Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

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Friday, October 15, 2010

A Kimchi Crisis?

Imagine a national dish so pervasive it’s eaten morning noon and night—every day. A dish so honored and revered Samsung makes refrigerators just for storing it. A dish so fragrant you can smell it when you land in the country. Yup, that’s kimchi. The Korean dish that binds North and South, cities and villages, and rich and poor throughout Korea. I need to come clean here, I hate kimchi. It’s nothing against the Koreans and their palates, but any arguments that taste is genetically acquired goes down the toilet when it comes to me and kimchi. I’m 100% Korean and 100% grossed out by this ubiquitous dish. Look, I think Taco Bell is spicy so kimchi didn’t have a chance. The greatest fondness I’ve ever had for Kimchi was for our cat, who had the dubious distinction of being named after the Korean national dish. Kimchi? Wasabi? Naming pets after Asian condiments seems to be a theme here…

During both trips to Korea I had the opportunity to get elbow-deep in kimchi. One was a visit to a kimchi factory and the other was while staying at a Servas host’s home when we happened to visit during fall, which is prime kimchi making season. It’s an interesting dish to make. Consisting of Napa cabbage covered with a paste of peppers, garlic and assorted spices, it was a perfect source of vitamins during long, cold Korean winters before refrigeration. Today the New York Times had an interesting article about the rising cost of kimchi and the almost calamity that it is causing in Korea. The French have their baguettes, the Italians their pasta, but American’s don’t have a dish that is so ubiquitous and necessary to the entire country's well-being that everyone is affected when that food becomes too expensive or threatened. I suppose if there was a turkey shortage in mid-November we might get an idea of what a food shortage panic looks like, but not everyone would be affected; including millions of vegetarians would probably gloat and start hoarding Tofurky.

As an outsider, it’s kind of funny—for a moment to think of a national panic over fermented cabbage—but there are more worrisome factors to think about. Just this week I sat through a presentation at the world headquarters of Mercy Corps, an international aid and development organization. One of the biggest future challenges that Mercy Corps is preparing to help alleviate is the emerging food crises. Too much or too little rain, fewer acres planted because of encroaching human settlements, lower food prices that encourage farmers not to plant, and many other factors contribute to a precarious food situation.

While it may be difficult to imagine food shortages while living in the United States—land of Costco and Safeway—a lack of food on the shelves for millions is not a futuristic dystopian nightmare, but a very real present danger. Especially for people whose diets consists of just a few foods. Lest we get too complacent and figure that access to affordable food is a third world problem, a couple of winter’s ago Portland got hit by a snowstorm that lasted a few days. Portland is a city that closes down if two snowflakes rub together and land on the ground so three days of snow was especially crippling. Towards the end of Winter Storm 2008 I walked to our local Fred Meyers and saw a sight I’ve never seen in an American grocery store, bare shelves in the produce area. A few limp sweet potatoes were the only fresh vegetables and fruits for purchase. The rest of the produce area was cleaned out due to no truck deliveries during the past few days. Fortunately for us, we had enough to eat at home, (Oreos anyone?) but it reminded me just how fragile and interconnected we remain to what we eat.