Wednesday, November 30, 2016

a trip to the tax office

I owe. I owe big. Last week, a multi-page tax document arrived at the office for me, and it declared that I owe Uncle Jang about W1.7 million (about $1500, US). Luckily, with my budget as strong as it is, I can absorb this hit and still forge ahead on schedule. So while it's a bad feeling to know I owe so much damn tax (the document apparently covers tax for more than one of my jobs, which makes me think that the people at my previous jobs didn't take care of my tax as they were supposed to), it's good to know I can absorb this hit with minimal damage. This is above the waterline.

The Gangnam Tax Office is located on the big, famous Teheran Street. As you might imagine, the building is essentially a giant, pulsating gizzard of bureaucracy, full of functionaries and grinding, soulless, paper-pushing activity. Stepping into the building was like stepping into the inner workings of a colossal machine. I felt puny.

Not knowing where I needed to go, I told the front-desk guy that I had come to pay my taxes; he pointed behind him, to a hallway with an elevator bank, and said, "Past the elevators." Sure enough, a huge sign on the wall said, in giant font, "TAX PAYMENTS." I found the door, went in, and stepped up to a bulletproof window. I showed the clerk my sheaf of papers and told her I had come to pay taxes. She looked over my documents, frowned, and said that I needed to wait for yet another document to arrive before I could pay: the documents I had were merely to inform me of what I owed; what I really needed was the gojiseo, i.e., the actual bill. But, the clerk added, if I wanted to talk with someone further about this, I could go to the sixth floor to meet Ms. Lee, whose name was on one page of my document pack.

So I went to the sixth floor, where I found myself in a maze of hallways, and tromped over to one promising office. Once inside, I asked the admin assistant—who had been busy texting before I showed up—where I could find Ms. Lee. She was kind enough to walk me over to the correct office (sea of cubicles again), and I found myself face to face with Ms. Lee herself. I began explaining my issue to Ms. Lee, who interrupted to exclaim how relieved she was that I could speak Korean. When I finished my explanation, Ms. Lee said the same thing that the first-floor clerk had said: I'd need to wait for the second document, the gojiseo (pronounce it "goh-jee-saw"), to arrive at my office. I thanked her, shrugged my coat back on, and lumbered out of the office; only later did I realize that I had neglected to ask how I'd have to pay the bill. Could I do it at a bank? Did I need to pay in person at the tax office? As my coworker said, the coming document will doubtless include payment instructions, so no sweat.

A bit of a wasted trip, this was, but still an interesting experience.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

President Park's speech

For those of you who haven't been following along with the South Korean presidential scandal, which may well end with the downfall of South Korea's current president, Park Geun-hye, I'd advise you to read the excellent Cliff's Notes version of the crisis as written up over at the blog Ask A Korean.

Start here.

Continue here.

End up here.

The TL;DR version of the scandal is something like this:

1. Someone found an abandoned iPad and, as s/he dug deeper into what was stored on it, discovered that President Park had deep connections with confidante Choi Soon-sil.

2. This revelation has led to further revelations about the spooky nature of the Park/Choi relationship, and also about a complex web of influence-peddling and other forms of dirty dealing. Choi, who had no right to be so close to the reins of power, appears to have exerted an undue amount of influence over Park. Choi had access to thousands of pages of confidential/classified information—thousands of pages per day. This is Hillary's Servergate times a hundred.

3. The public is extremely pissed off. Demonstrations—peaceful in comparison to the shameful post-election rioting in the United States—have been going on every weekend for weeks. Park has addressed the public twice before today's speech; she has seemed unwilling to resign, thus putting the people in a fouler and fouler mood. Some of us on Twitter are wondering how long this state of affairs can remain peaceful.

4. Park just gave a speech today; it was Trumpian in its vagueness, openness to interpretation, and probable tactical significance. Park seemed to concede that she might resign, but she has apparently left it in the hands of the National Assembly (South Korea's analogue to the UK Parliament or the US Congress) to decide her political fate. I'm reprinting her brief address in its entirety below. The English translation is awful—stilted and unnatural—so you'll just have to bear with it. Source here.

Dear respected citizens,

Once again, I apologize for causing you enormous troubles because of my wrongdoings.

As I see the citizens suffering heartache due to this issue, I think it is evident that I must apologize even hundreds of times.

But despite such efforts, all the disappointment and fury that I have caused you cannot be resolved and that wrenches my heart.

Citizens, as I recall the past 18 years that I spent with you, the time has been all the more thankful and precious.

From 1998, when I began politicking for my inauguration as the President and finally to this very moment, I have invested all my efforts in serving the country and citizens.

Not for a single moment have I ever pursued my own interest, nor even thought about it.

The series of events that have occurred now are a result of my pursuit of public benefit for the nation. And I did not take a single benefit during the process.

But I admit it was my huge fault that I have failed to manage my personal life and take care of people around me.

I will explain all the details about this political scandal in the near future.

Dear citizens, I have stayed up countless nights to come up with a right decision for the country and the people as the situation is getting worse for domestic and foreign affairs.

Now, I would like to express my decision here.

I will follow the National Assembly's decision about my course of resignation as the President, including cutting short my remaining term.

When the ruling and opposition parties propose a plan to transfer governing power in a way that can minimize any chaos and power vacuum in state affairs, I will resign from the presidency according to the rules and schedules proposed by the National Assembly.

Now, I have laid everything down. My only desire is for South Korea to break away from this chaotic state and return to its original course as soon as possible.

Once again, I would like to apologize to the citizens and plead that the political circle will combine their wisdom for the hopeful future of South Korea.

Since the speech is heavy by nature, I will explain further about the details in the near future. Any questions can be dealt with at that time.

Some see the above as a sign that Park will definitely resign. Others say the speech is "a final fuck-you," because now the National Assembly will be forced to bicker over how best to proceed, which means Park will likely end up serving out her final year in office with no resolution. If that's true, she will have held on to power until the end of her term.

