community survive long, cold winters and short growing seasons. It also demonstrates the tremendous capacity for resilience and recovery in the face of hardship, a fact that should give us all hope as we approach the anniversary of 3/11. It was not just the stoves that were bustling with life-giving food, but the communities too bustled with goodwill and a conviction to thrive.
Josh Schlachet is a Ph.D. candidate in Japanese cultural and culinary history at Columbia University, with a focus on the history of food and health in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He got his start in food at the Culinary Institute of America and followed his passion to Kagoshima and Tokyo, Japan. The Gohan Society’s mission is near to Josh’s heart, and he wants to thank every one of you for your interest and support.