Eating Military Base Stew

Today, a stew called budae jjigae, a spicy hodgepodge of Korean vegetables and American processed meats that translates literally as military base stew, has become a mainstay at restaurants in Korea and is especially popular in college neighborhoods among young people who have little cultural memory of the stew’s dark past.

It is the only dish in the Korean culinary lexicon to name its origins so explicitly—as a product of a foreign military intervention and the collision of two cultures.

Bridget Beorse
Bridget Beorse

The story of the origins of budae jjigae (also spelled boodae chigae) that circulates in Korean American communities begins during the Korean War, when most Koreans were starving. Word spread that American soldiers stationed there had an endless supply of food, with portions so big that they could afford to throw food away. The bases became destinations for hungry Koreans, who scavenged or purchased the remnants. As some survivors recalled, this food was not exactly palatable; it was often a mélange of various food scraps mixed with inedible things, such as cigarette butts. They recalled that though the food was sometimes disgusting, it kept them alive. Some people would sort through the scraps and find a perfectly intact pink slab of jellied ham and put it in a stew. What the Americans didn’t finish, Koreans used to make the first iterations of budae jjigae.

I first came to know budae jjigae as a kind of cultural icon circulating among Korean diasporic artists in the United States, who regarded it as both a culinary travesty and an iconic symbol of U.S. imperialism. I listened to the oral histories of Korean War survivors living in the United States, who spoke about the days during and after the war when they sought food outside U.S. Army bases. They recalled waiting in long lines outside the mess halls to buy bags of “leftovers,” though some of them referred to the bags plainly as “garbage.” They’d say things like, “Americans have the best food and throw it away, and then Koreans buy that garbage,” their voices filled with humiliation, resentment, and gratitude all at once.

The stew had long been the stuff of my nightmares. A stew gone wrong. A stew so laden with Spam, hotdogs, American cheese and other “food products” that it had become a perversion of Korean cuisine, indeed, a perversion of real food. Since it represented both the U.S. military occupation of Korea, and my own hidden past, I never thought I could bring myself to eat it. It was only later that I came to reconcile with that past enough to try budae jjigae, and doing so revealed new layers of what it means to be Korean American.

A Stew of Family Memories

Bridget Beorse
Bridget Beorse
There was a time in my life when I knew almost nothing about my family history. I grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest with a Korean mother and American father, in my father’s hometown. Although small town life was conducive to gossip, and my family was often the subject of such talk, I never thought to question my own origins. I never thought to ask the kinds of questions my neighbors asked about how my parents met and whether or not my father was my “real” father. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I began to interrogate the circumstances of my life, and that was also when I began to understand the mechanisms of silence that operated in my family about my family history, my mother’s experience in Korea, and the violent relationship between the United States and Korea that made up the societal context in which my parents met.

As an adult I learned that my mother had worked at a bar at a U.S. naval base, and that her line of work was so unsavory to “normal” Koreans that she was considered a “Yankee whore” and shunned from Korean society. But what I remember of my childhood is that my mother strived to be “normal” again in this little xenophobic town where I grew up, and before she became mentally ill, she was somewhat successful in that endeavor. She prided herself on her domestic skills, and cooking well was important to her. She mastered the kind of American cooking my father and his relatives expected and maintained a decent repertoire of Korean dishes for her own enjoyment. Budae jjigae was not part of that repertoire.

Although I grew up eating my mother’s Korean cooking and spent some time living among my mother’s relatives, I had never heard of budae jjigae until I began working with other diasporic Korean artists and writers. Maybe because my mother once worked at a military base, it was too close to home, or maybe, as part of the earliest wave of Korean immigrants to the United States, my mother had internalized an American view of Spam as a poor person’s meat. My guess is that she wanted to dissociate from the meat’s stigmas, both Korean and American, so Spam never once made its way into our house.

Hotdogs, on the other hand, with their cultural cachet as an all-American food, were one of my mother’s favorite things to add to rice or noodles. Her version of a quick meal was ramen noodle soup with ketchup, scallions and sliced hotdogs. If one considers the basic components of budae jjigae—broth, noodles, Korean vegetables, American processed meat and other food products—I realize now that this was my mother’s simplified rendition of budae jjigae, using the ingredients that were available in a rural American town with a Korean population of three. At the time, however, I had no awareness of budae jjigae and its complex meanings—and my mother did not encourage such awareness. She merely called it “ramyeon with hotdogs.”

