This is my first assignment from my personal essay class. Theme was food. Blogging is a whole lot easier. This was a ball buster. DISCLAIMER: Any resemblance to anyone is really not a big fucking deal.
“Kamsahamnida!” I say, thanking the driver as I exit the cab. I hustle to the open trunk and hook as many plastic grocery bags on each arm as I can manage and tuck them out of sight, just inside the narrow alleyway.
I then make the short trip up the twisting, rising, cobbled path up to our apartment and secure the groceries behind a gate before running back to retrieve another load. A line of sweat lurches down my spine. The air smells of rotten eggs and ammonia emanating from the street sewers. I no longer gag at the smell of it, I’ve grown accustomed to it.
Once I have all the groceries behind the gate, I carry them up the narrow, concrete steps and enter the apartment, stepping into the small kitchen. I can hear the radio on in the other room, always dialed into AFKN, the Armed Forces Korea Network, the one station we get that’s in English. The announcer is talking about O.J. Simpson, which is all any one is talking about. Days earlier, at the bus stop on the base, all necks (including my own) were craned to watch the televisions above as O.J.’s white, Ford bronco barreled down the Los Angeles freeway with a line of police following him.
We’d left the U.S. behind months earlier following a send-off hosted by my new in-laws.
“What should we wear?” Brian had asked his mom about the dress code for the send-off. We’d both envisioned a cook out.
“You have a suit, haven’t you?” She replied. And that settled that. A large tent was erected in her back yard for the catered festivities, we’d stored wedding gifts at their sprawling home then departed via JFK later that same weekend. We made the Seoul apartment a home with what little we’d brought, what we’d borrowed from the Army and what had been left in the apartment. Growing up in a small midwestern community over 6,500 miles away from that apartment, I’d imagined marrying a man, living in a home with a white picket fence although my family had neither. We’d lived in a series of apartment rentals. I was determined to create a home and keep up my end of the bargain by doing the wifely things, such as grocery shopping and cooking.
I’m unloading the groceries when my husband, Brian, enters the kitchen to survey the haul.
“Do you know how to cook anything else besides meat and potatoes?” He asks, clearly unimpressed.
I stare at him blankly, questioning. What else there is besides meat and potatoes? What could he possibly have in mind? I make a mental note to buy a box of pasta and jar of sauce next time I go to the commissary.
I’m about to assemble a pot roast when Brian suggests, “How about we go out to dinner instead?”
“Sure.” I smile in agreement, “Were you thinking of a restaurant inside The Dragon Hill Lodge?”
“Nah – we’ve been to all of those places. Some more than once. Let’s walk over to Itaewon.” Brian suggests.
Itaewon is a nearby neighborhood inside of Seoul that is jammed with restaurants, bars and night life.
I put the beef back into our refrigerator, signaling agreement, “Let me change my clothes.”
Although I, like Brian, was enlisted in the Army, it was Brian who received orders to go to Korea. He had immediately proposed to me and I replied, “Yes!” Then no, and finally, yes again. We’d married at a courthouse near the Army base where we’d. I was 19 and he was an older, wiser, more cosmopolitan 22-years old, having grown up just a short ride across the George Washington Bridge from New York City in a New Jersey suburb. Before enlisting in the Army, the most exotic place I’d visited was Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I’d gone with my parents and we’d visited the Christ of the Ozarks sculpture that towered over the land at over 65 feet high. Before watching The Great Passion Play, we’d dined at a Ponderosa, a restaurant with a menu that featured steak, baked potatoes and a salad bar where I would pile shredded carrots onto my plate, along with generous serving of bacon bits, croutons and peas. I’m sure I added some iceberg lettuce for good measure.
