How to Eat Rainbow Play-Doh

&quotHaenyeo,&quot Bridget Harding, Jeju-do.
By Charles Nelson IV, ETA ’11-’12 / Photograph by Bridget Harding

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She asks me, pulling beets from the vegetable drawer on Big Night In, our Friday night ritual, if I ever went to get the little shrimp out of the caves?

The question’s content is similar to that of her more bizarre sleep-talking. It took a beat to understand that the little shrimp in the caves weren’t relevant to our present. She was voicing ruminations, and I was plopped into her mind’s medias res.

I ask, do you realize how surreal that question sounds without context?

Get the little shrimp from the caves. It’s not as though I had been out on errands, and now here preparing dinner, dadgummit, honey, did you forget to go and get the little shrimp out of the caves? Didn’t you look at the list?

We had lived a little over an hour from each other during our ETA year. While I never did go and get shrimp from caves, it’s not unlikely that we would have had the experience in common. They were everywhere, those tiny pinkish brine-bombs. But, for the life of us, we can’t remember the Korean word.

In her frustration to remember, she reopens the refrigerator door and rummages for a jar.

As she searches, it strikes me that from our time spent in Korea, neither of us incorporated into our own lives the refrigerator organization skills of our host-families. While she removes items from the fridge, we describe visions of our host-families’ refrigerators, the towers of translucent airtight containers, navigable despite the volume of food they contained. Model efficiency, maximum usage: those refrigerators were dioramas of the urban utopia, a weaving mini-maglev train being the only thing needed to complete them. In contrast, our fridgescape has fruit on the loose, nothing stacked, and an entire onion if only one could stitch together the constituent thirds of several onions into a Frankenstein’s Onion.

She thrashes through some collards to find the tiny cute shrimp shelved in the back corner, the jar wrapped in a plastic bag to prevent the shrimp essence from imbuing everything.

Sae-oo-jaot, she says, turning the jar. Her pronunciation is rusty.

Sae-woo-jeot. I pause. Eot, I say, listening to myself. I realize that I’m unsure if my correction is even correct.

She wonders if the shrimp go bad. I reason, salt is a preservative, so, probably not?

Meh, she murmurs, and throws the jar out. For whatever reason, tossing the tiny shrimp needles me. Rue-laden heart be damned, though. After all, twice the number of the now-trashed shrimp will be the number of their pen-dot black hole eyes, the abyssal specks that will remain, probably forever, staring at me in my Kafkan tiny cute shrimp nightmare.

At least now, we remember the word.

 


 

She cuts stems from the beets with kitchen shears, staining the blades purple. She says, the color is like lipstick a goth would wear.

She then folds a purse of aluminum foil and seals the beets inside. In the oven, the purse will expand into a silver pillow as the beets give steam to the heat.

The salty cave shrimp center the discussion on Korea. She recounts to me how she lived near the sea. On weekends, she would hop the train to Daecheon. Her host-mother would ask her what she did on those trips.

Sit alone, listen to Tennis–that is, the band, not the sport. She’d read, eat seafood, lay out. Host-mother always smiled indulgently, but never understood.

I grind cumin seeds, raw garlic, salt, and smoked paprika in a mortar, mixing in olive oil and white vinegar for a paste to make Peruvian chicken. Teaching in Jeonju, I lived in what I understood to be the gastronomic center of the country. I visited Ga-Chok Hwi-Gwon for bibimbap many times, usually as a guest of teacher colleagues who invariably asked, Do you know Jeonju bibimbap?

She sighs. Gojuchang, she says. The Peruvian paste looks like gochujang, but darker, and lacking of the sweeter layers of smell. I massage the blend into the skin of the spatchcocked chicken, set the bird on a roasting rack, and then wash my hands.

Did we ever eat bibimbap together in Jeonju?

Yes! We met up with Mina and Luke, Melinda, and Jenny. Remember? We definitely had bibimbap.

Vaguely. I don’t remember Luke being there. I lament, what a bummer we didn’t know each other better.

Yeah, she says. But, she notes, I also never loved bibimbap. Duck? She sighs a pining groan. Host-mom made amazing duck. The radish. Those circles of mu kimchi–gah, with the fat of the duck. Host-mom would roam the kitchen talking to herself, and when host-dad wasn’t around she’d take straight MSG and whisper jooooogeum to me, before sprinkling some in. Our secret.

