When I wander off the 15th fairway and onto the patio of Janet’s bungalow, and into their living room, it’s not to do all that stuff that everyone assumes is going on. Yes, Bob, Janet’s husband, is frequently away,and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking the same thing. It makes us laugh, Janet and me, because you can see their patio from the course and into every room, and when I walk in, every curtain is wide open. It’s Janet’s attempt at transparency, to show the world, or at least the membership, “Look. No carrying on here. No fucking of any kind. See for yourself.”

Angela, my wife, knew I dropped in on Janet and didn’t seem to mind because I came home stuffed. On those days, I wouldn’t make a mess in the kitchen cooking up something that maybe she’d scarf down in the time it takes to make her diluted instant coffee which she lightened with that corn derived instant creamer.

“I just like the way the coffee tastes,” she’d say. We met going to college at Perdue, and that was how coffee was made when we were kids. Angela was from Iowa and me from Ohio. It was all the things we had in common that made it so easy to move in together after college and marry ten years ago. Both of us grew up eating the Mac and Cheese, fried chicken and mashed potato, meat loaf and iceberg lettuce salads with Thousand Island dressing.

Angela never ventured beyond this small circle of safe foods. She gagged the first time we went to sushi with our friends in Minneapolis. She learned to declare herself full to clients when they went to eat at some trendy place, and would eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she kept in her purse on the drive home. I had long ago given up trying new dishes on Angela who found even black pepper overwhelmingly spicy.

Angela works in publishing and edited this missive before she left me and Eddie, our standard poodle, despite all the transparency. I found it open on my laptop with all the markups in yellow getting rid of extraneous comments and run-on sentences, which I mostly undid because what does she know about how I feel.

Throughout the three seasons of golf that I had been finishing my round on the 15th hole, I answered any questions Angela had, which were few, and if I lost any details, she could see the pictures on Instagram or make comments on Facebook. She liked every picture I posted. She gave a thumbs up to every description of the various dishes we tried regardless of whether she would have tried it, which she wouldn’t have.

Janet and Bob and Angela and I first met after we joined the club five years ago. Most of the members were older and we naturally gravitated to one another. Bob is a scratch golfer and we played together just once. He is one of those guys that doesn’t say a word on the course, playing a mistake free round that was as uninspired -just straight 200 yard drives, greens in regulation with machine like regularity, and two putts. The only moment of drama came on 18, when he landed in a trap, laid his blast out to 8 feet, and drained the tricky downhill putt with the same unsettling focus. He barely smiled at the congratulations from his gathered audience of duffers. Over beers, he sat drinking a lemon water, and chewed on a few saltines before dismissing himself. I had fish and chips, and the other two fellows were elbow deep in the half pound bacon cheese burgers.

Angela enjoyed Janet’s company, but found it sad that she couldn’t publish her short stories. Angela even sent the best one, a beautifully written, sad story about a dying, crippled girl, to the fiction editor of her company’s premier literature magazine, but got no feedback. Janet spent her time writing and cooking, and as her writing was going nowhere, she poured her imagination into the kitchen. In the stove, she found, a kinder receptacle than the word processor. Janet would have us over when Bob was away, which was most of the time. He did some kind of financial work, and had to be in New York most of the week.

The first time I walked off 15, Janet was waving to me and pointing at a plate of pastries, only they weren’t dessert. They were golden filo dough wrapped around tender beef ensconced in a potage of savory vegetables. I wasn’t hungry, but I walked over. Seeing the feast, I sat down at their patio table and dug in. I snapped a picture, posted it on Instagram, tapping -“this should feel like cheating, it’s so delicious.”

