May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
April 23, 2019
Once a year, my wife and I venture out from our semisuburban roost in northern Chicago and make our way to the southeast corner of Humboldt Park. Our destination is Kai Zan, a higher-end sushi restaurant run out of a humble red-brick building. A single banner assures us we’ve come to the right place and aren’t about to strut into the office of the used-car dealer next door. Making sure to turn right once inside—turning left would take us into the tattoo parlor—we’re received into a low-lit dining room by a waiter whose precision and attention always leave us wondering whether we’re really this establishment’s preferred clientele. But they are more than happy to have us, and as we scan the menu, our eyes are drawn to the workstation along which we are seated. Under cool glass rests row upon row of fish, shades of white and red laid on beds of green, as if they were grown and freshly harvested from a garden—the fruits and roses of the sea. We look back and forth from the fish to the menu, but we’re out of our depth and have no idea where to start. In fact, this is exactly why we’re here—this is why we ask for the omakase.
The omakase is a chef’s-choice tasting menu, a multicourse staple of the sushi dining experience. The dishes range from trusted favorites to more experimental creations, some of which may be unique to any given night. On our most recent visit, the chef prepares a variant on the house shooter that gives us pause; raw scallop floated in spicy soy sauce with fresh-cracked quail egg is exotic enough for us, but this time the scallop is replaced with sea urchin, and we’re starting to feel squeamish. This is what we’re here for, though, and there is no saying no in omakase. After some hesitation, we slurp it up, the sting of salt and vinegar cooled by the bursting yolk and a wash of pure ocean life—and our reticence gives way to new delight.
The word omakase (おまかせ) is derived from the verb makaseru (任せる)—“to entrust.” Omakase itself is more a statement of intent, literally meaning, “I will leave it up to you”—or more accurately in this case, “I will leave it up to you for upwards of ten courses.” If you commit to omakase, you commit to leaving the entire evening up to your chef, trusting in their knowledge and experience of good things. This also makes omakase pedagogy: the diner defers to the authority of the chef and, having the diner’s good in mind, the chef presents their best. The ideal pattern is for a dish to be received with hesitation, embraced in trust, and finally savored with bright surprise, over and over again.
Learning nowadays is rarely accompanied by wonder or surprise. These elements are hard to find together, and they are the reasons Jenna and I set aside our anniversary evening to the mercy of someone else’s taste. Omakase is an intimate experience, an investment in the chef’s mastery of their art. In this spirit, Jiro Ono, considered by many the greatest sushi chef in the world, accepts only ten patrons at a time in his Tokyo establishment.1 Ono wields tremendous power in that little space. He can make you eat whatever he wants you to eat,or he can even make you go hungry. But omakase means that he will not abuse that power. He will show you good things piece by piece, limiting the ways in which you receive them, and teaching you to pay attention, to recognize for yourself the forms that goodness can take. This is something you never learn by opening a menu, summoning a waiter, and letting your appetite do the talking. Omakase is a fundamentally different logic of abundance from that defined by choice: tasted little by little in ever-different permutations, the disciplined and bounded nature of omakase begins to reveal an expansive, hidden world.
We finish our meal and walk out into the cool May evening. Jenna has much to say: she is satisfied, not stuffed. She’s learned something, but she is still curious. She’s convinced she could live on this fare forever. It makes her wonder about the abundance in the Garden of Eden, and whether our ancestors looked bewilderedly to God for suggestions when he offered them every fruit-bearing tree. We both laugh at the thought, but I’ve been hanging on to it: we do not, in fact, treat divine authority—or any authority—in the way that omakase imagines it. Rather, there is a familiar story, one that several of my students repeat to me every year.
