It was in early December 1990 when I got together one afternoon with Dick Verucchi (he had been the drummer of Buckacre and The Jerks two very popular bands in the Illinois Valley and still played out with local musicians) for lunch.
It had been just a little over a year since we had last seen each other and it would probably be awhile before we would see each other again because I was leaving for Korea in a few days. (As it turned out, it would be sixteen years before we saw each other again.) We had lunch at a local Chinese restaurant and then went to Vallero’s Bakery (a family-owned bakery that went out of business a few years ago) in Dalzell, Illinois to pick up some Italian bread for his family’s restaurant in Spring Valley.
(If you are ever traveling across North-Central Illinois on I-80 and get an inkling for some home-style Italian cooking, get off at the Spring Valley exit and follow the signs. Without question, Verucchi’s Ristorante has some of the best Italian eats in the Illinois Valley and the prices won’t empty your wallet. Their Sunday Brunch is a local favorite and definitely worth the detour if you just so happen to be traveling across this part of the state—or anywhere within a 100-mile radius—on a Sunday.)
“So, you’re off to Korea in a few days?” Dick asked as he waited for one of the bakers at Vallero’s to prepare the order.
“That’s right,” I said.
“You know they eat dog over there?”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard.”
Actually, I hadn’t heard anything about Koreans eating dog. However, there would be a lot of things that I would quickly find out about Korea in the days, weeks, and months to come.
And some Korean’s penchant for eating dog would be one of them.
For the record—and as much as this pains me to say this—yes, I have tried “dog meat” but only in the pursuit of journalistic truth. It was back in 2002, the year of the World Cup in Korea and Japan and there had been a number of unfavorable letters to the editor about Korea’s penchant for eating dog as well as one from Bridget Bardot an outspoken animal rights activist.
(The same thing had happened in 1988 prior to the Seoul Olympics when there was a similar uproar, especially in terms of how “barbaric” it was the way some dogs were killed. Some dog restaurants were told to close during the Olympics as not to cause any more international outcry.)
Well, far be it for me not to seize a journalistic opportunity and especially when the newspaper I was writing for was competing with two other English-language dailies. Likewise, the Korea Times had been selected as the “official” English-language paper of the World Cup, so I had the green light as it were to write anything related to the sporting event even Korean culture—even when it came to eating dog.
My editor agreed. He thought it would be a great story and all the more so because even though I had been in Korea at this point for 12 years, I had never had dog before. If I was out to write about the “truth” of what it was really like to eat dog, I would be able to do so without any bias or prejudice.
Or so, I thought.
My editor arranged for myself and a few cronies from the newspaper to have lunch at one of the more famous dog restaurants in Seoul as well as have a photographer come along to document the event. You would think we were some celebrities the way the owner of this establishment; a 60-year old Korean Ajumoni (pronounced ah-joo-mone-ni, literally the word means aunt, but it is used to refer to any woman in her 30s or older) treated us as soon as we arrived by having us dine in a private room. And of course, being the only foreigner in the place added to the special treatment.
Now let me explain that there are two kinds of dog meat (sometimes my students say they like to eat “dog food” and I have to immediately correct them on that as not to have this mental image of one of my students eating a can of Alpo) that are consumed here. First there is Bo-shin-tang which is a kind of a stew and Gay-soo-yook—boiled dog which can be in a soup stock or the meat eaten alone with lettuce leaves and red pepper paste.
It was going to take every ounce of courage I had to try some of the dog that was brought to our table—courage in that I just could not get the images of Lassie, Benji, and my Mom’s dog out of my mind as I saw this meat on the table. As much as I had jumped at the opportunity to write about eating dog and showing up the other newspapers, I wasn’t too crazy about finally eating dog. In fact, I was starting to feel a little queasy when I saw the boiled meat piled on the plate.
My Mom’s cute and adorable Bichon Frieze.
Out, out damn Spot.
I nibbled at a few pieces and really wanted to spit it out if I had had the chance. I chewed and chewed and it took every bit of stamina I had to swallow that morsel of dog.
I thought the meat was tough and sinewy. I didn’t think it had much taste either. This is one thing that does not taste like chicken. Maybe seeing that ajumoni stripping the meat off the bones when I had walked into the restaurant was too much for me to put aside any biases I might have had with eating dog as well as when she offered me—what could have been part of a Fear Factor episode—the cooked dog penis to eat.
“No thanks,” I said, trying to be as diplomatic as I could as not to offend the editor and the other Koreans seated at the table. I wondered if passing up a dog’s penis would be a major cultural faux pas.
No sooner had I turned down her offer for the dog’s penis when one of the cronies from the newspaper said he wanted it and shoved it into his mouth.
Later, I would write my story as best I could about how it was “okay” and that eating dog was after all, a culture thing.
