i think often about how taylor swift didn’t have a burrito until she was 26. what other delicious foods has she not eaten? has she had kimbap? hand-pulled noodles? pork chop over rice? i’m assuming she’s eaten sushi because sushi is enough a part of the white-person zeitgeist, but has she heard of hwe? would she be game to try gaejang? stewed pig feet? has she eaten jjigae or chicken adobo or whole fish prepared sichuan-style?
in their pivot to takeaway, momofuku has been leaning more towards large format meals. that means that portions are large enough to share, to feed multiple people, and i get why that is. nothing i am about to say is meant as criticism or as any kind of questioning of this decision — this is all personal.
last december, i decided to throw a birthday lunch. this isn’t something i typically do; in fact, this was the second birthday anything i had ever had for myself in my entire adult life. i’d wanted to try the bossäm meal at ssäm bar for a few years, and i decided, to hell with it, let’s do it, and made a reservation for ten for a sunday lunch.
for some, a table for ten sounds like nothing. others, however, may recognize that rush of panic that ran through me when i’d secured the table, that shit, how am i going to find ten people for this lunch? did i even know ten people? ten people who might want to come out to the east village on a sunday afternoon and spend x-amount of money eating with me? was i stupid for thinking i could do this?
my life has changed significantly in the last two years. in the last year alone, i’ve sent out invites for three big-ish group meals. the first was for a dinner for six at kawi in july, the second for this birthday lunch for ten at ssäm bar in december. the third was for a group of seven at momofuku’s would-have-been new barbecue place over bar wayo in february.
my strategy for putting together group meals is to bring people together by ones or twos to make a dinner party where i am the mutual friend. this isn’t ego but pure practicality; i don’t know very many people who all know each other. i don’t have a group of high school or college friends who all grew up together. pretty much all my friends are people i have met as a fully grown adult, in my late twenties to my present day.
it wasn’t until i was in my late twenties that i even had a friend group large enough to throw a dinner party. i grew up lonely, feeling too socially awkward to be liked, and the body shaming that started when i was a freshman in high school drove me deeper into my shell. for much of my twenties, it wasn’t uncommon for me to go days without talking to anyone, other than small talk with baristas and cashiers. yes, i’d spend a lot of time texting and g-chatting with my best friend, who was one of two, three friends i had, but she was geographically distant from me. i was incredibly isolated in my day-to-day, even if i had roommates, even if i was in school and going to class, even if this, even if that.
in efforts to stave off the loneliness, i told myself i didn’t like people. i could get along fine in the world by myself. i didn’t need anyone. i learned to eat meals alone, go to movies alone, move apartments alone. i went to book events alone, until i hated being at book events and stopped going because i couldn’t ignore the fact that i was alone, seemingly the one lone person sitting by herself while everyone around her knew everyone else.
it was easier to believe i was a misanthrope. at the time, it felt like the only other option was that i was unlikeable and undesirable because how could someone be so lonely if she wasn’t? how could i be so invisible if i really weren’t as grotesque as people around me said my body was?
the first birthday party i threw myself was when i turned thirty. i invited ten to twelve friends to my apartment for a dinner i would cook, and it was amazing to me that i had both that many friends and an apartment with a living room that made that possible. the food was fine; i didn’t quite have the hang of cooking for so many people; but i still cherish the memory of that night, of being able to bring together people who would sit on the floor and share a meal and celebrate a birthday with me. it felt so unreal then, and it still kind of does today — i’d never thought i’d live to see thirty or that i’d have people in my life.
last month, i marathoned the korean drama it’s okay not to be okay. the main characters are a trio — ko mun-young (seo yae-ji), a successful children’s book writer with antisocial personality disorder, moon gang-tae (kim soo-hyun), a patient caretaker who works in psychiatric hospitals, and moon sang-tae (oh jung-sae), his older brother, an illustrator, who is on the spectrum. the brothers move around every year when butterflies show up because the older brother witnessed the murder of their mother when he was a teenager; the murderer wore a butterfly broach and threatened to kill him, too, if he talked.
