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Up in knots over natto

by Thomas Dillon

A reader from jolly ol’ England recently sent this question:

“What is ‘natto’? I keep hearing about it and I can’t imagine what it is.”

Well, dear reader, imagine this: sneeze beans.

With the liquid parts being gooey and elastic, not moist. As to flavor . . . imagine a cross between peanut butter and your very worst nightmare. Imagine putting this inside your mouth and instantly changing your views on the propriety of expectorating in public.

Now I will grant that natto — which translates as “fermented soybeans” — is good for you. In the same way that cod liver oil, enemas and 10-mile runs are good for you. The body does indeed benefit. And when the body smiles, the soul can only complain so much.

I will also grant that some people even like natto, and that — to a surprising degree — most such individuals are neither satanists, anarchists nor lunatics. Rather they are completely normal. Or at least they think so.

But as for me, I am old school. Meaning I frown on natto the way the generations of the past used to frown on the plague.

I admit, however, that I did not encounter natto with an open mind. My anti-natto feelings were born not from personal experience but instead through conversations with veteran residents of Japan. Fairly one-sided conversations at that. For at the time, I was the new guy in town and thus fresh sport.

“Hey, have you heard?” said the first veteran. “The kid ain’t tried natto yet!”

“Natto! Arrgh!” And then his buddy clawed at his throat and slid gracelessly under the table.

“Now, now, don’t scare him,” said his other buddy, “or he’ll be hopping back on the plane. Besides, every yin has its yang. When the Japanese invented natto, they also developed an effective release from its flavor and smell. . . . Have you perhaps heard of seppuku?”

Enriched with such input, I soon decided that I would politely pass on natto, should it ever come my way. Then one morning at the cheery breakfast table of a Japanese pal, I copied my host and piled this sticky brown stuff on my rice.

“My,” I thought as I forced down my first swallow, “this sort of tastes awful.” And at that moment I KNEW what it was.

Since then I have not exactly avoided natto. On the contrary, I have often put it to use. Good use, too.

For in the same way that Western comics in need of laughs will toss out cracks on boobs, genitalia or George Bush, as a Japan-based humorist my knee-jerk jokes almost always involve either natto or pit toilets, with Bush being a sort of cross-cultural constant.

But as far as actually eating natto, my long term position has been . . . no, thank you. I would rather lick the floor.

Marrying a Japanese, of course, changed many things, but fortunately not this. For my Japanese bride was non-committal on sneeze beans. She could not survive without rice, miso and green tea, but natto she could take or leave. So we left it.

Yet, then something happened — a child! And then, before we even knew what we were into, it happened again. Our two boys were normal — or at least they said so — but both loved what their mother did not and what their father could not . . . natto.

The first son in particular will gleefully bloop natto on his rice and mix it with raw egg, soy sauce or even shoe polish — it doesn’t seem to matter — and gobble it all down, only then to rise and go fetch more. He can never get enough.

I am particularly numbed by the way the boy weaves the natto fibers through the air as he whips it into place with his chopsticks. For somehow I am reminded of that old horror movie “The Blob” and fear that it is not my son that is devouring the natto, but rather the other way around.

The boy meets this apprehension with only smiles, for his mouth is too full to respond otherwise. Now in college far away, he does not ask his mother for cookies. Instead, he is more likely to write: “Dear Mom. Send natto.”

Too bad for him, natto cannot be shipped overseas, as it is categorized as “fresh” food. Which implies that the folks who do the categorizing have never eaten natto.

But when the boys are on this side of the ocean, natto always claims a choice spot inside our refrigerator. The packets sit on the edge of the shelf like Panzer tanks guarding the path to the better-tasting goodies. It is an ominous force that somehow makes reaching for the marmalade or strawberry jam that much sweeter.

“You just have to get used to it,” says my wife. “After 25 years, it is time.”

But my natto clock remains stopped on my initial impressions. I only eat it by mistake. Like on the occasion when . . .

At a restaurant I perused the menu, to find nothing I liked until I saw the word “pizza” in katakana. I did not pay attention to what kind of pizza and — in those days — could not read the Japanese characters anyway. Besides, I thought, how could anyone ruin pizza?

In that regard, my first bite proved educational.

“Can you believe it?” I told my wife. “For lunch I had natto pizza!”

“Well, you do look healthier.”

Yet I was not happier. For the natto joke was on me.

These days, of course, I exaggerate the story to say that upon eating the natto, I rushed to the can to discover a pit toilet occupied by Bush.

“Ah,” he remarked knowingly. “You’re full of it too.”

Full of natto? Ugh.

Dear reader, I suggest you not imagine that.