Nabe: A social experiment


POSTED: Wednesday, May 27, 2009

As we techno-launch into the future nanosecond by nanosecond, tweeting a swath across the globe, we've become more visible, accessible and popular than ever before—and it all comes with efficiency. Answer a phone here, tweet there; write a memo here, e-mail there; head out to a meeting, tweet first, come back, text. Being well connected never took so little effort.

Fans of electronic communication wax poetic about how they get the latest scoop on their favorite things—new restaurants, fashion, music, everything—without any lag time. Social butterflies make new friends on the other side of the world and never lose touch with the old ones.




Nabe as art


        A slideshow and audio presentation about Mat Kubo's nabe dinners are on display at The Contemporary Museum in the “;20 Going on 21”; exhibition, through June 21. Call 526-1322.

Now we can all be our most well-informed, most well-connected selves. Nary a wallflower moment to be had—right?

“;I came to the realization that I come home and eat most of my meals alone,”; said Mat Kubo, a single artist, begging to differ. “;I don't see anyone (socially) for months sometimes.”;

Kubo, a 20-something sculptor who grew up with electronic communication, says his social interactions usually happen through social networks such as MySpace, Twitter and Facebook, or through text messaging and e-mail.

“;My friends and I e-mail a lot. We write that we should just meet and have coffee, but it doesn't happen,”; he said. “;We meet people and e-mail or meet on social networks, but we don't really know the subtext of what they're talking about. They're only pixels on the screen.”;

In pondering contemporary socialization, Kubo decided to conduct a social experiment. He would return to a traditional form of socializing—sharing a meal—by cooking for strangers with a “;nabe,”; or pot.

“;Can strangers become friends over a meal?”; he asks.

NABE (pronounced na-bay) is a classic form of Japanese cooking that uses one pot. Ingredients, chopped into bite-size pieces (Kubo's featured salmon, beef, fishcake and numerous vegetables), are cooked in a flavorful broth. Kubo heats his pot on a portable propane gas stove, placed in the center of the table.

Because only one pot is used, the dining process is leisurely. Kubo scoops out tasty morsels as they cook and places them into each person's bowl. Diners dip the pieces in a seasoned soy sauce and enjoy.

Kubo didn't pick nabe cooking arbitrarily. “;With nabe everyone shares a common experience. They're all feeling, smelling and tasting the same thing,”; he said. “;It's a collaborative piece. The conversations are intertwined with the eating.”;

Since Kubo announced his project about a year ago, he's cooked about a dozen dinners. There have been people “;from all walks of life,”; including an English professor, a Navy man, a social worker, an old high-school friend and “;one guy who threw it back at me—he cooked me a traditional Filipino meal.”;

ON A RECENT Sunday evening, Kubo cooked his latest nabe dinner at the Makiki home of Gina Caruso, film curator at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Caruso's friends, a group of women of the “;29 forever”; demographic, were more familiar with socializing over food rather than Twitter. This was a new type of crowd for Kubo, who quietly dropped shiitake mushrooms, salmon and won bok into the pot as three different conversations buzzed around him.

It didn't take long, however, for the women to engage him in conversation, since none had tried nabe before. Talk shifted from food to family to culture.

“;This was one of the more entertaining dinners,”; Kubo said. “;It was a lively group with a mix of backgrounds, influences and cultures. But everyone's the same when it comes to eating. There's a point when the sound drops out and there's silence. That usually means they're enjoying the food.”;

“;There were so many bursts of flavors,”; said guest Uzma Malik, who hails from Pakistan. “;Each flavor, each texture gets you thinking, and the sole concentration is on the food at that point.”;

“;I like the concept of seeing it cooking. You can see that it's all fresh,”; said Astrid Tommasino, an avid cook. “;And it's all in one pot ... so one of the benefits was that Mat was always there. That was really nice.”;

Eliana Crestani, who recently moved to Hawaii from Italy, agreed.

“;I love that the person preparing the food is still part of everything,”; she said. “;When I entertain, I never really get to participate. It's a constant back and forth to the kitchen.”;

THE NABE PROJECT has become Kubo's latest art project, and though it's a far cry from his usual medium of sculpture, it fulfills his objectives as an artist.

“;I really like the fact that the art coming out of it is connection. I'm calling my art that experience,”; he said. “;We (artists) are all trying to express ideas or relate to people, so having these kinds of experiences—creating a discourse—is what my work's always been about.”;

For the busy Caruso, the dinner did indeed offer that rare chance to connect with friends.

“;We're so busy trying to survive, but this comforts,”; she said. “;This is really kind of primal. It goes back to people needing to warm themselves around the fire.”;

That fundamental quality appealed as well to Patti Almirez, Caruso's colleague, who made new friends over the nabe pot.

“;The meal felt old-fashioned in a real good way,”; Almirez said. “;Mat's experiment is very important in this day and age because it brings the human connection back into our lives. Maybe that's why this resonated with me. I long for a simpler time.”;