Julia Harrison, an artist and anthropologist whose interests coalesce around confection, likes mochi ice cream - and most other sugary snacks. But she was sympathetic to arguments that the 20-year old dessert didn't deserve a spot in the pantheon of traditional Japanese sweets.
"I didn't think it was very interesting," Harrison says. "Then, when I started poking around its history, I realized it was just a modern version of the processes that fascinate me. I've gotten in conversations about authenticity, and that's not even worth trying to apply."
According to Harrison, who this week is lecturing on mochi at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, mochi ice cream was developed by a woman who was born in an internment camp. Frances Hashimoto is the youngest daughter of two Japanese pastry artists who in 1925 purchased a Los Angeles mochi shop from an uncle; When Hashimoto took over Mikawaya in 1970, she expanded its retail operations. The bakery released its first batch of mochi ice cream in 1994.
Whenever Harrison tells people she studies Japanese sweets, she's immediately asked about mochi ice cream. But other types "are coming back now," after a prolonged mochi drought. Harrison recently spoke to a leading French pastry chef who believes the Japanese flours critical for mochi-making will soon be picked up by bakers worldwide.
Mochi is ceremonially important in Japan, but it also has personal significance for many Japanese. When Harrison taught English in Tokyo, she mastered the Japanese phrase for 'what's your favorite sweet?' "It was like a floodgate," she says. "Just that one question gets people talking."
Harrison is now developing a mochi exhibit for the Wing Luke Museum, and is building a website to showcase oral histories with mochi makers.
"I'm trying to share this information in different ways," she says.
Thursday's presentation at the Seattle Asian Art Museum will include photos of internment camp residents making mochi and Washington farmers making mochi in the early 20th century, but there won't be any sweets for sampling.
"I know, that's horrible," Harrison says. "I wish I could talk someone into having a cart outside in Volunteer Park."