Scenes From A Pandemic: 12

23 06 2020

by Scot Nakagawa

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

Kimchee & carnitas taco with crema; add cilantro and slivers of fresh pineapple, if you like. Mmm. (Photo: Jon Pollock)

Something’s Happening Here

Brooklyn

Quarantine has been a shock to our systems that will continue to reverberate in many ways. It has shocked me to mindfulness, especially about my consumer habits. I marvel at old restaurant receipts and wonder, how did I become the person who casually spent so much for this cocktail or that itty bitty plate of fried something or other? How did I come to discard aluminum foil after one use, to waste nourishing foods like broccoli stems or onion skins (great in stock, providing color and flavor), and toss perfectly good leftovers in the trash? Those who raised me would be appalled.

I grew up in Hawai’i on the edge of a sugar plantation in its declining years, the sweetheart trade deals cut between the US government and missionary agribusiness oligarchs  having finally expired. Life wasn’t exactly lux. We scraped by on what we cobbled up – hand-me-down clothes, bicycles built from spare parts, and home haircuts (scissors, bowl, one straight line around during the winter, a buzz cut in summertime). One of my older cousins, a family success story as a schoolteacher, would joke that if the little ones were lined up for a picture in front of my grandmother’s house, we could caption it “Save the Children” and make money placing an ad in the back of tabloid magazines. 

Only we didn’t need saving. We were never without the things we needed, especially food, and mainly because we took nothing for granted. We were mindful. Now, with anxiety rising all around, the memory of that kind of care has been a comfort, not to mention a means of stretching my shrinking bank account.

Among the many foods of the beloved poverty kitchen of my Hawai’i is kimchee, a staple eaten almost daily, even by children. Some people write it ‘kimchi.’ I do not. That spelling is derived from the Japanese kimuchi. Given Japan’s historical atrocities against Korea, I defer to Koreans about the transliteration of their national dish.


Food – cooking and sharing food – was a delight for Andy Kopkind, and has always been central to the experience of the Kopkind ‘camps’. Hard times are upon us, so here’s a recipe for economy and pleasure too!

Scot calls it Kimchee Out of Anything because read on!


This recipe isn’t traditional. My grandmother’s is lost to time and death. Making really traditional kimchee takes ingredients harder to find, and a lot more time and effort. Over years of living in the continental US, I pieced this together from tips gleaned from the internet and shared by friends. I find it totally satisfying. I use kimchee in the syncretic food tradition of Hawai’i, which is to say in lots of unconventional ways, fusing it with the cuisines of Puerto Rico, Portugal, the Philippines, Samoa, indigenous Hawai’i, Japan, China, and on across the diversity of cultures that make up the islands’ population. I suggest you do, too. My favorite is kimchee chopped up like coleslaw on Portuguese sweet rolls with mayo and spicy linguica or grilled teriyaki chicken thighs, deboned, of course. 

Kimchee is the easiest of all fermentation processes. The less familiar ingredients aren’t hard to find in Asian groceries or online; once purchased, they’re pantry basics. Western foodies embrace them for a reason – they’re delicious. Think of shrimp paste and fish sauce as umami bombs to make foods like packaged ramen or, seriously, cream soups taste new. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium Chinese cabbage (though see below, and use your imagination) 
  • 3 smallish daikon radishes, julienned
  • ½ cup green onions, julienned
  • ½ cup carrots, julienned
  • 2 Tbsp. salt (for curing the cabbage)
  • ½ cup superfine sugar (out of which, reserve one Tablespoon for preparing your cabbage)
  • 20 cloves garlic, grated
  • ½ cup fresh ginger, grated
  • ½ cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) 
  • 1/3 cup fish sauce
  • 3 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tsp. bagoong (Filipino fermented shrimp paste)
  • 1 tsp. bagoong alamang (Filipino salted, preserved whole small shrimp)
  • 1 cup cold water

Cut the cabbage in half by length, and then again across by width into approximately 1½ -inch chunks. Toss with 2 tablespoons of salt and the 1 tablespoon of sugar in a large bowl. Put a weight on the cabbage (I nest a smaller bowl filled with fresh water inside of the bigger bowl, on top of the vegetable), wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator or other cool place. Let it sit this way for an hour, or overnight if you like. 

While your cabbage is pickling (and weeping a lot of water), make the kimchee paste. Blast garlic, ginger, gochugaru, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, and bagoong in a blender until well combined. Remove the paste from the blender to a bowl and add some water, a few tablespoons at a time and no more than a scant cup, until the paste is smooth, about the texture of a creamy salad dressing. 

Drain the cabbage of excess water; give it a squeeze to really get the water out. Then mix in the sliced radishes, carrots, and onion. Add the kimchee paste. Make sure you coat the cabbage well. Transfer to jars and refrigerate. Your kimchee will be ready in about two days, though it will be better in a week. 