the drama is, at its heart, about loneliness. it’s about wanting to be seen and recognized, to find your place in the world, along with your chosen family. the theme is represented in different ways in the three characters, but mun-young’s loneliness in particular hit all my soft spots. she’s an only child, the daughter of a successful mystery writer who disappeared suddenly when mun-young was young. her mother raised mun-young in isolation, teaching her daughter to be cold, disassociated, unattached from anyone and anything else, so mun-young has grown armor. most people see it as arrogance, as coldness, instead of seeing past it to see the loneliness that holds all her weapons in place. she lives a privileged life — she’s independently wealthy and pretty (this is a korean drama, after all) — but it’s an isolated one where she resides, alone, in a tower, unable to mingle normally with people.
that’s kind of how i’ve come to see taylor swift. i have no idea if she’s lonely, and it’s not that i feel bad for her — i do think swift is cognizant of the decisions she has made that have led to the life she lives, one where she is able to do the thing she is great at, enjoy immense success and fame, and exercise a certain degree of power over her narrative. i do also think she is aware that nothing about her life is normal. i wonder how she feels about it.
like i said before, i like taylor swift. it feels like a strange sentiment coming from me given that she is just so white and so straight, though i know there are people out there who want to project queerness onto swift. (i’m bothered by those speculations; i don’t think anyone’s sexuality is anyone’s business; and speculating may seem harmless but can actually do much harm in forcing people into corners, which can force people to burrow deeper into the closet or force them to out themselves when they aren’t ready.) she still maintains her narrative of straightness, and i respect that boundary.
i think the thing i like about swift most is that, even in all her attempts to manipulate her narrative and image, she has never really been able to hide the fact that she is ambitious and hungry. yes, she’d dress it up behind her good girl, doe-eyed, curly blonde-haired, country girl persona or whatever her persona became as she grew up, but her ambition has always been there. her ambition is why i do think everything she’s done for her fans has been genuine, from the gift-giving to the surprises to the secret sessions — like, yes, there were huge PR benefits for her in popping up to surprise fans, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t genuine acts. both things can be true at the same time.
i don’t know where my current obsession with taylor swift has come from. it’s not so much that i’ve been diving down the black hole of researching her tirelessly, but that i’ve been listening to her non-stop, youtubing performances, and spending a lot of brain space thinking about her. she’s just so white to the point of fascination, but she works her ass off, and i admire that she knows to play to her strengths — like, she’s a songwriter. that is her primary skill and passion, and i think she even said this at one point, that her singing exists for the songwriting.
that was interesting to learn because i’ve listened to swift on and off over the past few years (because who hasn’t?), but i’ve usually found her vocals to be pretty hard tonally. i was surprised at how much her voice has softened, shown more plasticity, in lover, how she’s able to occupy gentler spaces with her singing. as i was recently youtubing performances, i’ve been impressed by how she is able to occupy an arena and surround herself with talent that balances out her lack thereof. like, taylor swift is not a dancer. she is not going to be doing acrobatics on stage. she is not a vocalist who is going off on dramatic riffs. she is a brilliant songwriter who understands music and has finely honed her niche of musical storytelling — and has learned how to adapt to her weaknesses to present herself as a well-rounded, talented artist who is ambitious and hungry and no longer cares that that fierce ambition is exposed for all the world to see.
i think it must be terribly lonely to be famous. even with all the globetrotting, i feel like fame severely narrows your world. it limits how you’re able to engage and interact with people. it closes you into the familiar because new experiences require being able to be open to something new and that, i argue, means you have to be able to let people in.
i do think often about how swift said she hadn’t had her first burrito until she was 26, and i do wonder how many other delicious foods she hasn’t eaten. that, though, comes from the bigger question of, does she have someone in her life who would challenge the boundaries of what is familiar to her and teach her how to eat pho, wrap ssäm, and get all the meat out of gaejang? what about her life allows her to meet and trust new people who could expand her world? why do we expect her to have a diverse group of friends when she grew up a sheltered, privileged white girl before being propelled into fame so young, fame that could only lock her into her white, heteronormative world, that world which has a vested interest in keeping her in white heteronormativity because they profit off her?
does she even have any curiosity in exploring what is outside, what is foreign to her? would she trust someone to expand the boundaries of what she knows, to introduce her to a bigger, wider, more varied world? what is it like, to be so closed off, to be seen but so unknowable?
i’m constantly having to remind myself that things in my life aren’t the same. yes, i still struggle with money, and, no, i still haven’t dated anyone or gotten laid, but the key difference in my life is that i have people in my life now who are in my life.
