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Simple Pleasures

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Fall, 2013

After checking my kitchen, I determined that I still needed cilantro, fresh ginger, and a jalapeno for my attempt to wrestle Maybonne into the aforementioned chicken pumpkin stew. To tell the truth, I was unable to locate the original recipe. But with help from Google, I came up with another one. It sounded perfect, and so off I went to my favorite Korean market.

The plan seemed straightforward enough:

1. Purchase the remaining ingredients.
2. Make the stew.
3. Enjoy the stew.

In my effort to accomplish these modest tasks, however, I learned that any or all of these may apply:

1. I am easily distracted.
2. I am a weirdo.
3. I do not have a life.

Perhaps I should have named this piece “Pleasures for the Simple Minded.”

There I was, piddling my way up and down the aisles, when I was transfixed by the most gorgeous mound of jalapenos. So deeply and uniformly green, smooth, firm, glossy, and well formed! I had a hard time moving on from the pepper display but I did so for fear I’d be arrested for fondling. Instead of buying one jalapeno, I bought two. One to cook, and one to admire in private. (It’s in my fridge, stashed in a baggie, so I can ogle it whenever I please. Do I need to join a 12-step group?)

Finding the ginger was easy as well. It was gorgeous in a knobbly, fresh-gingery kind of way but it did not move me. I then went in search of the cilantro.

After checking a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed it, I figured the green bunch labeled culantro had to be the herb I sought. The market has many Spanish-speaking customers and employees. Hmmm. Maybe this was just another word for the same thing. I picked it up and sniffed. It didn’t look the way I thought it would but it smelled, well, familiar. I placed it in a plastic bag, added it to my cart, and checked out.

Groceries in car, I headed off to my daughter’s music rehearsal.

I guess culantro is one of those odd foods, like kimchi, which mess with your mind. When I walk into my house and think: O.M.G.! Would someone please locate that dirty diaper and dispose of it, STAT?!, it eventually dawns on me that I have stumbled unprepared into another person’s kimchi experience. But when I anticipate kimchi, my tongue tingles in blissful expectation.

The reason I bother to explain this is because, when I arrived home that day and stuck my nose into the sun-warmed grocery bag, I was assaulted by the foul odor of a fresh stinkbug massacre. You know what I’m talking about if you have ever attempted to stem the Fall Invasion with your Dirt Devil hand vac. Except, in this case, it wasn’t stinkbugs. Nope. It was my tiny bag of culantro.

My stomach churned. I tied the bag tightly, tossed it into the fridge and went to do a little more Googling. Apparently culantro is cilantro’s cousin—it’s hairy, well-muscled, odiferous cousin. The one who trips little old ladies and picks fights in bars.

I pulled out my cutting board and got to work.

The dish was coming together. Onion, garlic, curry, jalapeno, chicken, pumpkin, coconut milk, red bell pepper, ginger. The scents were intoxicating. All that my work of art required was cilantro, and I was loath to add this vomitous imposter. Fortunately, my research had indicated that culantro will safely permit you to substitute if for cilantro in small quantities if you:

1. Wear a hazmat suit.
2. Give it your lunch money.
3. Promise to do its homework until Christmas break.


Alrighty, then!

I knew what I had to do.

I thought hard about cilantro–how delicious it would taste warmed in this aromatic blend on a cool autumn evening. Suddenly my mind made that strange shift. I hurried to chop the culantro and add it to the mix.

The stew was delicious!

If you want to give it a go at this recipe, the link is here.
If you are up for reading a strange poem about things whose smells can trick you, click here.

Piano Lessons

Piano Lessons

My dad wasted a fortune trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I started with lessons at 5 or 6 and quit when I was around 17. I have little to show for them.

It wasn’t a total bust though. I got to spend an hour a week with Mrs. Park.

Oh, how I loved her.

Joo Eun “June” Park was a goddess. The daughter of a successful father and the wife of a successful businessman, she lived in a spacious contemporary home with an open design, high ceilings, and streamlined modern furnishings. I had never before experienced a cool leather sectional or a plush white carpet. I had never been in a house anything like this. Her studio was off the kitchen. We slid open the glass door and entered a world of delicious aromas.

