Early Christmas

It turns out that American Thanksgiving food is exactly the same as our traditional Christmas dinner. Who knew?!

As I’ve mentioned before, my family doesn’t do the traditional meal. However, I was used to eating a turkey dinner around Christmas every year before I started travelling – there was always the office Christmas do, of course, and the odd meal round at a friend’s house. Turkey dinners are not, on the other hand, such a common occurrence in Daejeon. Mashed potatoes exist only in fairy tales, and I can’t even remember the last time I saw gravy. It was probably in a dream.

My joy, therefore, at the plate being set down before me on Saturday night was understandable. This had better be worth it! we were all grimly saying beforehand, having shelled out 18,000 won each for the privilege of a ‘home-cooked’ meal. (I’ve just realised that that’s about £10, and am amused at what now seems ludicrously expensive to me!) I was expecting to try a vaguely familiar but still foreign cuisine from another country’s holiday, and instead I got a good old British Christmas dinner. Turkey, ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, winter veggies, and the best part – stuffing. Oh, the sheer joy… stuffing, I tell you! I honestly almost wept. Then I proceeded to eat so much I felt sick for two hours afterwards, which is apparently another holiday tradition we share with the Americans. Pete came out of the kitchen to see how his cooking had gone down with the Thanksgiving Virgins. Do you want another plateful? he inquired, noting the empty plates with satisfaction. It’s a real Thanksgiving meal… you can have as many helpings as you want! I could only groan in response, and managed just one bite of the pumpkin pie that then appeared in front of me.

And so it is Christmas once again. No visit home this year (saving that for the summer, when I will better appreciate the change in climate and also am less likely to end up snowed into Brussels Airport for days on end), but a wee trip to Hong Kong sounds alright, wouldn’t you say? ;)

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Bossam (보쌈)

I’m not going to lie, I’ve used the word delicious about 20 times in two languages today and I’m only halfway through the day. I don’t even care.

Today, my friends, is Kimchi Day at school. My feelings about kimchi have changed very little since my delirious kimchi-drunk ramblings this time last year – if anything, I have only fallen more and more in love. Last weekend was the national kimchi-making weekend across Korea, and I was very disappointed not to get to go on the special “let’s teach the foreigners how to make kimchi” daytrip (I had a friend’s birthday party to attend). To my delight, the class was such a success that they’re having another one next month, and I have signed up with great excitement. I’ll get to make, keep, and eat my very own kimchi. Two kilos of the stuff! *happy dance*

In the meantime, the local ajummas have been drafted in today to help the cooking lady make the school’s kimchi supply for the year. I have once again been crossly shooed out of the kitchen after almost falling headfirst into the ginormous basin of sauce containing approximately a million cloves of garlic, but I am taking my banishment well, thanks to the lunch we’ve just had to celebrate kimchi-making day.

The first time I was served bossam, I looked at it with disappointed sadness. I hadn’t been here that long, and thought Korean food was all quite weird and unappealing. I was really hungry, and all I was being given to eat was disgusting fatty pork and horrible fermented cabbage leaves?! The horror. Now, however, it ranks up there around the same level as yukgaejang and japchae on my list of Frickin’ Amazing Korean Dishes.

Bossam is a kind of ssam – that is to say, one of the dishes that involves wrapping a piece of meat in a leaf of some sort, and eating it with a tasty sauce. Bossam is the steamed pork version. I admit, it doesn’t look that appealing to the newcomer’s eye. The pork is very fatty – lots of the pieces are almost all fat and hardly any meat – but you’ll often be served a varied selection of cuts, with plenty of lean, fat-free pieces, too. Of course, me being me, I never touch those, and go for the fatty slices every time. They are absolutely – wait for it – delicious. So soft, melt-in-your-mouth tender, and flavourful, even on their own. But then you wrap them in a lettuce leaf with a big piece of spicy, crunchy, garlicky kimchi and a dab of ssamjang, and it’s like an explosion of… of deliciousness on your taste buds.

The fresh kimchi today was spicier than the stuff we usually have, but it was the sort of heat that creeps up on you gradually rather than setting your mouth on fire at the first bite. By the end of the meal we were all making hissing noises and gulping down cold water, and yet no one could stop eating the bossam. It is too good, trust me on this. The combined flavours and textures of the meat and the kimchi are just out of this world. I actually caught myself doing my happy dance as I returned to my classroom after lunch, when I could eat no more.

