Eating Authors: Tracy Townsend

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Tracy Townsend

The world of social media is a crazy place. I’ve been a part of one online world or another since before there was a web. Who remembers Portal and Plink? And the obscene prices of Compu$erve or and the gasps of freedom that AOL offered? Whole tribes coming together, often in relative anonymity, and building communities unhampered by distance and physicality. Such places set the stage for the even stranger groupings that now exist on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.

All of which is to set up the segue for how I met Tracy Townsend, this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest. She found me on Twitter last Spring (or maybe I found her, it’s a blur) and we hit it off, trading posts and direct messages. She told me she had a book coming out in the fall and I sent her an invitation to share a meal on the blog. A few months later, we actually met at the Nebula Conference in Pittsburgh where she regaled me with stories of her brilliant students, listened to me prattle on about BARSK, and introduced me to her husband (who was a pretty cool guy in his own right).

Tracy’s first novel, The Nine, comes out tomorrow.

LMS: Welcome, Tracy. So what stands out as your most memorable meal?

XX: Most writers pay the bills with more than the occasional advance check. As for me, I teach English at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, a public STEM boarding school for gifted students. (Imagine something like Professor Xavier’s school for the gifted, but everyone’s super-power is calculating derivatives and subsisting on a diet of caffeine and memes.) Students are often surprised to learn I came to teaching Bradbury and Shakespeare and Tiptree by way of teaching martial arts.

There was a joke among the masters in my training organization that in order to get a black belt, you had to like three things: beer, push-ups, and kimchi. As my first dan test approached, those criteria seemed more impossible than any of the actual testing criteria. I hate beer, have the same relationship to push-ups as most people have to parallel parking, and hadn’t yet eaten kimchi, which (depending on who you ask) is either a side dish, a condiment, or a way of life.

The Nine

This is a good time to pause and set the scene.

It’s mid-summer in northern Kentucky, back in the early aughts. I’m at Tae Kwon Do training camp, a three day weekend where long endurance drills, forms practice, sparring conditioning, and running combine into a kind sublime haze of pain and exhaustion. Daily drills include toughening the hands by knife-hand chopping split rail fences (with the attendant splinters, bruising, and swollen fingers) and practicing the three most basic kicks “until your breath smells like chicken piss.” (My master’s words, and remarkably apt. Ketosis is crazy stuff.) Most attendees sleep in tents. Those who can afford a bit more get a bunk in a longhouse next to a cold-water communal bathroom. I’m four months from my black belt exam. My instructor drills me and my training partner with a level of dedication I’d call obsessive, if I didn’t know him so well.

It’s not obsessive. It’s maniacal.

The reward for making it to the end of the long weekend in one battered, sweaty, mosquito-bitten piece is the Korean feast. Madame Choi, wife of my organization’s grandmaster, takes over the commissary the night before the feast, shooing away all the usual volunteer cooks. The building transforms into a chamber of secrets where rice cookers large enough to steam kindergarteners whole start in the wee hours of the morning and trays of bulgogi and japchae roll out of the kitchen in endless succession, suggesting some non-Euclidian space for storing all their ingredients. And there is kimchi, of course.

I’ve been warned about kimchi by this time. Black belts speak of its wonders in darkened tents the night before the feast, faces poised over glowing flashlights, delighting in ghoulish half-truths about its production. It’s napa cabbage and radishes and hot peppers in brine, they whisper. It’s sealed in clay jars and buried — no, seriously, actually BURIED UNDERGROUND, for like, months, and then, she digs it up and we eat it. Perhaps there are still places where you plant your kimchi in the dirt and take a hike, but northern Kentucky isn’t one of them. Madame Choi has an industrial-sized tub of it prepared, and unless she just arrived from an archaeological dig, there’s no way she’s got the acreage to have stowed it all underground.

If you google “what is kimchi” one of the first entries under “people also ask” is “What do you do with kimchi?” It’s almost touching in its existential undertones. What do you do with pickled, spicy doom-cabbage?

Well. If you’re in the company of almost-black-belts, you feed it to them. You feed a lot of it to them.

