Entries from November 25th, 2013

Persimmon Pudding

Monday, November 25, 2013

Each Thanksgiving since I’ve been out of the U.S. has been unconventional in some form, but this is the first year we’ve ever eaten around a table on the floor and ended the evening over a shared plate of persimmon pudding with a variety of utensils, due to the fact that I own exactly 4 spoons, 3 forks, and 5 sets of chopsticks. We went a bit off the cusp with the menu: we had stuffing with cranberries and apple juice that was spiced with sage, ginger, and cinnamon. Habiba brought turkey legs that she stripped by the light of her cell phone in the corner of the living room, the only spot in the apartment with enough surface area to do it. Justin brought stir fried vegetables, Mary brought South African sausage, and we ate that with Minnesota wild rice and kohlrabi salad, rosemary roasted potatoes, and brussel sprouts Luke procured from the army base that were sautéed and caramelized with kimchi. When it came time to make the gravy, we all realized we’d never done it before, only watched our mothers/aunts/cousins do it dozens of times between us, but Janessa and I took to the stove once we decided, at the last minute, that we absolutely needed the gravy. Turns out the gravy was the simplest of all the dishes on the table to make, be it that we had really good turkey juice with which to begin. You whisk together the juice (but not the fat) from the cooked bird with a bit of flour and let it bubble in a pan on the stove. You let it thicken, and add more flour and juice until it’s the consistency you want. You season with salt and pepper, and voila–you’ve got Thanksgiving’s most valuable player.

When our wine key snapped in half, the bottom half wedged deep inside the cork one of the last bottles, we all took turns swearing while trying to pull it free, each to no avail, until someone had the brilliant idea to tie the string of a hooded sweatshirt around the end of the corkscrew and the tines of a fork (while Brendon ran out to buy a replacement from 7-11). We cheered when it popped free, then passed it around and took swigs straight from the bottle. You might not call us classy, per say, but you can’t argue with that kind of ingenuity.

A note about the recipe below: I don’t have a 9×13 pan, so I halved the quantities and poured most of batter into a small ceramic casserole and the rest into a muffin tin. The pudding that baked in the casserole was super soft and almost oozy. But the pudding that came out of the muffin tin was a totally different dessert, and had developed a caramelized crust on top that was so, so good. Maybe, probably, it had baked faster. In any case, take this into consideration depending on what kind of texture you’re after, if you decide to embark. Which you should.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Persimmon Pudding
(from my friend Mary Ann, who got it from her niece)

2 cups pureed persimmon pulp (from hachiya persimmons, the oblong shaped variety that must be utterly soft before eating)
2 cups raw sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda *or* baking powder (I used soda)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk sugar and eggs together. Add persimmon pulp and mix well. Stir together flour, soda, salt, and cinnamon. Blend flour mixture into sugar/egg/persimmon mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour (I unintentionally skipped this step and ended up mixing everything together at once. If it made any kind of unfortunate difference, I couldn’t tell). Add melted butter and vanilla. Pour into a buttered 9×13 pan. Bake at 300 degrees F/150 degrees C for an hour. Test by jiggling the pan–if the center moves, bake another 5-10 minutes. It’s okay if the pudding is not completely set, but it shouldn’t be runny. Serve warm with whipped cream. Or vanilla ice cream. Or, as we did, unadorned and straight off the spoon/fork/chopsticks.

power of presence

Friday, November 22, 2013

This week I’ve spent the majority of each day with middle school students. There are kids who are obnoxious and brazen, kids who are reserved and shy, kids who are hilarious and those who look like they’re suffering. My heart aches for all these kids, especially the quiet ones. You couldn’t pay me to relive a week at their age.

I always thought middle school would be the most difficult age to teach. And it very well may be. But I am not so pessimistic to think that the opportunity to leave an impact as an educator is lost by the time kids have reached a certain age, and sometimes I struggle to remember that.

Recently, someone I knew in high school was killed. I didn’t know him that well while we were younger, but since our high school was really small, everyone sort of knew everyone else, in a way. This person was kind to everyone. And he took the time to know people, I mean really know them. He remembered names, and he used them. He made you feel like you mattered within the span of a two-minute conversation. That’s a gift.

I ran into him whenever I visited Minneapolis, more so than anyone else from high school. Most recently last April, he helped me pick out some wine, and he knew his wine like he knew his classmates. He remembered things about my life, and I walked away from him feeling lighter. That’s also a gift.

This person was hurting in a way that led to his death, and he likely didn’t realize the scope of his presence and how it lifted those around him. Do any of us? How often do we stop and consider the power of our presence, the good as much as the bad? I am thankful I knew him, and I’m angry and devastated that his life was cut short. The depth of his family’s grief is unimaginable, and I hope that they can one day find peace knowing that he left a formidable impact.