Circe seduced Ulysses, not with her beauty or magic, but with food and made him late getting home. The following week, as I approached my drive which I had sliced into the grass near Janet and Bob’s yard, I saw Janet look up from her kitchen window and wave me in. She asked me about Angela, and mentioned something about having us over that weekend, but that Bob would be in New York again. I invited her over to our house as we were already having some people for cocktails and the Ohio State game. Lots of chicken nuggets, wings, pigs in blankets, light beer, and of course pizza. She asked if I had eaten, and without waiting for a response, brought over a tray of croque monsieur’s cut into decrusted triangles with a bowl of homemade onion soup -the dark rich broth redolent of caramelized onions that she had grown herself. Picture snapped. Food perfect. Lots of likes.

It became a routine, one that Angela and I joked about. If it bothered her, it was apparent only once when I brought home a bit of pot au feu. She wrinkled her nose and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with her Wonder bread, eating it with a glass of milk standing up in the kitchen as I finished off the stew with a New Zealand Shiraz blend. I never did that again.

The only time there was some tension at Janet’s was last week, when we were laughing over a wonderful Malaysian inspired spring noodle dish with pan seared duck. She got a call from Bob who said he would be stuck in New York over the weekend. He was on speaker and he said hi. After he hung up, Janet sat down without losing a beat and jumped back into our conversation about some local political issue. Then, without warning, she reached over and grabbed my hand and pressed it to her chest. I smiled, mumbled thank you, and retreated back to the fifteenth hole, resuming my round.

Bob cancelled his meetings later that week, and I ran into them at the clubhouse walking in for dinner. Janet was clinging to Bob’s arm. The house is so quiet now without Angela’s FM station blaring from her office. Eddie clearly misses her, and I’m getting hungry.

copyright 2015 W Michael Park

Spam and Clam Chowder


With the recent blizzard, and G getting a snow day, I thought a chowder would work well in warming us up. Chowder developed in the kitchens of inns and fishing homes of New England and Maritime Canada, and represents a kind of kibbles and bits stew. In that tradition, along with the clams (canned US origin) I added some leftover mashed potato from Alba (a local muy excellent restaurant) and minced Spam in place of bacon. The result was all very comfortable, angioplasty optional.

Comfort food and Mother’s day

I was on call and Jen had to leave the house for the evening, leaving me to my fate with regard to dinner. Being the on call surgeon is an exercise in anticipation. I waited like a fire extinguisher hanging in a glass box for that call -a ruptured aortic aneurysm, a cold pulseless limb, trouble in the body’s pipes. I passed the time watching a show from the History Channel about the universe. I fell asleep and woke at 7, way past my usual dinner time.
I walked out in to the family room and made my hungry face -nothing happened. No food. Just silence. I felt existentially as empty as my stomach. Without Jennifer, there was no meal. Just me in a dark box. I sat there for a while chewing on walnuts, contemplating food, and more specifically Korean food. Food holds a central spot in a Korean household and the mom is the one who makes the food. Korean food is time consuming to prepare because of the way a Korean meal is constructed.
The rice is the foundation of the meal. A bowl of rice is a cornucopia to a Korean -a magic bowl of happiness. The rice is eaten with ban ch’an -small dishes of prepared and seasoned meats, fish, and vegetables, sometimes pickled that add salty, spicy, tangy, and sweet to a bowlful of rice. The variety of side dishes is what is so appealing about the Korean meal and so devilishly hard to prepare. Most of the vegetable dishes are created from roots and leafy greens that distill large baskets of raw produce into handfuls of final items in small dishes on the table. The process sometimes takes the whole day, sometimes two days, and typically 3 or 4 of these vegetable dishes are standard.
The meat was a rarity in premodern times, and was usually reserved for festival days but prosperity has made it common. Fish, too, is standard -usually a hand sized cutlet of salted mackerel broiled in the oven is shared among everyone at the table. This emphasis on intensely flavored small portions of meat or fish allows a small quantity to flavor a mouthful of rice. So imagine a Korean war refugee who came into possession of a can of Spam from a US Army C-ration -it was ambrosia. Spam came into such high regard that even today, giving a carton of Spam is considered a suitably generous house gift.
Spam cooks to a beautiful crispness with juicy tenderness in the center of medium thickness cuts that perfectly flavor rice -especially cold left over rice. I found some rice and a can of Spam in the pantry and all thoughts of going out for a steak were gone. Filet mignon does not compare to a bowl of cold rice topped off by three medium thickness slices of Spam crisped to perfection on a frying pan. And in the near darkness of the empty house, I savored my repast to the last spoonful, feeling soothed, sated, happy. Mothered in fact.

