Haruki Murakami's Metaphysics Of Food
How meals and cooking are his most deeply intimate subjects.
The homes that sandwich the passage are of two distinct types and blend together as well as liquids of two different specific gravities. First there are the houses dating from way back, with big backyards; then there are the comparatively newer ones. None of the new houses has any yard to speak of; some don’t have a single speck of of yard space. Scarcely enough room between the eaves and the passage to hang out over two lines of laundry. In some places, clothes actually hang out over the passage, forcing me to inch past rows of still-dripping towels and shirts. I’m so close I can hear television playing and toilets flushing inside. I even smell curry cooking in one kitchen.
—The Wind-Up Bird & Tuesday’s Women from The Elephant Vanishes
Food writing gets a bad rap for being fluffy and bougie, which isn’t quite fair since food is such an essential part of our existence. Outside of the establishment of bona fide culinary writers, many fiction writers have touched on the sensory and emotional aspects of food, from Marcel Proust to Nora Ephron, but no one has tapped into its prosaic humanity quite like the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. This is not lost on Murakami fans, and there are a few blogs devoted to the food his characters prepare, like What I Talk About When I Talk About Cooking. Murakami writes intricate plots with an extremely high level of emotional intelligence, but no matter how fantastical his stories are, his characters remain relatable, and food provides the balance between surrealism and normalcy. He weaves food into his stories in a mundane way that communicates the deep-seated reasons of why, how, and what we eat.
The amount of space given over to food in Murakami’s novels is unusual. In Dance Dance Dance, not a day goes by in the narrator’s life that he doesn’t tell the reader what he ate. Food has nothing to do with the plot, though: the book is about a guy searching for a prostitute he once loved. Murakami details the unnamed character’s diet with remarkable banality. In one scene, he’s staying at a luxury hotel and announces he’s tired of the breakfast spread, so he goes to Dunkin’ Donuts and gets two plain muffins. (“You get tired of hotel breakfasts in a day. Dunkin’ Donuts is just the ticket. It’s cheap and you get refills on the coffee.”) This guy is living in 1980s Japan, but this detail makes him immediately more familiar and accessible.
After Dark is a short novel that starts in a Denny’s at precisely 11:56 P.M. Within the first few pages we meet Takahashi, a trombonist-slash-student who’s come to Denny’s for a late-night snack of chicken salad and crispy toast. He proceeds into a short monologue about Denny’s chicken salad, explaining that even though it’s all he orders there, he still looks at the menu. “Wouldn’t it be too sad to walk into Denny’s and order chicken salad without looking at the menu? It’s like telling the world, ‘I come to Denny’s all the time because I love the chicken salad.’” Takahashi’s self-consciousness about his love of the chicken salad (which another character is quick to note is probably full of “weird drugs”) is relatable.
For Murakami, how we eat is a reflection of ourselves. In 1Q84, The Dowager is a wealthy septuagenarian widow who eats natural ingredients and French-influenced lunches like “boiled white asparagus, salad Niçoise, and a crabmeat omelet.” She eats small portions and drinks her tea, “like a fairy deep in the forest sipping a life-giving morning dew.” You get the sense from her diet and table manners not only that she’s well-bred and refined, but almost enlightened. Compare her to Ushikawa, a sleazy lawyer-turned-private-investigator whose family left him and who has no life outside of stalking people under the guise of work. He’s a self-loathing scumbag and he eats like one, too. Where the Dowager eats fresh vegetables, Ushikawa eats processed food like canned peaches and sweet jam buns, and goes days without having a hot meal. The Dowager treats her body like a temple, Ushikawa treats his like a garbage disposal. She is at peace with herself, he is not.
Yuki, a 13-year-old girl in Dance Dance Dance, has a similar diet to Ushikawa. Though she is of a vastly different demographic, her propensity to eat crap stems from the same feelings of being underloved. Her parents are wealthy and famous, but they’re estranged from each other and neglectful of her. She’s doesn’t have any friends until she meets the narrator, twenty years her senior, who becomes her platonic companion-slash-babysitter. In one scene, he calls and asks if she’s been eating healthy. “Let’s see. First there was Kentucky Fried Chicken, then McDonald’s, then Dairy Queen,” she says. When they hang out, he steers her away from junk food. Later, he takes her to a restaurant where they have roast beef sandwiches on whole wheat bread. He says, “I made her drink a glass of wholesome milk too. The meat was tender and alive with horseradish. Very satisfying. This was a meal.” The narrator takes on the role of nurturer that Yuki’s parents have cast aside, and nourishes her literally and figuratively.
Murakami often shows his characters preparing meals to convey their independence. In Dance Dance Dance, Yuki’s mother’s boyfriend is a one-armed poet who cuts ham sandwiches so perfectly that the narrator wonders aloud how he slices bread with one hand. In Norwegian Wood, Toru watches Midori in awe as she theatrically prepares lunch one afternoon (“Over here she tasted a boiled dish, and the next second she was at the cutting board, rat-tat-tatting, then she took something out of the fridge and piled it in a bowl, and before I knew it she had washed a pot she had finished using”). Midori had taught herself how to cook in the fifth grade because her mother didn’t take care of household things. When we meet her, she’s essentially an orphan: her mother is dead, her father is dying, and her older sister is engaged. Despite her abandonment, she takes care of herself well.
