Kitchen Mystic by Paulette Licitra

The Deconstruction by Karen Cantrell

Patisserie de Pakistan by Gregors Johnson

Meals of a Lifetime by Rebecca Keller

Ode to Risotto by Donald Newlove

Fully Committed by Doug Sovern

Biscuits and Gravy by William Blomstedt

Keeping It Tidy by Alan Linton

If I Knew You Were Coming by Alisha Lumea

On Your Only Day Off by Nicole Edwards

Bagpipes and Pan Fried Smelts by Ted Radakovic

Joseph Conrad’s Dark Linguini by Giovanni Berchtold

Missing Something by Jean-Luc Bouchard

We Love You, Mayonnaise! by Alona Martinez

Japanese Food by Esther Cohen

Raw Köfte by Hardy Griffin

Proust's Soup by Giovanni Berchtold

A Sacred Virgin by Paulette Licitra

on a friday evening by Keith Leidner

Ropa Vieja by Raul Palma

Deidre's Last Meal by Esther Cohen

Wired by Alan Linton

Chestnut by Katherine Gleason

The Moon is an Outdoor Sandwich by Patty Houston

Garlicky Greens by Lois Marie Harrod

First the Shell, Musical; Then the Custard, Irrevocable by Sarah Begley

Meals of Choice by Dorian Fox

A Low Table by Christian Aguiar

The Sylvian Fissure by Rosalie Loewen

Two Versions of Eating Potatoes by David Spiering

Conch Salad by Michele Ruby

Hopper by Michael Onofrey

Caution: Coffee is Hot by Gary Scott

The Fairy Part by Alberto Giuseppe

Foie Gras by Judith Edelman

Rosemary and Olive Oil by Gail Gauthier

Mario's Shoes by Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Cake by Marianne Villanueva

Retreat: October on Copper Mountain by M.E. Parker

The Sandwich Diaries by Angus Woodward

But There Was No Star Anise by Andrew Martell

Fruit Route by Susan King

A Low Table

by Christian Aguiar

September 2013    

When you first sit down, the table will be empty, and isn’t this a bitch? A wide, flat surface of wood sitting on stubby legs, barely a foot off the floor, bare and uninteresting except for the empty space in the middle surrounded by its metal ring. Nothing.

But then, swiftly, things become full. The woman in charge, women always being in charge, brings in a wide metal tray filled with tiny plates of painstakingly prepared preserved vegetables and lays them out until they cover almost every available space. The dishes, vegetables all, are limited in their colorations, mostly sharp reds and greens, though there are browns and white and grays too. Not a rainbow, but a more accurate representation of the color of things.

These dishes are crucial though uneven. The staples, the kimchi, are preserved, hardy bits of cabbage, coated in a red paste that gives them their bite, each mouthful the product of months of fermentation which builds a certain weary sourness. On your tongue these little squares with their stringy green streamers are harsh, aggressive. Their flavor, their intensity, speaks to long stretches of solitary work in the kimchi pots behind the restaurant or perhaps to a long and bitter winter half-buried in a snow drift. They’re not always pleasant, though they can be, but you must eat them for the simple fact that they come first.

Behind the kimchi come less experienced dishes, chief among them plates of tiny salted fish frozen with arced spines in poignant remembrance of their last moments of life, their ferocious fight to avoid being on this very table, a futile fight of course, because this table and others like it will always be host to these glimmering bits of flesh. There are other vegetables, too, some salted like the fish, others cut fresh and covered in spicy gochujang. Pieces of cucumber and carrot and garlic cleanse your palette with their crisp newness and watery texture. Not so salty or bitter, you are happy to eat them, though you must admit they are a bit plain. You could dip them in the gochujang too, but better to take them as they are.

When you’ve picked through all of the distractions and your plates are beginning to look bare, when conversation has lagged and the first potent bottle of soju has been gulped down in cringing shots, a pot of hot coals is brought in from a shed out back by a dutiful husband or son and lowered into that empty hole. Over this crucible is laid a metal grate. The cross-legged figures around the table lean in, and you with them, to look more closely at the hot coals and wonder at their color and composition. They are workmanlike and plain, but you watch them with the warmth of alcohol and admire their pedestrian means. If you are well-educated you might think of Prometheus, but I would prefer you think of the Bronx slowly burning.

The woman returns now with a wide plate of meat. The meat is raw and unadulterated except perhaps for a few bits of herbs, but even this slight affront is unlikely. The meat still smells a bit of slaughter and looks it too; one side of each strip is cloudy with the terror of the pig, the other clean, pinkish-brown, expectant. You take your tongs and lay the strips across the grate.

With the shimmering flesh laid out on the grill, you may begin your toasts in earnest. Shot glasses heretofore touched by soju in only the most glancing manner, only as necessary to sink a bottle between many friends, are now filled to the brim and passed like babies, guarded by hand at top and bottom, the gesture of a giant cradling a puppy. Shots are thrown back and the room begins to fill with smoke too thick for the vent to capture so you all breathe in its fatty vapors deeply, more deeply as more liquid makes it down your throat and the smoke stings less.

The strips on the grill begin to draw back into themselves, their edges curling up, threatening to curl all the way around and reconnect with lost acquaintances, to regenerate and form a new pig before your very eyes. You pick up thick shears and, grasping each strip with your tongs, shred it and lay it back on the grate. The meat is almost ready.

Now you too are ready. You have had your preserved bits and you’ve had your intoxicating bits and so you grasp a leaf of still-wet lettuce in your hand, let it cover your entire upturned palm, and then carefully pick a piece or two of the samgyeupsal from the grate with your chopsticks, add an exacting bit of raw onion dipped in spicy red sauce, perhaps a bit of garlic. You could add salt, but to this point it has been all saltiness, so you must be tired of it.

You wrap your lettuce leaf into a discrete little packet and pop it whole into your mouth and bite.

The green leaf gives way quickly to the least pressure from your tongue, yielding bits of empty moisture and no more; the red sauce, a bit fiery, a bit rich, oozes onto your tongue and imparts an unexpected shock; the onion crunches between your back teeth, its sharpness beaten down by the closeness of hot fat; and then the fat and flesh, the samgyeupsal, thick, rich, plentiful, unalloyed, slowly reveals its simplicity to you.

It is too much, all of this. You must drink more now, if not the first time you swallow it down then certainly by the second or third time, the fourth or fifth if this isn’t your first time (though we should know that it is always the first time), and so you call for more soju and refill the shot glasses until your night ends in endless abandon, numb and happy and only vaguely aware of what happened at this low table.

  Christian Aguiar teaches and writes in the mountains of South Korea, where a night at the low table is a regular occurrence. He is originally from Providence, Rhode Island.

Photo used under Creative Commons.