Inviting Writing: Korean-Style Picnics

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Many thanks to those of you who shared your picnic-related stories for the latest Inviting Writing prompt—we hope this past holiday weekend was a time of making more good food memories! Today, we bring you pastry chef Anny Wohn's story about "picnicking" in a New York City school cafeteria as a child. (You can also read about a Korean-style beach picnic on her excellent food and travel blog, Urban Egg.)

P.S. 32 Picnic by Anny Wohn

I attribute it to the mountainous terrain or perhaps the four distinct seasons, but Koreans adore picnics.  In fact, each spring and fall when the fragrant blossoms or the magnificent foliage paint the landscape, there are organized picnics known as so-poong for school children and their chaperones nationwide. On these school trips, each student-parent pair brings a do-shi-rak, a portable, multi-tiered lunch box with samplings of different dishes in each compartment.

A Korean child’s school lunch is akin to a smaller individual-scale picnic.  The do-shi-rak my mother typically packed for me contained bulkogi (marinated grilled beef), blanched spinach tossed in sesame oil, marinated soy bean or mung bean sprouts, grilled tofu with a ginger-soy dressing, spicy cucumbers and steamed rice, each in its own neat little space within my portable lunch case.

My parents enrolled me at Public School 32 within ten days of our arrival in New York from Seoul. I ate my elaborate do-shi-rak at the school cafeteria, with curious stares and sometimes rude comments from my classmates, who ate their sandwiches from their all-American “Barbie” or “Dukes of Hazzard” lunch boxes.

It was 1979, after all, and Americans did not yet know Asian cuisine the way they do now. Chop suey and chow mein were still mainstays on Chinese menus, sushi was only just becoming popular among yuppies, and although hippies had long embraced Indian cuisine, it was hardly mainstream. And Korean? No one understood Korean food then.

About a week after I started at P.S. 32, I stood up to reach for my do-shi-rak in the cubby neatly lined with everyone’s lunch boxes, and to my horror realized it was not there—I had forgotten to bring it with me that morning! Panic set in almost immediately.

My astute teacher, Mrs. Modry, detected something was wrong and came to my aid. Though I had been tutored in some English words and phrases at the International School back in Seoul, I did not know how to say “lunch box.” Finally, after miming and playing guessing games, I conveyed to her that I did not have my lunch with me.

She escorted me to the school cafeteria with the class, and put my name on the list for “hot lunch.” It must have been a traumatic event for me, because I vividly remember every detail of what was on my cardboard tray: the hamburger patty saturated in gravy—a.k.a.  "Salisbury Steak"—with floppy crinkle-cut fries, khaki-colored “green beans,” and one red-and-white half-pint carton of milk with a thin white plastic straw.

It was not particularly palatable, but I went through the motions, picking at the food with a "spork" until Jonathan, who had already built a reputation as the class scavenger, reached out a scrawny hand and asked, “are you gonna eat that?”

Just then, my mother showed up at the cafeteria’s back door with my do-shi-rak, a few moments too late. She was a lovely sight through my teary eyes, even with her face flushed from rushing. She spoke to Mrs. Modry and went to the principal’s office to pay the fifty cents owed for my hot lunch. I don’t know what happened to my untouched do-shi-rak, but I suspect Mom probably had her own picnic at home afterwards.

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