White Bread and Mayo

White Bread and Mayo

Fucking white people and their mayonnaise and white bread.  It is one of the most common  stereotypes of the WASP  — Diane Keaton ordered a Pastrami with mayo on white bread; Woody Allen converted to Christianity in Crimes and Misdemeanors and came home from the grocery with Wonder Bread and some Hellman’s; Meg Ryan ordered Turkey on white bread at Katz’s. It is a trope that is endlessly played out contrasting ethnic cuisine (spicy, mustardy, rye-bready) with the so-called blandness of the WASP. (For the moment let’s ignore the hypocrisy of “Russian” dressing.)

But…you know who really loves Mayo and white bread?  Asian people!!  Yup!  From Hong Kong to Singapore; from Malaysia to Taiwan you will find thick cut slabs of the softest white bread (often made with milk) toasted for breakfast, sliced into dainty sandwiches (heavy on the mayo of course!) and grilled with cheese.  Heavy-duty mayonnaise treats abound from flash-fried scallop and mayo dim sum to crab in mayo and cheese. But, I don’t really know the rest of Asia.  What I do know is the overwhelming love for white bread and mayo that exists in Japan.

In Japan, Kewpie Mayonnaise is iconic — you could easily get away with just asking for Kewpie, sort of like “Kleenex” or “Xerox”.  It is squeezed onto everything from Takayaki (octopus balls) to Yaki Soba (fried noodles) to okanomiyaki (savory griddled pancakes).  It comes as a side with fried chicken, with tomato salad or really any kind of salad.  It is a must for any “Katsu” (fried dish) from pork to mackerel to shrimp.  I’ve seen it squeezed onto ramen.  I have been a witness to a drunken Japanese man sucking it straight from the bottle and exclaiming he was a “Mayo-er”! The same goes for white bread.  In the grocery, there may be 20 different brands of packaged white bread to the one lowly package of wheat bread.  “Toast” is a thick-cut piece of white bread lavishly buttered. The idea of an organic 7 grain bread for toasting is laughable.  This isn’t to say that Japanese people don’t like good bread.  They do! There are hundreds of bakeries churning out wonderful baguette, sourdough loaves and rough-hewn country breads.  It is more that soft white bread is an irreplaceable staple, a thing in itself that is beloved.

For me, white bread was as alien a food as say, an Inuit dish of seal blubber and winter berries.  We simply never had it; it was frowned upon as a symbol of all that was wrong with America: over-processed, filled with chemicals – an anti-food for the soulless.  A loaf of Wonder Bread might as well been decorated with the crest of the John Birch Society.  When I saw it at friend’s houses in my youth, I judged.  I judged as only an 8-year-old raised on organic peanut butter can judge a food product — harshly and without any concept of economics.  That said, when I first ate a toasted slice of white bread spread with margarine, I got a guilty shiver of pleasure. There was something in the blandness, in the lack of texture that was oddly enjoyable.  From then on, I had a furtive relationship with white bread.  I would meet it at hotels, I would “forget” to order wheat bread with my BLT at a diner; I cooed in pleasure when I first ate a Tre-Mezzini sandwich in Venice — thin white bread, heavy on the mayo, and lots of delicious fillings. And then…there is the King of White Bread Experience: thin sliced and buttered with caviar and a touch of lemon.

I had the same guilty feeling regarding mayonnaise.  I always added a touch too much to my tunafish; asked for extra with my BLT; kind of bugged out with pleasure the first time I was in Europe and dipped a french fry into an aioli.  I secretly wished I could add some to a burger in mixed company.  For whatever reason, mayo seemed vaguely illicit and trashy.

Many “experts” have commented that America is a culture of guilt, while Japan is a culture of shame.  The difference being somewhat obscure to me, but something about how guilt is based on internal feelings and shame is based on how behavior is viewed by a group.  Whatever.  What I have noticed, is that Japanese are much less judgemental when it comes to indulging in bad behavior or rather that if you are going to indulge in bad behavior, own it: If your point is to get drunk, be drunk! Don’t sit around and try to control it and say, “I’m not drunk” after drinking 20 beers like Americans do; instead, enjoy the drunkenness, pass out on the table, be outrageous, make bad decisions. The same seems to go for drugs, sex and yes, food.  If you are going to eat something trashy like white bread or mayonnaise, fucking enjoy it — put it on some fried chicken, toast up a slab, butter it like mad, and don’t try to pretend that it is anything other than indulgence.  And the next day, get up on time, eat your normal, healthy Japanese breakfast of grilled fish and miso; ignore your hangover completely and be an absolutely hard-working member of your company.

My mother always told me that moderation is the key to a healthy life.  I very much agree.  Perhaps that is the crux of the Japanese view of indulgence.  Indulge with a sense of mindfulness and don’t let guilt ruin the moment.  Shame comes if you over-do it and become obese; shame comes if you are drinking in the mornings and can’t do your job.  The flip is that Americans seem to always feel guilty about their pleasures (which cuts into the enjoyment) but can’t seem to moderate their impulses — the notorious cycle of guilt; hence obesity and record-high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse.

I know I am simplifying here and also speaking about that which I really don’t know about.  But, what the hell.  White bread and mayo have conquered Asia not because they are bland, but because, at the right time, they can be fucking delicious.  So, I will cast off guilt, squeeze that bottle of Kewpie and enjoy this tuna on white bread with the full knowledge that tomorrow is another day.

5 Replies to “White Bread and Mayo”

  1. Wow Jeremy! Wow!!! Loving everything you are writing! Loving reading and tasting it all. Beautifully inspiring! Missing you all terribly!

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