I call this Kimchee Out of Anything because, to me, kimchee really can be made out of almost anything edible. Fruit, like green mangos, can make delicious kimchee. Even fresh or dried fish works. One favorite of my childhood is bacalao, or salt cod, rehydrated and then squeezed dry before being shredded and bathed in kimchee paste, then cured for a day or two. Don’t stop there. Chard (stems lightly blanched before being added to the greens), carrot tops minus the tough ribs, blanched cauliflower, cucumbers, and lots of other vegetables can be made into kimchee. The rule in my kitchen is if you have vegetables that look like they’re on their last legs, pickle or ferment them. Kimchee expands your eating possibilities, and your pleasure, too.

Scot Nakagawa is senior partner in Changelab, a national racial justice think/act lab, and is Race Forward’s senior fellow on nationalism, authoritarianism, and race. He was a mentor at Kopkind in both 2014 and 2017.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 17, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Speaking of Pleasure & Hard Times, an Excerpt From JoAnn Wypijewski’s New Book

This month Verso published What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life, by Kopkind’s board president and program director. Here are some extracts from the book’s Prologue.

The little girls next door are playing school. The teacher barks, and the students get detention. There are so many ways to detention: being late, being wrong, being poor in math, wanting to be popular, “with your hair all fine and your nails painted and pretty clothes—I like pretty clothes and painted nails, too, but you aren’t all that.” The teacher threatens them all, “good or bad,” if they make her raise her voice again. She raises her voice. They are silent. She threatens to call their imaginary mothers. She threatens to take the imaginary money she’s been given to get them food. It is summer, hot, late afternoon. Detention is supposed to last four hours, three months, a year. A half hour, and the teacher flags. It’s not much of a game with one player. Okay, she announces, everyone can go to gymnastics. “Get in a line, class! No talking! Straight line!” The others obey. She arranges rolling garbage carts for them to jump off of onto the black-tar driveway. Happy shrieks conjure heaven for the first time, as a breeze comes up and an ice cream truck plays its wistful tune and a rat, which none of them sees, scuttles from one yard to the next. “Do it again,” the teacher shouts. “You. Are. In. Training!”

Let’s leave the little girls alone for now with their game, the meanings of which and the elaborate circuits of example, accommodation and rebellion it reflects are, in a sense, the pursuit of this book. I will return to them.

. . .

I didn’t start writing about sex to write about crime. Not all the pieces in this collection concern it, though many do. The first time I wrote on sex and culture, in an essay about Madonna, I was drawn to pleasure in the midst of danger, danger manifest physically in the AIDS epidemic and politically in persistent attacks on sexual freedom, sexual expression, homo- and other sexuality in the rule-breaking category. Desire is the subject there.

Pleasure—the possibilities for it, the absolute necessity of attention to it as part of any radical politics, the meaning of and conditions for it, the substance of intimate life—continues to be my interest. But sexual danger is at the fore in public discourse. Not since the height of the AIDS crisis has sex been so prominently welded to menace, except this period’s version of safe sex, rather than emerging from a community’s erotic sensibility, is a checklist of yes or no questions drafted to standardize consent and, primarily, to avoid legal action. Scandal, the context for many of the pieces here, has become the background noise of life, a thrum that’s stripped the word of its original meaning. Anticipating retribution enlivens people regardless of ideology, and has accelerated into ordinary, terrible fun. Mercy is the scandal now. Reason almost is. Eros is a suspect, and satisfaction in the humiliation of enemy-others is so everyday that as a culture we seem incapable of recognizing it as an extension of the violence we deplore. What we don’t talk about is the red thread running through this book. What are the reasons, what are the causes and complications beneath the roar of the crowd, the stories we think we all know? I don’t pretend to have exhausted such questions, and I still hold out for a future where we are not handmaids of punitive authority but authorities over our own bodies, pleasures and risks.

This brings me back to the little girls at the start, playing school. The games of children are typically symbolic tests of the limits of their authority and autonomy. Often, the games involve fear, indulging it as a way of displacing it, gaining mastery, discovering Ah, this is life despite real or imagined danger. That is why the games of children are frequently risky (and sometimes go terribly wrong) or are simply heart-racing, involving fantasies of witches and monsters. When I was a little girl, playing in the yard across the fence from where these new little girls were playing, my brother and I made a game with neighborhood kids which he called Come, Little Children. It was basically a game of tag, but we ratcheted up the thrill factor by making whoever was It a witch. The witch sang a weird little song, creepy and enticing—Come, little children, come, come, come…—accompanied by luring hand gestures and gyrations, trying to tempt the other children, lined up along a safe zone against the front of the garage, to step off and run for their lives, imaginatively speaking, either outwitting the witch to get to the next post of safety, or coming under Its thrall. This was in the 1960s, but it could have been centuries earlier, so traditional is the extraction of joy from the sensation of fear.

