Grandma is a thick lady with long knobby fingers, club thumbs, and a forty-five degree tilt of the spine. Her thin, curly hair that radiates away from a near-bald spot in the back is dyed black, has gray roots, her jacket is held together with a safety pin, her plaid shirt has been patched at the shoulder with a floral print and her pants, which look homemade, seem to have the inside seams out. This is a lady who’s been through the war, through food scarcity, who raised four boys who all grew up to be successful business men with nice homes, most near the top floors of high rise apartment buildings in Busan, living in the zone between comfort and excess.
We come into Grandma’s house for the second time on Kimchi Sunday. Her house looks like someone is in the process of moving out. There is nothing on the walls except the paper that has been unevenly re-papered, the ceiling is stained from water leakage and the kitchen floor is patched with packing tape where the vinyl has cracked. The shallow couch, which looks like booth seats from a restaurant that were thrown out when the 80’s ended, is covered with assorted items of clothing. She’s sitting near the doorway with a blanket in her lap, picking with dirt stained fingers at the tips of bunches of leeks. The couch, the kitchen table, two storage bureaus, and a few chairs, are the only visible furniture. Things are stacked along the walls, pots and bags of food items I can’t identify, a kind of basement assortment of things that have no official place. Tin foil is taped on the wall behind the range and the stuffed doll toilet paper holder in the kitchen has one scorched foot. The cabinet under the sink hangs askew. If there is heat in the house, she isn’t using it although the rain has been falling slowly –but not quite snow. She has a small garden out back, two palm trees, and a tree that flowers red in the winter.
Earlier we had washed the cabbage, a very cold process, and made what I affectionately refer to as the “red,” which involved a lot of chili powder, and glutinous rice flower boiled with water. I was instructed to stir it so that it wouldn’t clump or settle. Just like making gravy. We left for two hours to let the red do whatever it is the red needs to do before it can be put on the cabbage.
We make upwards of a dozen gallons of kimchi. I think that’s a conservative estimate. I think you could put two milk jugs in each brown bin of which we took home at least six that were nearly full, and left some kimchi behind in Grandma’s containers. I find it incredibly painful to sit on my knees, bending over a basin filled with red, separating every layer of the cabbage to smear the red between, and worrying about the plumber crack I’ve got going on and can’t do anything about because my hands are covered in red. Luckily my back is to the door. They laugh at my faces of discomfort.
But when she repackages my kimchi bundles, my host mother says “Oh, Sara, good!” I say I am Korean and they laugh. The whole time I am thinking that I will never take kimchi for granted again. And trying to forget about one of the incredients in the red –a pink and chunky sludge the consistency of vomit that was described to me as “fish.”