In grade school, I learned to be a patriotic American. At the front of every classroom was an American flag, and every morning for nine years (the school went from first through ninth grades), my classmates and I stood facing it, right hands over our hearts, and solemnly recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
One morning in third grade, our regular teacher was out sick. So the principal took over, as was the policy at our tiny school. As usual, we droned our dutiful way through the pledge. Then the principal spoke.
“Who here can tell me what ‘allegiance’ means?”
Whoa. This was WAY too early for a pop quiz.
We shook our heads.
“Here’s an easier one, then. Do you know what ‘pledge’ means? Okay, good, I see lots of hands. David?”
“It means a promise?” David said, sounding as terrified as the rest of us felt.
“That’s right, David. A pledge is a promise. A public promise. Now I have another question for you: None of you knew what ‘allegiance’ means. But you all made a pledge – a promise – of allegiance. How could you make a promise if you don’t know what you’re promising?”
Our principal was one intense dude. But he was no Commie. Our deafening silence after his question was followed by a long discourse on the definition of ‘allegiance,’ the wisdom and courage of the founding fathers, and our responsibility, as citizens and future leaders of the greatest country on Earth, to understand and participate in the civic life of our community.
Grade school is where many kids first learn about the world outside home and family, and the America I learned about in grade school – and that I saw reflected in the values and lives of my classmates and teachers – was a wondrous place. From a vast land filled with nothing (okay, there were the Indians, who we treated pretty badly –we learned about that in seventh grade), we created a country so wonderful that people from all over the world want to live here. Like most of our grandparents and great-grandparents. And all of us, no matter what our backgrounds, could grow up to be anything we wanted! Our boundaries were only limited by how hard we were willing to work.
Nothing in the lives of my classmates contradicted any of this. We learned about horrific things that people had done to each other – like the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in the U.S.—but all those things, our teachers said, happened a long, long time ago and would never happen again, because now people knew better. A majority of my classmates were Jewish and had parents or grandparents who had witnessed the Holocaust – and they all had happy, affluent lives now in nice parts of Los Angeles. The few black kids at the school were the children of doctors, engineers, and judges. And even though I could count the number of other Asian kids there besides me and my sisters on the fingers of one hand, I never felt any less a part of the school community because of it. Life was fair.
Life was good, even. Nowhere did it feel better than on the festive days when our classes had potlucks. Sometimes these happened in conjunction with a particular class – such as a social studies class on immigration, in which each of us was supposed to bring in something representing the country our ancestors came from. But sometimes they took place to celebrate a transition in the year, such as the last day before winter break or summer vacation.
Of course, we kids did little or none of the preparation ourselves (although I took to making my own cookies around eighth grade or so). It was up to our mothers (and back then, it was ALWAYS the mothers) to bring hot dishes covered with foil to the classroom right before lunch. Through these moms, I learned that quiche Lorraine was from France (and truly rocked), and that the Japanese ate octopus, which tasted mild and bouncy. I also discovered latkes and matzos and enchiladas. Oddly, the enchiladas were usually brought by the same moms who brought the matzos and latkes, which taught me another lesson: you don’t have to be born into a culture to celebrate it.
I absorbed the values and ideals of this perfect America through my brain and my stomach. I learned that it’s not only okay to have friends and food from far-flung corners of the world at the same meal, but darned wonderful. I learned from hundreds of teachable moments at that school – like the principal’s Pledge of Allegiance lesson – that it’s right and responsible to question authority, but it’s best to do it politely. In each of these illuminating (and sometimes gluttonous) moments, I felt as though I truly understood what it felt like to be American.
The ugly, hard truth about the American Dream – that hype and luck can get you further than hard work, and the word “patriotism” is all too often co-opted by those who hate most of their compatriots – was not theirs to teach us. These things, like calculus and James Joyce’s novels, were for a later part of our educational journey. The day when we’d have to tackle them would come soon enough.
