I Want to Write About Food but I Don’t Have Enough “Experience”

(An essay I submitted when trying to become Diner-at-Large at NY Magazine.)

It begins with trying to plan a birthday, a task I abhor. The anxiety creeps into my chest. Keep it simple or make it big? After experiencing a covid birthday (as we all did,) I have the deep desire to do something worth doing even more. Will people want to come, or have we just all agreed to not do things anymore out of fear?

I push through my hesitation and the perfect idea comes to mind. Something that exemplifies the youthful whimsy of my birthdays in NYC before a pandemic. I go for comfort, for ecstasy — for New York City’s tried and true 20-something classic birthday duo — Korean barbecue and karaoke. I book my karaoke room online, and my heart leaps; I planned my 28th birthday. Wasn’t so scary after all.

I ask around on what is the “best” Korean barbecue spot, because on my birthday (or any birthday for that matter; I have a deep belief in celebrating birthdays to their fullest extent,) everything must be the best — or else what was the point of surviving another year?

I decided on revisiting Samwon Garden, as we did on my last birthday before the pandemic.

It does not disappoint. Walking in feels like a dream. There is nothing I love more than having a reservation; I feel like Lindsay Lohan entering 1 Oak pre-ban. Once I see the table, I have entered my own personal Disney World — but instead of spinning tea cups, silver bowls of pickled vegetables begin to fill the table.

On this day, I feel like a king; ordering assorted platters of meats — ALL of the meats. Rib eye, Short Ribs, Pork Belly — oh my! My friends and I devour the meat as it is expertly cooked and consistently placed in more silver bowls, giving each other wide-eyed looks and deep “MMM’s.” We try to be sheepish, polite (a trait which is why these people are my friends at all and who I chose to dine with,) but who can resist this steaming, glistening meat?

A beer tower that must be at least 5 feet tall looms in the middle of the table as our very own alcoholic Tilt-a-Whirl. The jubilance with which we use the tap to pour beers to make soju bombs is childlike. Now we are ready for war — traversing across the street to sing our hearts out at karaoke.

In January 2021 while I was walking outside with friends, they all smelt something that I realized I couldn’t. I had that brief panic attack that I and many had been reliving for the past 10 months, “Could it be covid?” Two days later my fears had finally been proven true, and my taste was gone. As much as I was extremely fatigued and facing my own mortality, one of my deepest fears throughout the ordeal and as I recovered was — was I going to lose my taste for good? Would it be permanently altered by covid? How would I be able to go on like this, when a well-known part of my identity was being obsessed with meats and cheeses; always being the friend who is down to eat anytime, anywhere?

What would I do without the joy I received from my taste buds? The sadness I felt for those months as I tried to find glimpses of my taste seems ridiculous in hindsight. But I was truly

scared I was going to lose a piece of myself that had defined me since I started venturing into the world of food as a little girl. Childhood memories of watching my father show me how to clean a squid in my kitchen sink, and ordering off of the adult menu well before my time as my supervising dining companions looked on in disdain, flooded my brain.

It took a couple of months, but I believe my taste has mostly returned. But when I find myself becoming frustrated thinking “This isn’t how this used to taste,” I tune into my previous memories of the food I am angrily trying to make taste as it once did. And it does help.

Obviously I have an even deeper appreciation for food and dining out now. The thought of never again being able to enjoy all of the big and little moments in my life that are defined by food shook me to my core (which is mostly made of meats and cheeses).

I know it sounds frivolous in comparison to all of the devastation and heartache that has occurred; but when food simply felt like I was chewing on textures, I felt lifeless. For this birthday dinner, I felt the opposite; I was grateful to be alive at all. To be able to sit at a table with 9 people I love and enjoy food together again. I was so immensely moved by the experience of dining somewhere I had been before all of this trauma, for a night out that was euphoric, and most importantly — deeply gastronomically satisfying for all.

Look 12, feel 70.

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