Ramen Man -Ramen 1.0

Homemade hand milled ramen noodles

After a few years of mental preparation, I have decided to go for it.My life goal for the next 10 years is among other things, to create a perfect bowl of ramen from scratch. Not the instant stuff that college students eat dry. No, not even the fast-food stuff that people slurp down in train stations in Tokyo. This is the real deal -stuff made from the heart and soul. I am Ramen Man -and this is my first try.

The noodles have been a riddle for a while because reports on the internet are that the package ramen noodles are fried before they are cooked. I created a basic egg noodle dough ball of flour, eggs, and water with the addition of an ingredient taken from the KBS documentary Noodle Road. Turns out, the Central Asian heartland from when ramen (lo-mein, laghman) came had very alkaline water. This and the arrival of wheat cultivation created the noodle over five millenia ago.

Though the water here in Iowa is already pretty hard, I added some baking soda to raise the pH. This causes the gluten proteins to bond into long, tenacious strands.

The noodles were pressed out using an old Atlas pasta maker from Italy. I had grown up making kal-guk-soo from the age of 10, so getting the noodles out on the finer setting was no big deal. The picture above shows the work -a softball sized dough ball makes enough for 4 people.

The noodles are boiled then quickly rinsed in cold water, and over this the broth is added.

Ahh -the broth. This is where the journey begins. My first effort is with a basic da-shi-ma (seaweed and dried anchovy broth) added 2:1 to pork/ginger broth. Some pork cutlet was added, as was thin cut green onions, but for this effort, I wanted just naked noodles and broth.

The noodles were in fact perfect. The baking soda -a reflection of the hard desert spring water of Central Asia, allowed the noodles to have a perfect springiness.

Naked ramen

The broth itself was without distinction and this is where all the hard work will go -it was clear and clean, but better suited for a mushroom soup or a fish soup than for ramen. And the ramen I am stalking is hakata ramen -the clear white broth the result of days of boiling pork (could it be the head?).

I did get a thumbs up from my critics.

The Midnight Snack

snc11871I have always loved ramen, pronounced ramyun in Korean. It is a corruption of the original Chinese lo-mein. Other cultures, including the Bukharan Jews of Central Asia, enjoy noodles in soups (they call it lagman). I have seen people eat these dry -I confess as a kid I used to do that too. Back in the day, my favorite was Sapporo Ichiban Ramen from Japan. It was basic -ur Ramen. Though the Chinese created these noodle soup dishes, and the Japanese made it a snack food by frying and drying the noodles for packaging, it is the Koreans who have created the perfect flavor -hot and spicy.

As a kid -the way to pep up the relatively bland Sapporo Ichiban was to add some kimchi into the boiling water. But kimchi is sometimes not available, but the food scientists at Shin Ramyun have recreated the perfect salty/spicy blend. It is the best Ramyun on the market. A close second is Neoguri (pronounced nuh-goo-ri).

The way I prepare it is boiling it the usual way, but I add two eggs which become poached in the soup. One egg i will break up to create kind of an egg drop effect, but the other I will leave to make a perfect poached egg within the spices. It is the real center of this dish. To this, I will add chopped green onions cut long (about two to three inches). Maybe some spinach leaves from the giant Costco packages.

If you’re really hungry, adding some cold rice to it is an easy way to increase the deliciousness. It is incredibly satisfying in a way that soul food satisfies. Water boiling now -must go.