My last night in Madrid, I ended up tapas-hopping with a fellow chowhound from the New York region. He had seen my blog and was very complimentary. I was particularly flattered when a week or so later, he suggested that I submit my blog to the James Beard Foundation awards, in the category of new media. He even offered to pay the $100 application fee. I turned him down, partly because the previous winners were real food journalists, but mostly because I don’t really want to be a food writer. I don’t think food is really that important.
I write about food, in a world where every schmuck has a blog, because right now, I don’t know how else to talk about the things I care about. I don’t know how else to show and not tell that I love my mother, that I miss my friends who’ve moved away, that I value things made with care and by hand, that I love traditions that are proud but alive with change. It’s like the most over-used MFK Fisher quote, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and intertwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.” Such a poor example of her writing. It’s so much better to read the rest of “Gastronomical Me,” and see what a filter and prism food is for the things that really matter to her. And it’s so much better for me to stop this paragraph now and tell you what I ate in Koreatown last Friday.
I asked my friend to meet at Gam Mee Ok on 32nd Street because I’ve been craving Korean food like a pregnant woman since I left Seoul. Even if I don’t eat a Korean meal everyday, I dip into the kimchi in my fridge almost everyday, the way I used to snack on olives or bits of cheese. I’m sitting here now with a glass of wine and a bowl of my homemade radish kimchi.
Everything looked fine. There was their famous kimchi, fiery red-orange, with cabbage all mixed in with the giant chunks of radish. There was the clay jar of sliced scallions, the little pot of salt to add to the sullongtang, or beef stew, the specialty of the house.
But the soup tasted flat. The rice in it clumped unappetizingly together. The broth had no body, and no amount of sharp scallions or salt or pepper was going to save it. The noodles were mushy. I ate nearly all of it anyway, beggars can’t be choosers, but I was so disappointed. Even the kimchi was bad, sour and not in a good way. Gam Mee Ok had always been one of my favorites, the best place to go if your Korean friends have kept you out till 4 a.m. in a seedy karaoke room. Clearly, those memories of fabulous hot beef soup are very, very old.
It may be that the place has gone downhill, or it may be that I am too fresh from memories of my mother’s superlative cooking. But it’s definitely another spur to make Korean food happen for myself.