Poaching Eggs and Knowing It All

I made poached eggs two weeks ago. They were good, so I tried again today. That previous culinary achievement led me to think of myself as an expert, but most egg-poaching experts know that fresh eggs are the key for success. These particular eggs were now four days away from expiration and therefore far from rancid yet also far from fresh. I went through six eggs before giving up and eating my cold sausages and lonely bread in a frustrated huff. The point is that thinking you know how to do something doesn’t make you an expert. It’s a flaw of my personality of which I’m often reminded.

I like to talk about politics and discuss the never-ending problems. I like to look at people’s hands and pretend to understand how the lines in their palms can determine their fate. I like to analyze dreams and imagine how the subconscious is interacting with our personal lives. I like to chat about movies and music and the symbolism and hidden meanings within them. BUT, simply because I like to do that, it doesn’t make me an expert.

“Often wrong, and never in doubt,” is how my ex-girlfriend’s mother used to describe me. I’ve understood it as part of my personality now. To me it means, “I think I’m an expert on everything.” Sometimes, when dealing with people who know less about a given topic than I do, it’s possible to demonstrate expertise. Yet, when I find myself speaking to an actual authority on a subject, I’m left snorkeling with a straw.

Just because I’ve traveled doesn’t mean I understand an entire country. Just because I’ve been in relationships doesn’t mean I understand yours. Just because I’ve had relatives who’ve died doesn’t mean I understand your sorrow. Just because I’ve done something doesn’t mean I know how it should be done.

These are hard lessons to learn for someone who likes to know it all. I want to know it all. I watch informational videos and documentaries. I read biographies and history books. There is simply too much to learn. A focus is necessary to know it all. But since I’m interested in so many things, I must work hard to avoid being the colloquial “jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none.”



Hunting, Hemingway and Eating Meat

The Internet helps us keep up with trending topics such as Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s amazingly embarrassing but slightly humanizing descent into crack-smoking, drunken hilarity, awesome viral videos like JCVD doing badass splits on the side mirrors of two massive big rigs, and moral outrage through informative posts about gay bashing, dolphin killing or suffering in general. Sometimes there is a post that comes through the newsfeed on Facebook that touches me, or hurts me, or makes me LOL (:>) Continue reading

First World Problems

There are first world–FW (annoying, bothersome, petty, but usually solvable) problems and then there are third world–TW (really difficult, hard to handle, life shattering, and systemic) problems. For an example, I will be using U.S.A. as the first world and let’s say Rwanda or Afghanistan as the third world. For your imagination’s sake, picture a pretty blonde girl from Colorado in yoga pants and a Starbucks speaking as a first world representative, and a sun-hardened, war-battered peasant akin to the Afghani girl from the 1980’s National Geographic cover holding an empty clay pitcher representing the third world. Continue reading

NYC Pizza Tour–2012

Bread has been cooked in many ways, in many places and with many flavors. Pizza is essentially bread with toppings. As with most food, Americans received pizza from immigrants, Italian immigrants specifically. However, Italians owe their modern pizza to the New World. Tomatoes were shipped home with (the aptly named) Francisco Pizarro, that famous conquistador of the Incan Empire. Continue reading

America and Food

Of all the culinary concoctions and gustatory delights conceived and created in America, we have few originals—Twinkies, cheesesteaks, Buffalo wings and maybe sweet potato pie, but that could be a derivation of an American Indian tradition. Most American foods, as American people, are a consequence of the extreme influx of 18th-20th century immigration. Germans brought hot dogs and hamburgers; Italians brought pizza and pasta; English brought fish and chips; Polish brought water ice, but it melted on the way over and they forgot the recipe—it took years of dedicated trial and error before they figured it out again. 😉

America has delicacies throughout her large landscape. The chowders and lobsters of New England, the great Italian hoagies of the Northeast, the soul food of the south, the cheesy meat and potatoes of the Midwest, the Tex-Mex of Texas, the haute hippie cuisine of California are all gems of American traditions, borrowing largely from our collective past. We are all proud of our families and where we came from long ago. Soon, we must allow our mutt genes to seep into our consciousness and become merely Americans instead of hyphenations. We owe it to ourselves to realize we are much more American than we are European, Asian or African.

