On Sept. 15, Masashi Matsuda of Matsuda Mayonnaise died suddenly of an aortic dissection at 68 years old. While perhaps 68 may sound old to some, ultimately those numbers creep up on all of us.
Matsuda was well-known in the natural food world for his superior mayonnaise. He also became a folk hero and media darling for his fight to maintain the integrity of his product, which is made from high-quality rapeseed oil, apple vinegar, honey and eggs.
Several years ago Matsuda Mayonnaise received a notice from the Japanese government informing them that honey was not included in the ingredients for JAS standard mayonnaise. After lengthy negotiations with the ministry of agriculture, Matsuda’s efforts prevailed and the JAS standard was changed to include honey. And on the back of each package, there is a message of thanks from Matsuda Mayonnaise to all who supported Matsuda’s right to call his mayonnaise “mayonnaise.”
Over the years, I forged a close relationship with Matsuda, and I counted him as a deeply valued mentor and friend.
Matsuda blew into my life more than 25 years ago. I had recently given birth to my first son and was dealing with life as a new mother, all the while juggling housework, meals and giving English lessons out of our home. My husband was struggling to build clientele and infrastructure for his nascent free-range egg business and Matsuda Mayonnaise became one of his first customers.
Matsuda, a native of Iwate Prefecture, had come most recently from Nerima Ward in Tokyo, where he had operated a natural food store for 20 years. An excess of eggs at his store led him to try his hand at producing a better-quality mayonnaise than those typically available in grocery stores. His mayonnaise gained such popularity that he decided to relocate to outer Saitama Prefecture (Kamiizumi-mura, now Kamikawa-machi) on the edge of Gunma Prefecture. Originally a country boy, Matsuda dove into rural life with a verve that only comes from someone who has spent time away and hence deeply appreciates all of the possibilities that life in the country offers.
When I put together a Slow Food group in 2000, Matsuda was one of the first people I asked to run it with me. I recognized his complete dedication to producing his own food starting from growing it and fermenting it himself — from bread and nattō to pickles and miso. Matsuda also built an impressive pizza oven outside of a Japanese storage house that he had bought in a far-flung area of Japan and had rebuilt with friends from the ground up using the traditional Japanese building method of creating mud-surfaced walls with a framework of bamboo. Matsuda and I co-hosted an edamame (soybeans) picking and pizza party on his property every year until he took over when I became too busy each autumn. The parties had been my idea but Matsuda stepped in with enthusiasm and no recriminations, and I was grateful for the respite.
As I became more involved in writing Japanese cookbooks, I turned to Matsuda for guidance on preparing fermented foods. I began making miso under Matsuda’s tutelage, and last year an American film company came to capture footage on fermentation. I invited Matsuda to our house for a miso-making session and his part turned out to be the highlight of the film. Another film company came this autumn and wondered if they too could film Matsuda. Alas, he is no longer with us so that was not possible.
Matsuda was also the grower and inspirational force behind our local soy sauce-making group, but the younger members are now taking up the mantle. This year no one will attempt to make kōji (the mold base for miso) in Matsuda’s stead for the miso-making group, but at least we will assemble and make our own batches of miso from beans steamed over a raging wood fire in eight-tier-tall steaming boxes. And the spirit of Matsuda will be with us.
Christmas was not the same this year without Matsuda, but his widow and business partner came as usual, and it felt like Matsuda had just left the table temporarily.