It is quite difficult to remain in a foul mood while eating soup. Even poorly made soup. If it’s warm, if it’s not poured directly into your lap, and if there isn’t a hair in it, it is impossible to hang on to the tension, the cynicism, the fatigue. Soup is an old friend. From the Campbell’s served to your third-grade sickbed to the more exotic varieties you experiment with later in life, soup kills the arrows and poisons and dark clouds that follow us.
I met two old friends one night. A bowl of miso soup at Seoul Garden and Judith Rogowski, a woman I’ve known since the time of my Eraserhead haircut and Devo record collection. Both took away the dark clouds, both took away the chill.
Seoul Garden is located on Dequindre just past 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights. It is the centerpiece of a thriving Asian, Middle-Eastern and Indian marketplace out here in the blandest of Macomb County burbs. Sterling Heights needs these markets. They are the only things that balance out the quiet suffocating smells of prepackaged microwave meat loaf dinners and Dodge Caravan exhaust.
Rogowski points out the perfectly prepared dishes in Seoul Garden’s windows before we step in.
“Look at those things. Aren’t they beautiful? I’ve always had a thing about fake food displays. I looked into it one time, and you can’t believe how expensive these things are.”
I see a lot of raw meat and vegetable arrangements. A large wooden boat in the shape of a fish holds what looks like an assortment of sushi. Other plates are showing off all types of red and brown flesh. The raw shrimp look so wet and pink that I see why this particular niche of advertising is so expensive. Whoever created these probably studied for years at some Korean monastery, forced to fashion fish heads out of plastic while chanting on the stone floor.
Miss Rogowski feels right at home here. She’s been coming here since high school. Back in the “Value Village” days, when men wore mascara and faked British accents, when women wore suitcoats from the ’50s and ripped their stockings before leaving the house.
“I love this place. And you know what I love more than anything else? The rice. That small steel bowl of rice you get. It’s a simple thing. But it’s done to absolute perfection. It’s just one of the things I like about Korean food. Small, simple things done to perfection,” she explains as we wait for our pickles.
These are not “pickles” in the Sterling Heights sense of the word. These are not the things you’ll throw on a backyard-barbecued-burger while you wait for the hubby to chlorinate the pool. These are small dishes of cabbage and radish root and spinach and soybeans and seaweed that are either fermented or smell like they’ve been fermented.
“These are digestives,” Rogowski explains. “They help you process what is about to come. But be careful with the kimchi (the cabbage one). That one will ruin your day if you eat too much.”
The miso soup comes in a small wooden bowl with one of those cool spoons that maximizes the slurp, allowing for fanciful approaches to the mouth. It’s soup. It’s warm and salty and tastes of onion. It’s not poured into my lap. No hair. A friend.
What is about to come is Korean barbecue. It’s cooked right on the table. There’s a huge vent above our heads, which means I can smoke like a fiend with nary a guilty pang. The waitress starts throwing all this marinated beef and shrimp and onions and mushroom caps on this round grill in the center of the table. I comment that we can’t realistically expect to eat all this.
“Oh, no! You big boy! You big boy and eat everything!” our waitress giggles while turning over the shrimp.
Rogowski pours sake out of a tiny ceramic pitcher into a tiny ceramic cup. It suits her, all these little things. All these perfectly simple little things. She appreciates the art and the science of simplicity, whether she’s plying her seamstress skills, stoking a bonfire in her backyard or stirring a pot of homemade lentil soup. Earth mother meets Pola Negri, cooking potatoes in the morning, leaving smears of lipstick on her highball glass at night.
The meat starts to smoke on our grill. Our waitress is busy somewhere else.
“Should I take this stuff off the fire?” I ask my companion.
I don’t wait for an answer before I clumsily stab at the chunks with my chopsticks. Just then, our waitress turns the corner, looks down at our plates and shakes her head.
“Not done yet. Not done yet.” She uses tongs to throw the pieces I’d removed back on the grill.
I feel sorry for what I’ve done. I have messed with her gig. I have imposed my anxiety and neurosis and panic on this elegant and meditative process.
Our waitress goes back to the turning and twisting of the meat. She’s smiling.
Simple.Dan Demaggio dines with interesting people for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]