Brian and I walk further up the hill by our apartment and then turn right, descending into Itaewon. Short, Kia pick-up trucks whoosh past us, honking at other drivers. The streets bustle with Americans, tourists and soldiers. Street vendors line the road, huddled under tarps, illuminated by strung up lights. Spices fill the summer air mingling with the sewer smell, and I can identify the scent of garlic since garlic powder was a favorite in my mom’s small spice collection. Our handle on the Korean language doesn’t extend beyond exchanging pleasantries. Thankfully, the Itaewon vendors have prepared for tourists by scrawling menu on cardboard in both English and in Korean, with a short description. We browse the tents and the Koreans seem eager for us to try their offerings. Some are selling noodles, others are offering soups. We settle on an order of fried Korean dumplings, Yaki Mandu. I’m surprised when ajumma, a middle-aged Korean woman, hands the Yaki over to Brian in newspaper, which soaks up the grease of the dumplings. We sit at a picnic table under sprawling, mismatched tarps. I take a bite of the yaki and exclaim, “Hot!” as the hot grease scalds my mouth. Brian laughs as I hastily place the dumpling back onto the newspaper. We wait in silence as the Yaki cools. Once it does, a mix of flavors unfamiliar to my midwestern palate dance on my tongue.
“I wonder what’s in here?” I breathe, leaning in to smell the pile of yaki.
“I think it’s pork and cabbage. Scallions. It’s like a pot sticker.” Brian answers.
“So good. I’ve never had a pot sticker.” I admit.
“I’ve had them in Chinatown – New York City. After this, let’s grab some dinner at one of these restaurants.” Brian suggests.
“Sure.” I reply but I’m still thinking about pot stickers and I’m wondering if they sell them in Illinois. While visiting my grandma, we’d have Chinese take-out on occasion. I’d loved the egg roll and yet it tasted nothing like yaki mandu.
We select a restaurant rather blindly from the many available options. The menus are similar to those at the tents which makes it easy to understand what we’re ordering. I select the dolsolt bibimbap. The dish arrives in a heavy, stone pot (a dolsolt). It’s crackling and steaming. The base of the dish is the rice, the “bap”. The hot stone is crisping the bottom layer of “bap”. The toppings, shredded beef, shiitake mushrooms, shredded cucumber, julienned carrots, bean sprouts, and others I cannot identify, are segregated, giving the appearance of a rainbowed color wheel. There is a sunshine in the middle and I’m surprised to realize that it’s a raw egg. The ajumma places a clear, plastic squeeze bottle on the table and gestures that I should apply it to the dish.
“Hot.” She cautions.
I glance at Brian who nods encouragingly. I tentatively squeeze a small dollop of the maroon paste atop the dish. Ajumma looks disapproving. I squeeze more. A smile spreads across her face.
“Mix!” Ajumma commands, making a vigorous stirring motion. I look for a spoon and see that chopsticks are my only option. I pick them up and jab them in the rice, mimicking ajumma’s motion. The egg begins to cook and with that, my fear of salmonella eases. Ajumma stands there, expectantly awaiting my first bite.
I awkwardly maneuver the chopsticks, stealing glances at other diners and attempting to mimic their movements. I lean closer to the bowl so the chopsticks have a shorter path to my mouth. My eyeballs briefly cloud with steam, I blink, and manage to shovel a mix of rice, vegetables, beef and egg into my mouth and chew.
Brian and ajumma wait.
“So good. Very good.” I nod respectfully towards ajumma and smile. She claps her hands together. “Not meat and potatoes.” I say to Brian, who, as it turned out ordered Bulgogi, which is meat. Specifically, beef. Although it certainly doesn’t look or smell like any beef my mom or I have ever served him.
Many years later, in the few years immediately following the dissolution of our marriage, we occasionally meet for dinner at a Korean restaurant. An annual state of the state. A catch up. Sometimes, I order bibimbap, which has become a favorite of mine. I generously apply the gochujang atop the dish in a manner that would make the ajumma proud. I politely inquire about Brian’s new wife and he returns the courtesy, inquiring about mine.
“How’s Andrea?” Brian asks.
“Good! And the kids?”
“Getting so big.”
“So big, so fast! Time flies. How’s the bulgogi?” “A refreshing departure from chicken nuggets or fish sticks.” “Ha! Or meat and potatoes.” I laugh.
“Huh?” Brian asks.
“Never mind.” I smile.