A Piece of White Bread and a Cup of Coffee, Mom’s Comfort Food

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This would be probably one of my earliest memories – looking at my mom enjoying a piece of morning quietness with her late breakfast after my dad went to work and my sister went to school. It was before I started kindergarten, so it must have been one of those days she didn’t go to work. Her breakfast was often very very simple. A piece of white bread, dipped in coffee. Just a plain white bread, not toasted, with no jam or butter, no cheese or ham. Even as a kid, I thought it didn’t look delicious at all. When I asked mom why she was having it, she smiled and answered “This is most delicious.”

After years and years and years passed, out of nowhere, not knowing why, sitting alone at the kitchen table in Queens of my current home, I tried what my mom used to have – a piece of plain bread dipped in coffee. Coffee had to be made with instant coffee, prima, and sugar. And that – was delicious.

Plain bread soaked in sweet coffee must be a bit similar to dunking a sweet donut in black coffee, which a lot of people enjoy, but the former somehow has a bit more modest and fragile sentimentality. Donut doesn’t break when it’s dunked in coffee. It holds itself strong enough. But a sliced bread, thin and often fluffy, has only a few seconds of chance to hold between getting soaked in coffee and landing safely in the mouth. But when it does land in the mouth, you can taste the softest and sweetest, melting in the mouth, coffee soaked piece of bread. Most delicious.

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Coffee with Half & Half in New Haven, 2005

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I stayed in New Haven briefly over the summer of 2005, subletting a modest studio apartment from a student writer who was spending her summer in New York. It was my very first time living completely on my own, in a “real” apartment, not a dorm room. Though it was only for three months, I felt pretty cool. Until then, my experience in America had been limited to visiting friends and relatives or living on campus, which were all very safe and not so “independent”. I was pretty excited with this new setting and enjoyed every bit of it. When a close friend came to stay with me for a few weeks, flying all the way from Korea, even going grocery shopping became a fun activity (probably because we treated ourselves with crispy crème donuts whenever we went grocery shopping).
Then one day we went into a corner store. It was then when this small package of milk with a picture of coffee on top caught my eye. I instantly thought ‘Oh, they have coffee milk in America, too.’ By “coffee milk,” I mean “coffee flavored” milk, just like chocolate milk or strawberry milk. Coffee milk was my favorite choice of drink as a teenager in Korea, regardless of the fact that it basically was just sweet milk with a hint of coffee scent. Upon graduating high school, I had evolved into a sophisticated grown-up who drank coffee instead of coffee milk. Yet I felt very happy and nostalgic seeing coffee milk, I immediately bought one. When we came home, I opened it and drank right from the packet as I always did in high school. Of course it wasn’t sweet, coffee flavored milk I expected, that came pouring into my mouth. I stopped drinking, with my eyes wide-open, and my friend looked at me puzzled, probably because I must have had the most confusing look on my face.
That was the first time I learned about “half&half”that it was cream for coffee. And during that summer, I enjoyed my iced coffee greatly with half&half. When summer heat cooled off during the evening, my friend and I would make iced coffee, with half&half, come out of the small studio apartment, and drink the coffee outside, pretending we were old time local residents of the building. Though no one would have thought so, we liked to think that way. And my friend would praise that I made excellent coffee. (It was instant coffee with half&half.) A few years later, we got to spend another couple weeks together over the summer and I made iced coffee. When she tasted it, after a moment of silence, she said, “Your coffee in New Haven was so much better.” And I agreed my coffee tasted better at that time. Then, we realized, it wasn’t that I had made good coffee in New Haven – it was the magical half&half that we hadn’t known before, that made coffee so tasty!
Alas, I don’t enjoy half&half any more, (I like to think I evolved even more into more sophisticated grown-up, who likes one’s coffee dark and bitter) but I just cannot forget the first time I encountered half&half. And it certainly made our summer of 2005 better with tasty coffee.

Breakfast To Go, Illinois, 2003

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I found my favorite breakfast in America in 2003, while I was attending a small liberal art boarding college, located deep into a little town near Mississippi river. It was during my very first year I spent in U.S. as a grown-up (I’m saying this because I spent two years in U.S. in my infancy when my family was living in Ohio, which of course I don’t remember).

As much as I loved the life on campus – surrounded by nature, very supportive and safe environment, lifelong friends and great teachers – I was also struggling to adjust to a completely new life and culture, far, far away from my beloved families and friends who I left behind in S.Korea. The little town and the small campus had absolutely no Korean around, and I was very often homesick from not being able to speak my mother tongue. Though my friends and classmates were more than wonderful, having to have a conversation in English all the time drained my energy sometimes and I just wanted to be alone. Being alone wasn’t easy though in a small and intimate setting of a boarding school campus where everyone knew everyone. (This must have been an ideal setting though for a first timer in US, I later realized. It is horrifying to imagine coming to NY as a first timer, where people are too busy and quite indifferent in others.)

