Real Talk about ExpatLIFE (Round Two)

"Does it feel weird to be back in New York?"

"No, the only thing that's weird about it is how weird it doesn't feel"

I repeated this interaction almost every day for a week. And every day it felt truer.

"Don't get me wrong, I know we live very comfortably here but... do you ever just have complete break downs? Like ugly cry break downs? I have those" a friend asks me back in Seoul.

"Oh yeah, I think that has to be a normal part of living abroad. Every so often it just gets to be so much. Three cabs passed you by before one picked you up, you just want to be able to buy dog food with out traipsing halfway across the city, you're missing one crucial ingredient that can only be found at the foreign food store - the little things, they just keep building up and then you remember you miss your friends, you miss your job... I think it's normal."

I sat in front of my computer Friday and I sobbed. Uncontrollable, unending, sobbing. I woke up and read that the bakery I was working for before we left for Korea, one of the few places I've felt sad to leave, was closing. I walked the dogs, holding back tears. I watched President Obama's statement on the shooting in Oregon, crying the whole way through.

These are, of course, two very different news events but my feeling of overwhelming powerlessness was the same.

For over a year I've had more time than is probably healthy to read the news. For over a year I've watched from abroad as my friends have taken to the streets in protest while the best I have to offer are retweets and facebook posts that, honestly, mostly are read by other people in my same liberal bubble, as we rack up racially motivated gun deaths and mass shootings in my home country. For over a year, I've felt fucking useless.

For over a year I've answered the question "what will you do when you go back?" with "Oh, I've been a baker for almost ten years, so I'll probably go back to baking. Honestly, I'd be happy to go right back where I left".

When we went to New York for a week in the Summer and I visited with friends and family, none of it felt weird until I was on the train to meet Dominique at SCRATCHbread and I started crying because I remembered this wasn't my life anymore and I wasn't going to wake up the next morning, put on my clogs and yell at the front of house for not telling me we were out of shortbread ten minutes ago. For over a year, I've thought my career could take the hit of a two year hiatus because at the end, hopefully, I could go back to a place where at least in my own little kitchen world, I was useful.

So in a two hour period, not only did I feel like I was completely useless at the moment but I also felt like all my future usefulness had just expired. I had a day of despair, of sobbing, of "I just can't anymore" and while I was having all that, I baked my friend a birthday cake and I decided it needed to be big because it was a big, fuck you world, cake kind of day.

Yeah, that's right, my fuck you to the world was a cake. We're probably going on 15 years of fuck you cookies, cakes and candy at this point. I get depressed or enraged and I create something and then I give it away. Sure, when I'm working, I'm selling it away, but still, it's my own tiny, daily protest.

The thing, of course, that kept going through my mind was that somehow, if I had been in America, I'd feel different or these things wouldn't have happened which is crazy. I am not singlehandedly responsible for preventing gun deaths in America and I think maybe one of the take aways from President Obama's speech is that we're not alone, we're not alone in being sad and frustrated and scared because he's the president of the United States of America, and he is too. And even if I had been at SCRATCHbread, giving my all, there's a good chance it still would've closed and I still would've spent the day sobbing. Most of the small businesses I've worked for have closed, food service is a hard industry. Neither of those statements are very comforting I guess but at least they take the blame away from living in Korea. I'm sad and that's fine and I'm going to sit with it.

I have to make a new plan for the future instead of living like I'm in a holding pattern that has another year to return to normal.

But ultimately, the plan is always the same.

Create more. Give more away.

(round one)

 

Tokyo Takeover: Kanda

Michelin Starred Kanda Tokyo

There are no sample menus on Kanda's website, we chose it somewhat arbitrarily from Tokyo's three star restaurants, liking the idea of extreme seasonality and personalized courses. We were the first to arrive the night we went and were shown to our seats at the small bar which makes up the entirety of Kanda's dining room by the attentive yet unpretentious staff. Shortly after a group of three women came in and were seated to my righ and a bit after that a young Japanese man wearing rumpled linen everything was seated to Dan's left.

"Is there anything you don't eat?" the chef asked.

"No," we said in unison, shaking our heads. It's not exactly true, in normal life there's plenty I don't eat. I am a ridiculously picky eater, especially for somebody that has spent the first ten years of adulthood cooking for a living but I like to view tasting menus as an opportunity to challenge my assumptions. Inevitably, there is always something on the menu that I've never liked before that I suddenly see in a whole new light. This night it was a perfectly breaded fried oyster with just a bit of mustard that took me by surprise.

"She doesn't eat sashimi!" one of the three women next to me volunteered.

"No, no sashimi, I don't like it" another one says shaking her head.

The chef nods while I try to keep my judgement at bay. Who goes to a tasting menu in Japan and doesn't eat sashimi?

The same question is asked of the young Japanese man and the only thing I make out from his response is "wasabi".

We order sake and it comes in a large bowl sitting on a mound of crushed ice and we're presented with an array of glass and ceramic sake glasses to choose from. I want them all but settle on a ceramic one with a delicate floral design. Of course, the sake is delicious.