Apparently we’re getting bossam for lunch at our kimchi-making class, too. Hurrah! I can’t believe there was once a time when my life did not have Korean food in it.

It’s DELICIOUS, I tell you.

Give thanks… and let go.

I think this may be the first year that I’ve even been aware that American Thanksgiving Day is coming. I don’t really know what it’s all about, and I don’t know much about how it’s celebrated. Actually, at one point I thought that it was a day to mark the start of Christmas in America, and the two holidays just kind of blurred into one. All I do know about it is that it’s similar to Christmas in my country, with turkey and cranberry sauce and so on, and, from what I’ve seen in Friends (my go-to reference for American culture!), that everyone has a “Thanksgiving story”.

And, strangely enough, so do I. This may be a long post!

This US holiday has played no part in my life other than an incident 4 years ago which left me with unpleasant feelings rather than any positive ones. It still upsets me when I think about it, to be honest, but maybe it will be cathartic for me to finally write about it and let it go instead of feeling sad every time I think about it.

I had an American girl staying with me for a couple of months – the teenage daughter of some friends. I wasn’t particularly close to the family, but we had some mutual friends who I adored. (They were the same girls who met up with me in NYC, one of whom I stayed with in Nashville.) I loved these girls – let’s call them Jane and Sue – and would’ve done anything for them. They’d always been fond of me, too, and we regularly emailed and made transatlantic phone calls. Sue  lived in NI briefly, and we shared a house together at the time when I’d just made the difficult decision to leave my fiancé and move out of our home. She was good company at a distressing time, and I missed her like crazy when she moved back to the USA. She always stayed in touch, though, and was a frequent commenter on this very blog, too. We had nicknames and private jokes and fond memories. In short: I loved her.

So anyway, this girl in her late teens, who I barely knew but who was very close to Jane and (particularly) Sue, came to stay with me. She was doing volunteer work in the area, and just needed somewhere to stay. I was working full-time and also doing volunteer work and various other activities of my own, so we didn’t see each other very much, but she seemed happy enough and soon made friends her own age. All was well until one Thursday night in November, when I arrived home from work to find her in the house – which was unusual, as she often didn’t get home till after I’d gone to bed – and looking sad. She announced that she was going bowling with her friends, though, so I figured she was OK and thought no more of it. I was having a personal crisis of my own that week, anyway.

The Housemate got home late, when I was already in bed reading, but I got up and made hot chocolate and had a chat with her, to check she was OK after looking so down earlier. She seemed fine. It was Thanksgiving today, she said at one point. It’s so strange being in a country where nobody knows that. 

Oh, yes, I said interestedly. Do you get the day off for that, in the States? Wait, what should I say? Is it Merry Thanksgiving? Happy Thanksgiving?

I was clueless, but she just laughed at my ignorance, and we chatted some more before I went back to bed and she got on the phone to friends and family.

And from that day, everything changed. In large groups of people where some are friends and some aren’t, and gossip flies around, you get to hear when someone’s mad at you. You get to hear the comments they make behind your back, and you get to see the remarks addressed to someone else but aimed at you. Oddly, it wasn’t the girl herself who did any of this, but I heard that she’d cried on the phone that night, homesick, unknown to me. Her mother made a big fuss online of the teenager who’d gone out with her, saying “I’m so thankful that at least someone was nice enough to take care of my girl on her first Thanksgiving away from home.”

Ouch.

Suddenly, the fact that she’d lived in my house for 2 months was forgotten, and the only thing anyone saw was that I was a horrible person who hadn’t made a Thanksgiving dinner for her, or given her gifts, or whatever you’re meant to do on the holiday that I knew absolutely nothing about. I wanted to shout “I was at WORK! It was an ordinary day! I didn’t even know! I’m sorry!” but minds were apparently made up.

Things were strained after that, and when her parents came to take her back home, they picked her up from outside my house without even coming in to speak to me. And that was the last I ever saw of any of my US friends. Phone calls, blog comments, emails… everything stopped. And boy did it hurt. Only Jane eventually contacted me again, and I’m hopeful I’ll at least see her again one day even though we’re not in touch as often as before. But Sue, my ‘roomie’, vanished from my life. She never said why, she never confronted me. She just stopped responding. Phone calls were not returned, voicemail messages not acknowledged, emails never replied to, Facebook posts left commentless, happy birthday wishes ignored. She’s still there… I see her responding to Facebook posts by other friends, wishing them a happy birthday, arranging to call or Skype. Just not with me.