it’s hard to remember how much has changed, though, especially in this present time where we are isolated and separated from each other in an attempt to bring this virus to heel. i’ve been wrestling with loneliness that slams into me in surprising, unexpected ways, often with such force that i’m left winded, the rest of my day lost. it’s kind of funny, in retrospect, how momofuku takeaway has often been a trigger for this, though i don’t think it’s that surprising — momofuku takeaway reminds me how much i miss restaurants, which, in turn, reminds me how much i miss people and how i ate fantastically well with good friends in 2019 and early 2020.
it feels like the dumbest thing to complain about in these times, with over 200,000 dead, a nightmare of an election looming, the killers of black people let off with zero consequences, but i think it’s also important to acknowledge the human in all this crap. we are all human, after all, and these times are exhausting.
momofuku takeaway has, as expected, been excellent. the best thing i’ve discovered has been ko’s cold fried chicken, which i’d heard of but had never tried until 207 put it on their menu in july. it’s the fucking shit, fried four times, glazed with a green tabasco glaze, and served with these fantastic pickles that have a nice sour bite to them. the chicken is meant to be eaten cold, a call to late-night fried chicken cravings when you’re hungry and can’t be bothered to reheat leftover fried chicken and eat it straight from the fridge, except ko’s version is still crispy, moist, and stupidly delicious.
another favorite was majordomo’s sandwich set, which comes with a pound of smoked beef, a pound of smoked pork, a tray of king’s hawaiian rolls, spicy mayo, horseradish aioli, au jus, and pickled jalapenos. the meat is thinly sliced, and you assemble sandwiches at home. my parents also liked this a lot, even the pork (my korean parents are very pork-averse), and i used the leftover meat to make breakfast sandwiches with english muffins (from go get em tiger), folded eggs, slices of smoked gouda, and lots of dry-farmed tomatoes.
i’m so fucking bummed i missed the kimbap at 207. 207 has been alternating their menu (both for takeaway and outdoor dining), switching things up every few weeks, and, for a weekend or two, they gave the reins over to chef eunjo park, who came up with these kimbap sets where you got veggie kimbaps with different kinds of tartare and pickled things to top the kimbaps. i was in LA at the time and am still so sad i couldn’t eat this.
all right, here’s one last thing: what i envy someone like taylor swift isn’t her fame or money or talent. i don’t want to be famous, and, yes, i’d love to have money but i don’t resent her hers, and i have my own talent. what i envy her is her ability to influence and touch people’s lives.
this ties into my frustration watching our governments leaving the restaurant industry to drown. i can’t do anything to help, and, in an egoistical way, that’s been poking at my fears. i’m aware that these sentiments center me — i’m fixated on my inability to do anything, and my depression is taking that and reinforcing my feelings of worthlessness, which then confirm that i am invisible. if i had money, if i had influence, then maybe i could do something, and then maybe i could be someone worth acknowledging. i could be someone worth seeing and engaging with. i’m not, though. i’m not anyone.
it’s a weird ego, one that so enthrones me while crippling me, and i wonder if i should even be putting these words down for other people to see. it’s a part of me i wrestle with constantly, and i suppose the positive effect is that it does make me try things instead of just sitting around, feeling sorry for myself. i tried phone banking for the first time on sunday night. i donate money to non-profit organizations doing the work on the ground when i have money to spare. i’m trying to start volunteering with a non-profit here in nyc if they need writing services.
i keep coming back to what helen rosner said at the end of her chat with david chang three weeks ago. she shared that, instead of trying to save a whole industry, what we can do is think of x-number of restaurants that mean the most to us and pour what we have into them. we can’t individually save the restaurant industry, but we can invest in the places that are significant to us, restaurants that we can’t imagine being without.
i think that applies not only to restaurants but to anything. we can’t fight every battle, but we can determine the issues that mean the most to us and pour what we can into supporting those. it’s also important to note that we can’t do everything; we’re not all able to protest in the streets or phone bank or coordinate efforts to deliver food to the elderly. we do, however, have our own strengths, and the point is to find what works for us because we can’t be complacent and we can’t give in to hopelessness. i know how tempting it is, with so much stacked up against us, but the beauty is that we are all in this together — so, hey, learn from taylor swift, and play to your strengths, and, together, we have a chance to overturn this government.
this is a free substack, and it will remain so for the near future. these substacks do, however, take a tremendous amount of time to plan, write, and edit (and re-write), so, if you like what you’ve read and would maybe like to contribute a cup of coffee, here are my ko-fi and venmo!