Fake Plastic Sushi

When I was in elementary school, I had a subscription to National Geographic World, which was, at the time, the “kids” version of National Geographic. It was mostly stories about jungle animals and world culture, but from time to time there would be an article that focused on something less scholarly — like, jumbo pumpkins or snowboarders or plastic food in Japan.

May 2022: Fake Plastic Sushi

  • “Call Me” — Ivy Sole
  • “King” — Dreamer Isioma (w/Saint Lewis)
  • “Swoop and Cross” — Collars
  • “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” — Squeeze
  • “Start Today” — Skankin’ Pickle
  • “You’re So Great” — Blur
  • “So Tonight That I Might See” — Mazzy Star
  • “Pillars” — Sunny Day Real Estate
  • ”Down the Line” — Remi Wolf
  • “My Favorite Mutiny” — The Coup
  • “Preservation” — Wu-Tang Clan, Del the Funky Homosapien, & Aesop Rock)
  • “Western Wind” — Carly Rae Jepsen
  • “Understood” — Built to Spill
  • “2042” — Japanese Breakfast
  • “Hello In There” — Emmylou Harris
  • “Martha” — Tom Waits
  • “Having an Average Weekend” — Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

That last one is the one that caught my attention — caught it in a way that no other story did at the time. I was fascinated by the idea of food replicas, of creating fake versions of the real things you might find in a restaurant. Called sampuru, food replicas provide a very specific kind of art — food in its perfect (visual) state. They represent perfect hamburgers and perfect sushi rolls, designed to withstand the elements and the slow march of time — to provide a visual menu that will not wilt and decompose.

I’m not alone in this fascination. I know this because every few years since that initial National Geographic World article, someone else writes their take on the art of sampuru — I found the most recent version in The New York Times Magazine (“Feaux Feast: The Plastic Paradise of Tokyo’s Famous Kitchen Town”), a publication that had dropped mention of sampuru only five months earlier (“Fake Food is Trendy Again”).

The attention always focuses on how unbelievable the industry is to us Americans — a multimillion-dollar industry that still works in handmade craft during a time when everyone else is trying to “augmented reality” their way onto your empty dinner plate. They talk about how samples moved from wax to plastic in order to prevent melting. They talk about what’s the hardest to convey (bold colors! warmth!) and how they make plastic lettuce.

And every time, I read it. It’s the same article over and over again, and I still read it.

This most recent time, though, something caught me. A quote:

“It’s kind of like they’re selling you a dream of the food,” she (photographer Kyoko Hamada) said. “It’s empty, you can’t eat it, but you see it, and then you get the feeling of wanting it.” She followed the samples at Ganso to a small factory, where workers mixed paints, then negotiated the matte pink of raw, aged fatty tuna, and the sheer, pale yellow of a curl of pickled ginger.

“It was a funny reminder,” she said, after treating the pieces like art objects, “that they’re all made out of plastic, they’re all made out of the same ingredient, from the lettuce to the doughnut right next to it.”

There’s a metaphor here, but the real question is how to attach it to any of this month’s — this year’s, this decade’s — real-life maladies. The dream of perfection. The failure to live up to a promise. The dissociation between what is and what could be. The work that goes into creating an alternate, idealized, and ultimately unattainable ideal, and the disappointment we feel when real life doesn’t add up. When, let’s be honest, humans get involved — humans who care about margins and who care about speed and who care less about the final product and more about moving on to the next issue.

Listen. It’s been a long few weeks. We’re tired, but now it feels like we’re always tired. Locally, storms keep tearing up our streets. Nationally, kids keep dying from avoidable gun violence. Universally, we’re all tired of COVID, of commercials, of war, of inaction. We’re tired, because we expected things to be better.

We expect it, because, when we’re young, we’re promised things will be better. We’re promised a life of level-headed relaxation — that we’ll have more money, more freedom. A bill-of-sale often unrealized; a perfect plastic hamburger, a perfect sushi roll, a perfect kaiser bun.

Instead, we’re given imperfection — a floppy substitute, its natural colors untainted, its shape quickly molded. But it’s not actually a substitute. It’s the real thing. It’s what we have to work with. It’s the complexities of society and the messiness of human nature.

The focus might be better placed on what we can to simply improve the final product: instead of throwing up our hands, debating the validity of our goals, we just start doing the right thing to make people and cities and our world safe. We don’t get perfection — to be honest, in a very Revelations sort of way, we probably don’t deserve it. But we do deserve safety. We do deserve peace — internal, external, all of it.

We do deserve basic dignity, which means we don’t stop fighting. We recognize those stories and dreams as unattainable and instead look to realistic solutions. They don’t have to be hard solutions. They just need to understand that the glue and food coloring that holds together our dreams of perfection are often what hold us back.

Then, we make our own art, out of our own ingredients. We pick up the tools we have and we get to work. We work toward solutions that include the imperfections. Then, at least, we can help the people who need it the most.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 31st, 2022