Oishinbo A la Carte: Vegetables

I mean no disrespect to Tetsu Kariya or Akira Hanasaki when I say that the Vegetables volume of Oishinbo A la Carte irresistibly reminded me of 1970s television. Back in the day when there were only three networks, hour-long dramas doggedly followed the same formula: they dramatized a problem — say, drinking and driving, or falling in with a bad crowd — then resolved it with a little action and a lot of talking, culminating in a freeze-frame shot of the entire cast laughing at corny situational humor. Oishinbo follows this template to a tee, using hot-button issues such as bullying and pollution to preach the healing power of vegetables. The stories are as hokey and predictable as an episode of CHiPs or Little House on the Prairie, but entertaining in their sincerity.

Take “The Joy of a New Potato,” for example. The story begins with big-shot executive Misaki Hacho treating the Ultimate Menu team to an expensive meal. Shortly afterwards, Yamaoka discovers that Misaki has fallen on hard times, selling his business interests and trading his lavish home for a two-room flat. Kurita and Yamaoka invite Misaki’s family on a country outing, teaching his children how to harvest and cook potatoes. Though the denouement of the story is predictable and a little credulity-straining — Misaki’s son declares the potato outing “a hundred times better” than the extravagant birthday party that dad threw him the previous year — the message is heartfelt: doing things with your children is more important than doing things for them. Other stories in this vein include “The Bean Sprout Kid,” in which Yamaoka defends a quiet, frail boy from his classmates; “Good Eggplant, Bad Eggplant,” in which Tomio’s son overcomes his lifelong hatred of aubergines; “The Story of Vegetables, Now and Then,” in which a wealthy industrialist learns an important lesson about pesticides; “The Breath of Spring,” in which a cook woos her estranged lover with an asparagus dish; and “The Taste of Chicken, The Taste of Carrots,” in which a grandmother’s homemade chicken soup inspires a picky eater to add veggies to her diet.

No volume of Oishinbo would be complete with at least one epic food battle, and Vegetables opens with a doozy: a three-part contest revolving around cabbage and turnips. For most of the showdown, Yuzan appears to have the upper hand, preparing simple dishes that emphasize the unique flavors of the star ingredients. Yamaoka’s fortunes change, however, when Arakawa’s mother comes to the city for a visit, bringing wild grape juice and walnuts with her. The bold flavors of the grapes and walnuts inspire Yamaoka to take a page from his father’s book, trading elaborate preparations for straightforward ones that enhance the “muddiness” of the turnip.

As I noted in my review of the first volume, the structure of the A la Carte edition of Oishinbo is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, organizing each volume around a particular kind of food makes for a fun, educational introduction to Japanese cuisine; a better title for the US edition would be Oishinbo: Beyond Pocky and California Rolls, given the sheer diversity of the food described in each volume. On the other hand, the series’ thematic organization robs the series of its continuity; we never have a chance to see Kurita and Yamaoka’s relationship evolve from co-workers to spouses, as we’re constantly seeing them at different stages of their courtship, nor do we have any sense of how the Ultimate Menu vs. Supreme Menu contest is unfolding.

Still, it’s difficult to deny Oishinbo‘s appeal. Imagine Iron Chef crossed with Mostly Martha, and you have some idea of why this sincere, somewhat hokey, series is as addictive as gyoza: it reminds us that food is an essential ingredient in all human relations, the glue that binds friends, families, and lovers in times of joy and crisis alike. The best of the A la Carte series.

Review copy provided by VIZ Media, LLC.