Imitating her host-mom, index finger to her lips, she motions to keep quiet about the surreptitious MSG. She shushes, and then makes the just-a-little pinching sign.

My host-mom made great duck too, I reply, chuckling. The first time we had duck, my host-family tried to help me understand. We were sitting at the table, and they kept saying O-li, o-li. We were at the edges of their English and my Korean. Then, my host dad jabbed at the meat with his chopsticks, and went Quack, quack, chicken.

She laughs, as do I.

I was doubled over, I say through a guffaw. My host-dad kind of chuckled and looked around in that Rodney Dangerfield whud-I-say? kind of way. I couldn’t believe that for all the English he didn’t know, he knew the word quack.

Finally winded from laughing, I ask, What do animals say in other countries? I think cocorico is what French roosters say.

She asks, is meong meong what Korean dogs say?

I reply that I can’t remember. Meong seems about right.

We continue to cook. Our golden retriever enters the kitchen. We bark meong! meong! He snorts, looks at us like we’re idiots, drops his tail, and saunters away.

 


 

Tennis (the band) seems the appropriate choice for background music, and she throws them on the speakers. As we cook, the conversation becomes tennis as sport, as we rally our recollections.

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Did you ever…

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But what about…

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Do you remember…

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Service might go something like, did you ever eat kimbap from a Family Mart?

Yes. Did you ever have naeng-myeon?

Yes. Do you remember Gyeongju bbang?

God yes. But what about ho-ddeok?

Yeaaaah. Or cong-nam-mul-guk-bap?

I attempt an offspeed slice down the line: but did you ever make it to Jeongeup to eat beef?

No.

Jeongeup beef was unreal. I went there once with host-dad, and once with my co-teacher and my school’s music teacher. Both times we went to this place–can’t remember the name, but the roof looked like a cartoon toadstool. With my host-dad, it was one of those silent meals, where we’d talk, but really the closest thing to a conversation was him breathing loudly through his nose as he ate and me sighing with how full I was. With my co-teacher and the music teacher, they knew English, or enough English so we could have fun conversations. I think I remember while we were there was the first time we talked about honey-dreams.

Honey-dreams? She asks.

They loved trying to see if I could remember the difference between the Korean for honey and dream. I had trouble with the kk sound, and I’d always get the words confused. We settled on kkool-kkoom and kkoom-kkool meaning Good Dreams, and so after that trip they always asked me at school if I had slept well by asking if I had dream-honey or honey-dream.

As we progress, it’s clear we aren’t playing for points. No one is trying to blast forehand winners. Neither completely one-ups the other. We rally to the no, and nostalgically recount food events. Even so, a friendly contest emerged. For the one who had lived the experience, the challenge was to bring the other to that moment; for the one who hadn’t, the challenge was to have the empathy to live the experience.

She says, I can’t remember, but were you there when we ate at Jagalchi market? The eel?

No.

It was crazy. You wander around, passing rows of live fish in buckets, and eventually you just pick someone to help you out. I was so nervous. We went up to this guy with a tank of eels, and immediately after we pointed to one, he had it nailed through the brain to a wooden board and was skinning it. I was shocked.

It was–she laughs, conflicted as she relives it–so good.

We salivate, and the exercise reminds me of Hook, when the Lost Boys teach grown-up Peter Pan to imagine his dinner, and the giant turkey thighs and rainbow Play-Doh of their collective memory-induced imagination becomes both the feast and ammo for a food fight. With the smell of the chicken and beets and the memories winding the mechanics of hunger, we eat chips and salsa to settle.

The rally loses energy. The pace of our groundstrokes become sluggish. We volley at the net, letting our legs rest, until we reminisce on eating fries together at some ungodly hour in a Lotte across from Gwangandaegyo.

 


 

The bird rests at a juicy white doneness. We sit, wait for it to cool, and we agree: these nights and conversations are when and wherein we’ve identified food as central to the us-ness of us.

In Korea, she began to read food writers. Discovery begat discovery, which is why by some strange sorcery, a new book by M.F.K. Fisher or James Beard or John T. Edge materializes on our coffee table each week. She remarks that I will probably never read a cookbook in the hours before bed to wind down.