Personally, I think Park should have had the good grace simply to declare her resignation and step down immediately. A snap election to choose a one-year replacement would have occurred; that's in doubt, now, as people digest Park's speech and mull over how to move forward. The public, meanwhile, will become ever more fractious once it senses that this speech is part of a ploy by Park to keep herself in power. And what happens once the demonstrators decide they will no longer tolerate this state of affairs?

Koreans really, really like coconut oil

As seen at the local Costco.

Monday, November 28, 2016

crunch time returns

At work, we're suddenly in a rush to proof two book manuscripts, so I'm once again busy. I spent this past Sunday in the office, and I'll be staying late this coming week as I proof the second manuscript (I just finished proofing the first one today). Work might bleed into the weekend. I've been keeping track of my comp hours; at this point, I have over 50, which will probably translate into several three-day weekends in a row. That'll be a nice change of pace. I might actually travel a bit. We'll see.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

home from work

Saturday evening. Tired.

Sunday brunch

Scrambled eggs, corn pudding, insalata mista, and choux rouge aux marrons. Very delicious, and strangely low-carb. Except maybe for the chestnuts. Oh, and the corn.

birthday cake

My buddy Jang-woong missed out. He had originally invited me over to his place on November 19, but his wife reminded him, at the last minute, that he had things to do that day, so an evening visit—plus a birthday celebration—wouldn't be possible. So JW lamely texted that we should "meet sometime before the end of the year." I had already bought JW a birthday cake from Hans, a high-end bakery up the street from where I work. It was a beautiful chocolate-ganache cake that I'd been staring at longingly every time I passed the bakery on my way to get lunch, so when I finally had an excuse to buy a cake, I went into the bakery and immediately pointed at that cake. The friendly lady boxed it up for me and advised me to store it in the fridge.

The cake has sat in my fridge since the 19th—more than a week. I was beginning to worry that it might be going bad inside its dainty box, so I took it out today and carved myself a slice.

My buddy Charles, upon hearing about my lovely cake, voiced some skepticism. Like me, he's aware that Korean bakery items often fall short of Western standards: Korean cakes, in particular, tend to lack the crucial ingredients that make cakes so enjoyable: eggs, butter, and sugar. Korean cakes are, as a result, generally dry as sawdust (so-called "roll cakes" are an infamous example, but pretty much any puffy Korean cake will illustrate this point quite well) and bereft of flavor.* My feeling, though, was that a cake from Hans would have to be better than the usual Korean fare: visually speaking, Hans's cakes have always been far more striking than their dowdier cousins at lower-end bakeries.

As it turned out, the chocolate ganache that coated the cake was superb. The cake itself—perhaps because it had sat for eight days in my fridge—was dry, crumbly, and fairly tasteless, which is highly disappointing. I'm at the office now, and I've left the cake out on a table to warm up, so perhaps it'll taste and feel different once I'm home. If not, then the only way to finish off the rest of the cake will be with cake-eating aids like ice cream.

Here's a before/after shot:

I'm not hopeful that the cake will be any better when I get home tonight. What I'd really love to do is peel off the ganache and just eat that, but that would be gauche.

*I can think of two major exceptions: (1) the Korean saeng-cream cake, when done well, is most excellent; this vanilla cake features a fresh-cream icing and is usually topped with a beautifully arranged assortment of thinly sliced fruits (strawberries, kiwis, etc.) and scattered berries, all covered in a clear jelly glaze (see here). (2) The Korean version of the cheesecake (which Charles has noted comes from Japan) is also excellent. In fact, I like this cheesecake far better than the too-heavy American version: Korean cheesecakes are light and a bit fluffy, but recognizably cheesecake-ish. Both of these types of cake are addictive, and bakeries that do them right get full marks, in my opinion.

Thanksgiving dinner: the blow-by-blow

This might be boring for most of you, but each of the moments captured below has its own little story to tell, so I'd like to tell all those little stories.

I noted that I'm a very slow cook, and that, had I really wanted to eat my Thanksgiving meal while it was still Thanksgiving here in Korea, I should have started prepping the previous day. But I didn't, so here we are.

When I take pictures with my phone's camera, the file name assigned to each picture includes a series of digits representing both the date and the exact time, down to the second. So a photo with the file name "20161124_191024" was taken on November 24, 2016, at 7:10:24PM. I'll be referring to those file names throughout this post—but in plain English, simply by noting the time a given photo had been taken (I doubt I'll be so anal-retentive as to list the exact second). This will give you some idea of what I was doing when, and how I prioritized the various stages of what turned out to be a pretty ambitious culinary project.

All in all, the project bore tasty fruit. Despite tasting fantastic, the turducken can't be classified as a success, but I learned a lot while making it. I'll be talking about the things I learned as well, if you're not too bored by this little scrollshow of mine (can't call it a "slideshow," given there are only photos on a scrolling "surface" made of photons).

So if you're still with me after the above intro, please enjoy the following words and images.

L'aventure commence

It was only this week that I conceived the idea of making my own Thanksgiving dinner. The boss had belatedly floated the prospect of going out for a Thanksgiving lunch, but my coworker said he'd already made plans with his girlfriend to hit a place in Itaewon for a full-on Thanksgiving dinner. He didn't want to stuff himself before that time, so he wasn't keen on a company lunch. To be honest, neither was I. I'm an introvert, and as much as I like my boss, I see our relationship as fundamentally professional, not buddy-buddy. Thanksgiving is therefore either family time or me time. With no nearby American relatives with whom to appreciate Turkey Day, I opted for me time.

This meant writing up a list and buying a ton of food—this after having just bought a ton of food for the recent gathering at my place. I may be spending over my budget, but hell—it's the end of a wild year. I visited Haddon Supermarket and High Street Market; I avoided a trip to Costco, but did a lot of shopping at my building's grocery store and at the larger grocery in the building where I work. The concept of a mini-turducken crystallized while I was shopping; I found all the meats I needed at my building's grocery, but the chicken wasn't in deli-style slices: what I purchased was, instead, a single pre-cooked breast in a figure-hugging plastic package, marinating in some sort of liquid, with a sprig of rosemary gilding one side. I've seen these breasts sold at various convenience stores and had previously passed them over as shite meat, but some intuition made me graviate toward them this time, and as it turned out, the meat was just fine.

