Anthony Bourdain Showed Us Our World

In the fall of 2006, news came across my yahoo home page that Steve Irwin had died. I was in my first big backpacking trek, riding the Eurail pass, drinking and eating my way through the European capitals. Continue reading

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Italy vs. Korea: Living Life Abroad

I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live? 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.”

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.

Thanksgiving

I look forward to the day of thanks like pedophiles look forward to the first day of school. I am gluttonous and ravenous and prime myself for the day. I always eat an early breakfast, drink water and try to excrete fully before the call of “it’s ready” comes from the kitchen. In Texas, we have Thanksgiving on Friday so we can watch the UT-A&M football game. It’s odd because everyone on the TV tells us that its turkey day, but I know it’s not. We watch the Cowboys and Lions and Longhorns, but we know our day isn’t until tomorrow. I wait patiently and stuff myself. After the initial fear of puking from overeating passes and I begin to digest, the realization that 364 days of longing has passed and the holiday season has begun settles in to my gorged brain. It is a purely American holiday. It is secular and not based on love. It is a family and friend based celebration. We, who can, eat all that we can. Those on a diet curse their body and those skinny few with high metabolism. The most fascinating part of the day is the traditions and foods that are on our table were probably not similar to the Pilgrims. It’s almost like we created a holiday based on true events but situated to be palatable to American tastes. The Natives gave the poor Pilgrims gifts and they ate together sharing each other’s good humor and feasting on the bountiful harvest. Shouldn’t we then bring food to the less fortunate and eat with them? It would change the meaning of Thanksgiving greatly. The banquet has become such a selfish occasion that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine spending the day away from our couches and dining room tables to spend the day with the unfortunate ones without associates. I know it would be hard for me, but I think it’s something I’d like to try. It would be an easy thing to do it on Thursday and then have our Friday buffet to continue our familial traditions. Let’s take the next year to think if that’s something we’d like to do and give thanks for our blessings, of which there are many.