It’s that time in the show again – ‘Gus, the Theatre Cat’, or, as we backstage like to call it, sandwich time. There is something about this number (the second of the second act and a very slow-moving song in which an old cat reminisces about his past) which makes you suddenly think about other things, usually, specifically, how hungry you suddenly are. So I write this while munching some Raisinets, which I found to my great surprise at a local grocery store.
Actually, to be perfectly accurate, I found it buried under about four other candies and several layers of tape. This is a peculiarity I have discovered about Korean grocery stores – while the concept of getting a sample of some other product with whatever it is you buy isn’t new, it goes a little mad here. Any product you buy in a Korean grocery store is likely to have at least three other things attached to it with clear packing tape, which has been applied by one of the busking girls in large platform shoes and leg warmers who stand at the end of almost every aisle. For example, this package of Raisinets came with two small KitKat sample boxes, a full-sized tube of Fruit-ups, and a small sample pack of raisinets (why you need a sample of the very thing you just purchased, I’m not sure). In the same trip, a box of cereal had taped on the back six Oreo cookie bars, and a container of milk had a smaller container of yogurt.
This phenomenon actually makes sense considering the relationship that Koreans seem to have with their food. At the very first Korean meal I had, which was actually in New York, I was surprised to find that before any meal actually arrived, there were about six little plates of various preserved things, not all of them identifiable, that came first. The first meal I had in Korea was even more complicated – about fifteen minutes after we ordered (there were three options, all combinations of Salty, Spicy, and Mild – we chose option A, which was Spicy and Mild, I believe), a waiter came to the table, reached into the center, and actually removed about seventy percent of it. In its place he put a metal contraption filled with glowing hot coals. We had barely processed our table-to-firepit transition before a whole cart rolled up, filled with so many small dishes that they completely filled the lip of the table – there were two wooden trays of various greens, a large bowl of orange-colored icy liquid with greens in it, bowls of raw onion and raw garlic, bowls of some sort of green shoots, a small dish of a chili paste, flat bowls of a brown sauce of some kind, a tiny dish of a soy paste, and a dish of what looked like cole slaw. As our faces must have betrayed the petrification we felt faced with such a display, and with the concept of having to figure out what to do with it, the waiters gathered around and quickly skewered pieces of Duck (we knew it was a duck restaurant because of the cartoon ducks outside) and placed them on the center contraption, which turned out to be a sort of in-table rotisserie. Once the duck had cooked, they went onto a metal plate over the coals, which had been rubbed with duck fat and had a few pieces of garlic cooking on them. Apparently, as we learned through trial, error, and public mockery, the process is to take a piece of the duck, take a piece of lettuce or other greenery, put the duck in the lettuce with a piece of raw onion that had been sitting in the brown sauce, and then add the other bits and pieces and sauces as you’d like. The entire thing, then washed down by the delicious and truly dangerous Korean drink Soju (think ‘hallucinate then wake up the next day in the broomcloset’ Vodka, but with a sweeter, lighter, ‘oh this can’t possibly be that alcoholic’ sake taste), was quite delicious, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for whoever had to wash the thousand dishes.
Apparently, as was explained to me by Soo, the local Company Manager, Koreans think that the standard Western meal, with its one loaded plate, looks ‘lonely’. Korea has developed myriad variations on their national dish, Kimchi (which is most often a spicy cabbage, garlic, and chili concoction, but can technically cover everything from preserved fish to pickled vegetables), and no meal is served without it. In fact, loneliness is almost impossible at a Korean table – the Korean barbeque must be shared by at least a few people, and the more the merrier. So maybe my Raisinets package, all by itself, just looked like it needed some friends.
I should just add a postscript here, to say that the second time we went to this Duck restaurant, we must have passed some test, because this time we were given what seemed like it must be a special boon – in amongst the duck meat was a skewer of only livers, and, more than this, placed next to the macaroni salad (the ‘Western’ side dish, to replace the cole slaw of the previous night) was a bowl of rather large brown insects. Cooked, of course, because, dude, if they were raw, that’d be totally gross. Anyway, over the course of my travels I have garnered the reputation as the ‘hey, what is that? you eat it and tell us’ girl, which I am proud of. As I am not allergic to anything but mango skin, I am free to eat anything without risking anaphylactic shock, and I’m always open to new things, especially new things that will be great fodder for future games of ‘never have I ever’. So I had my reputation to uphold, plus the larvae were sitting there mocking me with the future regret I knew I would face if I couldn’t say I had tried them. So, with trepidation, I put one in my mouth. I think my friend Peter, the Deputy Musical Director, put it best. “Hmm,” he said, moving one around his mouth like it was wine and looking ponderously off into the distance, “it tastes like poo-flavored eggplant.”