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.