They’ll all come together

Monday, November 11, 2013

Yesterday I woke up earlier than usual to take a morning walk up the mountain closest to my apartment. Correction. Yesterday I woke up earlier than usual to hike the hill at the base of the mountain (quite a workout on its own). There’s a tower at the top with an expansive 360 degree view of Seoul, which is really beautiful at night when the city is lit. Namsan Tower points me home if I’ve lost my bearings, something that still happens after two years, two months, two weeks and six days of living in this living breathing animal of a place, if you’re wondering. The last time I hiked Namsan, the trees were unabashedly green, and the cicadas drowned out any and all competing noise. Yesterday the wind blew through bare branches and scattered a round of bright gold leaves to join the ground already covered in pine needles. The air was brisk enough to burn the back of your throat and sting your nose, and it did. I walked back down the steep hill, past the flagship location of Gentle Lady Cupcake, and straight to one of the two neighborhood cafes open before 9 am. There are days when I don’t want to talk about leaving Seoul, although I know I will, and yesterday was one of them.

I think a lot about how to stay warm when it’s cold, and besides hot cocktails, that involves a lot of soup. What I love about soup is that you can whip together a pot of it in a hurry with whatever ingredients you have on hand or need to use up, save for a few key items. And rather than follow a recipe to the T, this is usually what I do. If you have chicken or vegetable stock, onions, and garlic around, you’ve got the base for a meal. From there, anything’s fair game. Take a big pot and throw in your wayward items, the celery leaves at the back of the crisper drawer, the forlorn potatoes, the forgotten onion, the last knob of ginger from the big bunch you didn’t think you’d need but bought anyway. They’ll all come together with soup.


White Sweet Potato Soup
In a large soup pot, saute 2 cloves of garlic and half an onion in olive oil until the onions are soft and almost translucent. Add grated ginger, as much as you want, and a big handful of chopped celery leaves, then a tablespoon or two of curry paste and mix well. Add peeled, steamed, white sweet potatoes (or goguma, in Korean) and break them up with a wooden spoon in the pan. Pour in enough chicken or vegetable stock to cover, bring to a simmer, and cover with a lid. Let cook for ten minutes. Puree in batches–this soup will have a mouthfeel of pudding if you do. Drizzle with cold yogurt and snipped green onion.

online dating: a brief affair

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Once upon a time on a blazing summer afternoon, my friend Bethany and I met for lunch in Itaewon, Seoul’s epicenter for bars, restaurants, and drunken hookups. Part cesspool, part hotspot with some of the city’s best food, part anomaly of cultural mashup with mosques and Baptist churches, halal markets, Nigerian and Korean merchants, Russian prostitutes, English teachers who should have moved home years ago, and a steady stream of American military members who are as equally loathed as they are liked, the district of Itaewon has a way of roping you in so that you see the charm of the grit, as hard as you try to keep a distance. It is, truth be told, like no other place in the world.

Bethany and I are sitting at the bar, she’s having a margarita and I’m drinking a beer. Later, she tells me, she has a date with someone she met online. Yeah? I say, and then realize the question I want to ask next is barefaced, which is how they met. So instead I take a swig of beer and ask, How does that work, exactly?

At best, I’ve looked at Internet dating with the same disinterest of a spoiled house cat. I’m not a serial dater, and the one time I tried dating more than one guy at a time, I broke away from all three feeling bereft because, while fun at first, none of these relationships were going anywhere. One of us wanted more, never both at the same time. To borrow a line from my cousin Tippy, I have a monogamous heart. Some things are indeed black or white. For me, dating is all or nothing, too risky to be otherwise. And I have the stretches of singledom to prove it.

It’s simple, Bethany told me. The hardest part is making your profile. You send messages back and forth, and if you want to meet someone and they want to meet you, you do. I always suggest going for a cocktail first, and if things are going well, we might take it to dinner. If not, we end the date when our drinks are finished. There’s no commitment, no obligation.

She was meeting someone for the second time that night, and she looked great, effortless. Bethany has a gorgeous head of hair, and that day she wore it in natural curls that cascaded around her shoulders and down her back. She had on a black cotton summer dress and sandals, and when she excused herself to touch up her makeup, I sat in a cloud of thought. If she can do it, why can’t I? What’s the big deal, anyway? At the very least, you might get some good material, a few good laughs for a few bad dates.

Bethany told me more. The tone in her voice was so casual, so nonchalant about the whole experience. Though the thought of meeting someone online still gave me the creeps, the thought of going on dates and starting fresh was appealing. It had been awhile since my last relationship ended, and I’d need that time to recover. Maybe I was ready.

With a fresh buzz, I set Bethany free to meet her date while I went home to bang out an online profile. Over the years, I’ve helped friends and relatives with their profiles, but it was easier to create my own, maybe because I was less invested. This is a test spin, I told myself. An opportunity to practice. I answered all the optional questions, things like do you want kids? and how often do you shower? I wrote truths that weren’t too personal, like that I love to cook, that I keep a steady provision of olive oil, that I like to play instruments. I wrote that I’m a good ping-pong player, perhaps taking liberal use of the word good.

