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  • Rice and Jell-O
  • Hal S. Barron (bio)
Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919–1982. By Valerie J. Matsumoto. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. 262 pages. $35.00 (cloth). $15.95 (paper).

Among its many fine qualities, two aspects of Valerie J. Matsumoto’s history of Cortez, a central California Japanese American farming community, immediately distinguish it from other scholarly studies. On the first page, she names and thanks almost one hundred members of this community and its families, for generously sharing their “time, memories, personal and institutional records, and warm hospitality” (1). That hospitality is also acknowledged in a different way in Appendix C, which consists of twenty-four recipes from Cortez women (and one man). These recipes range from traditional Japanese foods such as manju (a dessert sweet served with tea) to the more conventional zucchini bread or tamale pie, but they also include some interesting cross-cultural creations such as Jell-O mochi, a combination of sweet, sticky rice and more familiar ingredients. 1

For me, there is also a more personal connection—of which I was not aware when I agreed to review this book— as my wife’s aunt, Rose Narita, was a member of this community and appears in a 1931 photograph as one of a number of children dressed in Japanese costume as part of Cortez’s entry in the Turlock Melon Carnival parade (80). She later married Roy Nakayama, a leading authority on chile peppers, and lived near Las [End Page 203] Cruces, New Mexico, where two generations of the Nakayama family farmed. The New Mexico family’s recipe for chile rellenos, tempura-battered stuffed chiles cooked in Japanese fashion and dipped in soy sauce, would be right at home in Appendix C.

Indeed, Jell-O mochi and chile relleno tempura (which, by the way, is delicious) are apt metaphors for Professor Matsumoto’s perspective. She stresses the flexibility of ethnic identity instead of regarding ethnic culture as static and unchanging. As she puts it, her study of Cortez is part of a “second wave of ethnic community studies,” which focus on the “ambiguities confronting immigrants and their American-born children” as they negotiated between the dictates of their cultural baggage and new economic and social (and culinary) realities (9). Rather than reflecting vestiges of old-world village life preserved in spite of the dominant society, these new ethnic sensibilities are the result of active choices by the immigrants and their children as they tried to adjust to American life on their own terms. And, in Matsumoto’s argument, ethnicity and community were not ends in themselves—as a more romanticized vision might have it—but instead served more prosaic human needs and changed as those needs shifted from generation to generation.

Though the larger contours of this historiographical perspective are already familiar to us from the works of John Bodnar, George Sanchez, and others, Matsumoto suggests additional dimensions in her introduction. In contrast to other “second wave” studies, Farming the Home Place focuses on rural as opposed to urban life. This is important for Asian American history, which, with the possible exceptions of Sucheng Chan’s work on Chinese immigrant farmers and Karin Leonard’s study of Punjabis in California’s Imperial Valley, has been rooted in the city. It is especially valuable for Japanese American history, which, on the mainland at least, has concentrated primarily on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, even though more than half of the Japanese in America prior to World War II lived in rural areas. In a different vein, Matsumoto’s oral history interviews and her broad time frame allow her to probe the more subjective and internal dimensions of ethnicity and also to extend her analysis to the third generation, the “Sansei,” and these are singular accomplishments for a history of any immigrant group.

Cortez was established seven miles south of Turlock in 1919 as the last of three colonies for Japanese immigrants in the San Joaquin Valley founded by Kyutaro Abiko, an idealistic Japanese Christian banker, newspaper publisher, and businessman. In contrast to the comparatively [End Page 204] well-educated Japanese Christians who settled in...

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