I don’t know if it’s really possible that I lost one of my favourite people in the world because I didn’t celebrate a holiday that I wasn’t even aware of, but it’s the only conclusion I’ve been able to come to. It’s possible there was something else, of course, but I can’t think of it and am not psychic. I’ve given up on reconciliation now, and all that remains to do, I suppose, is press “remove friend” and forget about it. Four years is long enough to be carrying around guilt and regret and hurt, and now seems like as good a time as any to write it all down, get it all out, and let it all go!

And so this is what Thanksgiving means to me. It is a few vague images of turkeys mixed with the hurt and confusion of being cut out of someone’s life with no explanation. It is a holiday that apparently cost me dearly because of my ignorance of it.

But it is also, I assume, a time to give thanks.

This Thanksgiving, I am going to a dinner and party at The Local to celebrate with friends both American and otherwise. The other weekend, I was watching a movie there with my Irish / South African group of friends, when the owner came over to tell us that they were now serving “_______ Root Beer Floats” (the line there is where he said what I presume was a brand name, but I’ve forgotten it). He seemed very excited about this, and a little taken aback and disappointed when all of us looked blankly at him and asked “What’s that?”. It was the same look Frankie the barman got later when he mentioned the upcoming Thanksgiving party and realised that not one of us shared his background of celebrating this holiday.

Their reactions to our ignorance, however, were great. Frankie asked us to come and celebrate Thanksgiving with them anyway, and looked genuinely pleased when we said we would. Pete reappeared at our table with a large root beer float (it’s a sort of soft-drink-with-ice-cream concoction, like the fizzy orange or Coke ice cream drinks Mum used to make for us in the summer) with several straws in it, to let us all try this unknown thing that is apparently a childhood memory for most Americans. They weren’t annoyed by our lack of knowledge – they just wanted to share it with us.

This Thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for a lifestyle that lets me meet people from all over the world, with different backgrounds, stories, traditions, memories, beliefs, and interests, who can all share, teach, and learn from each other with patience, tolerance, amusement, kindness, understanding, respect, and interest. I’ve partied South African style at a braai, I’ve eaten pasta cooked by lovable Italian guys, I’ve danced at St. Paddy’s Day parties with my Irish friends, I’ve performed vodka rituals over goat stew in the Mongolian wilderness, I’ve eaten tteokguk at Seollal with the Koreans, I’ve cheered on France (in French!) with passion in their rugby world cup matches, and I’m going to eat Thanksgiving turkey with the Americans.

This is what my life is about, and I’m thankful for all the people who are a part of it, near or far. I’m thankful that bad experiences with former friends haven’t held me back from making new ones. I’m thankful for the people who have been in my life from the start, and the ones I just met the other day. I’m thankful that out of all those people, I could probably count on one hand those who are no longer in my life because of bad feeling on one side or the other. I’m thankful for love, friendship, and laughter.

And to my American friends celebrating tomorrow: Happy Thanksgiving.

Whatever that means! ;)

Fire!

When I was at school, we had regular unannounced fire drills. You’d be eating your lunch or doing a history test or whatever, and the bell would interrupt with its urgent, continuous ringing. We were so used to it that no one got over-excited or scared – everyone simply rose to their feet and looked at the teacher, waiting for the order to line up and follow him/her outside to the playground. We knew that we had to leave all our things behind, and we knew that we had to walk, not run. Occasionally you’d encounter a member of staff blocking a doorway, saying “This exit is on fire! Find another way out. Quickly and quietly, girls, quickly and quietly!”

Fire drills were always either a welcome break from a dull lesson, or an annoying interruption of free time or a fun class. But they worked, no doubt about that. They were routine, and our response was automatic: we heard the bell, we stood up, we walked immediately out of the building. It didn’t matter if it was a drill, or a real fire, or some idiot setting off the alarm – we had to react the same way every time, just in case.

Stand up, line up, and walk quickly and quietly outside via the nearest exit. That was the drill.

