Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Man of His Word: The Zen of Fish author interview...

Trevor with Toshi Sugiura, long-time L.A. sushi chef, CEO of the
California Sushi Academy, and one of the characters in The Zen of Fish (courtesy of Trevor Corson)

Trevor chatting with students at the California Sushi Academy, where
The Zen of Fish takes place (Courtesy of Trevor Corson)

Trevor Corson, the most interesting and idosyncratic writer of food lore and mythology today (here is your soundbite: 'Trevor Corson is a combination of MFK Fisher and Bill Murray')has been corresponding with me since early in the summer, promising he would be interviewed by MLF-In the meantime, I heard him on NPR, saw his book, The Zen of Fish (Harper Collins)on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and the like. Needless to say, I was very pleased and grateful when his interview popped into my inbox about a week ago-

Now, an interview months in the making:

MLF: Before you wrote this, did you know anything about the lore or
history of sushi ?

TC: No, I was clueless just like everyone else! And what a surprise it was to learn what I did. For example, sushi didn't originate in Japan, and had nothing to do with raw seafood. Another surprise: the type of sushi we know and love today is popular because of the policies of the American military. And on the streets of old Tokyo,
sushi was not a sophisticated dining experience but a cheap fast food -- like a McDonald's drive-thru for samurai. I also learned a slew of surprising facts about the ingredients as well, such as tuna, which the Japanese considered garbage fish unfit for sushi. It was Western influence on the Japanese diet that got the Japanese eating fatty, red-fleshed fish like tuna. And now the Japanese obsession with tuna
for sushi has, in turn, influenced us.

MLF. Are there things about sushi that are simply lost to history, or
are its origins well-documented?

TC: One of the great mysteries of sushi history is why sushi disappeared from China. The original form of sushi -- a combination of fish and tart rice -- was born in Southeast Asia, and then spread north into China and then through Korea and over to Japan. Early versions of sushi still exist in Thailand, Taiwan, and Korea as well as Japan, but today there is no native form of Chinese sushi. One theory is that sushi's disappearance from China is due to the Mongol invasion. The Mongols were big eaters of red meat from land animals, and it's possible that the popularity of fish declined in China as a result. Today, sushi is being reimported into China from Japan, and is growing in popularity there because of its status as a cosmopolitan
international cuisine.

MLF: There doesn't appear to be too many (if any) Western books about
the history of Sushi-Why do you think this is the case?

TC: The obvious and biggest reason is that most of the scholarship on the history of sushi is written in Japanese. Probably another reason is that the rise of the popularity of sushi in the West has been fairly recent and quite sudden. It's only been in the past two decades or so that sushi has become anything more than an exotic novelty in the U.S. But over the course of the past few years sushi has become ubiquitous in the West. So I think the timing for my book was just
right -- and I was fortunate to have invested several years of my life into living in Japan and learning the Japanese language, so I was able to bring a lot of new information from Japanese sources to a Western audience.

MLF: What is the history of Sushi in America? Has it been completely
accepted at this point?

TC: Sushi entered the U.S. through Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, almost by accident, and it took a while for it to catch on. The key to its subsequent popularity was that Hollywood celebrities discovered and embraced it as an exotic novelty. Once movie stars started eating sushi, its success here was probably guaranteed. But even so, until recently sushi was limited mostly to the big American cities on the
coasts. The amazing thing that is happening these days, which I describe in the book, is that sushi is now exploding in popularity in the American heartland as well. It's spreading like wildfire across the Midwest.

MLF: How do you see the practice of eating/preparing sushi evolving
in the future?

TC: I think the future of sushi is really up for grabs, and I don't think anyone has a monopoly on it anymore. There are many Asian chefs making terrible sushi and some Caucasian or Latino and even African-American chefs making good or even great sushi. And sushi has evolved dramatically in the West, leaving behind its recent Japanese roots in some cases and staying very loyal to those roots in others. So we have a whole range of sushi now. And one of the take-home messages of my book is that the history of sushi is a history of constant change. In Japan in the 1800s it was a cheap fast food, and now just look at American supermarkets, where it's become a cheap fast food all over again. And of course there's the issue of overfishing -- the seas are rapidly running out of many kinds of fish. So who knows what kind of
sushi we'll be eating in the future. But as readers learn in my book, the word "sushi" refers simply to rice seasoned with vinegar and a little sugar and salt, so anything served with that rice can be sushi. The possibilities are probably endless.

Check out much more about Trevor, his life and work at

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I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...


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