Saturday, October 15, 2011
Ever since the way old days when I found myself writing about corndogs and fish-shaped pastries filled with sweet red bean paste, I have considered it one of my Universe-given missions to disseminate all sorts of information about the goodness of Korean food. As my thoughts about food deepened, and as my convictions strengthened, the sense of duty became so strong that I even made a new label on my blog: 맛난Masticatables. Having just clicked on it, though, I can report that I am unarguably a giant failure*. All the recent posts deal with shoddy airplane food, amazing group dinners that are nonetheless atypical, or impromptu posts of whatever I just made for lunch. I did have a good run of breakfast posts, and recently wrote an article about Perilla for my other blog. I believe I also had a total grand-slam of a post on my trip to make Kimchi last winter. My guess is, though, that you're all still....hungry for more?!
I hope you don't mind if I mix my metaphors, because a food marathon is on its way. Yes, I am proud to report that some friends and I have been chosen to participate in the 1st KOREAN FOOD TOUR FOR FOREIGN FOODIES. Hansik Foundation, charged with the task of "propelling the diffusion of Korean culinary culture, nurturing the Korean food industry, and effecting the globalization of Korean cuisine." I think you'll agree that I was born for this job, and working hard at it before it even existed.
The contest will look a little something like this: over the five weekends in October, five teams of five foreign bloggers will each head to a different region and execute a homemade plan meant to showcase all the wonderful qualities of Korean food. My team - consisting of myself, my friend Greg (also known as SandfordWrites for those of you who monitor the comments section), his wife Sarah (I'm pretty sure it's with an h), and two other people they know - has selected Northern Jeolla province, renowned as the home of Bibimbap (rice and julienned vegetables all mixed up with sauce**) and Jeongsik (rice and a billion different side dishes**). We'll spend the final Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of October letting Hansik (which means "Korean Food," by the way) shuttle us around to the restaurants, markets, and farms of our choosing; film us as we eat and experience; put us up in hotels; and give us time to write about it all. We'll be blogging daily during the contest as well as intensely for ten days afterwards. We're also supposed to use Facebook, Twitter, and other newfangled stuff to spread the goodness. The team that does the best job gets a cash prize, though, to be honest, I'm more interested in having some pressure to kick me into high-blogging gear.
A word on how excited I am about this contest: extremely. I haven't looked up the competition (though I do have access to a list of other teams, including their names and their websites), nor do I know exactly how the "best" team will be determined, but I do know that very few people take their food as seriously as Greg and I do. We both think, talk, read, and write about food incessantly (I'm currently reading Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture), we've both spend precious summer vacation time weeding endlessly at WWOOF farms, and we both pretty much believe that nothing is as important for the health of individuals and societies as their relationship with the land that sustains them.
I'll stop putting words into Greg's mouth, since he has his own blog space, Electric Kimchi, and just concentrate on what I personally want to get out of this project. I see Korean food as a powerful antidote to the prominent Industrial Food Culture that has overtaken much of the first world over the past half-century. I grew up only wanting to eat fast food. I mean PURE fast food, as in I would throw a tantrum if there was a single slice of iceberg lettuce on my burger. Despite spending summer in a town where thousands of illegal immigrants slaved under the hot sun picking broccoli, I had no idea that everything I ate started in the dirt and passed through someone else's hands before reaching my plate. Nor did I know why rice and beans went together. And even though my closest friends had fruit trees in their back yard - so many that we had to play hopscotch over downed plums and apricots while chasing each other around - I never understood that jam is actually a technology. The fact is, the foods and the cooking methods we grow up with generally go as unquestioned as the language we're born into. Not because you're afraid to ask questions, or because someone tells you not to; just because you don't realize there's anything to ask anything about.
When you learn a new language, though, you question absolutely everything. Why do they put their last names first and first names last? Why do they put verbs at the end? Why don't they say "a" and "the" all the time? Why do they use different sets of numbers to count money and people? Likewise, when you run into new foods: Why in the world do they eat like this? Why are they obsessed with burying stuff in the ground and letting it rot for months on end? How come I can't find a decent block of Cheddar anywhere except Costco? Where did all the forks go?
Something slipped under my radar for the first 25 years of my life: there are reasons that people eat the way they do. Of course I understood that poor people ate little, and plain, while the rich ate more and prettier. But it took immersing myself in another culture**** before I finally took in the point that our diets are products of place, tradition, and even worldview, embodiments of wisdom handed down from generations past. To be honest, if the world isn't taken over by Korean food, it will probably be a good thing; after all, we should really all be eating primarily things that grow well wherever we live. However, if we continue to ignore the value of foods and processing methods that have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, if we ignore the complex web of relationships between food, people, and culture, then we do so at our own risk and to our own detriment.
Korean food is exotic enough to get people to open their eyes, and delicious enough to get them to open their...upper esophageal sphincters. In order that it may open some closed minds, too, my friends and I are intending to milk all the meaning we can out of our three days together, to give ourselves as much opportunity as possible to expound on that which powers us. Vegetarian buffets, bibimbap specialists, multi-course extravaganzas, organic farms, homemade meals, and, of course, some rice wine and pancakes to top it all off. I plan to gain 10k, work off a third of it on the farm, a third of it through blogging, and a third of it by hiring a new personal trainer with my prize money.
So, check back often! And if you have friends who are interested in this stuff, or who might become so with a little pressure, help me out! I'll be monitoring the number of hits each post gets so that I can report back to Hansik on how hard I've been slaving for them.
In Korean, right before you eat, you're supposed to tell the cook (or whoever is buying for you), "잘 먹겠습니다," which means more or less "I will enjoy this meal." I predict I'll be using this phrase a lot in the weeks to come.
Thanks to Hansik for giving us this awesome opportunity!
*Actually, let me give myself a little credit: I taught several friends and relatives a Korean dish or two on my most recent trip, and my mother cooks her own Korean food weekly now.
**Clearly I'll have to work on my descriptions.
***This is a polite way of saying that I had to learn Korean before I could see how f***ed up English is.
****Actually, it took me immersing myself in two different cultures; my first six months in Italy apparently didn't do much to wake me up on this front.