The little girls’ leaps from wheeled garbage bins onto the blacktop, and their peals of laughter, reflect this age-old practice of pleasure-seeking through defiance of fear. Their wild risk-taking, though, exploded in a context of repression. Training games are customary, the child’s Let’s pretend enacting grown-up behavior—preparing them for the world they will inherit while also rehearsing, in rough form, their relationship to authority. As Marina Warner shows in her fantastic book No Go the Bogeyman,the mimicry of such games is often madcap, comically exaggerated in the anarchic spirit of play, metaphorically robbing the authority figure of some of its power. The teacher in this game, the oldest of the bunch at maybe ten or eleven, did not seem to be poking fun at her model, and except for a few groans, the littler ones in detention did not challenge her—the whole exercise less an imaginative enactment than a reproduction of reality, as numerous schools have determined that what best suits working-class children are the regimens of prison. On first impression, then, this was a game of obedience, not autonomy. Yet the rigors of improvised gymnastics gave loft to the leader’s own dreams of performance even while intensifying her responsibilities. Instructing the smaller ones on discipline and technique as they prepared to leap, and leap again, protected them from injury and brought them joy in the afternoon. It could have gone otherwise, of course. There is nothing simple about play.


A little-boy violin player especially likes the “Ode to Joy.” It has been called a balm for things he doesn’t want: anxiety and nightmares, disabling grief over his father’s murder. As for what he wants… How much unarticulated desire is bundled in that choice? How long will he, will any children but especially boys, be allowed to be sensitive?


Long before any of us learn about sex, we learn about authority: our parents’ over us, the wider world’s over our parents, their response to that wider world’s power, and the costs of any yes or no. The game of school was one game by one group of little girls on one leafy afternoon on the hard side of a hardish town, what used to be the black and Polish East Side of Buffalo, New York, and is now the mostly black, latinx and Bangladeshi East Side. The girls appear to be loved, well cared for, polite, curious. I know almost nothing about their family’s relationship to the landlord, the tax man, the bill collector, the policeman, the boss or social service agent. I know that at a nearby health clinic, adults drop in to talk sometimes about the stigma of being from the East Side, which, as everyone plainly sees, the city’s leadership doesn’t know what to do with. In this particular neighborhood about half the people are officially poor, reports of violent crime are among the highest in the city, and at least a third of the boys and girls in middle school and high school have seen someone shot, stabbed or assaulted—meaning almost every child knows a child who has witnessed violence, and the victim might be a parent, a sibling, a neighbor or friend. The kids learn to hit the ground when they’re told to, and in school what they don’t talk about is often what they can’t talk about. Over the past couple of years, the city’s grown-ups have sought ways to unburden children of the things they carry. One little boy has found a way, sort of, through playing the violin. It is necessary that the community come together to talk about violence. Violence is what nobody wants, not even, perhaps, the stick-up boys who, once upon a time, not long ago, may have been labeled “emotionally disturbed” in school because of the things they carried, and were then put on the short bus or in detention or suspended. Violence is a subject that doesn’t wear out, but its most insidious forms don’t require a weapon.

That little-boy violin player especially likes the “Ode to Joy.” It has been called a balm for things he doesn’t want: anxiety and nightmares, disabling grief over his father’s murder. As for what he wants… How much unarticulated desire is bundled in that choice? How long will he, will any children but especially boys, be allowed to be sensitive? How do they talk about wanting when they want so much? When they might be afraid of their wanting, or the paths to it are obscured? 

Listening to the little girls across the fence, I wondered what would be their blossoming pear tree, the emblem that stirs them in their bodies and their souls, as it did Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie:

“like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.”

I wonder at all that must quest about the consciousness of these children, and all that will, and the distance between lived experience on an ordinary day and the rote political language of essences and -isms that is too straitened to contain it. By way of analogy, it is maybe not incorrect to say, as one high school teacher’s guide to Their Eyes Were Watching God does, that the book “explores sexism, race and class discrimination, and the disappointment of loveless marriages,” but then it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the book explores a black town, the Everglades, a hurricane and what to do when your man has rabies. Either way, Hurston is spinning in her grave, because the language is insufficient and the optic narrow. Janie’s story is about getting free, about a woman coming to know her own body and mind, and daring, along the stony road and against the common sense of the time, to live and love authentically. Sexual politics cannot ignore the many forms that danger and domination take, else how could it be called politics, but it is nothing without freedom as its star, and the effort to change the common sense of the time, for the sake of every mother’s daughter and son. I try to remember that.


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