One of the great guilty pleasures of recent foodiedom was reading the legendary blog the Haphazard Gourmet Girls. High-placed L.A. illuminati took cues on matters gourmet from the “Hap Girls,” and to be featured on the blog, and subjected to the Girls’ searing intelligence and acerbic wit, was either an honor or a severe embarrassment, depending on whether or not they liked you.
Fortunately, they liked me. One of the great high points of my career to date has been the rollicking interview they posted with me about my books.
But for posterity’s sake, I’ve reproduced the Hap Girls’ rather long interview with me in its entirety below.
INTERVIEW WITH SUSHI SUPERMAN, TREVOR CORSON
Trevor Corson is a daring adventurer. He can discuss religion in three languages. He’s a sexpert who eats gonads for fun. He will make you question everything you’ve ever believed—at least about food.
Mr. Corson, who is possibly the world’s foremost expert on both lobsters and sushi, has a bio that reads like a document from another century: Boyhood summers on a small island, a first novel at age nine, educated at Princeton, a long stint in Asia living among Buddhist monks and searching for enlightenment (and getting plastered with said monks, and witnessing Tiananmen Square … ), then tossing it all to go to sea as a fisherman. And tossing it all yet again to become a writer. This was a terrific move, because Mr. Corson has written two of the best foodie books around, which have each won numerous awards: The Secret Life of Lobsters, and The Story of Sushi.
Both books are page-turners that skillfully meld Mr. Corson’s wild adventures and biting humor with an amazing understanding of science and the intricacies of foodie history. Mr. Corson reads like a hyper-contempo hipster hybrid of Emerson and Melville, with his seafaring tales and elegant musings on nature; throughout his work there’s a numinous insistence that our relationship to the creatures we hunt and eat informs our relationship to the wider world and to divinity.
In our Q&A, Mr. Corson chats about Why Sushi Is Like Dating, The Hurl Factor, Truth In Sushi, Toro As Garbagefish, Sustainability and Overfishing, Lobster Ethics, his own Secret Sushi Sauce, and whether or not looking at all those cold, wriggly little bits of fish for years now makes him prefer something big, flamin’ hot and hard…on his dinner plate.
Haphazard Gourmet Girls: Our blog is heavily into the whole idea of Slow Food, and “authentic” traditional cuisines, made “historically.” Sushi training in Japan is a years-long process. In the book, you don’t really editorialize on what you think of the rapid-fire training programs. Care to give an opinion?
Trevor Corson: Before I wrote this book I was a sushi fascist. I’d eat sushi only in Japan. Not only that, I’d only visit high-end sushi bars, and I’d only go with a Japanese friend who knew the chef, and could vouch for the chef’s skill and training. Is that the best way to get the very best sushi? Yes! But the thing is, as I researched the history of sushi for the book, I realized that there’s nothing historical about that approach at all. In fact, if we’re going to talk authenticity and history, sushi was traditionally a low-brow fast food served on the street—it was essentially the McDonald’s drive-thru of old Tokyo. Dudes would wander around the city with boxes of seafood and rice slung over their backs, and drunk samurai on their way home from the bathhouses would stop for a quick—and rather messy—bite to eat. Today, the high-end style of sushi is “nigiri” sushi—those little packs of rice with a topping, which the chef squeezes together with his fingers. Well, that style originated only because those sushi dudes on the street got too lazy to make proper sushi before they headed off to work. I don’t know if they were hungover themselves or what, but they got into the bad habit of just squeezing the sushi together on the spot with their hands. They were supposed to be preparing it in big wooden presses beforehand, and slicing it into pieces like a cake, but people loved the new version. So what’s authentic? And originally, sushi didn’t even start out possessing the caché of an urban fast food. In a sense, yes, it was slow food—very slow. It was a sort of emergency ration that peasants on the verge of starvation would make themselves and bury in the ground up to a year in advance in case they ran out of fresh food—unpleasant to eat, but necessary. In the book I get the entire history of sushi down, and it’s just one surprising, unexpected turn after another.
Now, in regard to your question about authenticity as it relates to the training of a chef, I decided just to let the story of the chefs’ training in the book speak for itself, and let readers draw their own conclusions. Indeed, I’ve received the whole range of reactions. I have had purists attack me for disrespecting the sushi tradition by writing about young American kids in L.A. who, as you say, undergo a rapid-fire schooling that’s not the least bit traditional. I have had others tell me they were impressed with how grueling and intense the training was. But I will say this: I made a very deliberate decision not to focus the book on the sort of old-school Japanese chef who would ooze authenticity but who would, in my opinion, simply reinforce our silly stereotypes about Japan as a land full of Yoda-like Zen masters. Instead, the primary Japanese chef character in the book, Toshi, is a self-taught maverick who started out as a hippy artist selling bananas, but who became a stickler for Japanese sushi authenticity in his own way. He also happens to be one of the key historical characters who introduced sushi to Americans, which is why he made such a great story. At one point in the book, Toshi encourages one of his Japanese apprentices in L.A., who is nearly 40 years old, to start working behind the sushi bar after only a few months of training—back in Tokyo this would have been sacrilege. “If you were in Japan,” Toshi tells his apprentice, shaking his head, “your life would be over before you got the chance to stand behind the sushi bar.”
Haphazard Gourmet Girls: You’ve eaten a ton of sushi. Tired of it? Worried that you have super powers from all the heavy metals? How about lobsters? Still eating them? Any opinions on the current FDA warning about tomalley?