All the shopping was strenuous enough to make me put off meal prep until Turkey Day itself; my shopping list underwent several changes during the countdown to Thanksgiving. One major disappointment was that High Street had run out of peas, which I had been counting on as a staple for a standard Hominid Family meal (we always have peas at Thanksgiving: it's those other folks—the ones we don't talk to—who do green beans). I mentally switched from peas to broccoli, which I had seen on a shelf in my building's grocery. Alas, when I went down there for one final spree, there was no broccoli to be had. There were, however, heads of red cabbage and packages of shelled chestnuts, so I grabbed those and, following an utterly random impulse, I grabbed a dragonfruit that seemed to be whispering my name.

The shopping done—and that was the extent of my prep—I worked until 6:30PM on Thursday, then got home around 7 and started cooking.

Une série de priorités

What to tackle first? I decided to peek at my chicken, work on making some gravy (much depended on having stock ready), then do a French side dish.

7:10PM: I check my slow-cooking chicken (see pic below). I had bought a five-dollar package of cut-up chicken parts; they were meaty, but I could see they were also bony, and since I wanted to make stock, I went to my apartment during my lunch hour, dumped the frozen chicken into my crock pot along with some leftover chili peppers and a mirepoix, plus some salt and pepper.

By the time I got home, we had achieved stockitude:

7:17PM: I've started making gravy by scooping out some stock, adding a tiny bit of powdered Korean bouillon and some cornstarch, then cooking until the mixture thickened nicely. The gravy was smooth and tasted quite chickeny, which is what I was looking for.


I had originally wanted gravy to put on my mashed potatoes, but I eventually decided against mashed potatoes in favor of Hasselbacks. We'll get to those in a bit.

Below: it's 7:29PM, and I'm turning my attention to my homage to France: choux rouge aux marrons, i.e., red cabbage with chestnuts. There's no shortage of chestnuts in Korea, and while the shelled nuts are more expensive than the regular ones, I'm happy to pay extra for the convenience of not having to waste time doing an imperfect job of shelling those bad boys. This dish is one that my French Maman made years and years ago; I loved it the first time I ate it, mainly because of what the cooking process does to the chestnuts. My version is a severely stripped-down travesty of what Maman made; the real recipe has loads of ingredients and requires far more loving attention to detail than I could spare. I tried to hit the main points, though: the broth in which you cook the cabbage and chestnuts ought to be savory; since I had chicken stock on hand, that's what I used. Also, the addition of some sort of fruit that goes with the cabbage/chestnut flavor profile is always welcome; when I did this last time, I used persimmons, which were amazing; this time, I was more conventional and threw in some leftover apples that I had diced and mixed up to be a pie filling. Didn't even bother to rinse off the filling: I simply glopped the apples into the pot; the sweet apple-pie filling dissolved into the larger savory mixture and added a new layer of flavor. It smelled great.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here are the main raw ingredients:

It's 7:35PM, and here's a shot of the choux and marrons in purgatory:

At 7:45PM, I take a shot of the small potatoes that will play the role of Hasselbacks this evening. I've got my skewers ready; the object of the game is to cut the potatoes almost all the way through, thus forming slots or pockets that will hold plain butter plus a drizzled mixture of butter, olive oil, garlic, and parsley.

Here we are, right before the cutting begins:

8:01PM: the cabbage is done and ready to be taken off the heat and (eventually) drained:

8:21PM: Hasselbacks are now prepped and ready for the oven. Some potatoes have been cut too deeply to stay "shut," so I'm using a muffin tin to hold everything closed. It's a gamble because, now that the potatoes are all sitting at an angle, the butter, when it melts, will run in the direction of gravity and not cover the taters evenly. I've tried to anticipate this by coating as much of the potatoes' surfaces as possible with the butter-oil mixture:

At this point, with the Hasselbacks baking, I've turned my attention, finally, to making the stuffing. When I went to High Street Market earlier in the week to buy my Western components, I had hoped the store would have American breakfast sausage in stock. It didn't, so I looked through what the store did have and saw English bangers, which I know about mainly thanks to JK Rowling's descriptions of them in the Harry Potter novels.

I'm not really sure whether High Street's bangers are authentic: in the package, they look suspiciously regular, like American hot dogs. They also seem thinner than the bangers I'd eaten at a pub in the Pacific Northwest while on my long walk in 2008 (see for yourself, and here's my own pic from 2008).

At any rate, these High Street bangers smelled and tasted very sage-y, as if they were very close cousins of American breakfast sausage. Here's a pic, at 9:04PM, of the stuffing ingredients, partially assembled:

You might be asking yourself what the hell I was doing between 8:21PM and 9:04PM. Meditating? Being lost in a sudden fugue state? Fighting crime? Well, part of that time was probably spent doing dishes. Clean as you go, as all the good chefs say. I was also (1) starting to work on steamed carrot strips and (2) assembling the ingredients for cream-corn pudding, which would turn out to be an ambitious undertaking.

Here's what I consider the most beautiful (despite being out of focus) image in this whole damn presentation: stove-top stuffing in the process of coming together. I especially love the green highlights from the celery, which provided the brightest flavor. The sage added a more subtle note, and the onion undergirded everything with its natural umami.

Stuffing under construction (9:15PM):

Stuffing ingredients, near as I can remember them:

• sausage (bangers)
• celery (leaves + minced stalks)
• dried onion (had run out of fresh)
• raisins
• apples (same source as for the choux)
• mushrooms (Korean variety pack, which included pyogo, i.e., shiitake)
• chicken broth, added gradually to moisten & prevent burning
• salt, pepper
• extra sage
• pizza-style chili flakes
• panko crumbs

I thought the stuffing turned out great. When I brought leftovers into the office on Friday, my coworker raved about both the stuffing and the Hasselback potatoes. By the time he got to the corn pudding, however, he had eaten so much that he described trying to work his way through the pudding as "a chore," which is not something that any cook wants to hear. But I understood my coworker to be paying me a backhanded compliment by admitting he had gorged himself on my victuals.