A Dangerous Dish

During the postwar era, budae jjigae transcended its association with mess hall trash and became a fixture of Korean cuisine. Koreans were still reeling from the aftermath of a war that left 10 percent of the civilian population dead and civilian life in ruins, and meat continued to be scarce. The most coveted items from U.S. military bases were Spam, hotdogs, and ham—meats that would not spoil quickly and whose saltiness complemented other Korean foods. These meats became the ideal protein base for a stew.

The fact that American products were not legally available to Koreans meant that a thriving black market for American foods developed between the “post exchange” (PX), or retail stores for American soldiers and Korean society that surrounded them. A November 9, 1959 Time article titled “The PX Affair,” implied that “Korean girls” who had access to the PX through their associations with American soldiers—husbands, boyfriends, or johns—were largely responsible for this illegal trade.

Demand for processed meats soared as political battles over PX privileges broke out between the U.S. Army and the South Korean government. A few years later, Time reported on the crackdown on black market trading under the Pak Chung-Hee dictatorship, when Spam smuggling became an offense punishable by death. It gave an element of intrigue to the dish whose main ingredients one could only acquire illegally. One night over burgers and beer, I met two friends in Brooklyn who had grown up in South Korea during the 1970s and ‘80s to speak with them about the black market for American goods. Both of them had vivid childhood memories of Spam smuggling. One friend spoke of a smuggler who made clandestine deliveries to her mother before the days when Spam was available in stores. The other friend’s mother was a smuggler herself. She’d go to the base and meet with “a woman in heavy makeup” and return with bags full of American food products, which she then resold in Busan’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Listening to them speak, I realized that my own mother could have been one of the suppliers for the illegal distribution of Spam. Though she never admitted as much, my mother was “a woman in heavy makeup” and one of those Korean girls who had PX privileges, by virtue of being married to my American father. When I went back to Korea in 2002, my mother asked me to take a suitcase full of Hershey’s chocolate to my relatives, but fretted endlessly that I would “get into big trouble” for carrying such large quantities of American products. “They’ll think you’re going to sell it on the black market,” she admonished. I told her there was no longer a black market for things like that, and a lot had changed since the ‘70s. I imagine that she had had a few run-ins with the military police. The black market for Spam and other American products continued to be a dangerous business until 1987 when South Korea’s pro-democracy movement finally prevailed.

Camp Stew

When I toured Korea with a group of Korean American activists in 2007, we visited members of the “ban-mi,” or anti-U.S. base movement, who are concerned about the long-term impact of U.S. military presence on South Korean society. The site of the former town, whose name means “Great Harvest Village,” in a reference to the rice it once produced, is now called Camp Humphreys. At the gate drawing the line of demarcation between Korea and the United States there were daily protests against the expansion of the base. Members of a labor union sat in front of the gate in ponchos chanting for U.S. troop withdrawal. Camp Humphreys’ expansion plans spanned 60 years into the future, and the daily gatherings at the border not only opposed the violence done to the surrounding communities, but also the fact that U.S. presence in Korea had become so unabashedly permanent.

In 2003, the U.S. Army, in a document called the Global Posture Review, justified this permanent presence, not to defend South Korea, but to further U.S. military “strategic flexibility” and extend its reach into China. The newly appropriated piece of American territory was not so easily won, however. The daily protests outside Camp Humphreys continued a struggle that began between farmers and the military in 2005 when the Republic of Korea (ROK) government approved the U.S.’s planned seizure of the surrounding villages of Daechuri and Doduri.

As anti-U.S. activists joined forces with the farmers, a series of violent clashes between civilians and riot police broke out. Although a few of the farmers withdrew before the battle ended, most of them stayed to fight. The farmers’ refusal to give up their ancestral lands culminated in a full-scale military operation, in which a battalion of 14,000 armed riot police, military paratroopers, and private security forces were deployed to squash the protests, demolish the villages, and eject the farmers from their homes. In the end, only one-third of Doduri remained, while all of Daechuri was subsumed by the base expansion.

Outside Camp Humphreys, the boundary between Korea and the United States, erected in 2006, still bore traces of this violence: there were irrigation ditches filled with cement, spaces made empty by the force of bulldozers, and barbed wire around overgrown rice fields. And in the nearby city of Pyeongtaek, many elders had taken jobs picking up trash from city streets and were living in leftover U.S. military housing. In front of the apartment complex was a sign out of time and place that read “Daechuri”—a town that no longer exists.

The grandmothers fed us a meal that was kind of an “anti” budae jjigae: bowls of local rice they had grown themselves and traditional side dishes, devoid of American influences. It was a last meal of sorts. The Great Harvest rice, like the village that was its namesake, would soon disappear, too.