"You make take pictures of the food if you want but I think it is best to just enjoy the experience" the chef tells us. We had read that allowing pictures was a recent change in policy which I was happy about even though I often get too caught up in the moment and flavor to take them of every course.

Our first course comes. A small bowl of white asparagus in a bean curd puree and foam. It's not much too look at but the chunks of asparagus melt in my mouth and their sweetness contrasts with the extremely savory bean curd. We can just have ten more course of this, I think.

The women next to me try to watch a video on their phone.

"You can't do that here" the chef says gently.

Sake service at Kanda Tokyo

The women are shocked into silence for a while before the chef says "no, no you can talk, but you cannot watch videos".

The courses continue and the chef describes each dish and asks everyone where they're from.

I watch the expression on the face of the man to Dan's left as each dish comes, the way he eats a bite, carefully tries and considers each component on the plate and then happily wolfs the rest down. It is exactly what I do, even though my intense expressions of careful consideration often get me good natured teasing from my husband and friends, but I've never watched anybody else dissect their dish as obsessively as I do. It gives me an immense amount of joy to watch somebody else care about what they're eating as much as I do and I wonder, after months of living in a city where it seems food is mostly valued if it's fast or trendy, if I might actually start to cry.

The chef places a heavy looking tray in front of each of us on the counter and I watch him quickly but carefully form pieces of nigiri. He places one in front of me and one in front of Dan.

"Now you make take"

I start to lift the tray.

"No, no, just take the piece" he mimes lifting the small piece with his hands.

"You can use chopsticks if you want" the three women all chime in.

But I've spent months watching people cut up burgers and tacos with a fork and knife and I relish the permission to use my hands.

I thought I had had the best sushi of my life the night before but no, this was it, this was rice so warm and flavorful and fish so tender that instead of judging the woman next to me, I felt bad that she would never get to experience something this exquisite. Two more pieces followed and each one was the best sushi I'd had in my life. Maybe the best I ever will have.

I can see through the swinging doors behind the bar that the line in the back is a little more hectic but the chef and sous chef in front of us proceed calmly. Not slowly, but with the speed that comes from skill and confidence in your craft. I'm so happy I could burst.

I watch the sous chef tear up a sheet of nori and toss it in a micro green salad, something I never would have thought of that tastes absolutely brilliant. Two perfectly cooked cubes of steak melt in my mouth.

The final savory course is rice with a tempura of tiny shrimp, another food I don't usually eat, with a selection of lightly pickled vegetables. I eat the salty crunchy shrimp but the pickled vegetables are what I'm truly excited about.

Next it's tea all around before we're presented with a dessert of fresh mangoes suspended in gelatin sitting in a small pool of creme anglaise. It is simple and delicious even though I don't love mango or gelatin based desserts.

More tea is had before we settle up and head out to take a walk around Roppongi, extremely satisfied but not quite ready to head home.

 

Kanda is located at 3-6-34 Motoazabu, Minoto-ku, Tokyo on the first floor of a small apartment building. When we went last month we were required to make reservations through our hotel concierge and given two price points to choose from but it looks like you now must make online reservations here, and have an option of three price points.

The Woman Behind the Food (real talk about expat life)

Last Friday I found honest to g-d, legit, imported Philadelphia cream cheese and it made my day. It's not that I'm particularly attached to Philadelphia cream cheese as opposed to other types or brands of cream cheese,  it's just that most of the cream cheese I can find in Seoul is "licensed by Philadelphia" and it's just... not quite right. It's yellow and, of course, slightly sweet. It makes terrible cream cheese icing and it's not the thing I want for baking at all. I'd say it's not the thing I want for bagels at all, but let's not pretend I can get bagels in Seoul that won't make me weep the biggest, Jewiest, New Yorker tears while shouting a stream of obscenities at anyone who will listen*. So I bought a pound of cream cheese for which I still don't have any plans but just knowing I have it is a strange comfort.

*****

I've been thinking a lot about why I find Seoul so frustrating. On my best days I think it's a fine place to live and on my worst days I hate it.

I hate its sprawl that means running two small errands can take a whole day despite clean and fast public transportation. I hate its toxic air that traps me and my asthmatic lungs in the house, instead of exploring the city's plethora of green spaces. I hate its burgeoning food scene that seems to care more about being cool than being good. I hate its hundreds of cafes that aren't even open in the morning and that are for hanging out and being seen rather than enjoying a well pulled and poured cappuccino. I, a NEW YORKER, hate its fast paced, always have to be ahead, pushing on to the train before people get off, cab upstreaming, culture.

Other than the pollution, I'll admit these are all relatively privileged problems. Just a series of small, daily irritations, nothing life shattering. But the little things, they drag you down, y'know?

Before we moved here we asked everyone we knew who had been to Seoul or lived in Seoul how they like it and everyone told us it was a fantastic city and I feel immensely like I'm doing it wrong. In what way am I so fundamentally different that I can't love this place?

