A FOOD INVENTORY

Every time I saw Grandma, she asked, “Have you had breakfast?”

And no matter how I answered, she offered me food.
I assumed it simple courtesy. But a few years ago, my great aunt — who is almost 90 — told me that wasn’t it.
“In Korea,” she said, “asking if you had eaten breakfast was the same as asking, ‘How are you today?’ Back then, if we had enough food to eat breakfast, then things were good.”
It explained a lot, like why Grandpa mixed water with his rice — I thought it was a gross old person thing. Instead, it was habitual: He often did not have enough to eat, so he would stretch the rice by adding water to it.
In fact, so much of Korean culture is driven by the need for food. Grandpa told me I had to study hard so I do not have to beg for food. Grandma told me I need to eat every grain of rice in my bowl because each kernel takes one year to grow. I thought that meant my entire bowl — all 200 grains — took 200 years to grow.
And, at the end of meals, my family would often drink a burnt rice stew. In the old days, rice would stick and burn to the bottom of the pot. And because they were still hungry after the rice was gone, the family would create a broth with the burnt rice to fill their stomachs. Over time, the practice carried over into a culinary tradition.
But, to me, these practices are nothing more than a custom. Because I don’t know what hunger is. I have always had food on the table; I have always had more food in the fridge.
Yet the hunger of my grandparents still exists today, even in America. Last year, 49 million Americans did not have access to constant adequate food. They were forced to skip meals, cut portions or give up food at some point in the year. The problem is, of course, much worse in other countries.
I always thought, in America, people who couldn’t afford food were lazy or dumb. I assumed, if you lived your life and worked hard, food would always be there. But a few months out of college, I am starting to understand how easily a person can fall into financial trouble. Stability is, in many facets of life, a delicate balance.
Growing up in a food-centric culture, I have always linked stability with the food a person has in their kitchen. I believe looking in one’s pantry reveals a lot about someone.
A few years ago, Time magazine did a photo project which documented what different families around the world eat in one week. Look at those photos, and immediately, you’ll start drawing conclusions — mostly about a family’s stability.
So I decided to do the same with my food supply: I emptied out everything in my kitchen and photographed it.

***

These are the grains in my kitchen: rice, flour and couscous. Imagine the rice and a container of kimchi. My grandparents told me, at times, that is all they had to eat. My collection of grains draws from both Western and Eastern influences.

My mom is living with me for a month now, which means I have more Korean food in my kitchen than I normally have. I was raised on Korean food. To me, it is like meatloaf and mashed potatoes or spaghetti and meatballs.


Currently, I have bulgogi (fire meat), dumplings, panko crusted fish, imitation crab meat, ultra-soft tofu, tofu broth seasoning, cooked rice, kimchi, fish balls and pickled radishes.

If I couldn’t look in your pantry to snoop into your life, I’d look in your spice drawer.

Spices determine what kind of cuisine you mostly cook. And, unless you’re a chef, you will most likely stay with the spices you grew up with. So an American home might have parsley and bay leaves, while a Korean family will always have cayenne pepper powder and sesame oil.

But I am stuck in the middle. I have Asian spices: soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, pepper powder, rice wine vinegar and ginger. But I also have olive oil, barbecue sauce, coriander seeds, seasoned salt and star anise.

Perhaps this is why my food often tastes like it’s been dragged all the way from Korean, through Europe and into America. (And that’s not a good thing.)

I have always been self-conscious about what I bring to work or school. Because, frankly, Korean food can smell. So sandwiches were always my thing.

I remember in first grade, a friend of mine never had anything to eat for lunch. I asked him why, and he said it was because his mom never packed anything for him. So the guys at our lunch table chipped in. Each day, a different person shared their sandwich with him. On Monday, he ate bologna; Tuesdays, he had ham; Wednesdays, he had smoked turkey; Thursdays, he had ham again; and Friday, he had half of my Korean beef sandwich.

My lunches have gotten a bit less adventurous. Nowadays, it’s turkey and swiss on wheat bread.

My favorite food used to be microwave dinners because it was the only way I could eat “authentic” American food. I loved frozen food.


Nowadays, I love it because they are often cheaper in the short-run. It’s expensive to buy all the ingredients for something like lasagna. Instead, you can run to the dollar store and buy a boxed lasagna or canned chili. It’s bad food, but sometimes it’s all a person can eat. In fact, my mom always tells me about her friend who ate five cent Ramen Noodles for two years because it was the only thing he could afford to eat every meal. Now, that would give me one massive stomachache.

I always hesitate before I buy any raw foods, because a) the price is higher and b) it’ll go bad quicker.

I always wondered why a large majority of Korean foods are pickled. Then I began shopping for myself and realized pickled foods last longer. It is yet another method to keep from starving and, again, it has developed into a cuisine.

Here, I have bananas, baby carrots, celery, eggs, kiwi and beef shank bones that I plan on making into beef stock at some point.

Until college, I had water with nearly every meal. As weird as it sounds, it was such a crucial part of our Korean diet. Traditionally, it was a way to fill the stomach.

But then I got to NYU and water came just as easily out of the dining hall machines as soda or juice. Oh, and it filled — and grew — the stomach.

I also have a large collection of teas. My girlfriend Kristen is teaching me how to appreciate a fine cup of English Breakfast tea, with milk and sugar.

And, lastly, I have the bottle of wine. Don’t worry, Mom. It’s cooking wine for beef stew.

I am a privileged person. How do I know? Look at my snacks. If I want to munch on chips and dip, I can do it. If I want cheese and crackers, it’s here. If I want chocolate chips or banofee pie, no problem — in the fridge.

I feel incredibly spoiled…

I feel most lucky when I get to the end of a meal and realize I have so much more food left. Even if I’m not going to eat it, knowing there is more is a great luxury.

Grandpa used to tell me that he worked hard because he hated how his family didn’t have excess food after a meal. Well, here’s to you, Gramps: leftover beef stew, mac ‘n’ cheese, tomato soup, barbecue, mushrooms, apples and beans.


***

As I took out my food and organized it on my table, I kept thinking, “Oh, didn’t know I had that.” It made me feel lucky, guilty and, well, stable.

I’m providing for myself now and I understand that food, for many people, isn’t just there. So I am incredibly thankful. My food inventory is a reflection of everything my grandparents and parents have endured to get me to this place in life. I take for granted the brave and bold steps they took in order for me to be here.

My grandparents were poor, hungry people in Korea. They went from having nothing to making the bold decision to come to America. My parents were poor, lost people in their 20s when they came to Kansas. They went from speaking no English to earning college several degrees and sending their kids to college. And, thanks to them, I am a well-to-do 22-year-old who has the luxury of being a writer, of all things. Not everyone can do that, you know. And to top it off, I live in freaking New York City, on Manhattan island.

So Grandma: You don’t have to ask if I’ve eaten breakfast. Because I have not only had breakfast this morning. I have enjoyed a feast.

Happy Thanksgiving.

2 responses to A FOOD INVENTORY

  1. Kelly Lowry

    This was touching. I think many of us from every country have similar roots. Thank you for reminding us all of how bountiful our lives are!

  2. Anonymous

    Love the family stories intertwined in this posting… wonderful writing Alvin. -Amy Karger

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