Another shot of the stuffing (9:23PM), now all panko'ed up:

I imagine that there are purists who turn their noses up at the thought of using panko as the bread component, but my response is: why knock a good thing? Panko crumbs are already dry; because they're finer than homemade or store-bought croutons, they mix better into any stuffing and create almost the same consistency. If anything, panko stuffing is smoother in texture given the fine-grained nature of panko crumbs.

All the work I've done so far is mere buildup to the main event, which is when I fry up my turduckens. Just a few more things to get out of the way—like this salad, for instance:

That was 9:33PM. I can't take credit for the salad: the veggies were store-bought, as was the balsamic dressing. All I did was flop some leaves into a bowl, drizzle on some dressing, toss the foliage, and voilà. Not much to it at all.

Next up: a closer look at cream-corn pudding in the making! I got this recipe from the humorous but weirdly sing-songy Chef John at the YouTube channel Food Wishes. Here's his video on how to make corn pudding.

And here are most of the pudding ingredients (9:56PM), ready to be blitzed :

Below, my carrot strips at 10:59PM:

I guess the one-hour jump was caused by a need to do more dishes (lots more dishes), take a break, and figure out the rest of my cooking strategy. At 11:20PM, I took the following shot of the dragonfruit, which I'd saved until much later to prep because I knew the prep would take only a few seconds.

Dragonfruit comes from Southeast Asia. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at, but disappointingly, it has almost no distinct taste at all. A while back, I'd eaten some dragonfruit candy, which misled me to believe that dragonfruit itself would be sweet and succulent. Alas, it turns out to be one of the most boring fruits on the planet, but I will say this: it seems to tilt ever so slightly away from sweetness and toward savoriness, which makes me think that, if you salted it and otherwise jazzed it up, it might actually turn into something interesting. I'll have to look up a few recipes that incorporate dragonfruit. Such research could prove... fruitful.

Da fruit, which reminds me of an enlarged human heart:

And this is what it looks like when you lop off one end (11:23PM):

And here's the final prep. The grayish/whitish flesh is easy to scrape out with a spoon, and while dragonfruit lacks any distinctive taste, it's got a nice texture. I'd be tempted to make some sort of sweet sauce or jam out of it, but I'd have to jazz it up pretty radically. If nothing else, I now know a lot more about dragonfruit. This was educational.

Fruit: prepped. It's 11:26PM. I had hoped to be eating by 10.

And now: the main event: TURDUCKENS. Below (11:40PM), you see the dredging station I've set up (the classic "dry-wet-dry" method of flour, egg, and breading), along with a whole chicken breast that will be sliced thinly and wrapped in turkey and duck. Behold:

We interrupt this turduckening to show you footage of the corn pudding, which is now out of the oven at around 11:49PM:

Below: the filling and wrapping begin (11:55PM). Barely visible as the bottom layer is a thin, circular sheet of Vietnamese "rice paper" spring-roll skin. This is the subtle element that will, like the Force, surround and bind and the turducken's various elements, keeping everything from exploding in the oil. My buddy Mike saw my pics of the duck and wondered aloud, on Twitter, what part of the duck this was; I'm pretty sure that what you're seeing is a smashed-up amalgam of duck parts, with plenty of the much-coveted duck fat:

Below: filling completed (11:59PM). Stuffing, cheese, and cranberry sauce have all been added; the object of the game is to produce a confection that's crunchy on the outside, then meaty, then stuffing-y, then molten and sweet on the inside—a rapid-fire tour through several layers of taste and texture. Alas, the roll you see wasn't a success: that's way too much filling, which I discovered to my chagrin not two minutes after having taken that photo. I re-rolled later on with half the stuffing and meat, and two-thirds of the cheese (leftover Edam, in case you're curious), and that proved to be just the right amount.

Here are the nicely rolled successes (12:21AM—after midnight now!):

The above rolls each took several minutes to make, so time ticked by as I worked. This is definitely the sort of prep that it would behoove me to do well in advance of Turkey Day, should I ever decide to try this stunt again.

Below—the horrorshow at 12:36AM. The turduckens ended up overcooked, and probably still cool in the middle because the oil was way too hot (I didn't have a thermometer), which made for a super-short cooking time. Sad. I had to finish these in the microwave to ensure that the cheese had melted. But this was a learning experience, and overcooked isn't the same as out-and-out burned, so the results weren't completely tragic. The mini-turduckens actually tasted great. As a proof of concept, I think the concept succeeded. It just needs tweaking. (And this is, by the way, why you should NEVER experiment on your friends and family members! I'm glad I did this while alone. In a social situation, this would have been a disaster. As it was, I was alone, so I could laugh at my own mistakes.)

Le repas en son entier:

And here at last, at 12:56AM on Black Friday, is a shot of the full meal. It doesn't look like much; it certainly doesn't look like something that took seven hours to prep. I'm sure I could have eaten much earlier had I prepped more on Wednesday, but it was not to be.

I placed inside the white bowl everything that was reheatable via microwave; all of the food had cooled by the time I was ready to settle down for a Black Friday meal. I wish the darker food had come out looking brighter than it does in the photo below, but until I get a better camera and better lighting, this is the best I can manage.

Et voilà (click image, then right-click on enlargement, then "open image in new tab"):

Turducken lessons learned:

1. Be modest when adding the filling. Leave at least a one-inch margin around all edges.

2. Use regular flour egg-roll skins or mandu skins next time. Panko overcooks too easily, overshooting the golden-brown state within 60 seconds. The other problem is that Vietnamese rice-paper spring-roll skins instantly become sticky and gooey when they hit the oil, which is why several turduckens ended up fusing themselves to my metal slotted spoon when I lowered them into the oil, forcing me to shake them off.