We are, and continue to be, a diverse country of differing tastes, beliefs, and backgrounds. We are also (possibly due to the permanence and conspicuousness of fried/salty/sugary foods) many different shapes, with a slight majority in the comfortably plump variety. Americans are viewed by most of the world as that perfect stereotype of loud and fat, but usually pleasant. We are like jolly bags of tourist money. We visit Paris and comment on how small the “Mona Lisa” is; we visit Berlin and ask why there are bullet holes in all the buildings; we visit Rome and complain about portion size or the abbandanza of walking there is on this “walking tour.” Of course, we are not all ignorant bags of discretionary income ready to boost foreign economies. There are many polite, articulate, well-informed and well-traveled Americans, but they are not always the ones who stick out in crowds wearing pornographic t-shirts in the Vatican or ordering water at increasing volume in English in Spain. The crude and rude of a species get remembered. All Parisians are not inhospitable, but the ones who are become the goats of stories told back in the American heartland over Coors Light’s, ribs and potato salad.

But, once an American travels abroad and learns how other parts of the world eat, I believe he or she can have two reactions: confusion or cravings. I have had both now. I am confused as to the amount of rice I didn’t eat while in America, and confused as to the amount of bread I did eat. I crave certain things, things that are easily found here in Korea, but with a slight twinge of mediocrity and clumsiness. They make cheesesteaks, but the bread is stale. They make deli sandwiches, but use plastic wrapped slices of cheese. They make pizza, but it has corn on it. It is all there for you in a muddled form, but never really satisfies you the way it used to stateside. Korean food is delicious and healthy; and Seoul has every type of restaurant a city of 10 million inhabitants should have, but they don’t do a perfect burrito or a perfect turkey club yet. (That I have found, it’s a big city!)

However, luckily, I have found a place of perfection for the most American of American pleasures—cheeseburgers. I found this place in my first month in Korea, and not a week has gone by when I haven’t frequented the establishment. No, it’s not a McD’s or BK, it’s called BurgerHolic, and I would do free advertisements for them, if only they’d ask. (Please ask me!) It is a four-top seating area hole-in-the wall with fresh cut fries, mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers and burgers. They are excellent and completely comparable to any In-n-Out, P. Terry’s or Five Guys type chains. For 8$ I get a large double cheese, bacon burger, fries and drink. Every Monday, more regular than a Metamucil swilling grandpa, I am there. They know me, they know my order and they are consistent with quality.

When I told my students about my weekly habit, they were silent in bewilderment for a few seconds at how anyone could do such things to their body and then commented, “But, teacher [faces contorted and puzzled] not fat?” Koreans are wary of American food, and seem to indulge sparingly, for they have seen the ravages our diets have inflicted on some of our expats. These young, brainy kids couldn’t understand how I could eat a burger a week and not become morbidly obese the way their parents probably tell them they would. I didn’t have the heart to tell them how many hamburgers I consumed while substitute teaching in Austin, when Wendy’s was a two minute drive away and my budget for lunch was in the 4$ range. (Coincidentally, my total cholesterol level during those years was also a worrying 237.) I have a strong metabolism, but as my family will attest, after four months of convivial alcohol consumption backpacking Europe, eating baguette and croissant breakfasts, pizza lunches, huge dinners followed by midnight kebabs and crepes, I had quite a belly when I arrived back home. I’m not immune to weight gain in the midsection. I also work out hard to maintain core strength; therefore, I treat myself in the food department.

I do know what they are talking about in their fear of fast food. American obesity is a huge strain on our already feeble preventative health care culture. We treat the cancer, not the cause. Anyone who has seen the greasy, giant burgers unwrapped and leered at in a rather gluttonous and disconcertingly seductive way by the corpulent chap falling out of his booth at Arby’s or Carl Jr.’s knows how appetite suppressing that can be. Nobody will wonder how he got that far, it’s written in the grease stains on his napkin and highlighted by his blubbery bottom.

