Friday, December 02, 2005

last night's weird adventure-- and today's

[NB: I began writing this post yesterday but had to leave off. Some events from today have been added, and the post's title reflects this.]

I was running late yesterday evening, and had to get to Hannam Market to buy the next wave of supplies for my jjong-p'a-t'i (end-of-semester shindig with students). A taxi ride to Hannam Market ended in confusion as the driver took me somewhere way the fuck across Seoul, far from where I needed to be. "Just take me to Lotte Mart by Seoul Station," I told him resignedly, after we'd gotten turned around. There seemed to be little use in raging; I was tired and stressed as it was. I feel as though the dude ripped me off-- something that hasn't happened to me in years.

Seoul Station is about a 10-15-minute walk from where I live. By taxi, it's about 30 seconds. I paid twelve fucking thousand won for the privilege of crossing town twice to end up, basically, a few blocks down the street from where I'd started. This happened because the driver took his sweet time getting lost; we circled around the Yongsan area, which made me think he knew some sort of back-roadsy way to Hannam. But no: he'd simply misheard me and had failed to confirm the destination. While I'm tempted to blame myself for not having said anything, I feel I was justified in not asking the taxi driver what the fuck he was doing: the asshole's supposed to know his way around town, and most taxi drivers will ask you again if they don't hear you clearly the first time.

To get to Hannam from Smoo, most taxi drivers go through Itaewon, which takes you into some shit-dense traffic depending on the time of day, but the route makes a certain amount of sense: on a map, you'd see it's fairly direct-- not a straight shot, true, but it'd be hard to find a shorter route. This guy skirted the Yongsan area in a bizarre series of loops and U-turns, despite my having said "go through Itaewon." Fucker.

He let me off across the street from Seoul Station and pointed out the jiha-do, the underground corridor to get across the street. This is when things got strange.

While walking along the underground passageway, I took a wrong turn and suddenly found myself going past ranks upon ranks of the poor and homeless. They were lined up, holding plastic cafeteria trays, waiting to be served food. As I walked along, I saw the ones who'd already gotten their food: hundreds of homeless folks-- mostly men-- squatting on the ground, their trays on the grungy concrete floor, their metal spoons clacking against the plastic as they ate. None of them sat directly on the floor. Perhaps they still had some sense of dignity.

The homeless. They'd been my pet cause back in high school, and old memories resurfaced as I watched these folks eat. I remember helping my church in northern Virgina back in the 1980s, when the activist Mitch Snyder made us aware that we had a homeless problem right there along the Route One corridor, just south of Washington, DC and Old Town Alexandria-- a place no one had suspected of having such a problem.

I watched these folks eat and felt a great deal of compassion for them. Some part of me wanted to drop everything and just spend the evening helping them. My ire at the stupid taxi driver started to fade. The homeless folks in front of me, clackety-clacking away as they ate on the cold concrete, were quietly teaching me that my problems didn't amount to much compared to theirs.

My evening only got better after that. The shopping spree inside Lotte Mart was accomplished quickly and efficiently; encumbered with my perishable booty, I caught a taxi to make the short ride back to my residence. The driver, who was painfully polite, turned out to be a dude who hadn't been a cabbie for very long. Apparently, my Korean was spot-on that evening, because he initially mistook me for a full Korean-- a rare occurrence indeed! He told me that he used to work for Kia Motors and was having difficulty finding a new job. For the time being, then, he was a cabbie. I wished him luck and paid him a few thousand won extra for his kindness.

Today was the last day of classes for this semester at Smoo. I spent the day eating and eating, but saved room for the 1PM luncheon, which was to feature la pièce de résistance: shrimp fettucine alfredo with quasi-Mediterranean salad.

Lemme tell you, I owned that class, baby. My morning classes had fair to poor attendance, but that 1PM class came out in force and ready to gobble. I had set everything up in the classroom, Julia Child-style, and was boiling the fettucine when my first student came in. I put her to work reheating the parsley-garlic shrimp I'd cooked last night, then told her to go munch some of my delectable salad. Other students walked in; I pointed them to the salad while I waited for the pasta to finish.

When the fettucine was ready, I whipped out my new prized possession: a hugely concave bokgeum pan that dwarfed the single-burner gas range on which it sat. I plopped enough noodles into the pan for about five people, then added the ingredients for my never-before-tried alfredo sauce: shredded parmesan, shredded mozzarella, soft butter, fresh cream, and an Australian brand of white cheddar cheese.

The idea was to make fettucine alfredo the proper way: not by doing the sauce separately, but by adding the sauce components in with the pasta, then patiently stirring the whole mess until-- voilà-- the sauce suddenly appears.