Groomed to believe that salvation hangs on believing exactly the right things in exactly the right ways, many of these students decided that authority is code for tyranny. As they grow up, religion is thus reduced to identity politics, turf wars, the selection of friends and enemies. Creeds, to them, sound like convenient management tools for discerning who’s in and who’s out, and so they opt for something different. Surprisingly, this “something different” is rarely a rejection of faith so much as a transformation of faith into something new, sometimes strange, and unmistakably modern.2 Perhaps they call it being spiritual but not religious, as the cliché tends to go. They want a sense of the ultimate, of a higher purpose, but—whether it be because of rebellion or apprehension—they do not want to define that transcendental power or to have it defined for them. Once, they may have believed that all religions preached the same message, but now they accept that their own home-brewed faiths will radically contradict, at the deepest levels, those of the people sitting next to them. They just don’t think it matters. Belief is what’s important—even if, free and plastic as that belief is, it amounts to what Amy Hungerford describes as a “belief in meaninglessness.”3
Andrew Greeley says that such belief without meaning is one aspect of a “post-secular” attitude, one where the free market and its panoply of choices begins to infect us at an existential level. In a culture like ours, says literary critic Jeffrey Nealon, “you don’t so much consume goods as you have experiences where your subjectivity can be intensified, bent, and retooled.” Our beliefs, too, are similarly kneaded. We still believe, but we slough off constricting orthodoxies because we feel entitled to more spacious interpretations. Meanwhile, any form of belief so strong or permanent as to take us “off the market” is soon criticized as backward or as stagnating. Faith becomes a buffet line, an open menu from which everyone can order up what they want and—perhaps more importantly—they can reject what they do not want. What arrives at the table is totally unlike what we have historically called religion, with its texts, traditions, and communal interpretations.4
But even in their search for freedom, the students I’ve conversed with are aware that there is a double edge to this picky-eater religion. They are paradoxically paralyzed by the sheer number of ideas to accept and reject. I’ve come to realize that, in these ways, the market inverts omakase’s mystery. Its faux abundance provokes a sense of profound scarcity that visual artist Makoto Fujimura says is eroding our artistic and religious cultures. The constant churning and replacing of choices erode and contest those territories that should be set aside as thriving gardens.5
Against this erosion, Fujimura employs a kind of omakase in his art, using restraint to convey and foster suspension, anticipation, and abundance. I think of his 2015 piece Silence-Kairos: inspired by Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, Fujimura uses gemstone dust to paint the canvas in rippling blues. At the edges, stains of gold disappear into the center like a waterfall. The promise of something precious is there on the canvas, but it is pooling away out of sight. For Fujimura, such abstraction reveals that a full and holy vision requires a narrow focal point: “I believe that true, Christ-filled expression results in more diversity than what Christ-suppressing expression would allow,” he says. “The more we center ourselves in Christ, the freer we are to explore new arenas of expression.”6
Implicit in Fujimura’s statement is an approach to questions of doctrine and orthodoxy that is entirely foreign to creedal identity politics, one informed by omakase’s philosophy of authority. Here, dogma may be a necessary element, but it is not the myopic goal of the process. For Fujimura, centering on the truth of the triune God is the very condition of other possibilities, because the God understood as Trinity is very different from the God understood as a self-identical highest being. The triune God is a spirit whose love is so endlessly creative as to generate an “other in God” and to bequeath to creation images of that God’s own fecund capacities.7 When human beings focus their creative potentials through this dogmatic understanding of God, Fujimura says, something happens that we don’t tend to associate with dogma: religion and culture can again be inhabited as gardens rather than as warzones.8
In one of his Sabbath Poems, Wendell Berry fully explores this image of the garden, and its paradoxical logic of abundance and authority: “Enclosing the field within bounds,” he says, “sets it apart from the boundless / of which it was, and is, a part.” The field becomes an object of stewardship, without ever really being withdrawn from the greater whole that it belongs to. As Berry suggests, the act of “enclosing . . . within bounds” is not tyrannical; boundaries do not reduce “the boundless / of which [the field] was, and is, a part.” Rather, these boundaries “place [the field] within care” and “bind / the mind to it.” Here, as with omakase, limitation becomes a form of attention: one must choose carefully how to lay out the garden, making sure that its contents have space to grow and thrive and be themselves. The setting of boundaries—what my mother in her own garden calls “pushing back the chaos”—helps us experience abundance as abundance.
This is not the attitude of a culture-wars orthodoxy that demands to be followed because of a self-justifying monopoly on truth. This sort of orthodoxy recognizes that truth is always already “the boundless / of which it was, and is, a part,” that the abundance of beauty is eternally exceeding its formulations. At its best, orthodoxy is a trellis on which our imaginations grow and climb, “encouraged to tread on surfaces whose solidity we could never have dared to imagine, terrains which seem terrifying to us, but turn out to be much more spacious and livable-in than we had imagined.”9
Considering this, the story of Eden becomes all the more tragic to me. It invites us to focus on the one fruit that Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating, and we often take that prohibition as our model of authority. Authority forbids, and we defy it at our peril (or our liberty if we are bold and lucky). But this focus occludes what comes right before the prohibition: “You may freely eat from every tree in the garden” (Gen. 2:16 CJB). We forget, when we think of the garden’s tragedy, that God commanded a life spent indulging in the burst-sweet of strawberries, the snap of tart grapes, the mellow custard lush of persimmons. Instead, our attention is on what is bracketed off and out-of-bounds.
