First-World Problems: The Forbidden Fruit

My third column for KoreAm is up!  This one is about two of my favorite subjects, Costco and my mother.

Costco is one of my mother’s favorite places in the world. As a child of the Korean War, scarcity has always carried psychological weight for her, and nothing buoys that heaviness like watching a forklift move a heaping pallet of fruit. I can still remember the first time I took her to the Costco warehouse in Ocean, New Jersey, where she was living at the time.

“America,” she’d said, pointing at the colors of the signage outside the building. It was true: COSTCO in red, WAREHOUSE in blue, the letters outlined in white.

And it was America on the inside, too, a muscular exhibition of capitalism. There was so much of everything—mounds of sweatshirts, pillars of pistachio nuts—and goods offered in such enormous sizes. My mother walked up to a display that looked like a fortress constructed of olive oil. Not only was each bottle a gallon in size, they were tied together in twos.

“I do need olive oil,” she said.

“It’ll take you five years to use that up!” I said.

She heaved the glistening duo into her cart.

“Yes, but you never know.”


High Point Regional High School and the End of the 2010 Tour

Photo by Terry-Ann Zander; Woo was given Korean cookbooks created by High Point Regional students. Each cookbook contained recipes prepared by students in honor of his visit. From left, Megan Van Glahn, Sung J. Woo, Brittany Anello and Derek Vanalthuis.

Photo by Terry-Ann Zander; Woo was given Korean cookbooks created by High Point Regional students. Each cookbook contained recipes prepared by students in honor of his visit. From left, Megan Van Glahn, Sung J. Woo, Brittany Anello and Derek Vanalthuis.

On December 9, I visited High Point Regional High School at Sussex, NJ. There were about a hundred students in the auditorium, and after I gave a reading and answered questions from the audience, we headed over to the cafeteria. And you know what was there? Korean food!

In addition to reading my book, their teacher (Ms. Reedy — thank you, Laraine!) suggested that they delve a bit deeper into Korean culture, so they found recipes on the Internet and cooked up a storm.  Check out the gallery below to see some photos I took with my phone of their impressive spread, plus closeups of the cookbooks they made for me.  I especially appreciated these, as I’m an excellent eater of Korean food but unfortunately a nonexistent cook.

Also, the local newspaper ran a story about my visit.  And with this event, I’m done for 2010.  The totals: 17 locations, 1868 miles driven.

KO’ed at Ko

Last night, my wife and I completed our David Chang experience by eating at Momofuku Ko.  The first time I visited one of his restaurants was a little more than a year ago, on my way back from getting my ass kicked by the Wii Tennis gods, where I had myself some rosemary ice cream.  Yes, you heard that right, rosemary ice cream! Since then I’ve also had stuffing-flavored ice cream, and last night, I had perhaps the weirdest of all, BBQ sauce.  And just to prove that I’m not making this up, click on the thumbnail of the cellphone photo I took of the Milk Bar’s menu.

Anyway, in case you haven’t heard of Ko, it’s the most interesting of all of his restaurants, because you eat what the chef prepares for you (i.e., no menu to choose from).  And it’s an adventure even getting in the door, because there are only twelve seats and two sittings, which means on any given night, there are a maximum of 24 diners.  The only way you can get a reservation is by signing up for an account on his website and then logging on at 10am to see if there are any spots open.  I got lucky, as a few days ago, I was able to refresh the page like a coked-up monkey and snag somebody’s cancellation.

Dawn and I sat at the head of the table, so we had the good fortune to have the vantage point of the photo above, able to look at the entire kitchen and all the diners.  There was another couple sitting catty-corner from us, and they were Canadians on a visit, at Ko to celebrate her birthday.  The music was on the loud side, but we kinda liked it.  I especially liked it when they played Safety Dance, the 80’s Men Without Hats staple!

But you’re at Ko not to talk to people or listen to music.  You’re there to eat, and boy, eat we did.  There must’ve been about a dozen courses total, and the three chefs kept it all moving at the perfect pace.  Some dishes were just a bite, while others were more substantial, sort of like tapas.  My favorite of the night was the lobster tortellini with breaded sweetbread and some exotic mushroom that was sauteed and diced.  Dawn’s favorite was my second favorite, a succulent oyster and grilled pork belly with kimchi surrounded by a warm broth.  There was a lamb rib that was as hearty as a hug, and a dessert that featured what seemed like ground-up peanuts in the shape of blueberries.

Was it all that I’d expected?  Absolutely.  This was creative cuisine at its finest, and the only downside was the guilt I felt for eating it all so quickly.  These chefs spend hours preparing the meals, and they take surgical care assembling their dishes, and there I am, shoveling it down like I was going to the electric chair.

In the end, we were stuffed, but that didn’t stop us from modifying our route back home to stop at the Milk Bar, where I got the BBQ sauce ice cream and also picked up a dozen cookies, a truffle of cake, and an order of pork buns for breakfast.  Except this morning, neither of us is in shape to eat the buns because our stomachs are still full.  It’s like we went on a bender, which I suppose we did.  But man, I wouldn’t change a thing.  David Chang, thank you.