Authors: Kyung-Ran Jo
KYUNG RAN JO
A Note on the Author
The surface on which you work (preferably marble), the tools, the ingredients, and your fingers should be chilled throughout the operation
—The Joy of Cooking
LARGE PUPILS, TINTED CHARCOAL and light brown. My eyes once gleamed of strong resolve, shined with tense sensuality. I can’t stand these eyes—weepy eyes reflected on the bottom of the copper pot, eyes expecting something from someone despite the knowledge that disappointment will be the result.
Please don’t cry, I can’t cry
. I close my eyes, open them. Now it’s all right. I flip over the pot and hang it on its hook. Thankfully my tears are gone. Now I will myself to reach over to the rotating shelf where I keep various oils, select the bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, and turn toward the nine students who have gathered here at seven P.M., their clothes slightly rumpled from the day.
Gathered here at Won’s Kitchen, which is outfitted with a ceramic stone pizza oven, refrigerator, dishwasher, coffeemaker, blender, mixer, food processor, electric rice cooker, gas stove. Assorted copper pots and stainless-steel pans hang from the ceiling in order of size, from large to medium to small. Along with glasses, a ventilation fan, food-waste compressor, electric grill,
shelves, vent hood, heating station, island, backless stools, and a pot of vigorously boiling water.
Grandmother always had a large table in her kitchen. The family gathered around the rectangular wooden table, as simple and unadorned as a desk, and when night fell each went his way. Even after she moved to the city, Grandmother always kept a bamboo basket of fruit or vegetables in the middle of the table. By leaving ingredients where she could see them, she was inspired to make new dishes every time she passed by the table. Sometimes the basket would hold warm, just-cooked yams or potatoes, white steam wafting up. Grandmother was the best cook I knew, but she didn’t do much to yams, potatoes, or pumpkins other than steam or bake them. She could have sprinkled cheese over them while piping hot or added broth to make soup or purée, but didn’t. Grandmother would say these things are supposed to be eaten plain, because you’re eating the earth. By the time I realized that Grandmother’s words symbolized her life, her simple, beautiful life, she was no longer with us. Morning sunlight streamed through her east-facing kitchen windows, rippling through the pear and apple blossoms outside, and I would shield my eyes from the sun and slurp up soup of shepherd’s purse.
Beep. It’s the oven timer.
I top the dough with sun-dried tomatoes, thick slices of mushrooms, basil leaves, and mozzarella rounds, sprinkle two tablespoons of olive oil over it all, and slide it into the preheated oven. It bakes for fifteen minutes until the cheese melts, the crust browning nicely, and then we have today’s dish, sun-dried-tomato-and-mushroom pizza. Today I don’t think I can make little snacks to share with the students or talk about the weather just like it’s any other day—until the pizza’s done. I explain to the students how to dry tomatoes at home using their ovens. Sun-dried tomatoes have a more intense flavor and scent than
fresh ones, but they’re an expensive specialty food. I still have ten minutes. I reach into the basket in front of me and hold up whatever my hand closes around first. An apple.
“Variety and spontaneity are two of the most important things to keep in mind when you cook.”
Everyone focuses on the apple I’m holding at eye level. In the Middle Ages, monks believed that this fruit contained the will of the Creator. The apple was said to taste of nature, of mystery, of the shapes of clouds and of the sound of wind rustling the leaves on trees, but the monks forbade its consumption. All because of the sweetness that filled your mouth when you took the first bite. They believed this sweetness was a temptation, one that would get in the way of concentrating on God’s words. And after the sweetness dissipated, a tart, acidic zing lingered on the tip of your tongue. The monks thought this was the taste of poison, of the devil himself. This sweet, sour, tart taste of an apple—it’s this taste Eve found irresistible.
“If you don’t like mushrooms, you can use an apple instead. Slice an apple into pieces about five millimeters thick. You’ll be able to experience something different, in contrast to the mushroom’s light blandness. It’s a little sweet, but the crunch can be very refreshing.” I wish I’d picked up an eggplant instead. I’ve never tried substituting an apple for mushrooms in a pizza. Lies. Was it his lies I’d wanted? The first taste of an apple, the serpent’s words—as sweet as honey. The second taste, banishment from the Garden of Eden—tart. Unlike other fruits that are soft when ripe, an apple should be firm. I slip the small paring knife from the knife block, the crowded home to twelve knives. Instead of cutting the apple crosswise, I slide my knife into it at a slant, creating a V shape, carving out an indent, and pop the piece into my mouth.
