Eating sushi wasn’t high on Eric Wright’s life list. As new experiences go, sitting down to a dish of “bait” probably fell somewhere between capsizing a canoe and being hit in the head with a foul ball. “Eating sushi was out of the question,” Wright recalls.
But, with a friend’s prodding, Wright reluctantly sidled up to the sushi line at Asiana, Asheville’s resident Asian mega-buffet, and plopped a few California rolls on his plate.
The California roll, as sushi fans know, isn’t exactly sushi: It’s imitation crab meat and avocado sculpted into a sushi form, a culinary innovation so distinctively American that it’s sold in Japan as an exotic delicacy. No matter: The humble California roll is the undisputed gateway drug of the sushi bar, having hooked millions of Americans on the utterly Eastern combination of fish, rice and seaweed—the latter reported by many sushi newbies to be more conceptually off-putting than uncooked fish. Thanks to the California roll, nearly every grocery store now keeps spicy tuna rolls in its coolers, and towns as small as Waynesville have sushi restaurants of their own.
And decades into the sushi revolution that’s put more than 10,000 sushi restaurants in the United States, the California roll continues to convert conservative eaters like Wright. Wright—who, like many Western North Carolinians, was well into adulthood before he even contemplated sampling sushi—now counts sushi among his favorite foods. Three years after that fateful encounter with Asiana’s California rolls, he’s the ringleader of a group of about eight co-workers at Southeastern Container, a bottle-production plant in Enka, who make regular pilgrimages to Green Tea Sushi.
Most of the group’s members initially shared Wright’s reservations: Raw fish sounded icky and slimy and possibly unsafe. Nearly all of the folks responded to his lunch invitation with some variation of “There ain’t no way.” But Wright and Ruthie Baldwin finally managed to persuade the co-workers with whom they’d been lunching for years to join them.
“We started out with those bento boxes, because they have that variety,” Baldwin says. “Then we started doing maki rolls, and now we’ve migrated to special rolls. We’ve even ventured out and eaten some sashimi.”
The group, which generally considers fast food and brown bags a waste of a lunch hour, still enjoys eating at Apollo Flame Bistro, Papas and Beer, Tucson Southwest Grill—which has added a grouper burrito to its menu at the group’s insistence—and Fuddruckers, where Merel Johnson always orders the veggie burger (“You lose your man cred on that one,” Baldwin tells him with a grin). But they rarely go a week without sushi. “We start doing sushi call at 10:30,” Wright says.
Wright—who’s become something of a sushi connoisseur, ferreting out the best sushi spots in the many cities he visits for work—will often dragoon non-sushi-eating sales reps into joining the group’s lunches, sure they’ll be grateful for the introduction.
“People with no desire to eat sushi, we’ll bring ‘em here,” Wright says.
“This is probably our favorite place,” Baldwin agrees.
Baldwin is so smitten with sushi that she carries a pair of cheater chopsticks in her purse, rubber-banded together at their ends to facilitate tidy grabbing of rolls like the group’s current favorite, the Mini Godzilla, featuring tuna, salmon and yellowtail.
But for some aspects of the sushi experience, there are no training wheels. The bugaboo that daunted the Southeastern Container eaters, long after they’d grown accustomed to raw whitefish and octopus, was miso soup.
“The whole miso soup thing could be a story in itself,” Wright says. “I did not like miso soup. I was like, ‘I do not want that.’ It’s like dishwater.”
In keeping with the lunch group’s reputation around the office for culinary adventurousness—if not recklessness—Wright and his co-workers finally decided to try the Japanese staple. The experiment quickly lead to a radical reassessment.
“It’s the best onion water you’ll ever eat,” Wright proclaims.
“And it’s good for you,” Baldwin adds. “Jackie found out about it last night on T.V.”
“It’s funny, because I absolutely hate tofu,” Wright muses. “But as long as you put it in here, I’ll try it.”
The group’s tradition now calls for each diner to order his or her own bowl of miso and a roll to pass. Soon after the food arrives, every eater’s plate is piled high with hefty tempura-flaked and roe-topped rolls bulging with octopus, yellowtail and eel, a fish which still makes Johnson slightly squeamish.
Johnson is a fairly recent arrival to the sushi scene (although not quite as green as an unnamed, sometimes member of the group who, Baldwin reports, they “can’t get to eat miso soup yet.” “Baby steps, baby steps,” Wright counsels). He’s already a great fan of wasabi, which figures prominently in all the members’ sushi coming-of-age stories.
“My first experience with sushi, my neighbor took me out for hibachi,” Chris Dodd says. “They put some wasabi on the side, and he said ‘Get yourself a spoonful of that. You’ll love it. It’s real minty and creamy.’ I sucked it down and it locked me up.”
Baldwin chimes in: “I didn’t know what it was the first time I ate it. I had a sneezing fit so bad I had a nosebleed.”
“If you go to Asiana, there’s a sign over the wasabi that says ‘This is not a guacamole,’” Roger Banks adds.
Dodd nods: “I betcha there’s been some good entertainment there.”
“They could pay-per-view that,” Wright laughs.
Wright, an extraordinarily amiable guy, is serious about his role as a sushi ambassador, listening intently as Jackie Price recounts how hard it’s been to persuade a certain co-worker to join them for Green Tea lunches.
“He’s a real meat-and-potatoes guy,” Price explains.
“No, no, no” Wright says. “He’s with us now.”