Over the next several days, I got a stream of messages, mostly quick, minimal openers like hws ur day? and hi, I want to talk wit u because I thnk u r good. Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn’t the first attempt at communication with a stranger be a little more personal? Shouldn’t it, at the very least, include all relevant vowels? I mean, if you’re serious.

For many people, dating online is like casting a wide open net into a deep ocean without a vested interest in the type of fish below the surface. Send out the bait, see what you catch, and then decide what to keep. For others, it is a last ditch-resort to finding lifelong companionship. Still others use it as a surefire way to casual sex, not that you need the Internet for that. I didn’t exactly know what my intentions were, but I didn’t think it was any of the above…….yet.

There was a message from a guy who promised a home cooked dinner of hot Chef Boyardee if I accepted a first date. Points for originality and the ability to bring a laugh, though I suspected he’d used the line before. When I didn’t respond, he sent a follow-up: Offer still stands…

An engineer from San Francisco was in town on business and wondered if I wanted to meet for dinner. He only had one night free, the night before he was due to fly back, but I’d already made plans, and I wasn’t into the idea of going to dinner with a stranger who was in town for thirty-six hours. The next night, he sent a message to tell me he had to stay another night to await the arrival of some machinery, and would I like to join him at his hotel for a drink? The view was magnificent. What a coincidence! I stared, open-mouthed, at my computer screen. This has worked for him before. What’s wrong with me? Why am I shocked when the opportunity is right under my nose? I’m more shocked at my emotional reaction, and by the enormity of what you can’t tell about a person by his or her online presence. I fired back a response: In the event that you aren’t joking, I thank you kindly for the offer. But No.

Then came a guy who’d grown up on a goat farm in Iowa. His opener: Want to play ping-pong sometime?

He mentioned he’d recently been dabbling in baking, and linked to a website he’d made with photos of multi-tiered birthday cakes decorated with neon icing and plastic GI Joes. Alright, I thought. This guy is funny, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. We sent a few messages back and forth until we decided to meet around dinnertime. I waited for him outside a café at dusk on a hot day in late July, my heart in my throat. It’d been over a year since my last first date. From his photos I knew to look for tight curly hair and big, tortoise shell glasses. When we shook hands it was apparent that we were both nervous, which put me at ease.

At a bar we ordered beers and started with all the formalities of a usual interview. It soon came out that he wasn’t living in Seoul, that he was merely passing through on his way to Tokyo. What the hell! I thought, but I bit my tongue. Traveling solo gives enough chances to meet people, so why the need to ensure it by fishing online? Are the chances of hooking up better by meeting online? Shouldn’t you at least be upfront and honest about where you live? Then again, I never asked. We went for galbi and split the bill, and there was zero chemistry, none to dig up from fresh dirt with a shovel. If I tried to make a joke, he’d give a little wheeze and nothing more. If he tried to joke, his efforts would fly over my head and he’d shrug, like oh well, plenty of fish. It was a good lesson in the difference between online chemistry and face-to-face chemistry, two things that are not at all the same. I flagged down a cab and wished him a good week in the city.

I got another message from a guy who was living in Seoul and working as a musician for the US military band. He was articulate and sincere, and he took initiative and planned the first date. I liked that. We met near his apartment, and from there we walked halfway up a mountain to reach the base of a Buddhist temple at dusk, both of us dripping with sweat. After we’d wandered awhile, we hopped a fence near a stream and shucked our shoes, wading long enough to feel cool again.

We went to dinner at an Indian place he liked, and our conversation flowed easily. He was open about himself but reserved with me, as if he wanted to be sure I would accept his story before he learned more about mine. He told me how he’d begun playing piano later in life than most professional players. When he talked, he chose his words carefully, and a thought line between his brows would appear, the same line that disappeared when he listened or laughed. He was a nice guy, so far as I could tell in a few hours. But when I got home, I thought about my upcoming week, about my aberrant schedule, and about how much pressure it is to nurture a relationship while trying to kick-start a career and be in two places at once. I jumped from one to twenty before the second date. And here’s how it goes down: if I am at first indifferent, he is persistent, and it’s that persistence which starts a relationship. Without the persistence, the fire’s dead in the water. He was persistent the next day, even though I told him I had to work, which I did. I’d been there before–willing to make something of what I knew wasn’t right off the bat, and I didn’t want a repeat occurrence. I asked him if we could hang out again as friends, a rejection in the eyes of a guy, and he said he’d love to. Never heard from him again.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to try something new, and maybe I’m not ready to put in the effort of going on twenty tepid dates to reach something that clicks. Maybe I’m too comfortable being single, or at least devoid of the incessant need to be a part of a couple. Maybe it’s  simpler, that online dating is just not for me. Maybe old-time person-to-person contact with a splash of serendipity is, as it always was. Maybe I truly am, as always suspected, part sixty-year-old man, part thirteen-year-old girl trapped inside a thirty-year-old body.

The End.