Then there was this Thursday morning breakfast when everything came together perfectly for the relaxation of my body and soul. I had one hour class from 9am. My roommate had three hour class and was gone for the entire morning. (Come to think of it, I was a horrible, awkward roommate, especially for the first semester.) And the school cafeteria, where most of students came for three meals a day, or two, if you skip one, served my favorite breakfast every Thursday! Their breakfast menu was on a weekly routine, and I couldn’t have loved this Thursday breakfast more. It was buttery biscuits with sausage gravy on top. Mmm…so yum! I actually didn’t miss Korean food that much during my first year in US, and adjusted quite well to American food (which I’m not so sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing). But that biscuit with sausage gravy was especially so good and even now it makes my mouth water. I often skipped breakfast, but on Thursdays, as soon as the morning class was over, I would run to the cafeteria, being very impatient, got the biscuit with sausage gravy on top to go, came back to a quiet empty room, and slowly indulged in eating the delicious, peaceful breakfast all by myself.

I’m not sure if I will still like the food now if I have that again (oh, I will like it!!) – but in any case, back then, it was the most perfect comfort food for a tired and lonely foreign student who sought the peace of mind and body.

 

 

Breakfast in Tokyo, 2010

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Now I can take a convenient non-stop flight between New York and Seoul, but in early 2000s, when I lived in midwest, all my planes to and from Korea had an overlay in Japan. After ten plus something hours of being cramped in a narrow seat from USA to Japan, I would sit at the transfer gate totally exhausted, thinking of home that I would get to in couple hours. I had never gone outside of the airport (except one time the airline overbooked the flight and I stayed at the nearby hotel until the next flight) to explore the city. Then in 2010, my close friend from college who had moved to Tokyo invited me to stay over, and I stopped by for a week on my way home to Korea.
I ate a lot of delicious food during my stay in Japan, but what I remember the most is the breakfast my friend cooked every morning. She had recently moved to the apartment at that time, so didn’t have any table to sit around. We would sit on the floor with food and eat together. Every morning, she made hearty meal for our breakfast. Even for someone who loves cooking, making breakfast every day for someone else is a lot of work especially when it involves more than pouring cereal and milk in a bowl. She always included small side dishes of pickled veggies, lots of salad with fresh lettuce, and big omelet style eggs, which were all delicious. On top of that, there was a main dish – one day it was perfectly simmered chicken to go on top of rice, another day it was grilled fish, another day it was tiny pancakes with tuna, crab, and veggies. While my friend was cooking, I stayed in bed and got up only when the breakfast was ready. It definitely was the luxury not many grownups get to enjoy, and it still remains as my favorite memory in Japan, thanks to my friend’s heartfelt hospitality.

Breakfast in Selcuk, 2002

AramKim_2016_TurkishBreakfast_Selcuk_CR_72dpi_singedSince my sister and I didn’t prepare anything (though I’m tempted to say we were spontaneous, we were simply unprepared), when an old man who was waiting at the bus station of a town called Selcuk (10-12 hours away by bus towards South from Istanbul) told us he had a guest house, we happily followed him. It was quite common back then that small guest house owners would wait for their potential customers at the train or bus station, hoping to get backpackers like us  when long distance bus or train arrived.  After a long overnight bus ride, we were just ready to go anywhere if they had a room for us.

The town was very quiet and peaceful. The room was…so bare. Bed was very small and wobbly  and the mattress so thin. There was a curtain instead of a door for the bathroom. We were about to feel a little bit sorry for ourselves, but then when we walked out of the house to look around the town, there was a sudden wave of fragrance. It was from jasmine flowers that were abundantly covering the gate arch. The smell was so divine, air so sweet, all of a sudden, it almost felt surreal. (There were a lot of surreal moments afterwards while traveling in Turkey.) And this was the moment the trip in Turkey really started becoming memorable.

Next morning, breakfast was set out in the garden. Our old host was very proud of the set up, and he had all the right to be. It was gracious. Sliced tomatoes and cucumbers were so fresh, white cheese was just rightly salty, soft bread with butter and jam melted in the mouth. Boiled eggs were delicious. On top of that, sweet jasmine fragrance and fresh air just made everything so heavenly. This was now so long ago, I don’t remember if we ate with the host’s family or if there were olives on the table (which feels to be the probability) or if we drank coffee or tea or both, but this sensation of eating such fresh breakfast out in the garden surrounded by flowers is forever  ingrained in my brain as one of the perfect moments that I had in Turkey.

