Frosted Flakes in Jeonju
When I was nineteen, I traveled to South Korea with several others from my Tae Kwon Do school, eager to soak up the culture that had birthed our sport. Although we stayed in fancy hotels (one had a pillow menu with varying scents and degrees of softness), my favorite part of the trip was our stay in Jeonju (our master’s hometown) where we were hosted by families.
As we arrived, a group of children watched us through the windows of our tour bus with barely contained excitement. One girl jumped up and down, unable to contain herself. She turned out to be part of “my” family, eager to show my roommate and I the sights.
Our host mother didn’t speak English, so most of our communication was brokered by the eldest of their three daughters, Ha-Neul. She was twelve. In my journal from those days, I wrote: “You start by taking off your shoes and after that there were very few moments when I wasn’t eating.”
We went out to dinner at TGI Fridays, bringing in our own Pizza Hut pizzas as appetizers. The boxes were tied with a red ribbon. No one batted an eye at our contraband. Throughout our stay, after each bite of pizza with pureed sweet potato and sweet pickles, kimchi, or slurp of green-tea ice cream, Ha-Neul would pause and look searchingly into my eyes, “Delicious?” she would ask, emphasizing each syllable. I would nod and smile, “Delicious.”
One morning, I watched the two older girls eating fried eggs with chopsticks, cutting them precisely and getting them from plate to mouth without a single slip. The kitchen was small, but there was room for a large appliance that looked like a chest freezer. Ha-Neul told me that it was specially made to store kimchi.
Instead of eggs, my host mother poured us generous bowls of Frosted Flakes, opening the box with a flourish. Then, she cut several cherry tomatoes in half and sprinkled them on top of the dry cereal before pouring on the milk. I looked at her wonderingly, and then at my roommate. Ha-Neul looked at us both expectantly. She gestured to the box, the one with Korean characters and large strawberries on it, clearly an intended taste of home, then she pointed to the cherry tomatoes atop my cereal and again at the strawberries. I smiled at her, and took a bite. Before I’d finished chewing, she asked, “Delicious?” I repeated her word back to her, still puzzling over the flavors in my mouth.
Later, at home again in the U.S., I did a little research. It turns out that many Korean people treat tomatoes as fruits, especially cherry tomatoes. You will find them as an ingredient in fruit salads, in patbingsu (a Korean shaved ice dessert), or dusted with sugar and eaten out of one’s hand like a grape.
As a college student with regular access to Frosted Flakes from a dispenser and cherry tomatoes from the salad bar, I would occasionally recreate this particularly memorable breakfast. In trying to give a familiar taste to those who had been traveling, my host family unintentionally created a beautiful blend of our two cultures, and it was indeed delicious.