A story about COVID depression, cooking excitement, and then a clam

So I’ve been sinking deeper into a pit of COVID parenting exhaustion and numbness and world nausea and work burnout. One of the signs of depression for me is losing that weird obsessive aesthetic fire that always usually drags me along through my life. Like normally there’s something – some new music or cooking project or book – that I’m simmering with interest in. But that’s been more and more distant. Without that life is a slog.

But last week I pulled out a cookbook and had a glimmer of excitement. It was a Korean cookbook that I’d tried to use and failed with before. Normally when I get into a cuisine, I can figure out the basics in a few weeks and get minimally competent and start to get some instincts. But I’d failed twice with Korean. But I decided: this time I’m going to really do it. I’m going to get better, less arcane cookbooks; I’m going to ferment all kinds of kimchee and panchan. If COVID has me trapped in the house then at least I can go all in and finally learn to cook Korean.

So I indulged my growing sense of excitement. (“Indulged,” in COVID era, means buying a few cookbooks.) I read up. I made a list. I hit the Korean grocery. And yesterday night was going to be the first attempt: I was going to make soontofu – silky tofu stew. One of my favorite dishes. And in my excitement and perhaps hubris, I decided I wasn’t going to make the easiest soontofu. I was going to make the one with clams.

Cooking at first teeters on disaster. I don’t really know the ingredients and the kids are distracting. Mistakes are made. But I compensate a bit and things are looking good, and smelling right, and OMG it suddenly smells exactly like my old favorite soontofu joint in LA, and I suddenly feel awesome and so jazzed.

And then I add the clams.

The clams are supposed to simmer for 10 minutes and open all up. I am supposed to discard the ones that don’t. After 5 minutes, one opens up. At 10 minutes, still there is only one open. The pot is full of tightly closed clams. This seems suspicious. I give it a few more minutes, and decide it’s probably safest to discard all these unopened clams, but this seems weird to me, so I pull out one of the clams and inspect it and – and here is my biggest mistake – I cautiously poke it.

The clam explodes. It falls open and inside is this whole mass of noxious queasy grey molten sludge. The goopy death-mass hangs in the clamshell for a moment and then slides off, down the shell, down my spoon, right into the pot full of stew. It is pure despair.

Most of it is sitting above the liquid on a piece of tofu. I quickly spoon it out and chuck it. I look suspiciously at the rest of the stew. How much clam-death-goop got in? Maybe it’s fine? It could be fine. I cautiously taste it. And for one brief moment, all the spice and savor of the stew make things seem alright. And then, as the spice fades, what’s left in my mouth is the single worst flavor I have ever tasted. It is decay. It is ashes. It is the nightmare tide pool. It is the saddest part of mold. And it won’t go away. I drink booze. I drink the harshest dank amaro I have. Nothing helps. I can taste it after our second improvised dinner. I can taste it in the night. I wake up the next morning and I can still taste it.

And this is when I realize that my emotional arc with Korean cooking and the clam is the exact same shape as my emotional arc with the election and coup.

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