I adore this series. I’m so thrilled that Vertical has committed to What Did You Eat Yesterday?, since it combines such favorite things: art by Fumi Yoshinaga, a focus on cooking as an achievable skill, and insightful underlying relationships.
Book 2 opens with a flashback, showing how Shiro and Kenji met at a gay bar and got to know each other. They’re so cute together, both unsure in various ways, creating a relationship anyone can identify with. To commemorate, the first meal in the book is a lavish Christmas special, focused on spinach lasagna and marking their anniversary.
Shiro’s cooking is home-taught, often with non-specifics, particularly when it comes to seasonings and timings. He’s working to his taste and demonstrating that one doesn’t have to be precious when it comes to making tasty food. A delicious meal is a great way to show the depth of feeling for someone. His cooking is home-based, not restaurant-style, and the character’s focus on economy and value — not buying expensively, reusing ingredients so nothing is wasted — is particularly timely and inspirational.
The food is also inspiring in how the meals are made up of various small dishes, not meat-heavy and including plenty of vegetables. That’s a style of cooking that the Japanese do well, balancing flavors to provide satisfaction without huge portions or overly unhealthy ingredients.
Because I love this series, I also have gripes. The biggest is the lack of endnotes. With so much based in the particular culture of the author and characters, a few pieces of additional information would be much appreciated. Many food terms aren’t translated. Perhaps it can be argued that someone interested in this series likely already knows what ponzu, yuzu, mitsuba, and wakame are, but I love Japanese food, and I had to look them up. I want more people to try and love this series, and I wish this was less of a potential stumbling block for readers. I’d love to see an additional text page or two where a knowledgeable cook comments on the dishes. However, I suspect that the additional cost to develop the editorial material might not weigh favorably on the book’s profit-and-loss statement.
I am thrilled to see the recipe steps and dishes illustrated in such detail, but at times, I wasn’t sure the words used to describe the illustrations matched up. For instance, at one point, Shiro is said to be chopping leeks, but they look more like green onions in size. This may not matter to most readers, who aren’t likely to try and replicate the recipes. Heck, some of them — such as the stewed yellowtail scraps and heads — are unlikely to be possible in this country unless one lives near a specialty retailer. It’s still fun to dream about sharing the meals with someone you care about.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? Book 2 also has a story about a legal case where Shiro’s trying to help a divorced mom, punctuated by the hilarious panel where Shiro’s clearly having a bad day. His co-workers, unaware of his boyfriend, assume he must have had an argument with his girlfriend, but it’s really because one of his food purchases went bad before he could use it. That’s another virtue of this series, the way the structure allows for stories focusing on different aspects of Shiro’s life, from work to home to family.
Key for a visual artist, Yoshinaga has a great gasp of how appearances affect character, as shown by a story about a co-worker whom everyone assumes is about 20 years older than she is, based on how she talks and dresses. I also like how she recognizes how relationships really work, as in a later chapter, Kenji is explaining to Shiro how bad he felt about an incident with a friend. Shiro wants to advise Kenji on what to do, but Kenji just wants sympathy and a listening ear.
The book concludes with more insight into Shiro’s family life, as his father goes into the hospital for cancer surgery. He’s thinking about home, and the seasons are changing to fall, so he makes meat-and-potato stew.
Book 3 sends Shiro home for New Year’s, a family holiday, to spend more time with his recovering father and trying-to-be-supportive mother. That means we get to see Kenji cook ramen for himself, showing that he’s got a few culinary skills of his own. The story also hints at how being a gay man in Japan, with various expectations about families, can be difficult for an older generation to accept. A childless couple of any gender, though, can identify with the occasional worry of “who will take care of me when I’m older?” Shiro also struggles with the question of whether to help support his parents financially, with all the feelings that entails about loyalty and gratitude and pride preventing the acceptance of help. They have a lot to negotiate, since they’re not 100% accepting of their son’s choices, but they still love him.
At work, Shiro has trouble working with a female apprentice, while Kenji picks up a new customer by being sensitive to her needs. Shiro and his female bargain-hunting friend also talk about their relationships — as one gets older, one may understand that staying together is easier than all the work in finding a new partner. That doesn’t deny their love for each other, but adds a realistic reason to work at staying together, too.
What a beautiful series, reaching so many points of appeal — taste, emotion, and satisfaction. What Did You Eat Yesterday Volume 4 is out tomorrow, and having caught up with the series so far, I’m already ready for more.