So anyway, the fire alarm went off in school yesterday for the first time ever.

It scared the crap out of me, as I didn’t even know we had a bell. My heart pounding, I leapt up in a panic from where I’d been sitting writing progress reports at my computer, and ran to the door, flinging it open to find all 5 of my English teacher colleagues doing the same. Two of them had classrooms full of children, who they simply left while they ran downstairs to see what was going on. Um… shouldn’t we get these children outside? I asked incredulously as the final teacher passed me, but I was ignored.

I dithered uncertainly in the corridor for a few moments, the only remaining adult on the top floor of a building filled with kids while a fire bell jangled loudly. Then I decided I could live with being told off for needlessly evacuating the floor, but probably not with leaving the children there to check if there actually was a fire, and then being unable to get back to them again. Everybody line up! I called as loudly as I could, before realising just how important the whole fire drill process actually is.

For a start, no one could hear me over the noise of the bell. They would’ve had to know what to do beforehand, because there was no way to give them instructions now.

Secondly, they were in a state of hysteria – some excited, some frightened – because they didn’t know what was going on, having never heard the bell ring before. Some of them were screaming, some were jumping around with their hands on their ears, and the majority were rising to their feet and running around like mad things.

Stand up… line up… walk quickly and quietly outside via the nearest exit. Yeah, right!!!

I desperately tried to herd them along the corridor to the stairs, but it was utter chaos, and I was hugely relieved when the bell finally stopped and someone yelled “It’s OK!” from downstairs. The teachers returned, classes were resumed, and normality was restored.

And if it had actually been a fire, quite a lot of children could have been trapped in a burning building while their teachers ran around panicking downstairs.

My conversation with the director afterwards, on the benefits of fire drills, was met with the same indifferent shrug as the one about air raid drills when we were on the brink of war with North Korea. It won’t happen, it’s fine. Hmmm. Questions such as “But what should we do? Where should we go? Do the children know what the bell means?” were once again dismissed with a nervous, uncertain laugh.

And, you know, the more I encounter these strange attitudes in my workplace, the more drawn I am to the idea of opening my own school and doing it all my way…

You’ll catch your death!

Awdi ka? (Where are you going?) barks the ajumma from upstairs as I hurry down the steps out of the building. I look at her, somewhat exasperated.

It’s not that I mind her being a nosy old woman, as I will probably become one myself at some point, interrogating random passers-by from my front porch as I sit on my rocking chair with my knitting and half a dozen of my favourite cats.

It’s just that she asks this question every time I leave the building, and I can’t help but feel that it’s unnecessary when it’s morning time and she has the prior knowledge that I’ve worked in a nearby school from 9-5 every weekday for over two years. A simple ‘hello’ would do, y’know? Still. I answer politely, bow slightly by way of goodbye, and hurry on. Unfortunately I seem to have angered her somehow, for she blocks my way, ranting at me from behind her mask.

This is not as frightening as it may sound, as she is about 200 years old, 4 feet tall, and capable of sounding furious while giving a compliment. Still, you don’t want to offend an ajumma, which is why I generally let her rant at me (once, it was because I bought milk at the corner shop, and apparently she reeeeeeally didn’t want me shopping there, for some reason. I thought she was going to confiscate my milk and send me to bed), apologise most sincerely, and hope she’ll let me go.

This morning, she is indignant because I am leaving the house with wet hair. This is not unusual for me. Drying my hair takes too long and is very boring. As it dries by itself after an hour or so, I don’t really see the point. Halmoni (what an ajumma is called when she gets older – literally ‘grandmother’) disagrees, and is being really quite vocal about it, faffing with my hair in horror and smacking me on the arm. Torrents of angry Korean words wash over my sleepy, wet head, and I wait patiently for her to finish her lecture. Then I shrug sheepishly and tell her it’s fine, and she practically drags me back into the building by my soggy tresses, yelling something about it not being fine at all.

Before I know it, she is putting a woolly hat on my head, zipping up my coat, and putting a warm can of coffee in my hands. It’s winter now, she’s explaining as if I am a small child, and you will get sick again if you carry on like this! At least, I think that’s what she’s saying. I stand there in bemused silence until she looks satisfied that I’m not going to freeze to death (on my 5 minute walk to work, in temperatures that haven’t even reached zero yet), gives me a rough shove in the direction of the door and yells at me to get out.