At times I still hold on to that early vision I had of America—a safe and fair place when people with roots and backgrounds from all over treated each other with respect and dignity. A place where people asked tough questions gently and use reason instead of personal invective to solve problems and work out differences. Right now, the real America seems to be moving further away from this ideal than at any time I could remember.
But I like to think the America I grew up with is somehow real, and maybe we can get there someday. It’ll no doubt be quite different from what I envisioned as a child, but I do know this: the food will rock your world..
As the child and grandchild of immigrants, I always like to throw something “ethnic” into my Independence Day feasts, to honor those who’ve come from far away to reinvent their lives here. Whatever that something is, throwing it on the grill is obligatory.
This year, I’d like to re-create a famous (or infamous) Los Angeles specialty of recent vintage: the Korean taco, first made famous by the Kogi taco truck mini-empire. The tacos – grilled meat in a Korean-style sweet and garlicky marinade, served up on warm corn tortillas and topped with kimchee (Korean pickled cabbage) – are said to have been invented and independently re-invented hundreds of times by hungry Angelenos years before Kogi hit the scene, however. Tacos, after all, are nothing more than a tasty and convenient way of conveying small bits of meat into one’s mouth, and tortillas are easier to find than paper plates in parts of Los Angeles. Perhaps Korean tacos were invented by Mexican-American cooks working in L.A.’s many Korean restaurants. Or by Mexican workers sampling leftovers from Korean colleagues’ lunches. In any case, people were quietly eating them long before they became trendy.
Much as I enjoy kimchee, I enjoy the all-American custom of crunchy greenery on top of tacos even better, so I’ve replaced the kimchee with a fresh cabbage slaw for extra textural contrast. I’ve also added an Asian-tinged guacamole, just because I love guacamole.
I’ve borrowed another Korean-American tradition too: grilling the meat outdoors, picnic-style, rather than inside on a tabletop brazier. When Mark Bittman proposed a Korean-style outdoors barbeque in a recent column, several readers gently informed him that this very thing had been done for years by Korean-American church groups and hungry families.
Before anyone gets on my case for being a treasonous bastard – Paul Revere NEVER would have put kimchee on his tacos! Why do you hate America so much?? – consider this: could the Korean taco possibly have been invented anywhere BUT in the U.S.A.?
ALL-AMERICAN KOREAN TACOS
For the meat: (adapted from Quick and Easy Korean Cooking (Gourmet Cook Book Club Selection) by Cecelia Hae-Jin Lee (no relation!))
½ medium onion, minced
½ bulb (about 5 large cloves) garlic, minced
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup sugar
½ cup pineapple juice
2 teaspoons Korean red pepper lakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ pounds flank steak or skirt steak (don’t screw up like I did this time and try to economize by using round steak—it’s edible but not as tender as it could be)
For the cabbage slaw:
2 cups finely shredded cabbage
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon (or more to taste) Korean red pepper flakes
1 clove garlic, minced
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
For the Asian guacamole:
1 small avocado
2 tablespoons finely minced onion
juice of ¼ lime
½ teaspoon sesame oil
salt to taste
1 dozen corn tortillas
chopped fresh cilantro
1. Combine the meat marinade ingredients in a large baking pan, add the meat, spooning marinade over the top. Cover and refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally.
2. Remove the meat from the marinade, letting the excess marinade drip off. Broil or grill until done to your taste.
3. Allow the meat to rest for about 15 minutes after it has finished cooking, then cut it into thin slices. Cut the slices into bite-size pieces, cover and set aside in a warm place.
4. At least half an hour before serving, combine the cabbage slaw ingredients. If any liquid accumulates after the cabbage has sat for a while, carefully drain it off. Cover and set aside.
5. Mash the avocado with the remaining guacamole ingredients. Press a sheet of plastic wrap snugly over the surface of the guacamole to prevent browning, then set it aside.
6. Wrap the tortillas in foil and heat in a 300 degree oven for about 10 minutes.
7. Bring the tortillas, meat, cabbage slaw, cilantro, and guacamole to the table and invite diners to make their own tacos. Happy Independence Day!