It has been said that fat is the “last acceptable prejudice.” I know there are people born with glandular problems. I know there are people who were raised in a house of loose dietary restrictions. I know there are people who have a disease whose main symptom is the inability to get full. I tried to make it a point in my life to only insult people’s choices, i.e. their clothes, hairstyle or words, things they choose. It’s not okay to make fun of birthmarks, family problems or big noses. Those things can’t be helped and were not choices. Is chunkiness a choice or a form of birthmark? Whatever it is, they have a decision to make every day of their life, as Tracy Chapman said, “Leave tonight or live and die this way.”

To: Ice Cube: RE: “Today was not such a good day.”

“In my younger and more vulnerable years” my mother used to read me a book called: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Paraphrasing, it was about some punk kid who was having trouble tying his shoes, stepped in some poo, got yelled at by the teacher, his sister took his favorite lunchbox to school and perhaps some other little kid problems. At the end, I think he got a hug from his mom, and everything was better because tomorrow is another day. I used to like the story because kids seem so able to shake off bad days, which somehow, they actually have. They don’t have distressing worries like bills, bosses, or how to cook dinner with the 3$ in your pocket, unless they do, which I know some did from my days of SPED in Austin. Those kids didn’t have anyone at home most nights, and certainly no food in the cabinets and rarely clean clothes; they were forced into self-reliance. A bad day for them was a really awful day. But otherwise, kids with responsible parents should not be having bad days. It seems like childhood should be a long skip through the fragrant, blossoming forest of youth. But we all know that forest seems never-ending, and completely claustrophobic when you are stuck in it and have no idea of the pastures, meadows, beaches and sparkling sunsets through the other side. Is it possible a bad day is capable of striking even the most confident, capable and cheerful people? Will a bad day sucker punch even those annoying souls who respond to your, “How are you today,” with the irrepressibly exasperating “Never had a bad day in my life” routine?

If you listened to pop, rap or R & B radio in the 90’s, you are familiar with a song by Monica entitled, “Just One of Them Days.” She was having one of those days where she just wanted to be all alone, and don’t take it personal, it’s just a bad day, so steer clear. There are countless other songs about bad days. It’s an interesting phenomenon, the idea “when it rains, it pours.” Why, sometimes, do the fates spit on you? Why, sometimes, does life’s curveball curve right into your groin?

I’ve known a few people in my life who maintain their smile through all kinds of weather, injustices, irritations and tragedies. They all tell me they “don’t have time for negative thoughts, people or moments.” Can you really control the world that way? Are you merely controlling your own world, and the way you view it? Are you being so rude to the malicious gods of the world as to never allow the emotions of life to drive you to cursing that 80 year old who cut you off, or to hating on that goofy looking guy with the hot wife by rejecting your true feelings? Is it possible that other people are not like me and sincerely have 365 good days a year, every year? Is it possible that all those “think positive” mantras can affect a global contrivance of goodwill, all toward you, just because you wake up every morning, stretch and breath in the air of bliss because you call it such?

I’ve been being more positive lately, I’ve tried to cancel those bad thoughts before they form, but it’s hard. I think of Pat Croce and his motto of, “I feel great.” I think of how lucky I am, how blessed I am, and I’m immediately filled with the gratefulness present in those exhortations.

