Accidental butter


From the age of 3 on, or so my mother says, I would always hang around the kitchen asking questions, tilting containers to my level, getting underfoot and in everyone's way. After about age 5, I was reluctantly given some small, low-risk things to do, like making panko from day-old bread, or filling the salt and pepper shakers.

My father's company transferred him to England when I was 4, and a year later the rest of the family followed him - my mother, my one year old baby sister, and I. My mother barely spoke a word of English. Being a child, I grasped the new language much faster than she did, so I helped her to figure out the puzzling instructions on food packages. Once, we didn't know what to do with a box of concentrated fruit jelly and ate it out of the packet in the chilly, depressing kitchen of our New Malden flat, pulling at it with our teeth, wondering why it was so chewy. We'd never seen jelly like that before, since the fruit jelly mixes in Japan were in powdered form. A neighbor lady later showed us how to melt and dilute the concentrated jelly chunks in hot water.

Years later as an adult, I too moved to a country where I barely understood the language. Only then did I start to fully comprehend what my young mother must have gone through in those early years - especially with two small children. Somehow she managed.

By the time I was 9, we were living on the outskirts of a small town in Berkshire called Wokingham. My mother had gotten a lot more used to English cooking by then, and on this Saturday afternoon she was making a fruit trifle for some guests who were due to come to dinner. She needed some cream whipped, and I eagerly volunteered.

I ignored the balloon whisk my mother pointed out and went straight for the eggbeater - the contraption with two whisks and a handle that turned round and round. You don't see them much anymore, but to me it was a fascinating bit of machinery. I dumped the cream in the bowl, planted the whisk part firmly in the middle of it, and got to work.

Whirl, whirl, whirl. My arms ached, but the rhythm was fascinating. The cream rapidly got thicker, and thicker. It was plenty thick now, almost too much so, but still I kept turning, and turning, in a total groove.

My mother, who had been occupied elsewhere, came around to see how she was doing. She took one look in the bowl, and shouted, Why did you add water??

Puzzled, I stopped and peered into the bowl. Sure enough there was a pool of murky liquid in the bowl. And the cream, which was so beautifully white and peaky just a moment ago, looked clumpy, ruined. I was horrified.

I didn't add water! I didn't! I wailed. (You have to imagine this in duo-language: my mother always spoke to me in Japanese, but I talked back to her in English.) I jumped off the stool. I didn't add water!! My mother looked again, suspiciously, at the bowl, and back at me. You must have done something. This is useless. You're not helping me.

But I didn't do anything wrong!! I screamed, tears now running down my face. She ignored me as I yelled and stomped my feet. My whole body was shaking with indignation. I didn't! I didn't! Finally she paused whatever she was doing and grabbed me by my arms. Shut up! Go up to your room. You're in the way! she yelled. My father, who was reading the paper in the living room, came in. I could hear you all the way over there. The neighbors must have heard you. You're embarassing us. Go upstairs! He may have smacked me, because he did that a lot. I don't quite remember that part.

But to this day, I can still remember the indignation, the helpless anger at the injustice of it all. I remember rushing up the stairs, whose wooden treads were open and uncarpeted in typical 1960s-70s style, and almost falling and slipping through the treads because I was in such a hurry I remember sobbing all evening as I listened to the guests laughing and talking downstairs, my stomach growling with hunger.

I seethed with anger for weeks. How dare she. How dare she. The next Monday, I looked up the mystery of the watery, clumpy cream in the school library, and - of course - I discovered that I had whipped the cream so long and vigorously that it was turning into butter. Evidently, my mother was as ignorant of this phenomenon as I. She didn't grow up with cream or butter in postwar Japan. But I didn't know that at the time of course, nor did I care. My 9 year old being was simply consumed by the feeling of having been wrongfully accused.

It did recede to the recesses of my mind, eventually. But I never totally forgot it. The day of the Great Cream Incident may have been when I stopped being a small child and entered adolescence. I was only 9 for sure, but that's when started to stop regarding my parents purely with awe, never questioning them. Especially my mother. My father left for work early in the morning and returned well after we were asleep, and we barely saw him on the weekends either unless he was angry at us for something. So my mother was the only parent my sister and I really knew.

We moved to suburban New York for a year when I was 10, where my youngest sister was born, then back to Japan for 6 years. It was not an easy time. My parents' marriage had never been that solid, and it deteriorated year on year during my teen years. As much fighting as there was between them, there was as much or more fighting between me and my mother. Our house was a constant battlefield.