Breakfast with Daddy 1997-1999

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There are things you don’t truly appreciate until much later. Unconditional love and support you get from your parents is one of them because it feels so natural when you are receiving them. I often thought of my parents’ support on whatever I chose to do, but it wasn’t until quite recent that I thought of the physical effort they must have gone through while I was in high school.
High schools in S.Korea are straightforward intense. I was supposed to get to school by 7:30 in the morning, school was over by 5 in the afternoon, but after one hour of dinner break, students were to gather again for a self study session until 10 at night. One goal for everyone was acing the national college entrance exam in November and enter a prestigious college. While I was going through this crazy routine for three years, my mom and dad went through the same crazy routine.
The school I attended was far away from home, by choice, about two hours away by subway/bus. So dad drove me, everyday, to, and from school. By driving, and especially because it was so early in the morning with no traffic, it took less than an hour to get to school. Mom packed my lunch everyday, waking up much earlier than rest of the family, and also packed dad’s and my breakfast before we left around 6:30 am. When we arrived in front of school, Dad and I would sit in the car quietly and eat the breakfast Mom packed for us. Most of the time it was ham, cheese, egg sandwich with lettuce, and milk. The sandwich was cut in four pieces, each piece wrapped carefully, and put together in a clean bag. After eating, I went to school, dad went to work. Then by the time I finished, dad would come from work (long after his work hour was over) and drove me home. We actually had a good time, though both were tired, spending so much time together in a car, everyday.
Among countless things my parents did for me, somehow this routine they had for three years especially strikes me as something noble and painful (though they would deny it was neither). But in the mean time, I’m sure what I know is just a tip of  iceberg of what they have done for their children.

Hot Dog Love

I love hot dogs. I always have. The very first snacking I remember I did on my own was buying a hot dog when I was a first grader. When I say a hot dog here, it’s a corn dog in US. I don’t know how that happened, but that’s how the name transferred to a far away continent. What do we call American hot dogs in Korea? We call it hot dog, too. No biggie.

1_PrePackagedFrozenHotDog_AramKimBoth my parents were working, so I went to the elementary school close to my grandma’s. I would come back from school, get a coin from my grandma, and cheerfully skipped down to the nearby bakery in the neighborhood. They sold pre-packaged hot dogs. Thinking back, it must have been a frozen hot dog, but it didn’t matter then, and it wouldn’t now. The lady at the counter warmed it up in a microwave and handed it to me. Mmmm…delicious! Hot dog was definitely my favorite snack as a kid.
3_SugarHotDog_AramKimThen there was this “sugar coated” hot dog sold at the snack house near my high school, which was a big hit among students. It’s a regular hot dog with deep fried dough, but if you request, the vendor would deep the hot dog into the bucket of white sugar, pulling it out completely covered with a thin coat of white sugar. Even back then, I didn’t try it. It seemed ridiculous to eat a sweet hot dog – yet, it was quite popular. Some students claimed it was a southern style, which we never figured out if that was true. In any case, I loved their hot dogs, without the sugar coat. It was such a wonderful snack for always hungry teenagers.
5_MonsterHotDog_AramKimAnd there is this crazy creative kind of hot dog that seems to baffle many foreign visitors. These are sold from street vendors in Korea, called by weird name “man-du-ki.” It’s a hot dog with chunks of fries added to the dough before it goes into deep fry oil. It looks absolutely mouthwatering (or horrifying, depending on your taste), but to be honest, it’s not as delicious as it looks. Yet, the visual is quite striking, so it’s hard to pass it by when you see one. These are more commonly sold around touristic places, and especially if you are on a vacation at the beach, you would definitely want to get one. A few years ago, I went to a beach in Korea with three of my friends who went to school in NY together, saw several carts selling this. We all got one. Even the vegetarian friend got one. She ate the dough and fries, but left out sausage.
AramKim_HogDogBunsLastly, there are various kinds of hot dog oriented pastries, like sausage buns, that are sold in the bakery. When I was little, there was only one kind, old fashioned sausage bun with fried dough -greasy, but delicious. The parchment paper on which these buns were displayed  was always soaked in oil. Later, many kinds of fancier looking sausage buns came out, making the choice ever harder. Mostly they had added cheese, corns, parsley, etc., giving it sort of a pizza flavor. I love them all.
I can keep talking about hot dogs that I had in Korea, but America is the country of hot dogs, so I cannot not mention at least one kind. The best hot dog I had in US would be Nathan’s Famous hot dog at Coney Island.
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I’m sure the environment (in this case, the beach, ocean, ocean breeze, view of Luna Park, etc.) must have added something magical to the food, but still, their hot dogs were delicious! Casing was delightfully chewy, sausage was very flavorful and juicy. And how about its perfect combination with chili cheese fries!! But somehow other branches of Nathan’s don’t have the same perfectness, or maybe I feel that way. Almost two hour subway ride from Queens to the end of Brooklyn definitely makes my butt hurt, but I never not go to Coney Island when there is a willing companion. Sadly, that doesn’t happen quite often enough, but that rarity also adds up to the pleasant experience of eating hot dog at Coney Island.
 P.S. While I was writing this, I remembered having seen an article on the origin of hot dog vendors of NYC in New York Times a few years ago, and tried to find that article. The article had nice black and white photograph of the hot dog vendors from the past. I searched NYT, and a little too many articles came up solely on the subject of hot dogs. I didn’t find the article I was looking for, but I found a lot of other interesting articles on hot dogs! I’m not enjoying or eating hot dogs as much as I used to, but still, I can confidently say I LOVE hot dogs. My favorite snack and comfort food. Mmmm..