Today, I woke up, brushed my teeth, grabbed my milk from the fridge, pulled out my favorite cereal, began pouring it into my clean bowl, and a thumb size cockroach fell out of the cereal bag into the bowl. (This is a cereal with raisins in it, so at first, in my morning daze, I remarked to myself how lucky I was to have gotten such a big raisin in my cereal.) Of course, I shrieked, “What the f#$%! Are you kidding me?” He struggled in my cylindrical bowl, dusty with oats and bran trying to escape before I finally grabbed a tissue and ended his days. The problem was, I had eaten this exact box of cereal the day before and no cockroach, so I was left with the problem of: did he crawl in last night and sit on top, or had he been living in there for an extended amount of time? I lean toward the latter based upon his lean, wiry look, as though he had spent a fair bit of time eating only lean bran protein for many days. Appetite surprisingly undisturbed, I just picked up my other cereal, inspected it and poured it into my yogurt for a new, cleaner breakfast. Verily, you cannot expect to handle kindergarten on an empty stomach. Twenty minutes later, I was telling the story to my Korean and American co-teachers, grossing them out as much as possible (with fabricated details) describing the raisin wrapped around his antennae or the eight skinny legs pushing around the tiny oats, and one of them mentioned that you could have eaten cockroach eggs and they can live in your stomach. I had recently watched the original M.I.B. with the bug who takes over Vincent D’Onofrio’s body and concurrently, roaches are always falling out of his sleeves and jacket pockets, and I didn’t want that to be me. So, I went to the local pharmacy and bought the Korean pill that they take every year to kill any and all bugs in their stomach linings. I had also just watched the original Alien to prepare myself for Prometheus, so it was an easy jump for me to see something disgusting gestating in my bowels. They say cockroaches can live through the nuclear apocalypse. But, who would want to be a roach just to make it into the terribly depressing (and I imagine food-free) post-nuclear bleakness that would be the world? It’s like the non red-meat eaters who mention that they have an average life span of 5-10 years longer than most carnivores. I stand by my trite response of who needs 5-10 more years of salad? I enjoy salad too, usually a nice Caesar before a steak or served as a bed for a big, tasty fish.

I made it through the day, it being Friday before a stressful Saturday of teaching the children a class in front of all their parents, something we have been preparing endlessly for the last month, a structure called: Open Class. I mentioned to my friend that I just needed a dinner that I know and love and can still appreciate despite the morning debacle. We went to my “Korean Mom’s” place, which is merely a hole in the wall with good food. On my penultimate bite of my dongas (fried pork chop covered in a sweet brown sauce) I crunched into something and squealed quite audibly. It was not the juice filled mess that a roach must be like (they were sold in stalls in Thailand and some were palm sized.) This was a ruthlessly hard substance that grated and scratched through my jaw, teeth and into my brain. I removed and dug through my bite and found a piece of glass the size of a baby tooth. My teeth, I believe, are intact, my soul and disposition are understandably shaken. We went to the batting cages and hit balls to end the day on a positive note. I got a few dingers in there and felt better.

Small Pleasures

Hungry after a long day at the hagwon with a slight headache breathing through my temples, I wandered into a local eatery. There were no less than 7 policemen in their full blue and gray gear, loudly, violently and quickly consuming a crowd of plates. They ate with typical Korean gusto, so it was not surprising. However, one always feels good eating where the local cops eat. I ordered my mandu-gu soup and sat back. There were no empty seats left now that I had sat down to share a table with three young dudes. One table of men kept gaining occupants and simultaneously gaining volume. My soup arrived along with my tablemates. We had all ordered the same thing, which made me smile. It was soft dumpling soup, with a splash of seaweed and egg in peppery chicken broth. It was delicious. I ate slowly and appreciated each bit, sampling my side dishes of soy marinated potatoes, spinach in spicy sauce, fried egg, kimchi and marinated seaweed. The policemen finished and left, but the tables never emptied, as soon as one-person left, another arrived. This was definitely the place to eat, I felt embarrassed I hadn’t eaten here more than twice. Then, one of the guys at the loud, ever-expanding table inexplicably brought me a bottle of water and a glass. I was thirsty but it was too busy to reach the self-serve water area. I finished every plate including my ‘bap’—aka rice. It was one of those great dinners where you feel a part of your city.

I asked for two things in Korean, got what I ordered, paid exact change after being told how much it cost in Korean and left saying goodbye in Korean. It was a success. I could write about almost every meal I’ve eaten in this country. The delightful successes, the frustrating failures, the good, the bad, the very ugly and smelly have all been on my plate. This one just felt normal and completely at ease. Walking the two blocks home, I saw one of the resident stray cats munching through a trash bag. He is strong and healthy looking with the unstable eyes of a street urchin, which lets me know he is eating well and knows his business. I was thankful to be able to have eaten off a plate in a warm, cozy corner of a popular diner. It’s important to be aware of our good things, no matter how small.