It’s my first kitchen. In the beginning, I had everything in this kitchen, just like Grandmother’s. Sunlight and plants and a clock
and newspapers and mail and fruit and vegetables, milk and cheese and bread and butter, tall glass bottles filled with fruit-infused liquor and smaller bottles of spices, the homey smell of simmering rice and the aroma of herbs. And two people.
When we started looking for spaces that could be home to a larger kitchen for our cooking classes, I insisted on a wall of large windows. I didn’t consider basement locations even if they were huge and the lease was dirt cheap. My desire for windows must have come from memories of Grandmother’s kitchen. I believed that everything came in through the kitchen, and for that we needed to have tall windows that would guarantee good light. Even when I traveled I always looked for restaurants that opened onto the street. He was the one who found the two-story building rich with windows. My excitement reached new heights even before we finished renovating the kitchen to make it roomier. This was only three years ago.
Grandmother was right. Just having a state-of-the-art kitchen doesn’t make the food taste better or the cook happier. The most important thing in a kitchen isn’t how delectable the food is but how happy you are while you’re there. And you always have to leave the kitchen in that contented state. When I was young I would bolt into the kitchen as soon as I got home, but right now I find myself backing out of it just as rapidly, as if an unknown force is yanking me out.
Startled by the second buzz of the timer, I drop the apple to the floor. A drop of off-white juice splashes on my calf. I’m rooted in place, watching—Paulie, who’s been lying quietly under the table, grips the apple with his teeth and scurries out. The V mark on the apple’s red peel looks like a stain that can’t be removed even with bleach. If you cut an apple in half, you’ll discover five seeds as big as a watermelon’s, studded in a star shape in the middle of the round surface. Is it that I want to continue thinking that an apple isn’t just an apple, that it’s a secret sign
only I can see? I pull the crispy, well-baked pizza out of the oven, thinking, I’ve come so far—too far. I close my eyes, open them. I open my mouth to say, “This is the last class.”
I’ve read so many books where the story starts with a man meeting a woman, and then they fall in love. But my story begins with love’s demise. I used to read Hemingway for the simple reason of his being a gourmet. What Hemingway said is wrong—it isn’t only men who discover themselves after experiencing physical pain.
DESCENDING DUSK AND COLD WEATHER and heavy snows and gusty wind—back when this was what January meant, I didn’t actually know anything about the weather outside or the drifts of snow or wind. I was always behind windows, cradling in my hands a steaming cup of French-pressed coffee or a mug of cognac-enhanced hot chocolate. I would watch the heavy snow coming down in the late afternoon, dip a piece of warm buttered baguette in my hot chocolate, take a bite, and exclaim, Wow, there’s so much snow! And that would be it. Hot and sweet—that was January. Heat and sweetness were also the first sensations to go.
I can’t taste the bitter and full-bodied French Valrhona chocolate or the flavorful bite of the cognac. My entire body is tense, the way it is when I have to open my mouth for the first time in front of a man. I swallow a mouthful of freshly made hot chocolate, the liquid coating my throat. The snow is letting up and slender rays of light slice through the dark clouds. But the inside of my mouth remains numb. I ask myself, is this drink
hot? Or cold? That feels as meaningless as if I’m asking myself whether I’m hot or cold. The state of being neither hot nor cold—this is the first step toward the path of rage and fear.
Only four genes control vision, but more than one thousand genes are involved with smell and taste. But one thousand genes can disappear faster than the four. I’ve already lost two things—this kitchen and the taste for sweet, hot liquid. I may lose everything I have, but I want to be able to keep just two things. It doesn’t feel odd that he isn’t one of them. I know of people who chose death when they lost their taste buds. I need a kitchen even if it isn’t this one, and it’s crucial that I keep working.
I push the now-cold mug onto the table, casting it away. I have to think about what I can do right now. And about how I can emerge from this funk. I swallow, thinking of the freshness of a winter carrot and the spirited crunch of a radish. Some people like to eat anything soft and pliant, or food that bursts in their mouths when they bite into it. Some enjoy meat juices slowly seeping into the spaces between their teeth, and others like to crunch on plain raw vegetables. I can’t live without vegetables. When I think of raw carrot salad—a fresh carrot just pulled from the ground with leafy green fronds still waving from its top, julienned, dressed with olive oil, minced garlic, lemon juice, salt, ground black pepper, chilled in the fridge for about four hours, then sprinkled with chopped parsley right before you dig in—I can feel saliva pooling slowly from the back of my mouth. His favorite dish is steak, rare and tender and moist, seared just enough to elevate it from its primal rawness, with a side of baked potato. It’s the first dish I made him. The carrot, the sweet, cold carrot salad, as refreshing as crunching down on a cube of ice—I’m okay, for now.