On my best days I find Seoul solidly "ok" and I'm thankful. I'm thankful that living here allows us to live a more comfortable life than we'd be living in New York. I'm thankful for my two bedroom, open floor plan apartment that could fit our Brooklyn studio three times inside it that has room for huge dinner parties. I'm thankful my husband doesn't have to feel anxious about paying off his NYU grad school debt. I'm thankful for the time off work and the opportunity to let my body rest and recover from nine years of more than full time kitchen work. I'm thankful for our health insurance that allows me to spend 3-4 hours a week at the physical therapists after three years of just living with my hand going numb and dropping things on a regular basis because I didn't have the time or money to deal with it. I'm thankful for our bratty, snuggly dog and for the pretty park nearby where we walk her. I'm thankful for the opportunity to easily travel through Asia.

On my worst days I'm homesick and so very lonely. Purposeless. I think about what's going on in the kitchen I left and the friends with whom I could be brunching. I wonder if New York Cares found a new volunteer to teach my class but I don't want to look because I know if they have it'll just make me sad and jealous and I know if they haven't I'll feel guilty and even sadder.

On my best days I'm excited. Excited to figure out how to light photos in my hobbit hole apartment. Excited to have the time to read cookbooks cover to cover, to compare and create. Excited that there's still huge swathes of the city I haven't explored and markets I have yet to find. Excited for Spring and flowers and the end of this ice cold wind.

And most days I live caught in the middle, torn between enjoying my freedom and just wanting to go home.

*Since starting this post, I've attempted one batch of bagels. They definitely need work, but I'm confident that soon I'll be making the best bagels in Seoul which is to say, they'll be better than the worst thing in the world.

Great Grandpa Bob's Chocolate Chip Cookies

From the (currently invisible) archives. Originally published March 22, 2013

My great-grandfather made pies. Always the same ones, sticky sweet pecan and tart lemon meringue. It has taken a long time for me to come around to nuts being ok at all, then I'd begrudgingly eat the pecans because they were surrounded by the sugar, butter, vanilla goo and flaky flaky pie crust.

The lemon meringue was always piled high with a dry, foamy meringue that would be the reason I'd avoid anything with so much as the hint of meringue for years - until I went to culinary school, in fact. I'm sure it was the style to make that sort of meringue and it definitely looked impressive but it really has nothing on a silky smooth proper french meringue. I'd scrape it off and eagerly devour the smooth lemon filling.

His garage was always filled with jars of apricot jam and jalapeno jelly, made each Summer and sealed with a thick layer of paraffin. Visits at the end of Summer always guaranteed a batch of fresh apricot ice cream and trip to Marine World Africa USA.

But my favorite, my absolute favorite thing to make with him was chocolate chip cookies. I don't know how old I was when we made our first batch together, not very. I often say I've been perfecting my chocolate chip cookies for the past twenty-four years and I don't think it's an exaggeration.

It always started the same, two stick of Imperial margarine (he was nothing if not frugal) into the microwave to soften and then into the glass bowl of the Sunbeam stand mixer. Then three-quarters of a cup of white sugar, back and forth with the back of a butter knife, one, two, three times until perfectly level. Next came my favorite, three quarter cups of tightly packed brown sugar that came out in little mounds like sand castles into the mixing bowl. I stood on the avocado green step stool required to reach the counter and eagerly watched the beaters turn the "butter" and sugar into one light and fluffy mass. Next the mixer would be turned off (not by me, because I had to promise to keep my small hands away from those quickly spinning metal finger breakers) and I'd get to crack two eggs in the bowl and carefully measure a teaspoon of vanilla before it went back on. Dries were measured the same as the sugar - leveled with exactly as much precision as you would expect a Naval chemist to require. After the dries, I'd get to open and pour in the yellow bag of Nestle semi sweet chips.

Then it was time to remove and lick the beaters.

We'd use two spoons to carefully form and space out mounds on the cookie sheets that I was under no circumstance supposed to put in the oven. While the cookies were baking the kitchen table would be covered in a double layer of newspaper for the cookies to be carefully moved onto to cool. I don't think I even knew cooling racks were a thing until I was a teenager. And when they were cool enough to touch but still warm enough to be gooey, it was time to eat them.

In high school I made so many batches of chocolate chip cookies that we'd go through a handmixer every few months. I didn't even eat that many, it was just the process, the familiarity of the ritual of measuring and mixing that would calm and de-stress me. I'd come to class with giant bags of cookies and hand them out.

They're still the thing my friends and family request the most and made up most of the care package I sent to Lara when I found out her father was dying. I have slightly different recipes depending on who is requesting them. I know how to make them thin and crispy, like my great grandfather's, for my grandma (though she really just wants the dough, sans chocolate chips, anyways), I know how to make thicker, soft ones that are somewhere near the platonic ideal and I know the recipe for my own preference, the toffee studded ones that are most requested.

And each time I make them, I think of my great grandfather's neat preciseness, his three strand comb over and Ford belt buckle, the house in Vallejo, the pink bedroom and the apricot tree in the backyard. I think he probably didn't know that he was teaching me something that would comfort me for the rest of my life, that would become my career and I wish he were still around to tell.

I'm participating in The Scintilla Project, a fortnight of storytelling. This post was in response to the prompt "Many of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable experience that took place while preparing or eating food."