The First Taste

Thirty years after I first tasted my mother’s rudimentary version of it, I finally tasted military base stew. The day after our visit with the displaced elders of Daechuri, we went to Uijeongbu, where budae jjigae is a local specialty. In Uijeongbu, like most Korean cities surrounding U.S. military bases, the boundary between the base and the town is porous, with the effects of militarism spilling into everyday life. This community was still recovering from the deaths of two junior high school girls who had been run over by a U.S. military tank a few years earlier, while they were on their way to a friend’s birthday party. Violence against women and girls was nothing out of the ordinary in areas near the bases, though most incidents were not nearly as dramatic nor were their victims as innocent, thus rendering the violence part of the invisible fabric of life in Uijeongbu.

We toured the area immediately surrounding Camp Stanley, which is home to a myriad of bars and brothels that cater to American servicemen. There was little to see in the daytime except for closed storefronts and flyers stapled to telephone poles advertising club jobs for foreign entertainers.

Since the early camptown life of the 1950s, over a million Korean women have sold their sexual labor to Americans. Today the militarized sex industry in Korea is populated by a new generation of women, mostly Filipina and Russian migrants, alongside an older generation of Korean women who are neither able to make a livinginsidethecamptown nor to return to life outside of it. Historically, the corps of military sex workers were women already marginalized in one way or another—as those who were escaping poverty, abusive families, or the stigma of having become “fallen” women, while others were performing their filial duty as income earners to support their brothers’ educations. This commercialized sexual relationship between Korean women and American men also formed one of the most important yet least known conditions of possibility for Korean migration to the United States.

We walked up the hill through winding roads, to a restaurant that served both American servicemen and camptown workers, having witnessed the literal and symbolic violence of U.S. military presence in Korea. The program coordinator ordered a family-size pot of budae jjigae.

“Really?” I asked, trying to gauge the level of irony in his gesture.

“Haven’t you ever tried budae jjigae before? It’s delicious,” he said with a big grin.

It was in fact my first direct and conscious experience of budae jjigae.

There was a Korean woman there, a former sex worker who had aged out of the profession and had little possibility of reintegrating into “normal” Korean society, so she became an ajumma who did odd jobs in camptown establishments such as this one. She brought out a bubbling pot of clear noodles, cabbage, onion, scallions, mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, hot dogs and Spam, in a spicy gochu-jang broth, topped off with a few slices of American cheese that somehow retained their shape through the scalding heat. She sat down with us for a moment and I studied her slightly distant countenance and verbal quirks, and wondered if she, like my mother, was mentally ill. I thought of my mother and wondered what would have become of her—of us—had she not married my father and moved to the United States. I wondered what budae jjigae meant to the people of Uijeongbu, who claimed the dish as part of their regional culinary identity, yet resented the U.S. military for the collateral damage done to their community.

Budae jjigae symbolizes many things. It is a reminder of a brutal “Forgotten War” that has not yet ended. It represents the creativity that emerged from devastation, a legacy of the complicated relationship between Koreans and Americans. Indeed, it is a culinary metaphor for my own personal history. I could think of no other dish that provoked such ambivalent feelings, no other dish as layered with meaning. I tasted the stew. It was flavorful and satisfying, and oddly comforting. There was nothing to do for the moment but eat.

Recommended Resources

Hohn, Maria and Seungsook Moon (eds.). Over There: Living with the U.S. Military Empire from World War Two to the Present (Duke University Press, 2010). Provides a historical analysis of American military base relations with local communities in South Korea, Japan and Germany, paying close attention to issues of gender.

Ku, Robert Ji-Song, Martin Manalansan, and Anita Mannur (eds.). Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (New York University Press, 2013). Examines the meanings of Asian American foods and foodways for Asian American identities, paying particular attention to social inequality and U.S. imperialism.

Lutz, Catherine (ed.). Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts (New York University Press, 2009). Provides a comprehensive overview of the impact of U.S. bases around the world and local responses to them.

Moon, Katharine. Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (Columbia University Press, 1997). The first study to examine the institution of militarized prostitution in South Korea and its influence on the geopolitical relationship between the United States and South Korea.

Yuh, Jiyeon. Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Military Brides in America (New York University Press, 2004). An oral history-based study of the experiences of Korean women married to American servicemen, including an analysis of the ways in which the struggle to maintain Korean
foodways symbolizes an unequal U.S.-Korea relationship.