A few weeks ago, I was in New York. It was the end of a long Friday night. I’d gone to Judson Church for a sort of war protest cabaret show, organized and led by my friends Julian Fleisher and Heidi Doro, and featuring their Love Everybody Movement. I posed for a polaroid anti-war petition with a sign that said I Am Against The War In Iraq, I drank some of the free half-cans of Budweiser that were being passed around, I programmed Hillary Clinton’s and Charles Schumer’s numbers into my cell-phone, I did anti-war.
There were many memorable performances, some good, some…not for me. My favorite by far was my friend Miguel Gutierrez, a dancer and choreographer, performing a Laura Dean-style dance, naked, about, well, how dance can’t end war, and set to a hardcore dance beat. It was exhilarating. He and his partner slid their briefs off and began running around the church, leaping. The penis is, it turns out, aerodynamic, and lifts nicely.
After it was all over, I did this thing I used to do when I lived there, of telling this person and that person which bar I was likely to go to, and then I went to the first one, had a beer, and wanted nothing more than to have Korean food and read a novel I’d brought with me. So I left and went to Dok Suni, where I ordered bibimbap.
I can’t tell you about the novel exactly, because it’s a contest entrant (for about four years now, every winter break, I judge a contest, and every year it’s a different one). It wasn’t a very good novel, but I couldn’t stop reading it. I ate my bibimbap and drank a Manhattan, and read my terrible, addictive novel, trying to figure out why it was so addictive and yet so disappointing. And thought about how this winter, more than others, I’m getting by on kimchee. In fact, I’m about to go make bibimbap at home for lunch, and eat it with kimchee. I’ve eaten so much of it, the empty glass jars are now used for all of my leftover foods and dry goods.
I’m not sure if this is true of other ethnicities when they eat their traditional foods, but I often feel healed by eating Korean food. Kimchee in particular. Kimchee can make me feel as if everything is fine when nothing else can. Is it the red pepper? The garlic? I’ve no idea. Red pepper does, it’s true, have antihistamine qualities, and garlic is an immune booster, and enhances metabolism. But all of that sounds more hygienic than the experience of eating probably should be. There was a run on kimchee recently when it was said to cure and/or protect you from bird flu. Asian food for an Asian virus!
Kimchee didn’t have this effect on me as a child. It was my dad’s favorite food, growing up, but not mine. He liked to tease my mom when she was pregnant with my sister by insisting he was going to name her “Kim”. One time he was bringing giant jars of it into Canada for the Korean crew on his fishing boat, that ran out of Halifax, and the customs agent insisted that it all be brought into the customs house and opened. My father, looking at what were several ten-gallon glass jars of pickled red-pepper and garlic cabbage, thought this was a funny idea, so he obeyed instead of explaining, and then had to prevent the agent from destroying the stuff as the man wept over it from the fumes, and the station agents fled the building [true story!].
Red pepper kimchee, it should be noted, is a relatively recent creature, unknown in Korea until the spice trade brought red peppers from the new world. Making the kimchee we all know today technically Koreanish.
It wasn’t until after college that I developed a powerful craving for it, and especially in the last ten years. Whenever we start to feel sick in my family, we’ve found we do eat it and then usually we feel better. My sister’s new daughter, Lucy, for example, who’s about three months old, will get sick nursing from my sister eating white onion, but is fine if she eats kim chee. She in fact sits placidly in her carrier while we eat ramen at Santa Ramen in San Mateo (which, if you’re in California, you should go to if you want good ramen). Other things will make her cry, but not a room full of Korean people loudly eating ramen.
I finished the novel and got on the train to head out to Queens, where I was staying with a friend. I felt calm and happy, and observed how the strange sluggishness that had crept over me was gone after eating kimchee. I slept on his couch more or less untroubled. Except by the novel, which remained mysteriously terrible.
And, as I finish this post, a small adorable Korean child has walked across this cafe from his mother’s side and climbed into the chair right next to me, to look at me expectantly.