Saturday, August 25, 2012

Did you Know: Dinning with Emperor

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for important Western visitors to Korea, such as naval officers, diplomats, businessmen and missionaries, to receive audiences with King Gjong. Some of these audiences even involved dinners at the palace.

Many of these dinners ― especially those that served Korean food ― met with mixed reviews. In 1895, Sallie Sill and her sister, Alice Graham, were invited to the palace for a dinner. It was described as:

“Soup was first served in bowls, to be eaten either with chopsticks or spoons. We had our choice. The soup was almost solid with noodles, chopped meat and cooked eggs. A large brass soup tureen with a little charcoal stove under it was placed in the center of the table. Then came course after course of made dishes. I have no idea of what, nor do I know how they tasted, for I could not make myself eat them. I felt that I ought, and that I was being watched and probably blamed, but if I had known that my head was to come off because of not eating the Korean food, I should have submitted with resignation.”

Despite the women’s great reluctance to eat anything, Alice bravely sampled what looked like a plum pudding. She found that “it was almost entirely made of rich pine nuts”. They also had oranges, peeled chestnuts that were as white as snow, peanuts, pine nuts, dried persimmons (and) bright colored bonbons.”

But not all of the dinners served Korean cuisine. The post office inauguration dinner in December 1884 was catered by a Japanese restaurant that specialized in Western food. We also know that some of the diplomats’ wives baked breads and cakes and provided them to the palace. The palace staff was not above borrowing from its Western neighbors. Food, silverware, crockery and china were all borrowed from the households of Western diplomats. Even missionaries were occasionally called upon for assistance. One American woman recalled attending a dinner party at the palace and was surprised to discover that not only was part of her tableware borrowed, but so too were her recipes and even her cook.

In 1901, American missionaries Rev. Arthur Judson Brown and his wife not only had an audience with Gojong but were also served dinner in “another plain room with low ceiling and common-looking wall-paper, but the dinner itself was superb. The table was set in European fashion with snowy linen, exquisite china, and costly gold and silver vessels. The food was perfectly cooked (the Emperor is said to have a French chef) and it was admirably served. The thirteen courses consisted of: (1) soup, (2) fish with potatoes, (3) cutlet with spinach, (4) frankfurter sausage with string beans, (5) potted cold meat with peas, (6) boiled ham with mashed potatoes, (7) roast chicken with browned potatoes and lettuce salad, (8) asparagus with melted butter, (9) creamed pudding with canned peaches, (10) pineapple ice-cream with cake, (11) Swiss cheese with bread and unsalted white butter, (12) candies and candied fruit. Coffee was served later in the drawing-room. Each guest’s plate was indicated by a card in Chinese characters. I learned afterwards that mine was translated ‘the Bishop’ and that Mrs. Browns was ‘the Bishop’s lady.’”

Brown noted that the emperor never dined with his Western guests and instead was represented by his master of ceremonies, William Franklin Sands ― an American advisor to the Korean court. And, contrary to many accounts, Rev. Brown observed that although there were five different wines present at the table, only two of his Korean hosts partook of them ― the rest preferred a sparkling Japanese mineral water.

Source: The Korea Times's Robert Neff Coloumn

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