It worked beautifully. Easily the best damn alfredo sauce I've ever made. I will be using this procedure-- and quite likely these ingredients-- from now on. To repeat:

fresh cream
shredded mozzarella
shredded parmesan
white cheddar

Put the pasta in the pan. Add the cheddar, thinly sliced; add the other ingredients. Keep your heat fairly low, and the high-fat content of your ingredients will do the rest naturally: melting and flowing into a fantastic white alloy: Welcome, alfredo.

I then added my shrimp to the mix. Sheer bliss.

My students were literally moaning with pleasure-- something they don't usually do during our English lessons. One student said, rather awkwardly, "This is gorgeous!" When I made the second round of pasta and shrimp alfredo sauce, my students leaped from their seats to watch the process unfold. One of my colleagues had suggested, during a meeting, that we should try a cooking class as part of our move toward content-based instruction. Today, that suggestion seemed plausible. While I'm normally able to engage the students in a given English lesson, I've never seen such rapt attentiveness. I announced that the second wave of pasta was done; five eager plates suddenly appeared around the pan, waiting to be served.

I was exhausted after the culinary gymnastics and the surprisingly sad goodbyes from that class (my favorite class this semester). The last stage was cleanup, and I told my students they didn't need to help me. I piled all the dirty dishes and utensils together, and headed for the men's bathroom to do my seolgeoji (dishwashing).

The final source of amusement today came from the custodian, an old lady with a curly perm and a big smile who arrives early at Smoo and stays late. She saw me bent over the sink in the men's room, vainly scrubbing away at hardened cheese on my utensils and plates and bowls. After observing me a few seconds, she cackled, "You should've asked your female students to wash all that for you!"

I laughed with her, but to tell you the truth, that's precisely what I wanted to avoid: I didn't want to be The Man Who Ordered His Women to Wash the Dishes. Not at Smoo, a university known for its feminist ideals. The custodian told me, though, that the girls would have fun doing the dishes, as they'd be working together. I half-promised the custodian that I'd ask my next group of students to wash the dishes for me.

In truth, I regretted my decision to go it alone. Not because I felt that this was "wimmin's work," but because it was killing my lower back to remain bent over the bathroom sink like that. I had to wash a slew of utensils, pots, pans, plates, and bowls. It took an insanely long time because the bathroom didn't have any hot water. Cold water and soap aren't very effective on problems like coagulated butter and cheese. Heat turns water into a great solvent for fatty things, and the Smoo bathroom had no heat to offer.

So now I'm back home, and tired as hell. I'd planned to do some shopping this evening, but I simply don't have the strength. I'll be Christmas shopping tomorrow, then going out to dinner with my friend and his wife, then engaging in final prep for the long trip back to the States. I depart Sunday and will be home until the 28th.

Just a warning, then: I might not be able to post anything on Saturday. I'll try, but don't count on it.

FYI: My students took plenty of pics and plan to email them to me. I'll post them when I get them.



Anonymous said...

Kevin, I made some chicken alfredo the other day for dinner with my girlfriend. I used a bottle of Alfredo sauce I picked up at the black market here in Shinchon and it turned out pretty good. The bottle was only 7,000W, much cheaper than the cost of the raw ingredients you used in your sauce, I would imagine. The dinner was kicked off with some chicken salad with Blue cheese dressing and finished with Camembert and cheddar cheese with crackers for dessert.

Tomrrow night I'm cooking Arroz Con Pollo and Quesidillas.

Happy cooking!

Kevin Kim said...

Yes, you're right: your way is much cheaper. I guess the per-person cost of the sauce alone was around W3500 for your meal. In my case... I was feeding six (five students and me), but the sauce ingredients cost me about... let's see...

fresh cream = W3200
shredded mozzarella = W3500
shredded parmesan = W11000
butter = W2000
white cheddar = W6000

Total = W25700
Per person = about W4300

All in all, not that much more expensive, and a lot more fun to prepare. Part of what fascinated my students (and me, too, I'll admit) was watching the alchemy as it happened: the gradual melding of the runny cream and the unyielding cheddar and the prickly parmesan into a single, smooth whole.

Your Arroz Con Pollo and Quesadillas sound good. I'm coming over.


Anonymous said...

Heart attack city, man. Gotta love that alfredo sauce. It's been too long since I've had a good alfredo.

Jelly said...

Mmmm! Sounds deelish! Your students are lucky Kevin! Just like you envied me last weekend, I envy you. And not just for the pasta, either. I'm crazy jealous about your holiday back home. I'm green with envy. I'm so envious I might indeed go insane.