In Korea, I missed the agency and dexterous expression of making meals. I loved host-mom’s cooking, but yearned to cook for myself and for others. I joke that she’s probably only keeping me around to cut onions, since dumping me would require her to wear swimming-goggles, the bug-eyed accoutrement which she presently wears, everytime she walks into a kitchen for the rest of her life.

Maybe you’re marrying me for kitchenware, she says as she slices an onion, storing the unused quarter in our onion ossuary.

It’s true that we don’t have lot in the way of gadgets, and we often grouse about how badly we want a gas range. I use this.

Maybe we’d cook every night even without the wedding gifts, I reply. And maybe since you’re the homeowner, you should spring for the gas range.

She scoffs. Do I hear someone asking for a rent increase? She asks, brows raised to indicate wide eyes behind the swim-goggles.

Whoa, whoa. Ok. Pump the brakes. Put it this way–I’m not marrying you because I have a thing for swim-goggles, I say, pointing to her eyes.

We laugh.

With our second-hand and ersatz kitchen tools, we’ve become patient and adaptive in our cooking. Other circumstances drive adaptation, too. Similar to her eyes’ inability to take the onions, I have developed food intolerances, the sort that necessitate recipe jerry-rigging. I don’t wear swim-goggles to make her feel better, and she, similarly, won’t let my food allergies become hers. In the adaptations, we’ve created a feedback loop, though, whereby one can enjoy food more by his or her ability to fill in the gaps for the other. On Big Nights In, such as tonight, we alloy those distinct culinary faculties.

 


 

We saute leftover sweet potatoes up to temperature. She blends a green sauce for the Peruvian chicken and cools it in the freezer: mayonnaise, pepper, white vinegar, cilantro, jalapeno, and lime. It’s not purely green, more white, only green by the jalapeno and cilantro pointilistically suspended in the mix, the way tips of grass-blades peek from a snowy field. We now know that if you cool the sauce so that it almost holds, but then spreads as it meets the temperature of the chicken, it’s drool-inducing.

We plate. We eat. We continue the mutuality. The room is incandescently lit low, and the dog lies beside us.

Did you insa to people when you got back? I ask.

Ha! Totally. And I’d also touch my opposite arm when handing things to people.

Me too! Do you remember ETAs making claims–I remember some people said they’d only use chopsticks and spoons when they got back.

Yeah. Maybe not that drastic, but yeah.

We pause.

As she refills her wine glass–but not mine–we list the rituals and nuances now hidden by home. No opposite arm touching, no insa-ing. I gently bring up our nightmare refrigerator.

No, ahem, pouring of drinks for others.

She huffs, and pours for me, touching her arm.

I touch mine and the glass, and the laughter comes, this time tinged with melancholy.

We mull it over, and text other ETAs for opinions. Most don’t own chopsticks, some admit to losing contact with host families. One can’t remember the last time she had kimchi.

God, she says. Friendships with ETAs afterwards. It felt like being a member of an addiction support group.

Well, I mean, we did lose a lot.

But, that’s just a shift, right? she asks.

Leaving Korea was complicated, but not tragic, and the memories don’t so much exist as they are arduously achieved. It’s a paradox, to commit effort into reconstituting what feels substantial, yet is completely without substance.

So, we visit each others’ cities, cities that expectedly end up being all over the world. We explore, knowing how to do so because we’d already done so with one another. We see Tennis in concert, ride bikes in Montreal, and text for no reason. We call at birthdays and births. We embrace at weddings and funerals.

After the struggle, what we have is not only the joy of the strain in remembering, but also a sense of why we take joy in the strain. We discern the flavors and textures. The umami, sour, and bitter; the floral, sinewy and rich; the vegetal, brined, coal-fired, carbonized, and full. Rainbow Play-Doh possesses all of these.

But as a meal, it’s deficient. It can be sloppy on the plate. Rainbow Play-Doh only sustains us to a point.

How’d we even start this? She asks.

Start what?

This conversation.

We were just talking about Korea.

Yeah, but it was something else. She pauses, thinking. I don’t know.

Does it matter? I ask.

Yes! she exclaims. Or maybe not. I just hate it when I can’t remember.

 


 


Charles Nelson IV was a 2011-2012 ETA at Youngsaeng High School in Jeonju, South Korea.