In a bid to make things better, my father got a new job in New York and we moved back there again. The move didn't work. Within less than two years my mother was gone, leaving all of us behind. We knew that she was right to leave, but we still resented it, especially my youngest sister, who didn't really remember the really bad times. At first I tried to be my mother's replacement for my sisters, but that wasn't going to last long. It took another 5 years for the divorce to be finalized.

Time passed. I left my father's house too, and grew up a little. My mother and I became friendly again. I got along with her second husband, my stepfather, a lot better than I did with my real father. That helped. Besides, I was now an adult. They had their hands full, all three of them in various ways, with my youngest sister, now a rebellious teenager.

The Cream Incident did come up again, once or twice, especially if my middle sister was around, and we embarked on a dangerous session of Let's Talk About Our Childhoods. Whenever it did, I was always surprised anew at the anger and resentment I felt, still, after such a long time. Sometimes, we don't choose our memories. The memories choose us, clinging onto us as tenaciously as burrs.

What would also hurt was that my mother would claim she didn't remember the incident. Maybe she didn't. Once, she snapped at me, calling me shitukoi - stubbornly clinging to an old grudge. I didnt speak to her for a while after that.

I moved away from New York to Switzerland, far away from my mother as well as my father. I got married. The distance made my relationships with both my parents improved markedly. Whenever my mother came to visit me, or vice versa, we were almost like friends or sisters rather than parent and child - though we soon discovered that after more than 6 weeks together at a time, things would deteriorate rapidly.


Things have been tough for my parents in the last few years. They have both grown older, and both suffered serious illnesses. I especially notice the changes in my mother. After retiring from her busy job in New York, she thought that moving back to Japan for her retirement would make life better, but it hasn't quite worked out that way. She's now living with a chronic, painful illness, ulcerative colitis. She used to be so strong and bossy, but now she is slower, weaker, much more timid. But she's still interested in life, her mind is still razor sharp, and she still manages to whip up beautiful, intricate sweaters in no time, and she still tries to manage the lives of her husband and her daughters, though she would deny it vehemently if you asked her if she did.

I can also now spend much longer stretches of time with her, without getting to the shouting-match stage. And we genuinely enjoy each other's company. I guess we have both mellowed.

One of the last times I was back in Japan, I was in her kitchen making a cake at her request. Over the years I've somehow gotten better than her at that sort of cooking. As she watched me work, whipping some softened butter with sugar, she suddenly touched my arm and said, Gomen ne. I'm sorry. Puzzled, I turned to her and said, Why? What for? Without looking at my face, she said softly, For the cream thing. I didn't know that could happen. But I'm sorry I was so mean to you. Gomen ne.

I laughed, inexplicably embarassed. Turning away from her back to my bowl, I said Iiyo. Nani, imasara. It's ok. Why bring it up now? But inside, I was so glad. So glad she remembered. So glad that she still cared enough to say those words, gomen ne. My eyes got very blurry.

I'm sorry.

It's OK.

Happy 70th birthday, Mother. お誕生日おめでとう、お母さん。

Filed under:  essays

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This is a piece of who you are. Thanks for sharing it with us. It made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. Life IS both sweet and sour, isn't it?

Dear Maki

It's funny how such seemingly inconsequential incidents stick with us throughout our lives. I had a number of them myself both good and bad, in particular during my single aged years. It was a similar experience to yourself. My Dad was always working and we would perhaps see him for 30 minutes a day. My Mother would be coping with three boisterous children as best she could, but even now I remember the cracks showing.

Now as a divorced parent of a six year old myself, with a busy job that takes me away...I ponder if history is repeating itself?

Your story is wonderfully told and an insight to your early years. Incidentally the most influential period of our lives is from 7 until 14. When I look at who I am now...kinda makes sense.

On another note, you have an amazing website. Well done.

Great story. So well written that it feels like watching a short, poignant film. Wow.

So poignant.

Thank you for sharing this.

Thank you.

I love your recipes, I love your stories... My eyes got very blurry too Maki...

Thanks Maki for sharing such personal memories... I was moved...
And a big お誕生日おめでとう to your Mom!!

btw: I still use the eggbeater as an everyday equipment (well, not exactly every day, but almost)..

Thank you for being so candid in telling your story, I enjoyed reading it. I think we all have an "Accidental Butter" story in one form or another and I'm sure my daughter and I have one too but for the life of me I can't think of what it could be. Your story just shows that relationships are no different around the world and you learned how to churn butter *smile*.

I wish your mom a wonderful birthday and long life.


Thank you for sharing that story. It was beautiful, and made me tear up.

That brought tears to my eyes. I'm very happy for you that you have reached that place. Maybe one day I can as well.

that brought tears to my eyes.

