Mimi Ito is an academic with a food habit.
As Professor in Residence at the University of California Irvine, she studies how social media and mobile technologies shape our everyday lives.
As the mother an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, she is her family's resident cook, preparing lunches for her kids to take to school. She documents the lunches on her bento blog, a Flickr account that includes photos of the meals along with a description. This project started in 2003 when her family moved from Japan to the U.S. (when her kids were in preschool). It was part of her early experimentation with camera phones.
She recently stopped by the Earth Eats studio while speaking at Indiana University.
Documenting Everyday Life
Mimi Ito: We had done studies of camera phone use ten years ago when it was first starting to take off in Japan, and one of the things that we found that was really interesting is that amateur photographers were taking pictures that they never took before. Amateur photography used to be special events and travel, and now people started taking pictures of food, what they're eating everyday. I got really interested in this issue of capturing mundane, everyday things, having that heightened attention to your visual environment as part of your everyday life.
I think woman's work and everyday mundane work is not considered something for public celebration as much as it should be. That was part of my reason of saying, look, I perform this labor. I do this craft work everyday and I want to share it and be proud of it and have it as part of a community of people where we inspire each other about those mundane, everyday things that get forgotten in that stream of everyday life.
Annie Corrigan: How have your kids' food tastes have changed over the years?
Mimi Ito: They've always been pretty good, experimental eaters. I guess their food tastes have expanded and they've come to embrace American food more. When they first moved from Japan to the U.S., they wouldn't eat hotdogs, they wouldn't eat hamburgers, they wouldn't eat pizza. They've added those to their repertoire, but they've also added a whole lot of other things. Now the biggest shift is that they really eat everything.
AC: Let's take a look at one of the lunches posted on bento blog from September 6, 2011. It's adorable! The highlight of it is the smiley face on the rice that looks like it's made out of seaweed paper.
MI: This is a funny one because this is actually the first one my daughter made herself. In Japan there are bentos but there are also charabens -- character bentos -- (which are) the really cute ones that are usually made for small children. She decided that she wanted to start making these.
This was kind of an amalgam of what we had at home, because one of the things about the charaben is that you have to have lots of little pieces, and it has to be cute. So, she has rice that's mixed with salmon in the shape of a little bear face, corn, an egg omelet (which I made) and then okra and some shumai.
What's For Lunch?
AC: What I love is imagining her eating this at a cafeteria table with her classmates who are eating chicken nuggets and French fries and having a soda. Have you talked to your kids about how their classmates react to this being their lunch?
MI: It was actually a big problem in the early years when the kids were smaller. Through early elementary, my daughter started coming home without having eaten her lunch. She said the kids would say, "What's that, what's that?" This was another motivation for the bento blog -- for her to be proud of what she's eating and think of it as beautiful and healthy.
AC: Let's talk about school lunch as a whole. How would school lunches have to change in order for you to feel comfortable having your kids eat that instead?
MI: The biggest problem I have is not that they'll occasionally eat a chicken nugget or a tater tot, but the lack of variability in the diet is unfortunate. Even at our school now, which has decent lunches that I will get them every once in a while (especially when I'm traveling), it's the same cycle of orange chicken, chicken wrap, hamburger and pizza. It cycles through, and it's the same thing every month.
For me, lunch is the best time to introduce kids to a new food because they are a captive audience. I use my packed lunches, as a way of introducing a new item. At most, the first five times it comes back uneaten, but by time six or seven… and that encourages them to try and experiment.
AC: What do your kids say to that? "I don't care! I don't want to have any more cucumbers. I'm done with them!"
MI: They're pretty good sports, partially because they've gotten to the point where they're really reaping the benefits of having an experimental palette. They really enjoy food, they're total foodies.
Raw oysters is a good example. It looks bad; it's kind of smelly. (I say to my kids), "Okay, try it. This is your second time, this is your third time," and then by the fourth time, they just love raw oysters. They get so much pleasure out of it that they've kind of bought in even though they'll still wrinkle their noses sometimes at what they're being asked to try.
The Craft Of Cooking
AC: I read in an interview you did in 2007 with The Guardian where you said, "Packing a bento for my kids is like making them a little present everyday." I read that and thought that I bet a lot of Americans would think that chicken nuggets, soda and French fries would be more of a present for lunch than okra, broccoli and rice. Talk about how your mentality differs from that.
MI: I think it's probably the Japanese mom thing of putting effort and crafting effort into things like that, whether it's bento or making little homemade things. It's just part of the aesthetic. It's the effort that goes into it. Plus, I have pretty strong feelings about nutrition, health and food, too, so it's a way of transmitting my own values
Values For Life
AC: Look ahead five to seven years when your kids turn 18 and they leave the house to go live on their own. What food values are you hoping they take with them?
MI: I have an interest in food. It's almost a site of activism for me. I tend to load a lot of values into how we eat, prepare and enjoy food.
The openness to experimentation, using food as a way to explore culture, life and experience is a key value in our family. Bringing people together around food and the enjoyment of food is a way of slowing the pace of life in a way that I really appreciate.