Food, Photography & Personal Journeys in Kyushu: Prairie Stuart-Wolff’s Cultivated Days

There are food blogs, and “green smoothie” Instagram posts, and then there is “Cultivated Days”, a website which takes your breath away, such is its beauty and artistic quality. And when I meet the creative mind behind it, Prairie Stuart-Wolff, and observe her eloquent manner of speaking and zest for food and creativity, it is no wonder her site is such a work of elegance.

As a writer and photographer, Prairie vividly captures, explores and explains her journey into the world of Japanese cuisine in breath-taking depth on Cultivated Days. To call this website a “blog” though seems to do it an injustice, and indeed this is one of the first things I ask Prairie. She tells me that she too has struggled with how best to define Cultivated Days, which is a foray into washoku (Japanese cooking) and American-born Prairie’s experiences in Japan, as told through the medium of food.

Her website is divided into two sections, “Journal” and “Essays”, and through these two “channels” she tells of her own experiences and those of others with a love of wholesome, well-sourced food. As the “Humans of New York” website gives a glimpse into the lives of others through a beautifully shot portrait, or simple yet symbolic photo, so does Prairie let us into the lives of others, through their relationship with food.

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A photo from one of Prairie’s favourite articles about the freediving tradition of the ama.

Prairie grew up on the east coast of America before studying a Liberal Arts degree at Stanford. It was in America that she met her Japanese partner, who runs a very successful pottery business from their home in rural Karatsu. Prairie tells me that she has always had “a life-long fascination with art” and a keen interest in photography, and on completion of her degree she wanted to pursue more formal photographic training. She studied in Maine, where she was able to learn about film photography at a time where it was being phased out in preference of digital photography.

She has an eye for aesthetics, and so in a lot of ways it seems so apt that she should have chosen to live in Japan, where beauty can be found in all manner of places. She describes, in a particularly beautiful Instagram post of a single bonsai tree, how it feels “predetermined” that she were to come and live in Japan, but that it was not something she had ever considered before meeting her partner.

She has now been working “seriously” on her website, which she suggests may be more aptly termed a “web magazine,” for the past three years. The content “comes in waves,” but she tends to write a Journal entry two to three times per month. Its process has been full of “evolutions”; it was something which she initially turned to in order to “orchestrate” her life and stop her feeling “lost” as she began to split her time between America and Japan.

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From the Essay “Reintroducing Sake to Japan”: Prairie meets Daisuke Komatsu who, disillusioned by the life of a salaryman, wanted to revive the family sake business.

Prairie was interested in food in the States but it was in Japan, where she began to observe her partner’s mother’s cooking, that her interest really took hold. Growing up, she “loved cooking” and her own mother was a “good cook.” However, in Japan her interest in culinary treats became a way of “navigating” how to be part of society here, which is no mean feat for someone who arrived with “no Japanese at all.” Prairie describes following her mother-in-law around the kitchen, observing, noting down and copying the recipes, which were made with seasonal ingredients.

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From the Journal entry “Her Hands Remembered”: Prairie’s mother-in-law is her cooking inspiration

I’m intrigued to know how Prairie views food culture in Japan with regard to food culture in the US. Our relationship with food is “quickly changing”, she believes, which is both “interesting and exciting.” She is abreast of the farming culture in America, which has transitioned from small to corporate farms. This is not good for land or produce and often results in long haul transportation to supermarkets where the produce is then sold on.

Of course it is “hard to generalise”, but Prairie and I talk about the Community Supported Agriculture scheme (CSA) and Maine, where Prairie lives for half the year. In Maine, for example, there has been a shift back to local farming and a seasonal, organic produce trend has developed. Being able to buy directly from farmers means cutting out the middle-man (the supermarket) and in turn, reduces the risk factor. Families invest in their local farm and are happy to purchase whatever farmers succeed in growing, be that five tomatoes one year, or bushels the next. This relationship between farmer and consumer installs trust, and has meant more young people are considering farming as a career.

Japan is on the cusp of a similar shift, Prairie thinks. Since the Fukushima disaster, there seems to have been a shift to prioritising healthy crops in Japan, as people realised that there was a need to be careful about where food comes from. Prairie revels in visiting the local market to find out what is in season there and notes that February to May is a particularly exciting time in Karatsu.

As far as Prairie has understood the situation, it is difficult to farm in Japan without being part of Japan Agriculture (JA), who often puts pressure on farmers to maximise production through the use of pesticides. She is interested in meeting and writing about Japanese food producers who work outside of these conditions, although this can be tricky.

Having “landed in a family” in Japan though, she has been able to meet many interesting personalities simply through “word of mouth.” Since they make tableware, “potters like to eat and cook” and so she is well-placed in Japan to explore the food scene.

One man she has met, a jinenjo (wild yam) farmer from Karatsu became so disillusioned with the JA system, which makes a huge profit from farmers’ crops, that he decided to find an alternative way to sell his produce. He “worked his tail off” to produce a superior product which he could sell to department stores, who don’t trade under the same rules as the supermarkets do.

I am curious to know what Praire thinks about consumers often being deterred by the price of organic, well-sourced produce in comparison to its more affordable supermarket counterparts. Her response is simple: “The price of [supermarket] food now is unrealistic”, she says, explaining that we have become used to very cheap produce over the years, which has been made possible by the increase of large-scale farming which is subsidized by the government, and we now expect to be able to buy cheap food.

Prairie’s knowledge of Japanese foods is extensive and her love of it is great. I ask if there’s anything she misses when she returns to America and we quickly arrive at the topic of “food geography.” Prairie explains that for her, food is tied to geography and that she alternates between American and Japanese cuisines depending on which of the two countries she finds herself in. Her personal stance is that she is not so keen on “substitution of ingredients” as she sets out to source her food locally and seasonally and likes to work with what’s available: “everything we love about washoku has to do with living in Japan.”

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The great outdoors: Prairie picks sansho at her home in Karatsu

With so many delights displayed on Cultivated Days, I wonder what an average food day is like for Prairie, or if such a thing exists. Living in the countryside, “99% of meals are consumed at home at the dining table.” Co-running the pottery business with her partner means that days are busy, and leftovers are often served for lunch. For Prairie, she has grown to see food as a source of pleasure. It is one of the things which “most directly affects us”, and is “one of the things we spend most of our time doing.”

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This wakame sunomono salad recipe is featured in Prairie’s spring Journal post.

Prairie is fascinated by Japan’s ancient culinary customs and traditions, and keen for them to be preserved. Thanks to a recent grant from VSCO, an American photo software company, which she received through “luck”, she is able to finance her “passion project,” with the aim of educating readers about Japanese Culture.

Originally beginning as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family as she moved between Japan and America, Cultivated Days has evolved to become a delight for the senses, and a must read for anyone interested in food, the diversity and richness of life, and culture.

Text by Hannah Smith, for Fukuoka Now
Photos courtesy of Prairie Stuart-Wolff

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