Thank you for sharing, and happy birthday to your mother!

Written so beautifully.
I always had a bit of a complex relation with my parents, and with family in general, I'm not too god at "families", it seems. Now I live quite far from my mum, and my father is dead and sometime I miss him a lot.
Truth is that when we were together it was almost a continuos fight, especially about politics, unless we were cooking or talking food together, as in the kitchen we could really work as a team. I miss searching for mushrooms with him, I miss organizing new years dinners and looking for special ingredients around. And chasing my mother out of the kitchen ;-) as we had to do if we wanted to cook without too many interruptions and distractions.

Now I see my mother about once a year. I feel guilty not seeing her more often, but we are very different and she gets stressed if we (me and my partner) stay around more than a week, as she has other things to do, people to see, voluntary work to organize and so on....
I'm afraid of loosing her, or that she will fall and be alone, I can imagine a lot of scary scenarios in my mind.
It's hard to see parents getting older.

Who would think a food blog would be so touching to my soul? This brought tears to my eyes... thank you.

I never thought of this, but I will remember it forever: "Sometimes, we don’t choose our memories. The memories choose us, clinging onto us as tenaciously as burrs."

This story really hit close to home... Thank you.(Crying so hard I can't even type...)

Damn, there's something in my eye ;)

Thank you for sharing your story with us. I feel like I can relate to your stories, being the child of Japanese parents. I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother during my teen years and all that had changed once she was diagnosed with cancer. After 2 bouts of cancer she has been in remission for over 10 years. We are close now but we have never talked about the past. She too turned 70 this September but now I notice she has become very extremely forgetful which concerns me.

Your story made me very teary...I feel like our conversation would be similar to yours if it were to ever come up. I appreciate you letting us share in your private memories. I wish the best to you and your mother.

I loved that post, and of course tears showed up in my eyes at the end.

This post is one of the reasons why I love your blog, it gives me a small glimpse into another culture that I would not have otherwise.

This sort of thing may be a rite of passage for most mothers and daughters. With my mom, it was a weird clash of wills over when to open a package from my aunt.

Thank you for sharing such a personal story. Number me among those who teared up.

Wow, what a beautiful story! Thanks so much for sharing, and happy birthday to your mother.

That was amazing, touching and sad all at once. Thank you for sharing it with us.

That made me tear up. Thank you for sharing. Here's a hug for 9 year old you and grown up you too. *Hugs*

Thank you for sharing your story with us and revealing yourself so deeply. Happy birthday wishes to your mother.

I wish I remembered more of those sorts of stories myself since I too came to a foreign country with my parents as a small child.

Unfortunately, my mother was never able to stay home with my brother and myself but worked at first 7, then 6 and then finally 5 days a week until she retired.

Now that she and I could be spending time together (my father passed away last year and she moved in with me) she has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's so, though I have my mother in body, the mind and spirit behind the hard working woman who spent her entire life doing for her family is gone leaving behind a woman who speaks of times, places and people I've never known.

Your post seems to have hit home for many people, me included. I can definitely remember incidents for which I was wrongly accused by my parents that still sting to this day. And I remember a similar apology by my dad, telling me that he thought I turned out all right-- this after many years of telling me that I would never amount to anything. It remains the nicest thing he's ever said to me.

Thanks for continuing to blog, and best wishes to your mother.

Thank you! This essay brought tears to my eyes, even as I was laughing. It is perfect. Thank you, thank you for sharing.

Thank you for sharing your story. It made me cry. Wishing your mom a Wonderful and Happy Birthday.

I wept at the end of your story...
I wept for remembering similar times from my childhood and more so remembering similar times from motherhood.
For my adult children: ごめん and please forgive me!

For my parents: I forgive you!

And for your Mom: たんじょうびおめでとうございます

I had my ups and downs with my folks like most, but truely, my parents were both really great people and I know they tried to be the best parents they knew how. (they had me when they were both in their late 40's so the generation gap thing was even more difficult for us!)

People of that generation here, especially with strongly influenced Irish, Scots or Dutch ancestry (which we have all three) tend to be very stoic and undemonstrative. I remember growing up thinking my father really did not like me because I was an "oops!" baby and had ruined all his plans for retired life.

We had our moments when I learned very much how wrong I was. He passed in 2006 and I miss him every day. I still have mom, she's 86 and I'm cherishing every moment I have with her, she is absolutely my best friend as well as an incredible parent.

thank you for sharing your story with us Maki, and while I could actually understand with your writing in english characters what your mom and you said to each other, I fear I don't know the japanese characters (I'm guessing I love you and happy birthday mom!) Please pass on my wishes of happy birthday to her too (and tell her you know a lady who as a child part of her chores was to put whole milk in a big wooden bucket with a lid and work furiously with a stick for a couple of hours to churn that milk to whey and butter!!!! It gives you terrific arm muscles!)