Mrs. Park herself was the picture of mod glamour—even when she was dressed for housework. You just knew she was meant to be a jet setter. Sometimes we arrived right after she had returned from the tennis court, and she sported a tiny tennis dress with gigantic sunglasses. She was quite the athlete, swimming countless laps for fitness.

She had a beautiful moon face, perfect skin, and lovely tapering fingers. I loved her clean-smelling kimchi breath, and her musical, girlish laugh. I loved the way she punctuated her speech and gestures with a deep “unh” which I could understand without knowing how.

I loved being loved by Mrs. Park.

Mirrored in Mrs. Park’s eyes, my sister Gwen and I felt special and adorable. Those sunny eyes showed affection, and it was clear that we were more than just a paycheck.

Mrs. Park was no pushover. She could be irritable. My lower lip trembled when she rapped my knuckles with her pencil: “Position! Position!” And the way she corrected her sons hinted at steel and impatience. But when we had the sniffles, Mrs. Park brought us into the kitchen and gave us chewable Vitamin C tablets. If they were gone, she opened the freezer, plunged a big spoon into a frozen cylinder of orange juice, pulled out a glob, and fed it to us like a popsicle. She taught us about kimbap and shared her fascinating food with us.

We had to give her up for 4 years when we went to Germany. We ended up with Frau Ristevski, God help her. Gwen and I were rotten. I mean rotten. She didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Mrs. Park.

Mrs. Ristevski lived in a teensy apartment under the roof of a tall Altbau (a surviving pre-WW II house, which had been divided into apartments) with her husband and son.

Gwen and I dreaded our lessons
Gwen and I were responsible for getting ourselves to our lessons
Our parents did little to monitor our progress beyond writing a monthly check
Nothing good

We would hop on our bikes at 4:55 for the 25 minute bike race across the city for our 5:00 lesson; arrive sweaty, breathless, and unprepared; and piss her the hell off. Every week.

You would think I’d have had the sense to rebel and just quit piano lessons upon our return to the U.S.  You would think. But Mrs. Park had seen something in me which was good and promising, and it was hard to resist the lure.

Once we returned, I stuck with piano even when I fell so in love with running and my team that the only way I could continue lessons was to run several miles to her house on one of my long-distance days.

Mrs. Park was a good sport. She protected her piano bench with a thick towel to sop up my sweat and stink without ever telling me off. I am sad and ashamed when I think of how long we continued this painful farce—me still hoping to please her by living up to my early potential and both of us knowing it was never going to happen.

My last recital was the last straw. I had not prepared and I was unable to remember the piece despite many (many!) sloppy stops and starts. I quietly got up from the bench, returned to my seat, and called it a day. I refused to meet any eyes, I and left to walk home the second the last player finished. Not long after that, Mrs. Park moved to Korea, and I lost track of her.

My friendship with Mrs. Park was briefly rekindled many years later when my daughters were small. My sister had chanced to run into her. It turned out Mrs. Park had moved back to the area and was very excited to find us. She quickly made plans to get together with us, and we did meet a few times. Sadly, the reunion didn’t stick.

Mrs. Park’s sons were grown and out of the house. She was lonely and looking for a daughter. I felt both her hunger and the weight of her expectations, and I knew I couldn’t be the person she sought. I was unable to reciprocate her lavish gestures financially or emotionally, and I became uncomfortable. We lost touch.

Both of my counseling offices are near Korean markets, and I go often to touch, smell, and buy ingredients for my next culinary adventure. Once, as I scrutinized a bag of Korean pancake mix with a furrowed brow, trying to recall what was in Mrs. Park’s pancakes, a white-haired granny no taller than my shoulder grabbed me and dragged me through the store. Using gestures alone, she explained how to make the pancakes. I still follow her orders: Pancake mix, green onions, long hot peppers, Korean squash, chives, kimchi. Meat or seafood, optional.

I ran into Mrs. Park in the market a few months ago. I was torn. I wanted to run and hug her. I wanted to hide. In the end, I crept around the store behind her, beaming love at her back, terrified she would turn around.

Thinking about her is giving me a stomach ache. I want to cry.

This is post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

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