As for myself, well I am going to stick with my hot dogs and Corn dogs.
Now, there are many myths, reasons, and a few urban legends why eating dog is good for you. Some Oriental doctors claim Boshintang for example has some curative qualities for patients recovering from surgery. On the other hand, some Korean men eat dog because it is supposed to increase a male’s sexual drive (maybe that explains why that crony from the paper wanted that dog penis so quickly—kind of a twist on that old adage “hair of the dog”).
Well, if one really wants to increase their sex drive, do a dog a favor and pop a couple of Viagras.
Sadly, this idea about increasing one’s sex drive or stamina is quite disturbing when it comes to how some dogs are killed. (There are special “dog ranches” –I guess that’s what you could call them where dogs are raised and slaughtered for human consumption.) To be sure, there are cases (and I am sure you could find the graphic videos on You Tube) of dogs being hung up and beaten to death. This is supposed to increase the production of adrenalin in the dogs, which is supposed to make the meat more nutritious—for those who believe that eating dog will increase their stamina. Yes, that sounds very, very barbaric but I am not sure how much this still occurs.
And no, people do not eat their pet dogs (but sometimes mistakes are made—like the drunken Korean who ate his landlady’s pet dog earlier this year and in the process accidentally set the boarding house on fire).
Many Koreans will argue that eating dog has been part of Korean culture for over 5,000 years (you hear that a lot here about this 5,000-year-old culture whenever you disagree with a Korean about something) and no matter how much you disagree about eating dog, you’re better off to keep your doggone opinions to yourself as not to offend anyone.
From time to time, the topic of eating dog comes up in class, especially when students are practicing “Have you ever…” questions in university and adult conversation classes. Usually some male students will boast how they “have eaten dog” many times and upon hearing this some female students will giggle and blush. This one time though, one student got very, very quiet when one of his classmates asked him if he had ever eaten dog.
Yes, he said. Yes, he had eaten dog when he was young but did not like to eat dog now. He proceeded to tell his classmates how his brother and he had this dog when he was in middle school and how he couldn’t wait to come home from school every day to play with it.
“The dog would always wait for me outside of our house,” he began. “Well, one day when I came home the dog was not there. I asked my mom if she had seen it and she said she had not.
“One day passed, two days, three days…no dog. It never came back home. Later that week, my mom cooked us dog meat and I know it was my dog because we had never had dog meat before.”
Now I should point out that not everyone eats dog in Korea and as Bob Dylan once sang (not about eating dog mind you) the “times they are a-changin’” and so has Korean’s penchant for eating man’s best friend. However, if a pooch is spared from the dinner plate, it might not fare too well as being man’s best friend here, especially the way that some pet owners treat their pet dogs.
Some pet owners like to dye their smaller, toy-variety white doggies pink, green, blue, yellow—especially the ears. Others treat them like a stuffed doll putting some inside their jackets in winter or carrying them everywhere they go as if they are Paris Hilton or something.
That’s got to kind of suck to be a dog and have someone dye your ears pink or yellow.
I know, I know it’s probably no different than some pet owners back in the States and elsewhere, including here in Korea who “dress up their dogs.” However, if you really want to split hairs here, making your toy poodle wear little red booties is one thing; dyeing its ears pink or yellow is another. At least the dog can kick off those little red booties if it doesn’t like them. Not much a dog can do about pink or yellow ears.
There are even “dog restaurants” and “dog cafes” —no not the kind where you eat dog, but where you bring your dog to hang out with other dogs. At least there were some in Seoul a couple of years ago. Hopefully those pink and yellow-eared dogs can escape from the dog eat world outside and find refuge inside with other dogs suffering from the same dumb owners malady.
However, I think one of the saddest and cruelest things a pet owner can do to man’s best friend here in Korea is take away some of their fun—in this case, cutting off their tails. Just today I saw this adorable Cocker Spaniel down the street from where I live. It was jumping up and down and seemed so happy (or so it seemed) and as I got closer I was shocked to discover that its tail had been cut off and it was wagging, well not exactly wagging, more like wiggling a tail stub.
Now can anyone tell me if this tailing cutting happens elsewhere? Is there any good reason medical or aesthetic why a dog’s tail (and cats don’t fare too well here either; I’ve seen a few with tail stubs) should be cut? Shucks, wagging their tails is part of a dog’s daily routine. It’s their birthright. It’s something they are good at. It’s their livelihood. It’s what dogs dream about doing all day when they are waiting for their owners to come home. Neutering your pet is one thing, (that’s got to suck, too) but cutting off its tail is another. It’s a sad form of dog hobbling, albeit tail cutting.
When I saw that poor Cocker Spaniel wiggling its stub I felt so sad. It really broke my heart. It must be really tough being a dog in Korea.