Dear Maki,
this precious bit of your life you shared with us is so moving, delicate and full of love.
You are a natural storyteller.
Thank you,

That was a terrific story, and I thank you for sharing it. My mother, too, apologized to me. She's 86, with Alzheimer's, and could not remember that if you explained it to her all day and night. Happy Birthday to your mother.


Thank you for sharing.

This is a great story and it shows that family really can overcome a great deal of hardship.

It's still so early, I wish I could say this is the first time I cried today. I'm still in the middle of the story, as are many of my friends. However, this has made me feel hopeful for all of us.

lovely piece. made me tear up.
always enjoy your site with its beautiful photos. keep up the good work!

This made me cry.

thanks for sharing this story. i got a little teary at the end. my relationship with my mom is happy and rocky at times -- i think that's typical of all mother-daughter relationships. and for all close relationships, i bet it's healthy to have a little give and take, bitter and sweet. isn't growing up both hard and beautiful?

Magnifique, really. I came on your blog to have a recipe for my lunch, and ended up reading your article as I would read a good book...

Happy birthday Mom! Enjoyed the story tremendously.

I have suffered with ulcerlative colitis for about five years, in and out of hospitals and on heavy medications. I was afraid of surgery and kept delaying it while being suffered tremendously. I wish someone had told me earlier to do surgery instead of being in misery for many years.

I had surgery about five years ago and I am so glad I did. No more pain, fear of food and blood transfusion.

My case was severe. Everybody is different. I hope your mom is doing ok.

My mother had surgery too, 2 years ago, after going through what you did too it looks like - regular blood transfusions, constant fear of food. She had her entire large intestine removed. Unfortunately, perhaps because of her age, her recovery has been very slow and she still has some digestive problems. Plus, just recently her steroid dose was cut down too much too soon, and she tore a muscle in her calf just from stumbling a bit. She's doing a better now though. It's great to know that you can get better! Thank you for sharing :)

What a beautiful, poignant story. I'm afraid I read this work and my tears elicited curious stares from my colleagues.

Thank you for sharing - as many have said this story has really struck a chord for so many of us.

Maki, you lead such a curious and many faceted life...ever considered publishing your memoirs?

Memoir? I think it would be too hard a sell for publishers and agents. Thanks for the thought though ^_^

I'd read it! :)

What can I say, Maki, you are just the best, as you prove again with this post.

This is a nice story that spoke to me in a few ways. First, I only recently learned that overwhipping cream would create butter, so it was interesting to see your piece on it. Secondly, my parents and I also have fluctuations in our relationships that are very similar to those between you and your mom. Third, my boyfriend (who's also Japanese!) also has ulcerative colitis and we've found that exercise really helps him.
Thanks for the touching piece!

How fortunate for the both of you that you came to a place of understanding and forgiveness before it was too late. Too many parents and children miss that moment of clarity or let that opportunity slip by because of ignorance or stubbornness.

Your story makes my heart swell with love for each of you.

Your story is very moving and beautiful--I was completely absorbed in it. How brave of your mother to remember and to ask to be forgiven! Thank you for sharing the difficulties of your life--as you surely can see from the comments, it means a lot to so many of us.

So much of me and my mum here. It is amazing how similar the feelings can be. My parents never got to divorce, and I'm still not sure about it.

“In the cherry blossom's shade there's no such thing as a stranger.” ~Kobayashi Issa

This was a poignant healing read for me. I hope you will honor your childhood memories and people who love to read autobiography by writing a memoir.I have read a large number of memoirs, and edited many, and feel certain you could contribute something unique and beautiful to the genre.

This was a really heartfelt and well-written story. Thanks for sharing with us!

This deserves some kind of writing award. Stunning.

Thanks for sharing. Your relationship with your mother reminds me so much of mine, with my mother. When I was 9, I was tasked to chop negi (scallions) into those really thin slices to put on miso shiru. Of course, my slices were too thick and my mother had to re-chop them, causing her more effort than usual. She was so angry in the same exact way you describe your own mother. I was also told that I was useless, and was sent away just as you were. As an adult, I also was never able to be in the same house with my mother for more than a fixed period of time without resorting to deafening shouting matches, that would cause all males in the household to cower. I lost my mother over 10 years ago. It is indeed funny what sticks with us. Of course, have many other memories of her, both good and bad. I take it that your mother is still alive, so please cherish all of the new memories you will be making.

