When I was twelve, my father asked me a very important question at dinnertime.
“Do you eat to live, or do you live to eat?”
I didn’t understand the question. “Obviously, I eat to live,” I replied, and my dad laughed and shook his head, continuing to eat his food.
Foodie. For a young girl that came from a family of foodies, the term was foreign to me. To my immature mind seeking rationale in every little detail at the time, being a fan of food was as bizarre as being a fan of houses, or bottled water. Food was a basic requirement to live, just like shelter and water. What could you possibly get out of something like that? Who cared if it tasted different; the stuff broke down the same way, and was just a bunch of carbonized material that gave you nutrients.
It was only until college that I realized two things: 1.) that I under-appreciated the fortune of having home cooked delicious Indian meals every day, and 2.) That I still had a lot more to learn about myself and my preferences before I could ever call myself a person of good tastes.
In Nekomonogatari, Hanekawa Tsubasa is a kind and mature high school girl who not only works hard to keep up her grades but also her delicate appearance. She subconsciously represses negative and undesirable emotions resulting from parental abuse and unrequited love in order to follow the cultural law that every girl should be pure and good. As a result, she creates a new kind of aberration where her “dark” emotions manifest as a mischievous, selfish catlike girl who releases stress by attacking other people. While Nekomonogatari initially looks at this through the perspective of the main protagonist, Koyomi Araragi, Nekomonogatari: Shiro shifts the point of view to Hanekawa as she attempts to understand herself and accept her own flaws. One of the clearest moments of this is in the third episode of Monogatari Second Season where she shares a conversation with Araragi’s girlfriend, Hitagi Senjougahara about cooking and taste.
Senjougahara suggests that the reason why Hanekawa has no ‘taste’ in food – or rather, why she thinks all food, bland or not, tastes alright, is because she doesn’t understand herself to the point where she accepts everything, regardless of flaws. While this attitude isn’t harmful toward food preferences, it reflects how Hanekawa suppresses the idea of disliking anything in an attempt to remain ‘proper’ and prevent herself from getting hurt. If you don’t dislike anything, then nothing negative will occur. If nothing negative happens, then you can remain happy.
xxxHOLiC features a similar conversation, in the form of an arc. Yuuko Ichihara, a shop owner that grants wishes, gives her apprentice, Kimihiro Watanuki, the task of teaching a customer to cook. Watanuki is someone who has just gone through the trial of realizing that because he cannot recollect his past, he does not know his “former self” and cannot taste any food he cooks himself. Despite this, he attempts to reach out to the customer, who stubbornly refuses to taste what she makes, simply because she finds it repulsive and not worthwhile her time.
Cooking is an expression of one’s ‘self’. What the chef likes, what they dislike, what they’ve eaten, whom they’ve met, what they’ve thought about. That is why people have others eat the food they’ve made because they want others to get to know them, and it may be that people eat the food they’ve made in order to get to know themselves […] You said you ‘I don’t want to know’ right? You meant other people and most of all, yourself. The reason you don’t want to know about yourself isn’t because you’re disgusted with yourself. It’s because you’re afraid. (Watanuki Kimihiro, Ch 172, xxxHOLiC)
It’s not that Watanuki’s customer hates herself, as the arc reveals – it’s because she chooses to avert her eyes from whom she is and what she wants. Grown up in a household where everything from marriage to a job has been decided for her, the customer would rather live in ignorance than in awareness. She wishes not to get hurt.
But nobody can help you with that. Nobody can rescue you. Because it’s a problem you yourself have. You really don’t know everything, Tsubasa-chan. You don’t even know that you don’t know everything. (Izuko Gaen, Nekomonogatari: Shiro episode 4)
Hanekawa ultimately realizes at the end of Nekomonogatari: Shiro that she has been subconsciously ‘dividing’ her negative feelings into separate entities in order to keep herself stable. Unlike last time, where Black Hanekawa managed to be subdued, Hanekawa’s Tiger of Envy is an abberation so passionate that unbound, it causes harm to the very life she tries to keep so hard to keep perfect. In the climax of her arc, Hanekawa ‘accepts’ herself as she is: an imperfect person, but a human being. In doing so, she remains true to her heart, and receives her first rejection, and finally, allows herself to cry and be hurt.
Nekomonogatari: Shiro unfortunately does not give us a picture of how Hanekawa may change her preferences in food and cooking. But there is no doubt that just like Watanuki’s customer, she starts to find her own tastes. Likewise, It’s only recently that I’ve begun to acquire my own tastes in food. I like some Mediterranean cuisine and a lot of Thai, but dislike Mexican food. I don’t like olives or pickles. I can eat onions raw. I’ve become comfortable cooking Goan food with my mom, and will hopefully be able to rely on my skills when I move to my own apartment. I’ve discovered the warmth of having soup on a cold night’s day and the importance of having a delicious large breakfast. The world of food is a beautiful palette, filled with spices and personal approaches to recipes, and there’s still so much more to explore and learn about. It all takes time. But I’m learning more about it – and me – in the process, one spoon at a time.