Flavors of the world
The Island is quiet and dark on a Tuesday evening in January, but the high school corridors are lit up for the winter session of Adult Community Education of Martha's Vineyard (ACE MV). Hula hoops spin in one room, dancers take their places in another, and a dozen students gather in yet another to learn the art of making Korean pancakes. The instructor, Jeisook Thayer, introduces the topic. "This is a very ethnic class," she says. "Korean Pancake and dipping sauce is like the simplest thing in the world. You have your vegetable, flour and water. Really, none of you need printed recipes. We are all cooks here, we all know what we're doing."
Ms. Thayer's voice is reassuring, but a few students reach for pencil and paper. It's one thing to say that a dish is simple when you've been making it for decades, but trying it for the first time might be a different matter.
The class is quiet as Ms. Thayer begins her presentation by talking about the ingredients. On the table, she has sesame oil, soy sauce, sesame seeds, nori, cider vinegar, and rice vinegar. These ingredients are familiar to most cooks on the Island, but that wasn't always the case. Ms. Thayer arrived from Korea in 1964. "Now, there are all kinds of rice and sauces at the grocery store, but when I first came all you could get were River Rice, Minute rice and Tabasco," she says. Coming from a country where rice was the staple food, she was bemused by the lack of selection.
As for soy sauce, another basic ingredient in Korean home cooking, the range here still doesn't approach what can be found in Asia. "There," Ms. Thayer says, "we have light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and was it made on a full moon, or a half moon...It's like wine. We have all different varieties." Still, the soy sauce we can get here is good enough when it comes to making the dipping sauces in tonight's class.
Class begins with cutting the vegetables. The students gather in two of the classroom's kitchen areas to julienne scallions and peppers. The hot peppers are aside for a separate batch, and a few scallions are sliced into paper-thin rounds for one of the sauces.
Meanwhile, Ms. Thayer scoops two tablespoons of sugar into a pot for one of the dipping sauces. Each sauce has only a handful of ingredients - this one is made from sugar, ginger, lemongrass, water, and soy sauce. She says that the proportions are flexible, not important, but the students look on attentively, wanting to note the quantities more exactly.
When it comes to mixing the pancake batter, the students reach for their pen and paper. "This is so simple," Ms. Thayer reassures them. "It is only flours and water." Ah, but there's the catch. Flours, plural. Some white all-purpose flour and a smaller amount of rice flour, which gives the pancakes a crunchy texture. Ms. Thayer inspects the mixtures, advising a bit more water here and there. It should be like a pancake batter, she says, but not lumpy. When she pronounces it ready, in go the vegetables.
Students turn the pancakes with chopsticks and spatulas. As the room fills with the smell of hot, slightly smoking oil, the conversation begins to flow more freely.
"This is out of nothing," says one student.
"These are simple, but they're exquisite," says another, as the first pancakes come out of the pan.
The students range in age from early 40s into their 70s, mostly women and a couple of men. One is a friend of the instructor. "I've had Jei's cooking," she says, "and she's a marvelous chef."
Another woman says, "When I told my girls where I was going tonight, they said, 'Good. We need something new to eat.' My cooking is getting boring, I guess."
People have come for a slice of an unfamiliar cuisine, a change of scenery, and a chance to meet their neighbors. As for Ms. Thayer, this is the first cooking class she's taught since the 1970s, when she taught a class from her home. "At the time, there were no cooking classes here," she says. She also opened a sushi bar in Vineyard Haven in the 70s, long before the Island's palate was ready for it.
"The most important thing about teaching this class is to share my culture," Ms. Thayer says. "Cooking is such a big part of what makes us human." Although Korean pancakes are simple food, they're also a part of a rich culture, which we rarely get the chance to appreciate here.
The students leave with bundles of green tea and pancakes to carry back home in the quiet January night, along with new flavors, a window on another culture, to share with their friends and families.
Director Lynn Ditchfield says that ACE MV's new term starts on March 9, and includes some of the same subjects as the past few terms as well as new courses. "Most of our teachers are professionals in their subject area," Ms. Ditchfield says. "Or else they're professional teachers branching out to different topics. I think that passion is the main formula."
A new for-credit class offering is through Cape Cod Community College in Human Communications. Sharilyn Geistfeld will teach a course on Latin America and the Caribbean. The course has been offered before, but for the spring terms its focus will shift to Haiti, Brazil, and the African Diaspora. Kate Feiffer will be teach Writing for Children's Literature.
Meanwhile, the winter term continues. On February 9, Cathy Nee, a vocational specialist in cosmetology, will be teaching a manicuring workshop. On February 10, there will be a meeting at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School for those interested in joining ACE MV's International Global/Local Volunteer Service Work Project in Nicaragua, which will take place in April.
Visit acemv.org for more information on the spring term's classes.
Amelia Smith is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.