“I’m afraid to clean them,” Anne Serrano-McClain said, cautiously touching the lacquered surface of one of the hundred-year-old Japanese wooden trays on her dining table.
They were gifts from her mother, who calls them “everyday use” trays, regardless of their vintage. This is in keeping with the Japanese principle of “yo no bi,” translated as beauty through use: the idea that the objects of daily life should be both functional and exquisite, subject to — and more beautiful because of — the erosions of time.
For Ms. Serrano-McClain, 34, the founder of MCMC Fragrances, a small-batch perfume company in Brooklyn, the trays are a reminder of a childhood spent half in Japan and half in Providence, R.I. Wherever she was, she would come home from school to find a snack instantly conjured on a tray. “One thing I could rely on: My mom would be home and there would be food,” she said.
It’s a tradition that her mother, a Korean-American who was raised in Japan, continues today. “I come over and — boom, there is tea and fruit, cut up, on a tray,” Ms. Serrano-McClain said. On her own, she added: “I eat standing up; I eat at my computer. My mother really makes me take my time.”
Of the dozens of trays in her Lower East Side apartment, some are carved with shallow, thatched strokes; in others, the natural grain shows through. Each has been meticulously and repeatedly rubbed with a translucent lacquer filtered from the sap of the urushi tree.
The sap contains urushiol, the oil that causes allergic reactions to poison ivy. It loses its toxicity as each coat of lacquer is left to harden slowly in a warm, humid room. Urushi artisans, who work with the lacquer raw, gradually develop immunity, perhaps honoring another principle: beauty through suffering.
For Ms. Serrano-McClain, the process of building perfumes by hand is nearly as painstaking. She goes through a hundred trials before settling on a formula. When she studied at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in Provence, France, she had to commit 500 raw materials to memory. “You can’t wing it,” she said.
Her father, of Irish descent, taught English in Japan; her mother was his student. He fell in love with the country, too, and went on to become a professor of Japanese history at Brown University, which Ms. Serrano-McClain, her younger sister (and MCMC colleague) and her mother all attended.
Ms. Serrano-McClain often cooks Japanese and Korean food for her husband, José, an artist and community organizer who grew up in the Dominican Republic, and their 2-year-old son, Kairo. The son happily eats natto (fermented soybeans) and ramen for breakfast, but the husband is more wary.
“I mention umeboshi, and his eyes glaze over,” she said. “The lucky thing is that he eats rice in his culture, too.”
When her son comes home from preschool, Ms. Serrano-McClain has a snack ready, albeit not on a wooden tray. “I serve the same food as my mom,” she said. “But maybe with not as much care as my mom.”
She added, ruefully, “I want to be that kind of woman, but it doesn’t come naturally.”
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