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Sushi expert turns raw talent into a vocation

(ran NTP edition)

The scent of herbs and boiled rice fills the large room as the five students look expectantly at their instructor. Nearby, seaweed, sliced vegetables and bamboo place mats are strewn across an oblong table.

The teacher looks at the students, who are waiting for her to show them the secrets of an ancient art. And Gloria Ryder does. But first she offers a warning:

"You all know sushi from the restaurants," she said. "That is not sushi. Sushi is much more."

Ryder, 68, who considers the preparation and presentation of sushi a discipline, grew up in a small town near Kobe, Japan. She watched the painstaking care her father took in making sake, a Japanese wine, and has tried to instill his solid habits in her own life, especially in the way she cooks.

She explained that since sushi was created hundreds of years ago in Japan, each region and cook has made their own version of the cuisine.

"What I will teach you is from my house," she said. "It's my specialty."

Ryder began teaching the monthly class 13 years ago through the Baywinds Learning Centres and now teaches a separate class once a week. She said her students tend to be young and are often men. Many travel from across the state for the three-hour class.

Stephanie Jowers, a pipe welder who lives in Palma Ceia, was a recent student.

"Sushi is very expensive in a restaurant, especially when you know it's just rice and fish," she said. "I knew there had to be a cheaper way."

Gulfport resident Christina Hirtreiter and Gregory Cobban, who lives in Largo, came to the class after work. They have been eating Japanese food for years and wanted to learn the art for themselves.

Cynthia Holloway, a Carrollwood resident, recently took the class with her roommate, Terry Sidlo. They hope to learn the process well enough to prepare a sushi dinner for friends this weekend.

"I've tried to do this before, and it's just not something you can learn from a cookbook," Holloway said. "Believe me, I've tried. We ended up ordering takeout that night."

Ryder begins the class by telling the students to place heaps of rice on flat seaweed with vegetables. She nimbly rolls it all up in a bamboo sheet, then smiles as the rest of the class tries to follow.

Some tear their seaweed. Others have to start over after spreading too much rice.

"Everything I do, you people have to do," Ryder said. "I don't care how messy you are, just don't drop it on the floor. I once had a student get rice all over my tiles. Then I spent the next day on the floor with a knife trying to get it out."

Ryder began teaching the classes as something to do two years after the death of her husband.

"I thought I needed to start something new," she said. "It was a very lonely time for me."

The classes have sparked several long friendships for Ryder, and many laughs.

"When I first started cooking, I was very serious, but that's not the way to be," she said. "You have to be able to laugh at your boo-boos. That's what gives you a long life."

She remembers one doctor who became frustrated when he couldn't cut the sushi as well as she demonstrated in class.

"He told me my knives weren't very good," she said, laughing. "He could do it with bodies, but not with sushi."

When she's not preparing dishes in the kitchen, Ryder is reading about cooking. Her dream is to host a television cooking show.

Ryder said she enjoys being an American, but she hopes to encourage people in this country to better understand other cultures through food.

"Not so many people know about Oriental dishes, except for Chinese food," she said. "Japanese cooking is not so greasy and it's a very economical way to cook. All you need is the basic ingredients and creative ideas."

As the last class member rolled and sliced their colorful maki-zushi, Ryder beamed.

"You can be so proud of yourself when you're done," she said. "You don't even realize it's so healthy, too. I knew people would eventually realize Oriental food is a healthy way to go. If even one person learned something from my classes, that's worth it for me."

_ If you have a story about Lutz, call Bill Coats at 226-3469.

Find out more

For information about the sushi class, call Gloria Cuisine at 949-7059.