Greetings from Camp Bacon

At Camp Bacon, our contributor Simran Sethi spoke to chef Ji Hye Kim about pork traditions in Korean cuisine and the commonalities in foods across cultures. Try Kim's recipe for makjeok, a precursor to modern day Korean barbecue.

Camp Bacon, says event organizer Zingerman’s, is “bacon for the brain, belly and soul.” The five-day celebration of all things pork in Ann Arbor, Michigan is an annual fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance and the 4H Club of Washtenaw County. The Southern Foodways Alliance — a nonprofit that focuses on exploring and documenting diverse and dynamic food cultures of the Southern United States — has been a great inspiration, explains Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig. “It’s informed the pimento cheese, barbeque, fried chicken and grits on the menu at [their flagship restaurant] Zingerman’s Roadhouse.”

This year’s Camp Bacon kicked off with a food film festival and included a Cajun pig roast, food tour of Detroit and courses on baking with bacon. The main event was a full day of speakers that included a session on mindfulness and bacon, a presentation on trends in bacon (called “Pork the One You Love” in reference to an ill-fated advertising campaign from the Saskatchewan Pork Industry of Canada), a butchering of a whole pig and explorations of pork in Cuba, Brazil and Korea — all of which were paired with samples of pork. (By 10:00 a.m., fellow “Good Food” contributor Sáša Woodruff and I had reached peak pig.)

Ji Hye Kim, the chef and owner of Ann Arbor’s newest Korean restaurant, Miss Kim, offered up some of the event’s most compelling food for thought. Her discussion on pork traditions in Korean cuisine reinforced commonality and highlighted the idea that the meanings of foods are multiple. The research she later told me was, in part for her restaurant and Camp Bacon presentation, but also for pleasure: “When I started looking at the cookbooks, I was totally hooked. I felt as though I was spying into the lives of my ancestors, and that I liked what I saw.”

“Good Food” contributor Simran Sethi: What have all these cookbooks you’ve poured over taught you?

Chef and owner Ji Hye Kim of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Paul Kim)

Ji Hye Kim: I’m not a classically trained chef. I didn’t go to a culinary school and I couldn’t find a Korean restaurant where I could learn how to cook. I had the unfortunate combination of no professional cooking experience and a high standard of someone with [an] amazing cook as her mother. So I studied.

Many of these centuries-old cookbooks are written by women, in the Korean writing system in the “letters of women” as opposed to written Chinese, the “letters of scholars.” I can find one cookbook written by a grandmother, sharing her secrets with a granddaughter about to be married. Then I can find another one written by a different grandmother, refusing to share her secrets with a granddaughter about to be married. I like seeing the different choices that these older women made with how to pass down and preserve their own knowledge.

SS: You shared this in the context of your presentation at Camp Bacon, so tell us about the pigs.

JHK: Pigs make their appearance in the old stories from the “Three Kingdoms” era, starting with a story set in the first century B.C. about the building of a new nation. The story goes that a palace maiden became pregnant — some say [through] immaculate conception by the spirits of heaven — and the king punished her by throwing her baby into an animal hut, thinking it would kill the baby. But [the] pigs breathed life into the baby and he survived. The baby grew up and went on to build a new nation called Buyeo. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Buyeo then became well-known for its animal husbandry, especially for pigs.

Throughout [the] Three Kingdom area, the pigs served as “the sacrificial lamb” for religious worship. The Kingdom of Goguryo — now in Manchuria and North Korea — even raised special pigs for sacrifice. But those pigs were smart, so we get a couple of stories [about pigs escaping during] that time. My favorite is the one set in 208 B.C., where the sacrificial pig runs away outside of the royal castle. The government officials managed to capture and bring back the pig, with the help of a young woman. The king was so pleased he married her. They had a son who they named “the pig outside of the castle,” and eventually [he] became the king, as well.

This is also when we see the first mention of a dish that some call the precursor to Korean barbecue. The dish is called “makjeok,” which loosely translates to “meat dish from the clan of Mak.” It’s marinated with fermented [soybeans] and chives, then cooked directly over fire. This dish survives today as a [soybean] paste-marinated and grilled pork dish. It’s not as common as other soy sauce-marinated Korean barbecue meats, and almost unseen at Korean restaurants in America. At my restaurant, Miss Kim, we occasionally serve it as a special. [See Miss Kim’s makjeok recipe below.]

Makjeok is the precursor to today’s Korean barbecue. Pork ribs are marinated in a mixture of doenjang, or fermented soybeans,  and wild chives, then grilled over an open flame. (Photo courtesy of Ji Hye Kim)

SS: Pigs, you say, were considered a holy animal and, to this day, are auspicious. Explain.

JHK: On important days, especially to mark [the] beginning of an endeavor like the opening of a business — or, my favorite, [the] opening day of baseball season — the traditional practice of offering sacrifice is still very much alive. You set out a full table of wonderful food, and in the middle of the table is a large pig’s head. We bow to it, then we stuff money into [the] pig’s mouth and make a wish for good fortune and prosperity.

Since the 1980s, the consumption of meat has skyrocketed in Korea. According to the Agriculture Department, pork consumption, in particular, has more than tripled from 6.3 kilograms (nearly 14 pounds) per person a year in 1980 to 20.9 kilograms (46 pounds) per person a year in 2010. People eat pork every four days; it is the most consumed meat in Korea. We eat all cuts and the innards, too, but the most popular part of the pig is pork belly. Eighty percent of adults name pork belly as their favorite cut of pork. Even when it’s not a special opening day, Koreans worship pork in this way, too.

SS: Koreans aren’t alone in that. Chinese consumption has gone from about 4.5 pounds of pork per person in 1970 to 86 pounds of pork per person today — in a population of nearly 1.4 billion. And here in the United States, consumption is at the highest level we’ve seen in years. The market research firm Euromonitor reports that sales of pork are up 20 percent since 2011 … One of the other themes at Camp Bacon is continuous learning, what Ari Weinzweig summed up when he said, “Bacon is the subject but the subtext is shared meaning.”

JHK: The more I dig deep into Korean culinary tradition, the more I’m surprised at how little I knew and how much more there is to learn. Pork traditions [in Korea] are similar [to others] — blood sausages with pig intestine, pig blood, rice and aromatics resembling Spanish morcilla or French boudin noir; head cheese; cooked and pressed pork much like country paté; pig legs cured under salt and ash; meatballs. When we use the whole animal, the dishes and recipes we come up with across [cultures] are not very different from one another. We have more in common with each other than we think.

 

Illustrations for Miss Kim by Ryan Stiner.
Top photo by Rhyne Cureton

This project made possible with support from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.