Korean Kimchi Crisis Serves as a Reminder of Lost Food Culture in U.S.

image from www.walrusmagazine.com
picture: the Walrus blog

The story of how the rising price of Napa cabbage is creating a crisis of constraints on the Korean supply of kimchi is a fascinating story in its own right. (I wasn't aiming for alliteration in that sentence but, hey, sometimes it just happens) What has really got me thinking, though, is how the Korean way of life is so connected to food and food processes, in contrast to the American way of life that is so disconnected.

Kimchi is so much a part of Korean life that the kimchi crisis warranted a response  from the government as if they were talking about the supply of gasoline or fresh water;

“There is no reason for regular folks to have to buy items integral to daily life at higher prices than international prices,” Mr. Lee said at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, while instructing his economists to more closely monitor commodity prices that have sent the South Korean consumer price index to a 17-month high.

Notice that the essential nature of the food item is not it's nutritional content, but something deeper, more cultural, more anchored in identity and frameworks of meaning.

The article describes the Autumn family ritual of making kimchi;

The price increases have caused many middle- and lower-income homemakers to cancel the making of kimchi at home this year, a traditional rite of autumn that typically brings together mothers, daughters, aunts, grannies and neighbors. Some families can go through a couple of hundred heads of cabbage, and it’s not unusual for all the bathtubs and sinks in a house to be filled with bobbing cabbages as they are washed, soaked and brined.

The question that arises for me is; What would be the American equivalent to Korean Kimchi? What food items and rituals are so central to our way of life that they would warrant a statement from the governor? What food rituals bring together the generations in our households?

Maybe Thanksgiving turkey comes the closest, but my basic observation is that there is no equivalent. American food culture has been plowed under like a chemically enhanced, genetically modified field of corn. There is not much of an identifiable food culture. By contrast, when we went to Thailand two years ago one of the most memorable, tasty meals was the Korean food on the Korean Airlines flight. Most cultures in the world are integrally connected to food and food processes. A big part of the movement toward local food in the U.S. is an effort to recover our food culture. That's something that economists will never get.

But Korea's food culture may be facing greater challenges than a cabbage shortage;

Mrs. Roh has two daughters, both in their 30s, and she said they learned to make kimchi “by looking over my shoulder, by tasting and doing, like all Korean girls are supposed to.”

One daughter works at an Outback steakhouse, the other at an upscale department store, and they have little time to make kimchi on their own, Mrs. Roh said, lamenting the loss of another tradition to the “ppali ppali” or “hurry hurry” lifestyle of modern South Korea.

Outback steakhouse? I wonder if they serve kimchi with the steak.