Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food, That Glorious Metaphor

In Korean dramas, food is everywhere. Eating is just what Koreans do. Round-the-clock. Home after all-night clubbing, first thing a twentysomething does is make instant ramen and eat it right out of the pot, using the lid as a plate. Straight after school, kids hit the local dukkboki house. A guest makes a surprise visit and a plate of cut-up fruit instantly appears. In such a foodie culture, a heroine not being able to afford a roll of kimbap says everything. So what does it mean when someone eats with a fork and knife at every meal, preferring steak and pasta to kimchee and rice? This is a person who has lost their soul. This is a person who is no longer a real Korean.

I've seen food used symbolically like this over and over again. Food as a metaphor for cultural identity. In Korean dramas, real Korean families eat rice for breakfast, not bread. Real Korean families still eat sitting on the floor at low-lying tables, not at Western dining tables with chairs. If you're rich and a parasite, raping the economy with shady, underhanded deals, you go to fancy Western restaurants, drink French wines at home, have a designated dining room. All signs that you have lost your Korean identity. Which means you have lost your humanity.

In drama after drama, the first step in regaining your humanity is befriending someone poor (usually your future spouse). This poor person will eventually take you to a street market where they will make you eat fish cakes on a stick and dukkboki from a food stand. In Couple or Trouble, the Queen of Bitches loses her memory and regains her humanity by eating an insane amount of chajangmyon, the commoner's ultimate snack food.

Hollywood used to use food like this too. In movies from the 30s and 40s, the rich, depraved capitalists ate solemnly, silently, in exquisite dining rooms with chandeliers, napkins impeccably on their laps, hidden by French linen tablecloths, course after course of Frenchified food being served by a butler or maid. In contrast, true Americans ate noisily, at large tables surrounded by salt-of-the-earth kin, napkins tucked in their shirts, momma hollering, "Come and get it before it's all gone!" The food is stacked high on humongous platters: fried chicken and biscuits or roast beef and buttery rolls. No French wines—no alcohol at all. Just good, healthy American water and plenty of gravy. (Strangely, no vegetables either, except for tubfuls of mashed potatoes.) The message is clear: there's plenty of food—there's plenty of love—this is the life worth living.

Food isn't used like this anymore. Like in Korean dramas, U.S. dramas still share that fantasy of families eating together at a dining table. But the food is rarely the focus except on Thanksgiving shows. Even then you hardly see people eating at all. The dining table is just an excuse to sit and fight and show a family's inner demons. There's no joy in eating, no joy in food. I suppose it's the culture. These days, Americans are told food is evil—it makes you sick—it makes you fat. Not in Korea. Food is joy. Food is healing. At least if it's real Korean food.