Honestly. This is actually my life.

Then of course I have to sweat under the completely unnecessary woolly hat and zipped-up coat until I am out of her sight, for she is watching me like a hawk and will probably have me machine-gunned to the ground if I dare to take them off.

It is often very difficult for me to remember my real age.

Winter warmers

Winter’s almost here!

This is probably my favourite time of the year in Korea. The beautiful autumn colours are still around, and the days are sunny and bright, but the air is now cold enough to see your breath on it. It’s not so cold that I have to wear multiple heavy layers outdoors, or endure the horrible stifling heat of those horrendous underfloor heating systems indoors. Perfect!

I love the crisp freshness of the chilly air, the absence of that horrible humidity, and the smell of fallen leaves mixed with the aromatic steam from food carts. And, oh, the joy of winter street food. Street food is always fabulous in Korea, but it becomes an even bigger part of life during the cold weather. I ate roast chestnuts for the first time when I came to Korea, simply because they looked and smelled so good in their cloud of steam on a freezing cold winter’s day.  You have to love the warm feeling of the little bag of chestnuts in your gloved hands, and the heat and taste of the soft, sweet, fluffy insides.

There are loads of other popular winter snacks, sold from carts that are dotted all over the place, from subway exits to residential areas to doorways of empty buildings. I’ve told you before about bungeoppang, those strangely addictive fishy-shaped waffly things with hot, sweet red bean paste inside. Then there’s the option of a hot sweet potato, roasted in coals and held in a napkin to guard your hands from the heat as you peel off the skin to reach the delicious* crumbly sweetness inside.

On the other hand, there are also some winter favourites that I don’t particularly like. Tteokbokki, a mixture of chewy rice cake and veggies in a sticky, spicy red sauce, is hugely popular with both Koreans and foreigners, but I’ve never developed a taste for it – it’s one of those foods that I would class as savoury rather than sweet, and yet it has an odd sweetness to it at the same time. My taste buds don’t deal well with sweet foods that my brain believes should not be sweet at all. Still, I can understand why people like tteokbokki: it’s hot and tangy and filling, and although it’s eaten all year around, its mouth-burning spiciness means it’s especially popular in winter. There’s also eomuk, which consists of what I can only describe as processed fish cake (called odeng – which, incidentally, I do enjoy in other dishes) boiled until soggy and served on a skewer. I wouldn’t say it’s utterly revolting, but I don’t particularly understand the appeal!

Probably the nicest winter street food, however, is hotteok . This is also, annoyingly, the most unhealthy Korean food I have  encountered so far. I think Korean cuisine is generally pretty good for you, when you consider all the veggie-filled stews and soups, salads, and steamed rice that we eat every day. Hotteok, on the other hand, is an artery’s worst nightmare. It’s a pancake-like snack made from the same sticky, glutinous dough they use to make rice cake, and it’s filled with a ridiculously sweet paste that seems to involve a lot of brown sugar and cinnamon. This already calorific disaster is then fried until it absolutely oozes oil. I never feel guilty when eating, except when I have a hotteok. If you get just one, they give it to you in a paper cup to protect your hands while you eat, but it doesn’t matter – by the time you’ve finished, the grease has seeped its way through the cup to your fingers. If you buy more than one, you get them in a paper bag that goes transparent before you get as far as removing one to eat it. I had one on Sunday night and have been feeling 10 pounds heavier ever since.

And yet… eating a hotteok is like getting a big, warm, comforting hug by a roaring fire on a cold, grey, gloomy day. From the sweet aroma rising in a cloud of steam, to the crispiness of the pancake, to the satisfyingly stodgy texture of the dough, to the syrupy, cinnamon-laced concoction that oozes out with every bite, it’s like a sugary drug that leaves you craving more and does actually make you a wee bit high. You end up with your hands and chin shining with grease, and your eyes glazed with the sugar rush.

Picture from Wikipedia. Taste from heaven.

I try to limit myself to just a few of these each winter, which is not too difficult as – fortunately – I do not have a sweet tooth at all, and am usually much more tempted by the generally more healthy savoury snacks. But sometimes only a hotteok will do!

*Please note that I wrote an entire post about various winter snack foods and only used the word delicious once. I think. 

