65 years ago I was about ten years old and I had seasonal activities. In winter and early spring, I played hide and seek around the block under the dim street light with a bunch of girls. During the monsoon season in the summer, I caught small fish in the rice field. Under the blue sky with cool autumn winds, I caught grasshoppers in the dried rice field and brought them home to make snacks, grasshoppers popcorn.
Rice was our main dish, and still is, but not to the same extent as fifty years ago. Then we were solely dependent on sticky rice as the staple in our diet. Now we have a mixture of wheat, barley, red beans and other grains with white rice for a healthy diet. We called it “zagokbob” meaning mixture of rice and grains, the other one was “hynbob” meaning white rice without any grains. The rice was packaged in 100 lb. bags made of rice straw. At that time, the symbol of wealth was the number of rice bags that were harvested in the autumn and stored in the barn. Now, the biggest package of rice in the Korean grocery store is only 25 lbs.
In the early spring, farmers needed hands to plant the small rice plants in the field. Even elementary school students helped out for one or two days during the planting season. Farmers put the thread throughout the field to plant the shoots in a straight line at one foot intervals in one foot deep water.
The leeches sucked my blood near the ankles and 90o bending in order to plant the shoots was an extremely terrible job at such a young age. However, I did finish the job without crying.
In Korea the monsoon season is between July and August. It rained every day, with 100% humidity. In 1950, we did not have washers and dryers. We did hand washing on a washboard and dried by air. Occasionally we got mold on freshly washed clothes.
Despite the pouring rain and getting soaked to the skin, I enjoyed catching the small fish that were flowing down at the terrace of the rice field with the round sieve that was formerly used for separating the dry grains.
My mother was not appreciative of bringing the fish for one additional dish for dinner because of the fish smell, I was scolded instead for taking the sieve that was only for dry materials. But I had a great time hopping around the terrace following the streams of small fish..
I was told “In Korea the so-called autumn has blue sky without any clouds and with abundant harvest to make the horses fat”. The saying meant it was the most peaceful season, with bountiful harvests of rice, fruits and vegetables. The lazy horse was getting fat without concern about the lack of grass to eat. The rice field was getting yellowish brown and the grasshoppers and birds were in the heavens to eat the crops. My activities in the rice field were no exception in the autumn
After endless requests, grandpa made me a net to catch grasshoppers.
“Grandpa, don’t tell mommy you made me a net,” I begged him. “Mmm,” was his slow response.
At that time we did not have any steel wire for making grasshopper nets. I don’t know why. Anyway, grandpa used a thin bamboo stick as a ring and sewed the cloth around it to make a net to catch grasshoppers.
I grabbed it and ran without wasting time to say “thank you,” and went to the rice field a couple of miles away. The early afternoon sun was hot compared to the chilly morning. After running for two miles, my light cotton blouse and pants were all wet like being soaked by the rain.
The farmers often said, daytime heat will accelerate the ripening of the rice. Several scarecrows stood in the field to chase away birds and grasshoppers. At first the sparrows and grasshoppers were frightened by the scarecrows, later they were getting smarter and were even landing on the heads of the scarecrows with loud chirping. When I ran to a small trail between the rice fields, a couple of boys were already catching grasshoppers and filled half of a one pint glass jar.
Gee, they got here before me, I said to myself, and continued mumbling. If I am behind them catching grasshoppers, I will come back later to make up. I cannot be behind.
“Hey, Kook-Wha, no girls are coming here. I will tell your mom you were here again at the rice field.” A boy with a bald haircut and a lanky figure like a small telephone pole threatened me.
“My grandpa said it was ok,” was my timid and naïve answer. If my mother knew I was in the rice field again I would be in big trouble.
When I arrived in the middle of the field, a bunch of grasshoppers flew away with a loud noise from flapping their wings. There were so many grasshoppers, gray, brown and green, I could almost catch them in my hands. By swirling the net, one, two, three — I put the grasshoppers into the jar. I got a full bottle of grasshoppers. “Oh, great.” I was thrilled, but I wondered how could I ask mom to saute’ or roast them for a great snack? I continued to talk to myself, I might get spanked again and continued, But today grandpa is at home, so it will be okay. With these thoughts I ran home with the bottle full of grasshoppers.
Mom was in the kitchen and grandpa was in the yard taking care of the pigs. I was relieved because in the presence of grandpa mom had never yelled at me and never, never spanked me.
“Mom, I caught some grasshoppers.” Mom was quiet. “Mom, can you saut’e or roast them, like Soodal’s mom did for him? He is having them for snacks all the time”. Soodal was the lanky boy. I begged mom, holding two hands tightly. “Soodal already came and told me that you were at the rice field,” mom answered. I noticed the cold expression on her face. “Mom, please.” I asked her one more time with my head down without staring into her face.
She started to make a charcoal fire in a very small stove. It was one foot high and about a foot in diameter with two layers inside. The upper was for charcoal layers and the bottom had a side wall with a small inlet for the air flow. When the charcoal had a red flame, mom put the pan on that was coated with soybean oil and waited for the pan to get hot.
“Mom, thank you,” I almost screamed. She did not answer, but just did it for me.
I did not remember how I poured the grasshoppers from the narrow mouthed bottle into the hot pan, but I do remember that as soon as they were in, I put the lid on the pan. Mom and I could hear the popping noise of the grasshoppers as they jumped inside the pan. “Grasshopper Popcorn”. The smell of soybean oil was permeating the air and stimulated my appetite.
The tension between my mother and I was reduced, and I saw a beautiful smile on her face. It was a rare occasion to see that she was happy about my odd behavior instead of punishing me. Mom, thank you. I am so happy, I mumbled to myself.
When mom opened the lid of the pan the grasshoppers lay down in the pan. Some had wings, some didn’t. I grabbed them into my mouth. They were hot with a soybean oil smell. “Yummy, mom,” I was exhilarated.
One week ago, in the middle of September 2010, I read in the Wall Street Journal about a gourmet food restaurant with insects; crickets, grasshoppers and others with a bug theme, for dinners, snacks and main dishes, in Brooklyn, New York, and Boston area, promoting “Insects are tasty and nutritious”.
Now, I must decide whether to have gourmet meals with insects. It may be a wonderful memory re-created, but will my guests enjoy it, even myself? That is a great question, besides, how will I catch live grasshoppers around here? I haven’t seen any rice fields in Michigan. The smile on my face said it all. I was one of the first pioneers with creative gourmet snacks with grasshoppers popcorn.