He starts with 100% local buckwheat – a grain stubborn enough that most soba masters cut their dough with wheat flour to make it easier to work with. Once the water is added and the dough shaped into a smooth, seamless ball, he works it with a wooden dowel, using his forearms and his palms to make the mass thinner and thinner. With each pass of the dowel, he pats the dough with his right hand, a quick, seamless motion that acts as a metronome for the elaborate rolling process. The thud of the dowel, the slap of the hand, the rustle of the buckwheat against the board: it starts soft, grows louder and faster, like the building of a great jazz performance. He rolls, slaps, rotates, rolls, slaps, rotates, rolls, slaps, rotates – over and over until the crude circle is shaped into a sharp rectangle. With a 12-inch soba blade and a wooden board to guide him, he transforms the rectangle into thousands of dark brown strands. No wasted motion, no alien movements, not a scrap of dough lost to inexactitude or impatience.
Nobody talks, as if too much breath might break the magical bond of buckwheat and water.
The soba comes two ways: seiro, afloat in a dark, hot dashi spiked with slices of duck breast; or kake, cold and naked, to be dipped into a concentrated version of that same broth. Even if it’s freezing outside and you’ve lost all sensation in your toes, eat these noodles cold, so the elegant chew and earthy taste of the buckwheat is uncompromised by the heat of the dashi.
“The process is everything,” Tatsuru says, in what could be a four-word definition of Japan.
It’s a funny feeling, reading a forgotten book about a forgotten man. The most accessible online edition was scanned from an old library copy, which was last checked out in 1950. That’s the same year that Lewis died, of a heart attack, at the age of forty-one. But Bigelow has saved “Gentleman Overboard” from going completely underwater: a few years ago, he recommended it to a publisher in Argentina, who decided to release a Spanish translation. A publisher in Jerusalem followed with a Hebrew version. (The road back into print can be circuitous.)
In the middle of the book, Standish watches as the Arabella’s frothy wake dissolves back into seawater. “It was one thing to swim in the foaming wake and another to bob gently in the steady sea,” Lewis writes. “One was ephemeral, part of the life Standish knew, a thing created by something that was created by man. The other was eternal and incomprehensible.” Reading a forgotten book can seem a little like communing with ghosts; it helps acquaint you with oblivion. Despite his best efforts, most of the books that Bigelow has written about remain obscure. “It’s one speck in the universe,” Bigelow said. It’s a comforting speck, though. No individual can condemn a book to obscurity on his own; forgetting is a communal act. But rescuing a book is a different story. Sometimes, it only takes one reader to remember.
She is curious and brave. She is impulsive (when a label says “Eat Me” or “Drink Me” she obeys.) She is both “act-or” and “act-ee” She can be hoity-toity when she feels disrespected. Hell, she is often downright cranky. She is annoyed by insanity, absurdity and chaos. She DEMANDS to be treated with respect. She stalks forward, engaging with the strange creatures who surround her, and all kinds of terrible things happen to her, things from out of a nightmare. Her size, for example. Her size, her body, fluctuates wildly. She is enormous (and sometimes with an elongated neck, an image that haunted me as a child), she is miniscule. She has no control over it. Or, she does. She’s the one who chose to eat/drink according to the labels. She is an adventurer. “Fine, let me eat this, and just see what happens.” She is a little girl, but becomes so physically huge that she is cramped when enclosed in a house, her arms and legs busting out of the windows. Terrible … and yet empowering. The world she enters is ruthless. Tenderness and care-taking and mercy does not exist. People/things bark at her rudely, and she draws herself up sharply in offended dignity at being treated so.
In other words, along with Harriet the Spy, she is one of the toughest tough-cookies in all children’s literature, especially for girls. Alice is a BAD. ASS.
And it’s all counteracted/undercut/intensified by her classically “little girl” appearance, with stockings, and Mary Janes, and pinafore, and long blonde hair. She is the girliest of girly-girls (unlike Harriet, who was so definitive in her tomboyishness that she actually helped create my personality and aesthetic style, not to mention writing work-ethic.) Despite her girlish appearance, Alice is very very brave, even when she is being violently acted-upon.
She is a role model. Especially for little girls, who may be socialized out of speaking up for themselves, sticking up for themselves, insisting on the fact that they are allowed to take up space (even a HUGE space), that they have a voice, that they have worth.