You know you are in Ithaca when you can accurately remember the date you did something just by recalling what the weather was like. Last Sunday, the 40 degree weather was warm enough for me to venture out to lower Collegetown on Eddy Street. After first trying out Chatty Cathy’s Love Juice and admiring the bottles of intoxicants neatly lined up in nearby Ithaca Wines and Spirits, my friend and I walked into Four Seasons for dinner.
I’ve had Korean barbecue many times in Beijing. It had become so popular that I could find two Korean Barbecue restaurants within one-mile radius from my home — unbelievable considering that I lived in the center of a muslim enclave dominated by halal restaurants. But this article is not about ethnic cuisine, nor even about barbecue itself. It’s about how it embodies the essence of social dining.
When ordering Korean barbecue, you are first faced with the question of how much food to order, especially if you are thinking of ordering a la carte. Once you finally do the math and secretly calculate everyone’s BMI, the next question is, do you prefer having it cooked in the kitchen for you, or cooked by yourself over a tabletop grill? If your answer is the former, unfortunately, you’ve missed out on the joys of social grilling. Don’t even bother to read the rest of this article.
If you are a newbie, you can politely ask the waiter to help you work the grill. But even if you are the most experienced diner you’ll momentarily feel confused about your role. You are the cook, the waiter and the diner. If you are uncomfortable with the switch, you are in for a rough ride. In fact, I got so busy cooking and eating that I only checked my phone once during the entire hour — leaving plenty of room for conversation in a group setting.
Cooking barbecue on a table also highlights the centrality of chopsticks — few have realized the versatility of chopsticks as a cooking utensil, aside from their obvious use. It’s a strange feeling to use chopsticks, actually. It’s not for everyone, and if you are not delicate with chopsticks but insist on using them, you might end up leaving drip marks of marinades all over the table cloth; worse, you might have to try five or more times just to pick up a slippery piece of sweet potato. Regardless of what you use, you still have to be nimble. Like an acrobat, you perform twists and turns in the air and over the fire. Like a diplomat, you control the heat of the grill in the same way you control the heat of a conversation, sometimes dialing down the excitement as an important guest is about to announce himself. Like a frugal homemaker, you try to make room for more items by clearing out the finished ones.
There is no pretension when it comes to enjoying barbecue. Sure, the raw meat is there for everyone to admire. But there’s another level to it: in the heat and the smoke, people start to reveal their true self. The smoke might get into your coat, so you might want to cover your coat up if you don’t want to smell like what you eat, but you can’t hide the eager eyes set on the grill for the next item, and you can’t avoid arms crossing each other’s ways in mid-air, reaching for the next delicacy.
Finally, there is the joy of eating. You might ask, how can I share with my friends the joy of physically eating my food? I eat with my mouth closed and make no noise other than “yum.” Don’t worry, this is not an invitation to break social norms or make others uncomfortable. But since you’ve suffered through all the things I mentioned above, it’s time I tell you how much I love the feel of meat and vegetable on the teeth and the tongue. Chewing crunchy raw leaves and sweet, juicy pork together accentuates the contrast, and even simple kimchi feels decadent under the sweet embrace of Bulgogi (marinated beef). In fact, the highlighted sensation of food in the mouth is the primary reason why I love barbecues. The Chinese gastronomy is an intricate one — one that emphasizes “mouth feel” above all else. Unfortunately, this is a concept that eludes most food critics in the West, especially since readers tend to be queasy of, instead of marveling at, the physical process of chewing and swallowing and by extension, the sound and the sensation associated with it. For the average Western foodie, reading about how the food sounds and feels when it’s being chewed feels uncomfortably intimate, even invasive. But for me, and many people I know, we eat food physically, and table etiquettes aside, chewing and swallowing is essential to how we experience the food. So at no risk of over-sharing, by all means recommend to your fellow diners the best combinations of food based on its “mouth feel.”
At the end of the meal, you will be surprised at how happy you feel. On a 40 degree March afternoon, I felt love was in the air. I imagine I would be even more inclined to go if the weather was worse. So what are you still waiting for?