3. Buy a thermometer to monitor oil temperature. I used to have one when I lived in the States, but I gave that away, along with most of my other kitchen equipment, which I now think may have been a mistake. Since coming to Korea, I've basically had to build myself back up again, often with inferior kitchen tools and appliances. (Sturdy, American-style equipment can be found in Korea, but it's expensive. Way expensive.)

4. The basic concept is sound. Just work on execution.

And my final shot is an afterthought: the beverage. Of course, it can only be Australia's finest: Bundaberg ginger beer. A wonderful accompaniment to what was, overall, a very tasty meal. The turduckens tasted fine, but were overcooked; however, the stuffing was perfect; the choux was almost like what Maman had made; the Hasselback potatoes and the carrot strips were both delicious; the corn pudding was addictive; the salad was fresh and tasty; the cranberry sauce was just what the doctor ordered. Thumbs up, all in all.


So it was a fun, if laborious, Thanksgiving, which bled over into Black Friday. And as consumerist Americans spent Black Friday killing each other in bloody race wars over flat-screen TVs, I sat in my office and digested my meal with peace in my heart and a smile on my face while my boss and coworker chowed down on leftovers, which received raves—from my coworker, anyway: my boss tends to be stingy with praise when it comes to food, although he also shows his appreciation by actually eating a lot of my cooking.

And there we are. I do hope your Thanksgiving was good and meaningful. Thanks for accompanying me on this educational culinary journey.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

the best of times, the worst of times

I'm back from spending all day at the KMA offices in Yeouido, downtown Seoul, and I'm still not sure whether to describe today as one of the best or one of the worst KMA sessions I've ever had. I taught only one student, and that always sucks: when there's a single student, you have to put more effort into energizing the class. If there are twenty people in the room, a little humor can go a long way; you can coast a bit because the students feed off each other's energy. With one person in front of you, you must always bring your "A" game.

Normally, KMA cancels my classes if registration numbers are below three students. This happens about every other month. This time around, about a week before today's session, I got a text message saying that I'd be teaching a single student for reduced hourly pay. Cue the grumbling: spending eight hours doing the same thing I generally do, but for less pay, is always irksome. I nevertheless texted back that I'd be fine: some money is better than none, after all, despite the 15% cut.

My student arrived a full hour late, having come to Seoul from way out in Daejeon. I gave him a sour look, but he seemed too clueless to notice. I resigned myself to blasting through the day's curriculum by skipping plenty of sections, and I also noticed that my charge's level of English was much lower than that of the students I normally teach at KMA (high-intermediate to advanced). So the class started on a somewhat sour note, given that I had spent an hour essentially picking my nose over and over before my student arrived.

The course is called Persuading With Evidence, and it's basically an online-research seminar that teaches students how to wean themselves away from Naver (Koreans' preferred search engine) and get into Google. As much as possible, I've designed the course not to be a mere ad for Google; I've woven the research-skills component together with a cognitive component based on Bloom's Taxonomy, a cognitive map that offers a simplified hierarchy of cognition. I've found the taxonomy to be extremely useful as a teacher, and it's still in use today despite having been developed by Benjamin Bloom and his team back in, oh, the 1950s or so. For me, the point is to get students to do more than fact-find with Google: they should be processing the data they unearth, applying it to new situations, analyzing it deeply, and establishing creative connections between and among seemingly unrelated pieces of information.

Luckily, my student had some research needs: he's a doctoral student in the field of forestry science (yes, the phrase does seem to exist), and he's also getting married sometime soon.* This meant that we could spend time going over the ins and outs of academic research in English as well as doing some actual research on where a newlywed couple might want to enjoy a blissful honeymoon.

I liked the fact that my student—we'll call him Josh—seemed so willing to learn. I did not, however, like the fact that we were both speaking so much Korean. This was supposed to be an English class, after all, so speaking in Korean kind of defeated the purpose of coming to KMA. I did try several times to force us back onto the anglophone track, but with only middling success. This was not my proudest moment.

Josh claimed he had been an English teacher, but given how poor his English was, I had to take that claim with a big grain of salt. He also needed help understanding how Western grad students approach research, so we spent a lot of time talking about how grad students often have to wrestle with a text before they can be said to have mastered it. I talked about my own experience reading dense philosophical treatises,** and about the necessity of going word-by-word, if necessary, to make sure I had fully understood a point. To make Josh comfortable, I told him that, to understand long, densely written sentences, he could fall back on that old Korean standby: grammatical analysis. Figure out the parts of a sentence and how they interrelate, and you can figure out the sentence's meaning that much more easily.

We ended up having fun as we researched possible honeymoon destinations. Josh seemed to get more and more fluent with Google as the hours marched on. He said he'd obviously have to discuss all this with his fiancée, but he had narrowed his honeymoon spots down to Switzerland, Hawaii, and the Maldives. I gently promoted Switzerland, mainly because I spent nearly a whole calendar year there, and also because I've never been to the Maldives, and my memories of Hawaii date back to my pre-teen years. We concentrated a lot of our research on major Swiss cities, although I did put in a mention for two smaller cities: Fribourg, where I had lived with a Swiss host family for a year; and Interlaken, which is small but immensely popular as tourist destinations go. (Read my long post on Switzerland here.)

Josh thinks that, if he and his soon-to-be wife do their honeymoon in Switzerland, they'll be there next April. I told Josh I envied him because, in early-to-mid spring, the immense ice-melt runoff from the mountaintops beefs up Switzerland's many waterfalls to hypertrophic proportions, making them all as earth-poundingly thunderous as agitated gods. (Switzerland is the source for many of Europe's major rivers, largely thanks to its mountains, which include the Alps and the Berner Oberland. Although the country is landlocked in the middle of Europe, it knows water. Oh, yes.)

