Something Delicious

Posted on August 4, 2010


Wednesday August 4, 2010

I have been trying to convince myself that I have a cool, blue reservoir that can be filled by solitary time in the garden, nights at the symphony, yoga, and long bike rides. Mostly, my experience until now has been that my reserve of calm sizzles away in an instant of frustration, like Lake Superior splashed onto the sun. Today, I held onto a drop of my (outward) composure and had a remarkably satisfying evening with our Korean exchange campers  (and Arkady) as a result.

Rick, Arkady and I (well, I actually) decided to invite a 12- and almost 10-year old brother and sister from Seoul into our house and our lives for four weeks. Why did I do this? As far as I can recall, I thought that the visitor (we only realized about a week before they arrived that it would visitors) would be a sort of cooling rod for Rick’s and my frustration with Arkady, and that another child would play with Arkady in the summer evenings when we were too old, grumpy, busy, tired or distracted to do so. The first week or so of interlopers entailed Arkady attaching himself to the older child, Woo Seung, until all four of us were quite irritated with the seven and a half-year-old, with Woo Seung’s sister, Soo Bin primly and not all that affectionately referring to Arkady as a “cute baby monkey.”

Ten days or so into the experiment, we have hit our stride and much of the tension of newness has dissipated. Woo Seung and Soo Bin have grasped Rick’s sense of humor to some extent so that they realize that his deadpanned suggestions that Arkady go in the background and play with a “small bomb” are jokes. Soo Bin has warmed up to selected Western dishes, though she seemed terrified of things not Korean and ate reconstituted noodles out of her suitcase the first week. We posted a list of rules (as much for Arkady to follow as anybody else). And “Keep your hands to yourself” is sinking in; Woo Seung has slightly less reason to cringe every time Arkady walks in a room.

As a result, we are all relaxing a bit and I found some reserve as I walked through the door to my own kitchen at 6 pm tonight.

I had met all three kids at the summer camp at 4 pm today, but we lingered for nearly an hour and a half because there is a show the kids are putting on next Thursday and Soo Bin wanted to stay with three of her friends and practice a dance to be performed with her Korean compatriots. The other moms and I waited in the commons of the school building that serves as the summer camp. The girls practiced their dance and the brothers threw “sticky lizards” at the ceiling until they were all stuck out of reach. Then they threw other things at the ceiling trying to knock down the sticky lizards.

After the dance practice, I dropped three children off at home and zipped over to the Jenkintown farmers market. I didn’t tarry but I did walk back in the door at nearly 6 pm, to the smell of—something burning in my kitchen!

That flame of rage at kids doing something dangerous and/or messy leapt into my throat. Somehow I managed to keep the enraged expression off my face and walked five more paces into my house. The kids were gathered around the stove, but not with the body language of “you caught us” but something more like pride and a sense of process. This assessment was not obvious, but they were—cooking. Woo Seung, said, “We are making something very delicious for dinner.” I realized at that moment, in a rush of sympathy and tenderness that they were hungry. The Korean kids, especially, have been really restless for 45 minutes or so before I’ve gotten dinner on. It was six I was only about to start preparing dinner.

The “something” delicious was the most basic of ramen noodles that the children had picked out at the H-Mart, a local Korean grocery in North Philadelphia in the throes of homesickness the week before. They had (not knowing how to cook pasta) put a cauldron of cold water on the stove, placed the noodles in the cold water and were standing around it with the intensity of a cat watching a caged bird. Little pieces of ramen noodle were strewn around the kitchen. (Their camp clothes—swimsuits and towels, etc. were in a heap on the floor). For some reason they had taken several ice trays out of the freezer. In their hunger and thirst on a hot August day they had cut open and sprayed the contents of several popsicles. And in their misunderstanding of the configuration of my pots and pans they had placed a large cast iron pot still stuck inside another large cast iron pot on the fire. The bottom pot was charring while the top pot was barely being heated—no double boiler effect.

I realized what was going on with the pots and explained that they didn’t have one vessel on the stove but two. I swallowed hard and praised them for the noodles, which, I said, I was sure would be wonderful. I exercised every bit of self-control I had and did not shoo them out of the kitchen, but rather took out another skillet and began to heat some oil to cook chicken and vegetables, the former which I had thankfully cut up last night and the latter which only need to be prepared from what I had just bought at the farmers market.

Then something subtly gratifying happened. For a week, I had been silently grumbling to myself that children everywhere fail to appreciate what a mom or a surrogate mom does. She can wash the endless laundry, keep the house immaculate, put out fresh flowers, cook every meal from scratch and there will never be a thank you, and certainly no offer of assistance. What happened was that as I started to unload the dishwasher, Soo Bin took the clean glasses out and set them on the table. Woo Seung started to take an interest in the chicken and offered to stir it. Soo Bin turned back to the noodles, which were finally cooking somewhat properly, and seasoned them, and set them on the table. I handed her napkins and gently suggested that she continue setting the table. Woo Seung did not take off to go play a game but watched with interest as I sautéed a yellow squash, a tomato, spinach and other vegetables. Soo Bin asked the names of the ingredients and put a bottle of limeade on the table. Suddenly, it seemed to me as a reward for my not having lost my cool, that I existed in their eyes and they were actually appreciative for the fresh meal I was preparing.

I served the stir fried dish and the kids’ noodles, and I lit candles, put on a loaf of bread, set out butter—tasks or their equivalent that I fulfill nearly every night, but about which there was something quietly joyous. We actually had conversation at the table—about what languages are difficult to learn, if one is raised speaking English or Japanese, and how to pronounce the equivalent of “bon appétit” in Korean. We had the satisfaction of good and simple things.

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