In the memoir, Cooking for Her Eyes, former Oak Park resident, village trustee and architect Susan Uehara Rakstang recounts growing up in her Okinawan family, raising her own family in the village, and ultimately serving as caregiver to both her ailing mother, Helen, and her dear friend, Margaret. Rakstang’s story of music, food, love and death is an intensely personal read centered on three women and the power of food to bond and nourish them all.
Rakstang spent eight years coaxing Cooking for Her Eyes into existence and considered herself to be an “on again off again writer” because parts of the story were very difficult to write. Emotions often forced her to separate herself from the story that gracefully jumps back-and-forth through time.
An endless parade of Japanese meals dot the timeline leading Rakstang to adulthood. She delights the reader with memories of using her well-honed origami skills to become her mother’s “best and only wonton maker.” She shares details on how to make perfect bias sliced scallions and recollects Christmas buffet tables brimming with Char Sui short ribs, table-top sukiyaki, and shrimp tempura.
Rakstang and her husband Bob arrived in Oak Park in 1976 with a toddler and an infant in tow. As they raised their children in the village, the young mother embarked on a new career path and met Margaret, a pastry chef who would become her dear friend. The memoir effortlessly recounts Rakstang serving as a “small “p” politics” trustee, navigating a male dominated industry and even stepping aside in the kitchen while her mother and Margaret whipped up a batch of caramel-colored fried rice together.
As Rakstang’s mother began to grapple with dementia, Margaret was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that caused severe throat pain and robbed her of her sense of taste. Rakstang became an advocate and caregiver to both.
While savoring fleeting moments when her mother instantly remembered how to fold wontons despite being unable to complete a child’s jigsaw puzzle, Rakstang simultaneously developed a pureed food technique designed to nurture and nourish Margaret through her rigorous cancer treatment.
Applying her architectural mind to meals, Rakstang created unseasoned purees made from colorful whole foods arranged in sculptural ways to create three-dimensionality. The whimsical, beautiful, memorable meals were plated to resemble Margaret’s favorite comfort foods like burgers and fries, pork chops and applesauce, or a colorful Cobb salad.
“It was an adventure for me. Just being in my kitchen was cathartic because I was accomplishing something,” said Rakstang. “I was able to depart from the realities of life and death that faced me every day — when I was in the kitchen I was just in another world.”
The technique allowed Margaret to feast with her eyes first and paid homage to the knife skills and artful plating techniques Rakstang had learned from cooking in her mother’s kitchen. While the family memoir is vulnerable, Rakstang describes the process of making Margaret’s meals in detail in hopes the technique will be valuable to others in need.
Cooking for Her Eyes is Rakstang’s first book. She completed it in time for her five elderly Hawaiian aunties to read and appreciate her deft storytelling. The memoir is currently among 20 books advanced to the semifinal round of the BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest and is available on Amazon and The Book Table.