By the end of the day, Josh was raving about how great the class had been, and he even became the first KMA student ever to ask me for my phone number—something no other student has ever had the cojones to do.*** He and I are now Kakao Talk buddies, and even though he lives in Daejeon, he wants to invite me out for a hike sometime, somewhere. Will anything actually come of this? I have no clue. I've experienced Korean "friendships" that began with good intentions, but which then fizzled, so it wouldn't surprise me if nothing came of this (partly because of my own introversion as well, to be honest).

As for me, I ended the day with mixed feelings. Josh turned out to be an eager learner, but his poor English skills, his late arrival, and his over-reliance on Korean (partly abetted by my willingness to speak Korean with him) were not points in his favor. I dread the moment he fills out my teacher evaluation and notes "teacher was great because he spoke Korean so well!" That's going to piss off my KMA boss.

So I ended the class unsure of whether this had been one of my best KMA days, or one of my worst. And that's how life is sometimes: you just can't make heads or tails of it.

*He showed me pictures of his wife, whose numerous photos must take up about 80% of his phone's memory. And let me say: she's way, way too incredibly good-looking for him.

**I didn't say whose treatises I was talking about, but had I mentioned them, I might have cited people like Jaegwon Kim (philosophy of mind) and Bernard Lonergan (transcendental method as applied to theology), or even old-school thinkers like Aquinas, Kant, Hume, Plato-in-translation, and of course, all those goddamn postmodernists.

***A few students have asked for my email address, but since Koreans aren't in the habit of using email, this was more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. That fact has been borne out over time, as not one of the students who requested my email address has ever written me.


I don't have time for a long post, but I saw the news on Twitter that Fidel Castro has died. The only thought I can muster is: fuckin' FINALLY.

Hoist a glass in his honor as he trundles down the mine shaft into hell. Or don't. We can only hope that the Cuban people will benefit from this man's demise. In the end, it wasn't any world leader who took Castro down: it was ol' Father Time.


I'm working at KMA all day today, so here's a recolored tree leaf to distract you. As I've joked elsewhere, I could scan this leaf,  print a tee-shirt design, and convince people this was a marijuana leaf.

Expect a Thanksgiving recap later tonight.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Penny stands guard

Another pic of my brother's faithful hound:

the slow cook

Watch this space, as I have a ton of photos to upload. Or, if you want to see the photos now, go visit my Twitter feed, and you'll see all of them there. Remember that, as with regular blogging, Twitter's "tweets" (the microblogging equivalent of blog posts) are arranged with the most recent at the top of the queue, so to start my Thanksgiving story from the beginning, you'll need to scroll down my Twitter timeline to where I began talking about "live-tweeting" my Thanksgiving meal preparations. (You can also see my tweets right here by looking at my blog's right-hand sidebar, where there's a Twitter feed.)

The meal took me seven hours to prep, but it was fun, and it was worth it. I think I learned a few lessons along the way (including Never live-tweet again!); I'm now better at handling Vietnamese rice-paper rolls, for one thing. My mini-turducken tasted great, but I need to work on technique and presentation. It was a brave first try; everything else came out fantastic: the stuffing is to die for; the corn pudding is addictive; the steamed carrots are tasty; the Hasselback potatoes are more delicious than they have any right to be; the choux aux marrons is even better than when I made it last time; the cranberry sauce is a thing of beauty.

Photos coming.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

cranberry sauce

Homemade cranberry sauce!

Take a small box of frozen cranberries; dump them into a pot of boiling water. Add sugar. Boil on high until the berries begin to split. Reduce to medium-high; keep boiling. Boil until the pectin in the berries begins to thicken the whole thing into sauce. Add citrus toward the end—lemon juice, lime juice, or—as I did—orange juice. Thickening will continue when you turn off the heat and allow sauce to cool to room temperature. Voilà—cranberry sauce. Easy.

If you prefer the jellied version that comes in a can, I suppose you can strain out the berries and seeds (are those seeds?), then let the remaining liquid cool down until it stops boiling, at which point you can add a sheet or two of gelatine. Stir the gelatine in until thoroughly mixed, then pour the liquid into a half-pipe-shaped container to cool further. Stick in fridge; allow liquid to harden into that familiar jellied shape. Pop out of container at serving time, slice, and serve. Voilà—easy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

dinner for one

Hey, it's Thanksgiving week! Don't wag that finger!

election 2016: one further thought

There were two things I've said with assurance for years, two axioms that I was always repeating, but which I somehow managed to forget over the course of the past year or so.

1. Hillary Clinton will never gain the presidency because of her "baggage."

2. Elections are always pendular.

I'm kicking myself, now, for not having listened to the Kevin of Christmases Past. The notion that Hillary has baggage has proven truer than ever this time around. Granted, it took some immense dumping from WikiLeaks and some persuader-speak from the Donald (all that "Crooked Hillary" rhetoric) to get this baggage to have impact, but the fact remains that the baggage was there all along. How did I forget this?

The pendular nature of elections is also something I've blogged about before. When George W. Bush won, I pissed off some liberal commenters by noting, like a Taoist talking about the world's cycles, that his arrival on the scene was inevitable and predictable, but that the haters couldn't or wouldn't see it coming. A few days ago, a YouTube clip of Bill Burr's podcast went up, and while I don't agree with everything Burr said, he too noted the cyclical nature of elections: Trump is the outgrowth of eight years of Barack Obama; Obama was the outgrowth of eight years of Bush; Bush was the outgrowth of eight years of Clinton; Clinton was the outgrowth of twelve years of Reagan + GHW Bush. Eight years, twelve years—it doesn't matter. At some point, the popular mandate will end, so sometime within a decade, we'll most likely be back to Democrat rule, having collectively gotten sick of the status quo.

One question that comes from this election, however, is whether paradigms have shifted to such an extent that predictions, like mine above, are invalidated. If we grant (1) Scott Adams's claim that Trump is a "Master Persuader," and (2) various pundits' contentions that Trump is the first truly plugged-in internet president,* and (3) the increasingly prevalent notion that we're now in the age of nationalism versus globalism as opposed to the old left/right, lib/con dichotomies, then perhaps 2016 signals the beginning of the Era of Anything Goes.

