Sometimes your body craves diversity, and in a metropolis like LA, it’s nice to know one’s cravings can be satisfied with a quick jaunt to a local supermarket instead of succumbing to a quickie drive-thru. Say you have half-Korean taste buds, like mine, and they’re screaming for kimchi, i.e., spicy fermented cabbage, fern roots, or marinated soybeans, or you hate cooking fish at home because it leaves your curtains funky—it’s nice to find these items at a place like Kafka Market.
Or so I thought…
If you’re not familiar with kimchi, Korean Americans are notorious for having a second fridge to store the treat in an effort to prevent its fart-like smell from molesting nearby objects. For example: I once put a Perrier in my mother’s kimchi fridge outside, and when I took it out for a sip my hand reeked like it had been dunked in a vat of garlic pudding. When I ran it through my husband’s chest hair that night, he asked if I’d showered in cat food. “The wet kind,” he said.
So when my husband told me he’d be attending an out-of-town conference over the weekend, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to stock up on Korean comfort foods from Kafka Market. Late Thursday night I took my sweet time at the fresh salad bar. The cashiers charged me by the ounce. I packed a variety of girl-size portions for my solo weekend. The bar stayed open right up until the store closed, unlike at Whole Foods which starts to shut down an hour before closing time. I took my time selecting cubed radishes, pickled cucumbers, and cold stir-fried sweet potato noodles.
But that night, eating my Kafka Market purchases… something was off. I first noticed it in my sprouts. A hint of asbestos essence? Maybe anthrax? I’ve never willingly tasted any of these things but it’s the only thing that comes close to what my mouth couldn’t identify. Like a combination of mold and penicillin. My cucumbers tasted weird. So did the hot beef soup steaming into my favorite soup bowl. I tasted and re-tasted the food. Was there something going around that made Korean food taste like insects? Mad Kimchi Disease?
It started to sink even deeper: what if my mom had cancer and I could taste her cancer in this food? We’ve all heard these family bonding stories where a child breaks his or her arm a thousand miles away and the mother has a sudden pain in her arm. What if these pickled radish cubes were trying to tell me something!? I called my mom and interrogated her about her last check-up. I chastised her love of well-done steaks by comparing them to asphalt. “Carcinogens,” I said. Then she asked me if I’d been skipping my medication again. “A child should never have to outlive a parent!” I pleaded. She said her show was on but thanks for the call.
After a full-blown panic attack, I decided to get to the bottom of my food dilemma by going back to Kafka’s. I wasn’t sure exactly who I was supposed to complain to. Aside from the very serious Mexican guy who manned the live fish tanks, I couldn’t recall a single time I saw someone arrange the kimchi bar. I decided to be assertive—take my query to the back, straight past the double doors. Finding my way through a maze of gigantic metal freezers, the only movement I gathered were a few stainless steel pans dangling from hooks. A line of steaming pots boiled on multiple stovetops as an orchestra of smells—sesame oil, bitter greens, miso—filled my head. A silver knife swoosh caught my eye: chop, chop, chopping away. Followed by a scrape, dump, repeat. Was this real or was I dreaming?
Standing by a sink—in what looked like a brown pleather suit, stretched over a blunt, oval-ish body—was a roach. A big roach. Bigger than the rat-wrestling roaches you see coming at you from alleys in Harlem. Bigger than Bruno Mars—this roach had to be at least 5’3”!
I guess it didn’t hear me because it didn’t skip a beat shredding the onions stockpiled on a cutting board by a running faucet. The steam from the sink added a high sheen to its exoskeleton. Its antennae were free from an elasticated hair net, twitching along to girl pop on FM radio. It was even wearing an apron. The roach was working efficiently, using four arms to add salt, crushed pepper and other seasonings from bins—all while taking a sip from a bottle of orange Gatorade. Then I caught it mixing a bowl of boiled spinach… with its bare… feelers!?
If that wasn’t bad enough, the roach reared back, huffed its chest out, and sneezed right into the bowl. I almost vomited on the spot. Weren’t these people, or eh, food workers supposed to wear gloves?! There was a clean set of tongs right next to the roach for heaven’s sake! If the FDA saw this, Kafka would get a shit-poor rating! They’d get shut down! I felt myself getting woozy, tunnel vision, legs like jello—the last thing I remember was THUNK!
When I came to, I was lying in a booth by the dried persimmon stand next to the supermarket’s entrance. One of the cashiers stood above me, offering me a Dixie cup of a green tea and fanning me with her hand. She was saying something to me in Korean about the tea being a good source of energy, and on sale. I drank the shot, which wasn’t half bad, and when I found the strength to stand, I didn’t even care about the roach. I just wanted In’N’Out Burger. Animal style everything.
Sabra Embury is a book critic for Brooklyn's L Magazine. Her confabulations and fantastications can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Rumpus, Tottenville Review, NANO Fiction and other places. Follow her antics on Twitter @yrubmEarbaS.