by Brian McManus
Location: Northern South Korea, Southeast Asia
Today was a field trip for the pre-schoolers I teach to the farm of our director’s mother. The kids had been to the farm about two months ago to plant tomato plants and today was the day to pick them. The farm is north of Seoul, about an hour away. Needless to say the kids had a blast picking green cherry tomatoes and frolicking in the pools of mud that had developed from the previous nights rain.
So after an hour or so of picking tomatoes and traversing the endless submerged rice patty fields that seemed to stretch to the base of the mountains that encircle Seoul, we sat the youngsters down to eat lunch. The teachers were led inside to sit legs crossed at a one and a half foot high table to enjoy our meal.
The table was covered with countless edible delights. Kimche, hot and sweet peppers, three types of lettuce, raw garlic, onions, Korean mellon, Korean pickles, kim bok (comparable to a california roll) and thick slices of fresh bacon. On the table also sat two butane burners with sautee pans. The Pork was cooked off by the elder males in the sautee pans and given to the guests. You place some rice on a leaf of lettuce, along with some red pepper sauce, raw garlic and top it off with the cooked pork, roll it all up in the leaf and push the entirety! of the creation into your mouth. It was an incredible culinary experience!
Then it hit me, this meal of lunch was enjoyed like a feast. Never in the States has a meal even come close to reaching the aura of this Korean meal. The sharing of the food, the patience in waiting for it to cook, the conversations that filled that time and the overall satisfaction upon completion was not only foreign to me but also glorious. I was stunned by the sense of community felt at this table. Now take into account that more than half of the participants did not speak any English, and the rest of us, for the most part can not understand any Korean.
Back home meals take on a role of necessity, rather than community. Lunch in particular seems to be one of speed and efficiency. Fast food, drive thru, grab a bite, working lunch. Dinners are just as quick. Take out this, take out that, pizza nights. Zap it with radiation for 2 minutes, let stand, enjoy. We seem too busy finishing off the food to let conversation linger, rather we stuff in words between bites and swallows.
Today’s lunch was one of the most enjoyable and baffling meals I have ever had. It showed me how we should eat. The food was cooked and ingested by those who worked it into and out of the earth and then shared with strangers. There was not a moment that a smile was not present at that table. What a sight, what a taste and what a feeling.