I still have no clear read on how deeply the old paradigms have been sundered. Then again, as my blogging over the past year should make obvious, I'm not the right thinker to analyze and judge any of this. All I can do is observe, speculate, and get a lot of things wrong. Meanwhile, I'll continue my new policy of ignoring mainstream "legacy" media (which seems not to have learned its lesson and is continuing in the same vein as if a table-tossing election hadn't just occurred) in favor of more ragtag, feet-on-the-ground sources. Oh, and I'll start listening to the wisdom of my younger self again.

*Trump's recent two-and-a-half-minute video about his plans for the first hundred days—I actually sat through the whole thing—bypassed the legacy media and went straight to YouTube, thus evoking Rooseveltian "fireside chats" and boding ill for press conferences, especially given Trump's already-fraught relationship with the press.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

what's fer Thanksgiving?

I'll probably be celebrating a quiet Thanksgiving alone this coming Thursday. I did, however, have this wild notion of creating my own miniature version of a fried turducken: take sliced turkey, chicken, and duck (our grocery sells thinly sliced duck), roll the meat around a cylinder of stuffing that has cranberry sauce and maybe a mild cheese at its center, dredge the cigar-shaped delight in flour, then dip it in egg, then roll/pané it in panko crumbs, then deep-fry the motherfucker to make egg-roll-ish, croquette-like turduckens. Serve with Thanksgiving accompaniments like peas, corn, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

The only problem is that I hate deep-frying anything because of the heavy, unpleasant smell of grease that lingers even if you aerate the place. But it may be worth it: after all, Thanksgiving comes but once a year. Next step: buy the rest of the ingredients I'll need for stuffing, make the stuffing, make the cranberry sauce (High Street ran out of canned sauce, so I bought actual cranberries since I know how to make the sauce myself), and prep all the sides.

Expect photos if this works out.

my bro and his dawg

David with his faithful hound Penny.

And consistent with the dog theme, here's a cute video from music group OK GO, featuring trained dogs doing a series of painstakingly choreographed movements—all in a single take.

Monday, November 21, 2016

a beast of a feast

So we had our post-election party yesterday. Three friends ended up coming over: Tom, Charles, and Patrick. Tom and Patrick showed off their chrome domes (you'll see a photo below); everyone took a walk around and admired the Trumpian decor, which was all in the spirit of good, satirical fun. The guys attacked my cheese plate (a cheese tray or cheese board, really), and I was surprised to discover how popular the chèvre was; I would never have guessed. Almost no one went for the salmon mousse; I can't blame my guests: the mousse was heavy on capers, and the salmon, which I had purchased frozen, was a bit dicey, anyway. I ended up throwing the mousse away.

There's a story behind the bread. I had held off on getting baguettes until the very day of the party mainly because, once sliced into crostini-sized pieces, the bread would either dry quickly or become rubbery overnight. So at about noon on Sunday, I went down to my apartment building's lobby, where a branch of the dreaded Paris Baguette chain is located. I'm not a fan of this chain's baguettes, but (1) the convenience of having a bakery in your building can't be denied, and (2) although the baguettes would be sub-par, they would serve tolerably well as conveyances for butter, cheese, and salmon mousse.

I went into the bakery, making a beeline for the baguette section. There was nothing there but those annoyingly altered baguettes—the ones done up with butter, garlic, herbs, and that ever-present sheen of sugar. "Are there no regular baguettes?" I asked one guy. He looked across the room to the counter girls: "Hey, are we getting any regular baguettes?" One girl called back, looking at me, "We ran out, but there'll be more after 3 o'clock." I grimaced, nodded, and left. I then puttered around my place, finalizing prep for my 4:30PM arrivals, just whiling away the hours. When 3:05 rolled around, I went back down... and no baguettes.

"Are there no regular baguettes?" I asked again, this time to what appeared to be a wholly different set of staffers. A guy answered with assurance: "No, we ran out a while ago—" I was there for that when it happened around noon—"so we're all out and aren't making any more."

"But the lady had said there'd be baguettes after 3," I said. Abashed looks, no response. I once again grimaced, nodded, and left. How could Paris Baguette not have any baguettes?

Feeling thoroughly fucked by a bakery chain that I don't even like, I took a taxi over to the Daechi neighborhood, close to where I work. I had recently discovered a much better bakery in that area, so I directed the taxi driver to drop me off at that establishment's corner. I went in, saw the place had baguettes, grabbed three, and waited while a lady sawed the bread into pieces with a mean-looking serrated knife. Baguette-slicing is normally done by machine; I appreciated this bakery's old-school approach to bread torture. With three bags' worth of sliced bread now in hand, I rushed back to my place and finished prep in time to receive my guests. Charles arrived first, followed by Tom and Patrick. And then the madness ensued.

Surprisingly, there wasn't nearly as much beer-and-baseball talk as had happened on previous occasions. Tom brought more than the requisite amount of tastelessness to dinner conversation, and then he had the brilliant notion of going on YouTube and queuing up the "squeal like a pig" rape scene involving plump Ned Beatty in the 70s classic thriller "Deliverance." Many inside jokes were tossed about, and in the end, almost everyone disdained the nacho/taco-salad option in favor of loading up on chili dogs. I belatedly realized that I had forgotten to break out the guacamole, but that didn't seem to matter, and Patrick was kind enough to taste the guac when I did finally bring it out. "It's got a kick to it," he remarked, noting the tons of chili peppers that I had added to the avocado purée. My overall impression of the evening was that gullets had been royally stuffed, spirits universally lifted, and toilets eventually frightened into submission.

What follows are some food pics, a pic of Charles's intrusive crotch and hands, and a pic of the three guys, two of whom are cancer-patient bald (never did find out why). Some explanations will accompany the images. Enjoy.

