Note: A juicy short story – sort of.
I think it first started the day she baked a cake and didn’t want it to go to waste. We lived across the hall from each other on the seventh floor of our apartment building.
She rang my doorbell and stood there holding a plate with a very large wedge of cake.
“Howdy neighbor, I made way too much and thought you’d like some,” she said. “It’s just butter pound cake with some nuts.”
I gratefully took the cake from her and said I’d return the plate promptly. The cake was moist and the nuts added extra flavor.
About a week later, I made too much shrimp fried rice, so I thought I’d ask if she had had dinner yet. I prepared a big bowl and garnished it with a lemon wedge and some cilantro and left it on my kitchen counter. I walked across the hall and rang her doorbell, empty-handed.
“Nope, haven’t eaten yet – I’d love to have some,” she said when I asked. I told her I’d be right back with her bowl. I returned and she received it with a big smile. “I’ll bring the bowl back when I’m done,” she said.
And without any deliberate attempt – at least for the first few weeks – we alternated cooking for each other. She made meatloaf. I made her penne a la vodka. She prepared teriyaki short ribs (very tender). I roasted chicken with garlic and herbs. She made me mac’n’cheese from scratch, using six different cheeses and small cubes of pancetta. The more times we went back and forth, the more elaborate the dishes became. I baked thin slices of salmon and wrapped them around grilled artichokes topped off with a lemon cream. She bought over a small bucket (no idea why she kept one) of steamed mussels in garlic and white wine sauce. I made pizza with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and prosciutto, nicely spread over my thin handmade crust. She brought over a mini Peking duck kit with juicy boneless pieces, fresh flour wraps, and plenty of green onions and cucumbers. She admitted that the sauce was store-bought. The serving size could not have been more perfect – I finished every morsel without feeling too full.
Then one day, I decided to try one of my grandmother’s classic dishes – the sam-gye tang: steamed chicken stuffed with sticky rice, dates, chestnuts, garlic, and ginseng in a clear broth. I had to call my grandmother – still ripe and constantly cooking at 82 years old – for her exact recipe and ingredient amounts. I was a bit frustrated when she instructed me to “use my best judgement” for some of the seasoning, so I had to call my mom for more precise measurements. I found the all the ingredients in Koreatown and even stopped by Whole Foods to pick up an expensive, free-range chicken. I spent about a total of four hours making the dish, paying extremely close attention to the chicken, which I prayed wouldn’t overcook and become too tough. When I finally finished, I dumped the chicken and broth into a smaller, cuter pot and heated it a few minutes longer before taking it across the hallway. I also had with me a small Tupperware container of pickled daikon since I was unsure if she tolerated kimchi.
“Here you go – it’s a Korean classic. Hope you like it!” I said, handing the pot and Tupperware over to her.
“Wow this is a lot of food,” she said. “I might have to call Steve over to help me.”
“Yeah, it should be good for two servings – or dinner tonight and tomorrow,” I said. “Who’s Steve?”
“Oh, it’s my boyfriend,” she said. I thought I noticed a slight hint of regret in her eyes, as if she felt she had said too much. “That’s right, you guys haven’t met yet. I’ve been telling him so much about you and all your amazing dishes. I’ll be sure to introduce you two to each other the next time.”
“Great,” I said, forcing a girn. “Well, hope you guys enjoy!” I turned around and walked across back to my apartment, my appetite for my own serving of sam-gye tang completely obliterated. I stored it in the fridge for later and reached for the Heineken.
She returned the pot a few days later along with the Tupperware container. She told me she really liked the dish and asked if I could write down the recipe for her sometime. I told her I would. She said thanks and left.
The next week, she didn’t come. I made myself some Shin ramen with large chunks of Spam. I dropped two eggs into the pot after turning off the stove, letting them poach in the high-sodium soup. The next week, I switched to Neoguri ramen and decided not to use any Spam.
A month or so later, I ran to the elevator door as it was closing on the first floor. I got my hand in just in time, forcing the door to re-open. As I entered, I noticed her standing there with a tall guy. He seemed athletic and had a strong jaw and curly brown hair. His green eyes briefly met my eyes as I awkwardly stared at him for a moment. I heard her speak.
“Hey, haven’t seen you in a while,” she said good-naturedly, breaking the silence.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“Good,” she said. “Oh, this is my boyfriend Steve. Steve, this is Ryan, my neighbor across the hall.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said as we shook hands. “You’re quite a cook, aren’t you.” His palms were large and his grip was tight.
Before anything else could be said, we reached our floor. I let them out first and watched their backs, their hands linked together.
“Oh yeah,” I said loudly. She turned around sharply. “You guys should come over for dinner sometime. I’ve been itching to cook something fancy.”
She glanced over at Steve as if to communicate something by eye contact and then looked back at me. “Sure, we’ll definitely do that,” she said. We said bye, and I watched them go inside.
Back inside my place, I took out Spam and a big jar of kimchi. I didn’t feel like having ramen again. I washed some rice, turned on the rice-cooker, and waited patiently for the rice to finish cooking.