Cooking meals is more than a signal of independence though, it’s an introspective behavior that provides order to the chaos of the outside world. In 1Q84, the two main characters, Tengo and Aomame, unknowingly enter a dystopian universe where they have no control over their lives. At one point, Tengo is being watched by the aforementioned sketchball Ushikawa and he’s wrapped up in accusations of fraud for ghostwriting a best-selling book. The routine of coming home every day and cooking allows him to step away and make sense of what’s going on around him. He often makes elaborate meals out of whatever’s in his refrigerator. Murakami has said that improvisation is his favorite kind of cooking. In one scene, Tengo makes “rice pilaf using ham and mushrooms and brown rice, and miso soup with tofu and wakame.” Cooking is not a chore for Tengo; he “use[s] it as a time to think “about everyday problems, about math problems, about his writing… he could think in a more orderly fashion while standing in the kitchen and moving his hands than while doing nothing.”
You don’t need to go to therapy to know that food can provide comfort, but for Murakami, comfort is also found in the mindfulness that comes from preparing it. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru is newly unemployed and spending most of his time cooking and looking for his lost cat. At the beginning of the book, the phone rings while he’s making spaghetti (chapter 1) and a tomato-and-cheese sandwich (chapter 3), and he tries to resist answering it until he finishes preparing his food. “I let the phone ring three times and cut the sandwich in half. Then I transferred it to a plate, wiped the knife, and put that in the cutlery drawer, before pouring myself a cup of coffee I had warmed up. Still the phone went on ringing.” Toru is mindful of each unremarkable step in the sequence; by letting the phone ring, he’s trying to block the outside world from intruding on his routine.
As any casual binge-eater can attest, we sometimes eat to fill a void. In the short story “The Second Bakery Attack,” a newlywed couple wakes up in the middle of the night unbearably hungry. They’ve only been married two weeks and aren’t completely at ease with each other (“we had yet to establish a precise conjugal understanding with regard to the rules of dietary behavior. Let alone anything else.”) Long story short, after unsuccessfully scrounging for food in their kitchen, they drive to McDonald’s to rob it, but instead of demanding money, they demand 30 Big Macs. He eats six, she eats four, and as soon as their hunger vanishes, they feel closer to each other.
In Kafka on the Shore, when Kafka runs away from home, he stays at a hotel and eats a big breakfast of toast, hot milk, ham and eggs. It’s a warm, nutritious meal that should fill him up, but he’s not full. As he looks around hopelessly for seconds, the voice in his head (“the boy named Crow”) interjects, “You’re not back home anymore, where you can stuff yourself with whatever you like…you’ve run away from home, right? Get that through your head. You’re used to getting up early and eating a huge breakfast, but those days are long gone, my friend.” He’s just left a cushy but lonely life at his father’s home with the vague intention to “journey to a far-off town and live in a corner of a small library.” He’s chosen a place at random (“Shikoku, I decide. That’s where I’ll go. There’s no particular reason it has to be Shikoku, only that studying the map I got the feeling that’s where I should head.”) He has yet to reach his destination or realize the subconscious reason behind wanting to leave home, but his insatiable hunger is indicative of his itinerancy; it’s like he can’t feel full unless he’s secure.
There is a telling passage in Kafka on the Shore about the myth from Plato’s Symposium, that each person was made out of two people, and then God cut everybody in two so they’d spend their lives trying locate their missing half. This idea — and the corresponding one that humans are inherently lonely — is palpable in many Murakami stories, especially when his characters are eating. Midori and Toru’s courtship in Norwegian Wood takes place over meals. They meet for the first time at a quiet diner near their university: Toru is eating alone (a mushroom omelet and green pea salad) and Midori, who recognizes him from class, leaves her friends and goes over to introduce herself. She asks if she’s interrupting him and he responds point-blank, “No, there’s nothing to interrupt.” The reader realizes that Toru has feelings for Midori when she doesn’t show up to school and he ends up having “a cold, tasteless lunch alone.”
While one relationship is built over sharing meals in Norwegian Wood, another comes undone in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Toru takes care of household duties like grocery shopping and dinner while his wife, Kumiko, is at work. She usually is home at 6:30 p.m., but one night she doesn’t return until 9. Toru starts preparing a stir fry of beef, onions, green peppers, and bean sprouts when she comes home, but as he’s cooking it, she starts a fight with him because he doesn’t know that she “absolutely detest[s] beef stir fried with green peppers.” It’s exactly the kind of irrational fight you start when you’re annoyed at someone and need something to pick at, and it foreshadows their future as a couple. A few chapters later, she doesn’t come home at all, and Toru aimlessly putters around the kitchen and eats breakfast alone. This is more heart-wrenching than it seems: they’ve never once missed breakfast together since they’ve been married — it’s the beginning of the end.
In an “Art of Fiction” interview in the Paris Review, Murakami says his job as a fiction writer is “to observe people and the world, and not to judge them.” He describes with incessant detail his characters eating and preparing food, and their behaviors immediately become familiar to us when we view them through this lens. We’ve all experienced Yuki’s cravings for junk food when we feel empty inside, Tengo’s mesmerizing waves of calmness as we cook dinner at home after a stressful day, and both Torus’ sense of loneliness and yearning when we eat a meal alone that we’d rather be eating with someone we care about.
Murakami uses food to convey universal feelings of comfort, love, partnership, and independence. As Toru observes while eating a cucumber in Norwegian Wood, “It’s good when food tastes good. It makes you feel alive.” That he makes this observation in regards to a zero-calorie vegetable that tastes mostly of water suggests that you can find satisfaction in even the simplest of things. You can eat the cucumber without tasting it, or you can live, and appreciate a refreshing taste hidden beneath bitter skin. We don’t eat to merely survive, we eat to experience life.