First up: no one is paying me to shill for these, but if you're in Korea and looking for a reliably American-style brand of Korean hot dog, I highly, highly recommend No Brand "grill franks." As you can see in the picture below, each individual frank costs less than W1,000—about 85 cents, US. That's fairly reasonable by Korean standards. These franks respond well to microwaving and to boiling; yesterday, I boiled my dogs for five hours before we set about slaughtering them.

No Brand grill franks:

Next up: vulgarly shaped balloons reminiscent of a dick and scrote. The scrote-like balloons are actually supposed to be heart balloons, but come on—just look at them in the package! The dick balloons' final shape is laid out as a yellow silhouette on the packaging—see it?


Below, a first attempt at the dick-and-balls scenario. I ended up hanging this up, and Charles remarked that the dick looked remarkably like a duck's penis.

Orange, in honor of our president-elect's unique coloration:

Below: six of the seven cheeses I ended up serving. Not pictured: bleu. The Gruyère ended up sucking; I can see why people stayed away from it. I ended up throwing that piece of cheese away, too.

Six cheeses (plus one not pictured) for the cheese board:

Making a cheese plate is common sense, not rocket science. That said, I had a little help in mapping out the problem from a French guy named Laurent, who once gave a lecture on cheese-making at Sookmyung Women's University, back when I was a prof there (2005-08). Basically, you can map most cheeses onto quadrants defined by an X-Y axis, one axis being hard/soft, and the other being mild/sharp. You may not agree with how I've mapped my cheeses below, but I thought the arrangement worked out well.

You will, of course, hear finger-wagging admonitions like "never use the same knife to slice different cheeses because you don't want bacteria-sharing" or "ideally, cheese should always be served at room temperature." It's not that these pearls of wisdom are untrue, but they do represent the American fetishization of European culture: in reality, most regular, middle-class French families don't give a damn about the cheese's temperature when served, and they also use the same knife when slicing and serving different cheeses. It's Americans who have taken these French conventions and exaggerated their significance to the point of being precious and pretentious. Much the same is true with American attitudes toward wine: Europeans tend to be relaxed and blasé about wine because it's as common a drink, on the Continent, as Coca Cola is in North America; meanwhile, Americans will obsess far more over vintage, terroir, and other factors. Ridiculous.

That said, I did have seven cheese knives on the cheese board, and I made sure to serve the cheeses at room temperature. Make of that what you will.

Cheese map:

Below: a picture of the relabeled bottle of store-bought salsa, which I re-spun as "salsa for pussies" because it was mild, as opposed to my smoky salsa, which was significantly hotter. The label wraps all the way around the bottle, and there are plenty more bits of text and imagery to look at. The Spanish across the top says, "Salsa for small dicks." Across the bottom, the English says, "Salsa for pussies—grab it!" Ethnically offensive chili peppers flank Trump's face. Off to the right, which you can't see below, the text reads:

Since 1886, the Drumpf family has made its Salsa Para Las Pollas Pequeñas by using only the freshest horsemeat and the tastiest prostitutes in a combinatory process that produces the Drumpf family's trademark "whore's meat," which has a mild, smooth flavor and alluring aroma.

Off to the left is a picture of an angry old woman giving the finger, along with the caption: "Comes with a Lifetime Guarantee from Grandma Drumpf herself!"

Mild salsa:

Dick-and-balls balloons with white pubes:

Click to enlarge (then right-click & "open image in new tab" for full size):

Ribbons, posters, and the kitchenette:

Donald Trump guards my horrifying bathroom, plus some Bundaberg ginger beer and bitters (NB: the basin was eventually filled with bottles of Bundaberg, which only I drank):

Click to enlarge (then right-click & "open image in new tab" for full size):

Click to enlarge (then right-click & "open image in new tab" for full size):

Not very well Photoshopped, but amusing all the same: Trump as Jaws:

Click to enlarge (then right-click & "open image in new tab" for full size):

Some Bundaberg ginger beer and lemon-lime bitters:

Above my washer:

Trump, looking like windblown Boris Johnson:

Charles and his crotch stand guard by the food:

A horrifying shot of dogs boiling. Also—chili in a double-boiler/chafing-dish setup:

A word about the chili pic below: no, the chili isn't burned; that's just an artifact of the lighting. As you saw in the previous photo, I had set up a double boiler, so the chili pot was being subjected to a "wet heat," not to direct heat from the gas range's burner. (And no, that's not a pool of grease: it's just water, which was easy to stir back into the chili.)

Chili, which was pretty damn good:

And now, the shot you've been waiting for! The Three Horsemen: Bald Patrick, Bald Tom, and Charles. Listening to Patrick and Tom bicker over small matters is like listening to a married couple's constant carping. (Apologies for blurriness.)

Charles's skeletal hand laying out little slices of homemade candied ginger on top of his homemade gingerbread cake with homemade icing:

Charles's skeletal hand sinks its fell scythe deep into the hapless cake's soul, claiming the confection for all eternity and proclaiming it off-limits to mortal men:

The outside of my door:

Click to enlarge (then right-click & "open image in new tab" for full size):

Bread and salmon, pretty much uneaten:

We managed to finish almost all of the chili that I'd prepped (there was another whole container of it in the fridge). I had given the diners two options for the main course: chili dogs or nachos/taco salad. The unanimous vote was for chili dogs, a fact that I will file away and keep for future reference, just as I'll keep my guests' strange preference for chèvre in mind, should I ever do another cheese board.

Today at the office, I took a ton of leftovers to work to share with my boss and coworker, and they chose exactly the same way, disdaining the nacho option in favor of concentrating on chili dogs. Who knew chili dogs would have such a strong appeal? I didn't... but I do now.

ADDENDUM: Oh, by the way, Trump did get some mention during dinner, but not all that much. I think the grim consensus was that we just need to forge ahead and deal with the new reality. One of our number voiced the opinion that Hillary was a criminal who ought to be in jail. This was met with silence, but I quietly agreed.