Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Sunday

I don't really know what it is about Koreans versus Americans, but there seems to be a big discrepancy in the amount of importance placed on food in each culture. Koreans pretty much live their lives around food and drink (or the ones I know do, at any rate). Americans don't, really, not even on a food-centric holiday like Thanksgiving.

Let's be honest. Green bean casserole from a can? Sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top? These are results of a people that don't live for their food. (I will grudgingly eat green been casserole, but I really do not like sweet potatoes or yams or whatever with charred bits of marshmallows on them. Sweet potatoes and pure sugar puffed with air were not meant to be bedfellows.)

At home, my (totally white, very American) roommate and I have drastically different approaches to food. I work a lot more than her (I work a lot more than most people), but I still like to cook and make my own dinner if I'm not eating at work or out someplace. I don't buy things like Rice-A-Roni or frozen dinners, because if I'm going to eat at home, it better be good. I don't enjoy frozen dinners, not one bit, no matter how "balanced" or "delicious" they claim to be.

Also, I'm a very instinctive cook. I throw stuff in a pan, boil things in a pot, and figure it out as I go. I don't use recipes and didn't own a cookbook until years ago (maybe four? five?) when the misguided aunt of an ex decided that I should have one (it was part of her Christmas present to me one year). To this day, I have never used the cookbook. Bless her soul, it was a sweet gesture- I chalk it up to the fact that she had never met me before.

My roommate's all about boxes of things and frozen dinners and recipes. She and her mother both use recipes. I understand it to an extent- if I've never made something before, I'll peruse whatever recipes I can find and figure out what the cohesive elements of that particular dish are. But I don't generally follow any recipe unless it's something I'm completely unsure of (like pho!). For cuisines that I'm more familiar with (Korean, American, Mexican, Italian, Jewish), I'll look at recipes and then veer off as I cook. For cuisines that I'm not entirely comfortable with (Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, most European countries), I'll stick close to a recipe the first time I try a new dish, then gradually go off on my own tangent.

I know these differences are cultural. Korean food is extraordinarily difficult to write recipes for, because you can't really measure the scent of a soup or the color of a mixture or the "feeling" of a batter as you stir it. The best way to learn to cook Korean is to be in a kitchen with a woman that grew up in Korea, cooking and eating. You learn about textures, about when to stir things and when to leave things alone, about how much oil is the perfect amount, as seen by how it slides around in a skillet.

This makes Thanksgiving a bit difficult for my family. We have our set menu- Mom makes the turkey, the ham (Dad doesn't like turkey), the kimchi, the jeon (Korean pancakes or fritters), and whatever other Korean dishes we convince her to make (we're trying to convince her that we absolutely need japchae / chapchae this year). My sister makes mashed potatoes and gravy, along with something American, like biscuits or macaroni and cheese or some other such thing (this year, deviled eggs!). I make green beans (not from a can) and the pies (pumpkin and/or pecan). And other than for the pies, none of us uses recipes for our Thanksgiving meal.

Our Thanksgiving is very much a combination of the American (where do you find a whole turkey in Korea?) and Korean (kimchi is a must). The meld is perfectly illustrated at our church, where the older generation speaks only Korean while the youngest generation speaks only English. There are a few of us, in the middle, that speak both and serve as unwilling conduits between the old and young.

Thanksgiving Sunday was great, as it usually is. We churchgoers are best when stuffed to the gills and lulled into sedation with turkey and pie. The kids decorated gingerbread cookies, which I had baked up the night before, and the adults all dutifully ate the (heavily, heavily) frosted cookies. My sister and I had packaged up little candy bags with four cookies in them, only one of which was decorated, for everyone to take home, purposefully leaving three of the cookies bare so that the parents would be spared insane sugar-induced hyperactivity at home.

Gravy, turkey with yams, ham with pineapple. My mother made the gravy and the turkey and yams, and it was all delicious. The ham was a bit dry, which I find is always true of pre-sliced hams. Our family's ham, sitting in my mother's refrigerator, is not pre-sliced, thankfully. The gravy was really good, except for the chunks of mushrooms. Mushrooms are so gross.

Stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and cranberries. I don't get stuffing. It's like ... soggy, hot, seasoned bread. Is it supposed to be ... good? Is it a replacement for rice? Because we always have rice. So stuffing is moot, right? Green bean casserole, courtesy of a lovely woman that has no talent for cooking. She's really nice, just can't cook. So this is her yearly contribution to Thanksgiving, made from a recipe and lots of canned goods. My mother made the potatoes. They were yummy.

