Dixie Kimchee

In Florida during the Eighties I worked with a Korean lady named Marie. What with my drawl and her accent it took us weeks before we came to understand each other well, but once we did we became the best of friends. “We’re both December babies,” she explained. “December babies are happy. Unlucky, but happy.”

Marie was a war bride. She moved from Korea with her GI husband in the Fifties to the little town in south Alabama where he had grown up. She literally had a hard row to hoe, raising three children and taking care of her husband’s mother, who was stricken with cancer. She had to bear the opprobrium of being an Asian bride in a rural Southern village. But Marie endured; she nursed her mother-in-law until the day the woman died, tended a spotless home and a productive garden, raised her children well (college grads, all of them) and won the love and respect of her husband’s friends and relatives. Marie became like a second mother to me. When she found out that I was sleeping on the floor, she called up her husband and had him drop a bed outside my back door. When she found out I didn’t have a good coat, she found one that fit me at a rummage sale. When I was sick, she gave me spicy fish-head soup and made me eat the eyes.

When you’re working around food as we did, the temptation to munch is downright irresistible. Marie and I were world-class munchers. What made our grazing more enjoyable was the kimchee Marie brought to work. Kimchee is fermented with salt, red pepper, garlic and dozens of other ingredients. It’s something like the national dish of Korea, and some of you might remember that on the old t.v. series “M*A*S*H”, one of the running jokes was for them to discover what they thought were landmines but turned out to be jars of kimchee which had been buried to ferment at an even temperature. Kimchee is hot and sour and extremely pungent; some people can’t stand the smell. Kimchee also makes you fart a lot, but I grew to love it. I learned to eat kimchee as a sort of relish, taking a leaf of fresh lettuce (any kind you like), putting a little rice on it, a piece of beef, chicken or fish, a big pinch of kimchee, then you roll up the leaf and eat it: it’s sort of like a Korean taco. In Alabama, Marie discovered that one of the local leaf vegetables made excellent kimchee: turnips.

Wash fresh turnips with greens well, dry them thoroughly, and chop the leaves coarsely. Cut and use stem ends that stick out below the leaf, but don’t bother to remove the stems from the ribs of the leaves. In the meantime, peel your turnips and cut them into rather large chunks. Marie cut hers into oblong slivers. Place in a large glass or ceramic bowl and sprinkle generously with coarse kosher salt. Use enough salt so that each bit of the vegetable is coated. Toss the salt, sliced turnips and chopped greens together. Then take about five cloves of coarsely minced garlic, the whites of a bunch of green onions cut into 1 inch pieces (save the greens for another recipe) and toss them in with the mixture. Let this sit for about half an hour, then mix with a full teaspoon of powdered cayenne pepper, perhaps a bit more: some people use red pepper flakes (a good heaping teaspoon as well), or you can use chopped fresh hot peppers, but I like for the relish to pack a punch. Toss thoroughly. Now put this mixture into glass jars, topping it off with some of the liquid that has accumulated in the bowl. Seal your jars tightly and set them in a cool dark place.

In a few days, check to see if it’s fermenting; look for bubbles. If it is bubbling, open the jar very, very carefully over a sink to let a little bit of the gas escape; if you’re rash about opening the jar, you might just end up with kimchee juice spewed all over you (you might detect the voice of experience here). When the gas has been relieved, reseal the jar and let it sit for another day or so. Then repeat the gas release procedure and refrigerate your kimchee for at least another week before eating.

No matter who you are, you’ll find angels on your journey; Marie was one of mine.

Jacked Around

In the mid-80s, I moved from north Mississippi, where I’d spent my entire life, to north Florida, where nobody spends an entire life. I caught total hell. I mean, I caught hell from people who didn’t even know where their grandparents were buried.

Part of the problem, of course, was the fact that I attached some degree of importance to such things as knowing where your grandparents—and ancestors beyond—had been laid to rest. I also suffered by being the only Rebel fan in a swamp full of Florida Gators. Believe it or not, most of these people didn’t even know what I meant when I said “Ole Miss.” Instead, they referred to it as “Mississippi.” That’s within bounds, of course, but it just doesn’t have the same ring. In the minds of most people I came to know there, Mississippi ended somewhere north of Hattiesburg, and Mississippians in general were categorized as the worst sort of rubes and hicks imaginable. So here I was, a boy from the north Mississippi hills with three years of college and a modicum of manners, both of which turned out to be handicaps.

For another thing, I was a pacifist liberal in an area largely supported by military funding during the middle of the Reagan Era. My Dukakis campaign button brought down a rain of derision upon me, but I wore it defiantly. Finally, to add insult to injury, I’d only been there a little over a year when Alan Parker comes out with this damnatory film about one the darkest chapters of my home state’s history, Mississippi Burning. The impression these people got from the film was that everybody in Mississippi is an ignorant racist just itching to get their hands on some out-of-staters to help shore up our levees.

This conception was reinforced on at least one occasion that I can remember. At the restaurant I worked in, we offered a fish of the day. The offering varied, depending upon what the fleet from Destin brought in and what they charged for their catch. More often than not, however, the fish of the day was amberjack. Now, amberjack is a perfectly good fish, but large amberjack—those over 15 pounds or so—are heavily parasitized by a tapeworm, Poecilancistrium caryophyllum, more commonly known as spaghetti worms The larvae infest the flesh of these large fish, and when you dress them, you have to be careful to remove the parasites. The worms have bulbous heads and long, skinny bodies and they’re all coiled up in the flesh and you have to . . .  well, I’ll leave it at that. It’s pretty disgusting. We were always careful to clean the fish fastidiously before we served it. But some people won’t eat amberjack—or speckled trout, which sometimes have the same problem—for that reason.

Well, I was working in the kitchen one morning with a waitress with whom I had what you could only call a difficult relationship. She was a world-class bitch, and I grew to love her dearly, but at this point I was still coming to appreciate her derisive wit. So when she stormed in, marched up to me and said, “Let me tell you what I think about you damned Mississippians!” I knew I was in for it through no fault of my own, so I just stood there while she let me have it. She had just waited on a table composed of a man from the Mississippi Coast and his wife. He asked her about the fish of the day, and when she told him it was amberjack, he said, “Amberjack! Why, only niggers eat amberjack!”

She was pissed, and rightly so. Oddly enough, though, this incident proved to be a turning point in our relationship, because I assured her that I was just as appalled as she was and dismayed to boot that she had to put up with such a display of rudeness and bigotry. I like to believe that despite my abundant flaws as a human being I was a good ambassador for my home state during my tenure on the Redneck Riviera. I made some good friends there, and though we’ve long since gone our separate ways, I still remember my time in Florida with varying degrees of fondness. It was there that my education on cooking fish and seafood really took off, if for no other reason than for the fact that I had so much to cook and experiment with.

Jack Chowder

Proceed as with any potato soup recipe, using half the potatoes and substituting fish stock (if you have it) for half the liquid. When soup is to consistency, stir in lightly poached amberjack and sautéed sweet peppers. Add a dash or so of cayenne, fresh parsley, a hint of dill and the juice of half a lemon. Adjust for consistency; I like mine rather thick. You can add cooked shrimp to this if you like, and it’s also good cold.