The Nine

It should be understood I’m a notoriously picky eater. There’s much more I won’t eat than will, and if you look down a list of my “won’ts,” a predictable pattern emerges. Anything with vinegar. Anything pickled. Anything in brine. Anything with a respectable amount of spice. Most condiments. Salad dressing. Cold side dishes. Slimy stuff. Kimchi is perfectly engineered to hit all my “no” buttons. The night before the feast, haunted by visions of canopic jars of pickled cabbage, all my dreams coalesce around kimchi. I see myself executing my final forms so crisply, my dobak sleeves snap like sheets in the wind. I break stacks of boards as tall as myself with anime-esque ease. And then a small plate of kimchi appears before me as I sit in seiza, and I wake in a cold sweat, utterly defeated.

Feast night arrives, and the commissary is abuzz with chatter. Upper belts beg to have their picnic plates heaped as high as styrofoam structural engineering will permit. White belts look cautiously at foods that, to children of the midwest with tastes to match, look as foreign as can be imagined — translucent rice noodles and whisper-thin onions sauteed with mung bean and tamari and bright flecks of carrot. I stand over a tremendous Tupperware container of kimchi, one of Madame Choi’s sober-looking assistants waiting for my request. My instructor stands beside me, grinning.

The kimchi smells of red pepper and bitter radish and something I can’t quite place that might be rice vinegar. It looks like someone couldn’t decide whether to use their kitchen trimmings in a recipe or take them out to the compost and so let time and neglect decide the matter. It glistens a little, but that might just be my imagination.

“Um,” I say.

“She’ll take some,” my instructor says.

The server gives me a dainty, ginger helping. I am immediately convinced she is a good and sensible person.

“No way, more than that.”

I am somewhat less convinced of my instructor’s goodness and sense.

By the time he’s done urging the server on, my plate is close to one-third kimchi. I slump along beside him to the table set aside for our group, hunch over my plate, and contemplate failure with a self-awareness worthy of someone who has read Hagakure as many times I have.

I don’t like beer. I don’t like push-ups. I’m sure I won’t like kimchi. But I have something to prove, and an audience to prove it to, and I’m nothing if not susceptible to a challenge. Starting with the fearsome part of the meal is the only way to protect my would-be black belt dignity.

I choose chopsticks over a fork, because dammit, I have to get something right.

I snap up a bite of bulgogi and kimchi together, looking to soften the blow. And I eat.

The bulgogi warms the kimchi, its tender, grill-blackened edges muting the kimchi’s surprising snappiness. One crunch, and then everything begins to smooth out. The flare of heat subsides. Somewhere in the middle of the sugary-sweet bulgogi coating my tongue and the piquant kimchi stripping it astringently clean, I notice the looks on my training partners’ faces. I catch my instructor’s watchful, eager eyes. My friends aren’t chewing yet, but it’s not because they’re waiting for my comic spit-take. They’re hopeful, waiting for my Sam-I-Am moment. I do like weird cabbage from a can, I do, I do, black belt man!

They’re waiting to welcome me among them, because that’s what food does. It feeds the body, yes — a body covered with contusions, breathless from running uphill in ninety degree heat. But it also feeds the sense of community. It’s as much a mark of membership as the bruises and lactic burn and sweat saturating your clothes. Sharing the food of a place or group tells you you’ve arrived. It’s the place at the table and the plate set before it that binds it and seals your arrival.

I ate the whole plate, laughing and shrugging and relying on japchae to cool the burn. Even now, I’m not sure if I truly like kimchi. But I do keep an eye out for Korean restaurants. I make sure to try their kimchi. I hold it in my mouth and think about the faces that waited to welcome me to the table. I eat it and count the scars on my knuckles, the marks where fences and trees made me earn my seat at the feast. I think about kimchi when my right hip aches, every time it rains.

I’m afraid still I don’t like beer. I’m getting better about push-ups. Nothing’s ever perfect. But the memory of kimchi comes close.

Thanks, Tracy. It’s good to know that as I am a lifetime (or more) away from acquiring any kind of martial arts belt,
I won’t have to give up my own aversion to kimchee. If we’re ever at a Korean restaurant together, you can have my share.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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