Kimchi (of course) and Caesar salad. How the Caesar salad made the list, I will never know. The women's group decides on the menu and I don't know how that happens (vote? arm wrestling? rock-paper-scissors?).

Cookies decorated by the kids, dinner rolls, persimmons and pineapples, and ddeok (or tteok or dduk or whatever- it's 떡, rice cakes eaten at special occasions). We always have fruit for or with dessert. Ever since I was a kid, dessert was mainly peeled and cut fruit. The dinner rolls are always a sort of side thought every year. The kids eat them, but most people ignore them. Bread AND rice AND stuffing? Oy!

Pies and cookies. This picture makes my teeth hurt. The amount of icing the kids used ... it makes me feel a little queasy. I ate a piece of pie but couldn't bring myself to eat a cookie after having seen the kiddies attacking them with bright liquid sugar.

The hard work of our few children. They each got a bag of royal icing in a different color and a plateful of cookies. The white icing is what I did the night before, to serve as examples to the kids. Any color on top of the white icing was done by my sister at church as we watched the kids go crazy (I like the canary- it has white outlines and is completely filled in with yellow, near the center of the platter).

I'll post the recipe for the gingerbread cookies tomorrow- they are easy and bake up really, really quickly. They also cool in minutes, which means that the decorating can happen very soon after the baking. A cookie recipe that I really like and have used many times- perfect for kids to ice, since the cookies are sturdy enough to handle twice their weight in royal icing.


william November 24, 2009 at 11:17 PM  

your family eats A LOT. how do you eat all that on sunday and do the same thing on thanksgiving? crazies.

i second you on the americans not living for their food. i've always thought it appropriate to measure the quality of an asian (chinese / korean...you know, the only ones that matter) woman by how well she cooks (because i am a spoiled asian son).

but like, white american women, how do you measure how well they cook? what the hell does betty draper make in that kitchen of hers? mashed potatoes and gravy? corn? do they even know how to cook fish?

i think it's because i've NEVER stayed over at a white friend's house and i've NEVER experienced the cooking of a white american mother. and TV (my choice of education) doesn't teach me all that much about it. true, there's southern cooking. and we all know what black people eat. what does your roommate's mother cook? just wondering.

sorry if i sound racist. that is because i am.


Diana E. November 25, 2009 at 1:00 AM  

You are onto something here.

god yes... American Thanksgiving food SUCKS (although some more creative stuffings can be yummy--but they generally have more than 3-4 ingredients). The only "Thanksgiving" dinner I usually enjoy is my vegetarian Jewish best male friend in HS's mom's.

William's been especially racially insensitive these days ;-) , but I will say that few white women I know define themselves by their ability to cook, so perhaps that's part of it. My mom is a brilliant scientist, but good lord is she a mess in the kitchen. I actually cringe when she says something like "Oh I'll make you a special vegetarian dish..." It's usually something creamed. And covered in salt and butter. It's pretty gross.

I totally understand what you're saying about the attitudes of Americans and Koreans for food. I still value convenience (which is the primary trait Americans want in food) in my food and cooking simply because time is an issue, but I've come to appreciate a more home-based approach. I get excited now shopping for new vegetables every day and trying new foods. My take on cooking is actually kind of similar to yours (although I'm still playing around with Korean cooking and I definitely don't have as good a "feel" for it as I do for Mexican, Italian, Lebanese, or Indian, but it's much better than my knowledge of say... Country French). I came to appreciate cooking when I first became vegetarian, but something about living in Korea and food... it just is hard not to get excited about cooking meals.

I plan to continue this love in America. It helps to have a Korean man who enjoys my cooking living at home. Last night he told me that he could eat my curry every day. Haha.

P.S. Thanks for the japchae link. That's my experiment for this week... I've been looking around at recipes online and gathering ingredients. I'm excited to try it!

Amanda November 25, 2009 at 3:27 AM  

William, you can come over to my house any time.

jeanny November 25, 2009 at 8:26 AM  

Ah, Betty Draper. If you look like her, do you also need to cook well? That hair has got to be maintained, after all. I remember one episode where she made tuna salad and handed her husband a package of Ritz crackers.

My roommate's family makes pretty typical fare, I think. Casseroles, roasts, lots of things in the oven rather than on the stove. Koreans don't use ovens.

Diana, I LOVE Jewish food, for the most part, and have enjoyed every shabbat and seder I've ever been to. I also agree with you about identifying cooking as a defining trait. That has to be true to some extent.

Good luck with the japchae (one of my favorites!)- I'm sure your fiance will enjoy it.

William, you should go to Amanda's! I have no personal experience with your cooking, Amanda, but the photos look good. And your husband likes it, more importantly.