Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pop Tarts, my students, and the bigger picture

I decided to bring in what we in the teaching business call realia, i.e., real-world items that make the things we talk about in class more concrete, practical, and relevant. In today's case, this meant buying and distributing Pop Tarts for the students to eat. We had been studying the early episodes of the sitcom "Friends" for a while, and in Episode 3, Phoebe is seen eating a Pop Tart which she ultimately offers to Ross.

Reviews were mixed, as I expected. I had warned the students that they might not like the Pop Tarts, and sure enough, some of my charges proved unable to down them. Others, however, loved the things. I explained that Pop Tarts were a mainstay for many American college students; one girl replied that, in Korea, the go-to food for college students tended to be dwaenjang-guk, a brown soup made with a base of water and dwaenjang (salty soy paste, related to the Japanese miso), thus revealing the chasm separating Western and Korean culture. When I asked some students whether they thought the Pop Tarts were too dry, one girl said, "Oh, no! Actually, they're quite moist!" I was momentarily stumped at this comment until I realized that (1) she was referring to the fruit-paste interior and (2) by Korean standards, Pop Tarts truly aren't dry.

It's a strange paradox of the Korean palate that Koreans love spicy food when it comes to meals, but seem to prefer cakes and cookies that, by Western standards, are woefully bland and desiccated, bereft of all oomph. With the notable exception of the Korean-style saeng-keurim kae-ik (cake with a "fresh" whipped cream icing, usually topped with glazed fruit slices), I find most Koreanized Western desserts disappointing. Other Westerners offer the same complaint: not enough sugar, not enough egg, not enough butter-- it's as if the holy trinity of ingredients for good desserts had gone missing: deus absconditus in miniature.

Koreans who visit the West after being raised on a diet of Korean blandness have the opposite reaction: they are often shocked by how sweet, creamy, and generally heavy American and European desserts can be.* I cackle whenever I hear this, but to be fair, it should be said that there is an ever greater number of Korean exceptions to this rule, because more and more Koreans seem to prefer authentically Western desserts. If the local Bbang Goom Teo bakery is any indication, the Korean tolerance (craving?) for truly Western-style goodies is increasing. BGT's chocolate chip cookies are-- when available-- scandalously good, as is a pricey, madeleine-like chocolate mini-cake that easily matches the intensity of similar-tasting cakes in the US. But BGT also continues to purvey the blander, drier goods for the Korean clientele; I've sampled some of these, and have rarely gone back to them by choice.**

While I'm happy to see the trend toward real Western desserts in high-end places like bakeries, I'm chagrined to see that Korean imitations of low-end American snacks and desserts are almost relentlessly dry and about as flavorful as cardboard. The Korean version of Oreos (I can't remember the brand name, but they should've been called Koreos) comes to mind as one sad example of this. The faux-reos are made with roughly the same nasty-bad ingredients as the American Oreo; no one can accuse Koreans of making a "healthier" version of the snack, but despite the presence of all the same ingredients, these little black discs taste like shit from the ass of the undead. How to account for this? At a guess, there must be some Korean device whose sole purpose is to suck all flavor and texture-- all the ki-- out of each cookie before final packaging. A more naturalistic explanation, I suppose, would be that the ingredients are all there, but in the wrong proportions.

Pop Tarts are a distant cousin of these bland, dime-stamped monstrosities. As long as you're eating only the middle of the Pop Tart, you're OK, but working your way through the dry, unadorned edges of the tart is a grim business-- hence the requisite glass of milk when I eat them in the States.*** Be that as it may, Pop Tarts were today's realia, a cultural ambassador that prompted varied reactions among my students... and will doubtless soon be forgotten.

*This, by the way, is why I'm secretly in love with Charles's wife Hyunjin: she appreciates rich Western desserts. She scarfed down my super-sweet version of Nigella Lawson's chocolate pudding, leaving barely any traces of it in the cup.

**Students occasionally offer their teachers diverse comestibles as gifts, and among these items will be Korean-style cakes and so on. Gluttonous bastard that I am, I rarely pass these gifts on to my coworkers.

***I don't normally eat Pop Tarts. I don't hate them, but I don't crave them, either. In fact, today marks the first time I've had them in Korea. While the Pop Tarts were a welcome change from my usual snack pattern, I can't say that I came away from today's culinary experience aglow with postprandial delight.



Jelly said...

Do people still toast pop tarts? I was never a fan of them - but I think I remember on the rare occassion I had them, they were much better toasted. Maybe I'm thinking about something else, though.
In general, everything is better toasted. Don't'cha think?

Anonymous said...

Mmmm... toasties... (preppin)

Cappy said...

All my friends are pop tarts.

So, like are you the Korean Carlos Mencia, or what?

Anonymous said...

You mean that people ate pop tarts without toasting them?! I didn't know such a thing was possible!

I will admit that I used to be a big fan of the pop tart. I will also admit that the frosted ones were a bit too sweet for me, and I preferred the non-frosted ones. Even better, some health food brands had pop tart knock-offs that tasted good but were a lot better for you.

Yes, my wife does indeed have a taste for the Western desserts. She's done a lot of traveling, so she has a rather eclectic palate. But I agree that most Koreans don't "get" the Western dessert. Particularly vexing to me is the general Korean ignorance of bread. This is not to say that Koreans are incapable of making good bread--I've had some fantastic Korean breads--but your basic, run-of-the-mill (heh) bakery will churn out loaf after loaf of crap (the pun machine is working well today, I see). My main complaint is that they insist on filling their breads with all sorts of stuff, like chestnuts or other things.

I would be remiss if I did not note that times, they are a changin', though. I think Koreans are becoming more and more aware of what good bread is and are developing a taste for it. I've noticed that my breads are always a hit wherever I go, and they are definitely not Korean-style breads. So there is hope yet.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, they're much better when toasted, but still pretty dry around the edges.


I might look like Carlos Mencia (I've heard people say I look like Paul Rodriguez, and it's a short leap from Rodriguez to Mencia), but I don't have his sheer on-screen cojones. Or his wit, for that matter.

All your friends are Pop Tarts? Try not to eat your friends, man.


How many people have you shopped your bread around to? It's pretty dingle-damn good. I should place an order and buy a bunch off you.

I agree the times are changing, and largely for the better. I do have one student, however, who has declared an active hatred of bread (I'd never heard that before). For her, it's rice and pasta all the way.


Kevin Kim said...

Oh, yes-- I should say that I would have toasted or heated the Pop Tarts for my classes, but the office was locked at 7:40AM and I didn't have access to the microwave. That was a bummer. I might have been able to toast the remaining Pop Tarts for my subsequent classes, but by then I had resigned myself to doling them out raw.


Anonymous said...

My bread is generally reserved for family and friends, special occasions and the like. So it's only had limited circulation.

I would take limited orders if I could figure out a reasonable way to ship/transport it. I don't use any preservatives, so the bread has a very limited shelf life (ranging from about four days for white bread to a week for the healthier varieties). If you've got any ideas, I'm open to suggestions.

And that student with the avowed hatred of bread is just... weird. I'd maybe understand if she was just anti-Western food, but she likes pasta, so I don't know what to think.