The Dog Days of Summer

Have we mentioned it's hot here? Like, brain-meltingly hot, with constant sauna room humidity. The kind of weather where you leave streaks on the pavement. The humidity was 95% yesterday. It was so bad we actually witnessed Koreans sweat. And that's just crazy.

If you're native to this climate, you've naturally developed some survival techniques to help you deal with the debilitating heat. Since this is Korea, that means soup.

Soup is not only a mealtime staple, it's a kind of cure-all. There's birthday/long life soup, just-had-a-baby soup, even hangover soup. (Actually, there are lots of hangover soups. Demand creates product.) So, of course, there's a big market for oh-my-god-it's-so-hot-I'm-going-to-die soup.

These special soups are considered restoratives for the body during the hot summer weather. They're beneficial any time, but you definitely want to get them in on the sambok, the three landmark hot days of summer. There are three staple soups to help you tough it out: sam gye tang, ginseng soup with a whole small chicken; yeom su tang, goat meat soup; and bo sin tang, which means "healthy body soup." That's code for dog meat.

There are two kinds of dogs in Korea: the ones you pet and the ones you eat. The former, all tiny, scraggy-haired rat dogs, spend their cossetted lives wearing gym suits and being carried about in purses. Edible dogs are bigger and, to me, way cuter. It's not fair. I could totally see myself going all Titus Andronicus on those annoying little yap dogs, but a big, brown-eyed bowser? Sad face.

In general, eating dog is something of a stigma among urban Koreans. The kids at my rural schools inform me that dog meat is all kind of yum. My city dweller friends look away when I ask about it, as though its a cultural practice they'd rather not be associated with. Most cite the lean periods of Korean history--not that far in the past--when starvation was a real threat. All assure me that their families don't eat dog, though some other people might.

The exception appears to be bo sin tang. It's accepted by my rural and city friends alike that dog soup is just freaking delicious. "The meat is so soft," one acquaintance told me, as though this alone explained the appeal. "It's very good to eat with beer."

I suspect the "man's best friend" issue is enough to keep most Westerners from trying bo sin tang. My own feelings are surprisingly ambiguous. It's not like America's left this pet/food conundrum too far behind. Hello, Charlotte's Web. I think we can all agree that it's possible to like Wilber and bacon. Heck, as a kid my mom had a pet lamb that, inevitably, ended up on the family dinner table. (Mind you, she's only recently recovered enough to order lamb in restaurants.)

I'm not as opposed to the concept as the practice. Dog meat is not subject to the same regulations as other food in Korea; in fact, from what I can tell, it's not subject to regulations, period. Basically, we're talking an old-school, backyard operation; it's not like you can buy it at E-Mart. Also, dog meat is a more likely candidate for food poisoning than, say, beef, because of the animals' diets. Cows eat grass. Dogs eat, well, anything. And potentially pass it on to you. And, if that didn't kill me, my mother-in-law probably would.

All the same, I kinda want to try it. It's a tough issue for a girl like me to reconcile. A year ago, I had to be talked out of buying all the puppies at the open market in a desperate attempt to guarantee their safety.

("But where would we put them?" Sam argued. "We'll find a way. They can sleep with me." I told him, twisting won notes in my hands. "Honey, I sleep with you. In a twin bed. In our 300 square foot apartment. Walk away.")

But it's also impossible not to be curious. Especially when everyone agrees that this is one delicious soup. And think of all the things I've already eaten: octopus, silkworm larvae, fishhead soup...

Foods that watch you while you eat...
Foods that watch you while you eat...

If you want to experience life in a different culture, doesn't that necessarily include trying the food? Is there a line? Where is it drawn? It's a highly subjective thing. For example, right now I know with 100% certitude that I would never eat balut, the Filipino street food where your hardboiled egg has a dead baby duck inside. Not happening. I literally gag at the thought. But if I had just spent a year in Manila, if the idea had time to normalize, is it possible I'd change my mind? Try it just once?

I sure as heck hope not. But it's possible. I know this because I could almost see hitting up a coworker to take me out for bo sin tang. Just once. If accompanied by a gallon of beer.

I guess I'd better decide fast, though. Summer's almost over.