Very very not delicious

As much satisfaction as being an ESL teacher brings me, it has also had a disturbing side effect… on my vocabulary. This seems to be a generally recognised and shared symptom amongst English teachers in Korea, and there are times when you’d wonder how on earth we manage to do our jobs, when you hear us groping desperately for words, and mixing up our verb conjugations. My vocabulary has been gradually shrinking since I first got here, and I’m starting to feel a bit like this:

Why does it happen? Well, there’s the obvious explanation, which is that we’re living in a country where the majority of people don’t speak our language, and we don’t speak theirs. Our day-to-day interactions in shops, train stations, taxis, restaurants etc., are therefore as basic as you could possibly imagine. Probably more so. It makes for some very comedic moments, but also a great deal of frustration (both for us and for the Koreans). I was sitting in a taxi just last night, wistfully trying to remember the last time I got into a cab and casually explained to the driver exactly where I wanted to go. Nowadays, it’s a whole saga, whereby I give the name of the nearest landmark to my destination, and then use my limited Korean vocabulary to guide the driver from there – “Left… right… go straight… next left… here please!”. If that fails, I just get out and walk. I find myself saying less and less when I’m in these situations, simply because there’s no point. I suppose I’m getting used to choosing only the words that are absolutely essential, and cutting out everything else.

But those are only brief interactions of a few minutes here and there – my job is where I spend the majority of my time, and that’s where the real vocab-rot sets in. I teach Korean children, most of whom cannot speak any English when they first come to me. I quickly learned to cut out all non-essential words there, too! And in fact, as I’ve continued to learn about the job and figure out my own teaching style, I’ve actually been training myself to only use words I know the children have already learned in the programme we use. This basically means that I spend all day every day using only the English vocabulary of a Korean 5-year-old. “Hello! How are you today? Good? Did you enjoy lunch? It was delicious! What’s the weather like today? I like your ribbon!” Don’t get me wrong, they are very bright children who understand more than you might imagine, but I swear, there are days when I think my brain is going to crumble into a fine powdery substance if I hear the word ‘delicious’ one more time.

Oh, delicious. Korea has ruined that perfectly harmless, formerly pleasant word for me. I don’t understand why I hear it as much as I do here. I can’t say I ever noticed it before I moved to Korea, but I’m certain it must have been present in my life – perhaps in a vague, subtle, inoffensive way, much like a pet fish you just have to shake food at now and again. Here, it plays a starring role in my daily life – more like a hyperactive puppy who hasn’t yet been house trained and insists on bouncing around everywhere, yelping to get your attention. Everything is delicious, or not delicious. Not only delicious, but very delicious, or sort of delicious, or more delicious than the thing that is not all that delicious. There are multiple levels of deliciousness, and all of them use the word delicious rather than synonyms.

The Korean equivalent is “mash-ee-saw-yo!” (roughly translated: “this has a delicious taste!”), and it seems that that’s the only word in the entire language that exists to describe one’s food. You say it while you’re eating, and you say it when you’re done eating, and you say it when you’re explaining why you enjoy a particular food, and you say it when you see a picture of pretty much anything edible. There is apparently no other word. Even the opposite, for describing unpleasant food, uses the same verb in the negative: “mash-op-saw-yo!” (“this does not have a delicious taste.”) And for some reason, it is necessary to state aloud the deliciousness (or absence of deliciousness) of every piece of food you taste or see, every single time.

I was horrified to discover recently that I can no longer think of alternative ways to talk about food. It’s either delicious, or it’s not delicious. The other day I was discussing favourite foods with my elementary students, and I wanted to scream by the time I’d finished and every single child had answered the question “Why do you like that?” with “Because it’s delicious!”. Instead, I smiled encouragingly while my brain died a slow and painful death. I really fecking hate the word delicious now, you have no idea. It grates on my nerves when I hear it, and I want to smack myself in the face with a shovel every time I hear it coming out of my mouth.

(Incidentally, one of my favourite movie scenes of all time!)

I think I will prepare an entire lesson on alternative ways to discuss food, and teach it to every class in the school before distributing a useful handout to all the staff, including myself. The really disturbing thing about all of this is that I – the alleged writer and general fan of words – was intending to conclude this post with a list of alternative words that could be used to describe food, but failed to think of a single one.

Other than “yummy”, that is.