Another essential aspect of omakase makes itself known here, as the attitude of omakase means giving ourselves to the promised generosityof the other. That promise is fatally compromised when we are suspicious that the other is withholding something from us. If our focus is too much on the one thing withheld, then the spirit of omakase has already been broken. The story of the garden is tragic precisely because of this myopia, because of a negative filtering that focuses on what is held back to the point of becoming blind to what has been freely given. It was not God’s forbiddance but our own dissatisfaction with the abundant life that invited death into our midst. This is partly what Saint Irenaeus seems to have in mind when he speaks of God’s “divine pedagogy,” that the ban on the fruit was less a test than an exercise given to children, an opportunity for humanity to practice patience, trust, and virtue.10
Our refusal to act on trust engendered in us the “imagination of evil,” what the Talmud calls yetzer hara, or a perversion in our senses of survival and need. To this, the Kabbalah adds the practice of beirurim, which resulted when we ate from the tree of knowledge. Our disobedience, according to Kabbalah, caused good and evil to mingle together in the very material of the world. As a set of practices, beirurimserves as restitution of that disobedience, sifting good from evil so that evil has nothing left to subsist on, liberating the world from evil’s grip. One wonders if this could include the tree itself, if perhaps its fruit wasn’t something to be eternally kept from us but earned through obedience.11 We mythologize too much if we consider the tree a locus of evil to begin with, even more so if we consider it a spiteful taunt from God and not an expression of teacherly, parental character.
But while remembering this generosity of the garden, we still cannot neglect the rules that it followed. Omakase, of course, has rules—no matter how minutely personalized the market of choices and beliefs becomes, you will never be able slap a side of meat onto a grill and call it sushi. It simply will not work like that. But being too strict in one’s palate can also produce similar negative consequences; believing that sushiis simply code for a rush-made tuna roll is a sad untruth, and it reduces the rich potential that defines omakase. This care in omakase for the right meanings of things—a tight balance between propriety and potency—should also contribute to our own theological humility. Historically,heresyhas been understood as the preference for what is outside the garden, a straining at the boundaries and a forgetting of the abundance that those boundaries make possible. But there is another mode of heresy, one more visible to our present lives: the heresy that the boundaries are not bounded enough. This is the heresy that many of my students have been taught as orthodoxy and that many of us hear from pulpits and soapboxes. But when we construe authority as omakase, we realize that this second kind of heresy is not allowed, either. In the context of omakase, we are not permitted to choose any one thing to the exclusion of others, stopping at the third course and demanding more of the same. We are required—and enabled—to receive what is here, in all its complicated variety. The optionality of difference and the insistence upon the same are both forms of paralysis, but we can deconstruct them both by practicing omakase, keeping trust and authority as necessary parts of the equation. At its best, religious tradition can function in the same way when we honor the trust invested in it.
In the world that I imagine, as I walk out of that restaurant, omakase follows us out and reshapes our religious attitudes. It requires tradition to make it run, but it understands authority and orthodoxy in a very different way. In the garden of this world, I am overwhelmed by a verdancy that begins before me and without me. Something is offered to me, in this field where my will fails. I turn it over, wondering at the texture of the rind and the wild color. The gardener tells me he knows that I am sick to my stomach from ill-picked mushrooms and crab apples; left alone I am liable to poison myself. He bids me, take and eat, for what has been grown here has been grown with purpose and will give me strength. And so I say that I will leave it up to him.
“Pleasant places were measured out for me,” the psalmist says. “I have a delightful inheritance” (Ps. 16:6). The Mystery asks that we know it now, a little at a time, in small and bounded spaces. And even as we learn the limits of those space and how to live within them, we will find the limits growing wider, until we live as though there were no limits at all.
Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago. He is currently finishing a dissertation on the aesthetics of divine power in the works of Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry, and Eugene Vodolazkin. You can find more of his work in Christ and Pop-Culture, Englewood Review of Books, Fathom Magazine, and Renascence, among others.