This is a beautifully written personal essay that brings together memory, ideas, and characters. Food writing got me interested in your blog a few years ago, and good writing in the true sense of writing as a refined craft, keeps me coming back to read and re-read your work. Thank you, Maki, for your wonderful writing, and for your craftsmanship.

Beautifully written, and a poignant reminder of the powers of memory and forgiveness. Thank you so much for sharing a sliver of your life with your loyal readers!

From my RSS feed, I never thought the title would bring me to this story. Thank you Maki.

I've made accidental butter quite a few times now (always with the stand mixer, I never learn) and will think of this story should the unfortunate happen again.

Thanks so much for sharing your story.. helping me cope with my similar issues. :)

Been a fan for years.. hehe but first time commenting because it so moving and I feel that I'm not so alone. Your writing is really comforting and soothing no matter what the topic is. Love reading it all the time. First thing i look up for updates on the google reader.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. Come back soon from your hiatus, healthier and stronger.

Growing up with a Japanese American mother, I know how stubborn they can be about apologizing. Seems like especially if they are in the wrong.

Learning to cook with my mother and grandmother was a lot like your story, and I'm glad you have a good relationship now with your mother.

This really made me smile. Thank you.

Beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing, Maki. I always love your writing.


You are the amazing writer.
I wish you have a speedy recovery.
My thought are with you.

Thank you for this article. Brings up memories...

So sweet of a story, I had a few like that with my mom. Happily she did gomen ne before she died and that did help.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful, honest expression of love for your mother with us all.
So many of us carry a little seed of pain with us from our childhood into adulthood.
Only your mother could say the words to heal your pain and she did and I am so happy for you.
God bless you and may your recovery be quick, full and forever!

I always loved helping my mother in the kitchen. She would often tell the story of when I was three years old and she had sat me on the worktop whilst she made sponge cakes. Seeing what she was doing I decided to join in and whilst she turned her back on me for a moment I joyously spooned "Surf" into the cake mix. This 50's washing powder looked just like the flour she had been using moments earlier! Luckily the cake exploded in the oven so no one got food poisoning. Then a year later and a few inches taller, I managed to sneak Daffodil bulbs into a stew - Mum's little helper.
I was the youngest of three siblings and came along after a long gap, so was considered a surprise, though once in a screaming argument when I was a teenager, she yelled at me that I had been a mistake! Yeah right.
We were always very close, though at times I wondered why, as our relationship was like an active volcano, simmering away and appearing content on the surface, only to erupt without warning into a full blown argument that left us both feeling like wet rags!
When I left school I wanted to sail around the world and experiment with different foods, but my parents had other ideas for me and shoehorned me into an executive career. This made them very proud and happy, but made me decidedly miserable. After many years of this torment of trying to please them, the penny finally dropped and I moved to a remote farm in the mountains where I started growing organic food and cooking with it, much to the annoyance of my mother.
After my Dad passed away my mother and I became friends once more and enjoyed a close relationship, but at a distance. She was a great cook and I have now incorporated many of her recipes and those of her mother and my great grandmother in my cooking. I also enjoy cooking some Japanese recipes too.
I never did get to sail around the world, though next year to celebrate being 60, I am going to attempt to sail the Atlantic single-handed.
I found your blog, Maki-san, whilst searching for a way to convert an American-German recipe from those puzzling cups to uk measures and got to read your poignant article, that struck a chord with me, as tomorrow marks the anniversary of my mother's passing to the Spirit World to be with my Dad.
She was almost 100 years old and had lived a fascinating life. I will always remember her, mostly with affection and next time I am stirring a roux, I may even feel her close by.
Ganbatte Kudasai
Dawn - Wales, UK


Thank you, Dawn.

My dad did the same thing once trying to whip cream for a party. He was 30 at the time, so he didn't get quite the same reaction from doing it then you did, but he still got a bit of an earful from mom...


I LOVE this story and I LOVE your blog.

I stumbled on JustBento years ago when preparing a bento for my daughter and come back often to it or JustHungry.

In my case, I'm an expat living in Japan and want to cook for a Japanese husband and 2 kids over here. It's such a relief to have these great recipes and information in English. Thank you so much.

Accidentally Butter is a gem. I fear my own daughter and I may have a similar relationship and even now at only 7 we have some pretty nasty explosions.

Both my two LOVE the kitchen and DD2 is an especially good helper at only 4. After reading Accidentally Butter I realize I must try better to stay patient, bite my lip and continue to foster my budding chefs...

Alas, back to the kitchen. My saba awaits me!