Korean bakery offers warm goods for the Cold War

Welcome to the new Cold War. The finger-hovering-over-a-button, lower-your-kids-into-the-sewer, hashtag-total-annihilation, days in which no one is safe and everyone is terrified.

I used to sit on the living room floor as a kid and listen to my grandparents tell stories about those uncertain times of fallout drills and espionage and wonder what it must have been like to hug one’s knees beneath a particle board desk and wait for the flash of all flashes to peel the roof off your school. Wondering it the way kids wonder what dinosaurs smelled like.

And now here we are, air raid sirens over Hawaii, checking our phones to see if it’s knee hugging time. I used to wonder how they lived with that ambivalence. How they went to the grocery store and worked on their cars and watched TV with the dull roar of fear like tinnitus in their life.

Turns out you just do. Every day over and over. You just get in your car and drive out to lunch. You just eat your lunch and pretend to ignore the news on the radio. Then you pay for your lunch and you walk by a pastry shop and you think, “abs won’t stop a thermonuclear warhead,” so you go into the pastry shop and you mush pastry into your face and for a second everything is OK.

The last time I was out on the street and in the mood for a little cognitive dissonance, I popped into Bakery Cafe June. Folded into the New World Korean Market on South 320th Street in Federal Way, Bakery Cafe June is a postage stamp of a Korean bakery with wood shelves, absolutely jamming with cellophane and sweets and buns and cakes and pastries and bread with crispy crusts.

I was desperately trying to force the niggling fear down the back of my throat with butter, yeast and sugar, so I flagged down the woman behind the counter, Katie, and asked her about her favorite pastry.

“People really like our red bean buns,” and she led me to a tray near the front where they were stacked, glowing their shiny glow, looking plump and perfect. I picked one out, felt the weight of it in my hand, smelled the sweet perfume bubbling out of the bag.

The next few seconds were a blur. The crinkling of plastic and the fluffy tearing of bread. The measured sweetness of the red beans, unusual but not unwelcome to my western taste buds, like foreign music you can dance to. Cool and sugary, just a hint of savoriness without the bite of salt. Totally preoccupying.

I wandered further down the case, picked out a different treat. This one had a thin dusting of powdered sugar over the outside of it, the words pineapple cream cheese handwritten on the placard beneath. Crinkle crinkle, tear tear. Artfully soft bread, a layer in the center that would be cheesy if it weren’t for the pineapple and pineapple-y if it weren’t for the cream cheese, absolutely holding one another up. Delightfully distracting.

“Who made this?” I said.

“The owner, Juhnee,” Katie-behind-the-counter replied.

“I’d love to talk to him,” I said.

“He doesn’t speak much English.”

“That’s okay.”

Katie walked with Juhnee out of the back. He wore a white baker’s smock, dotted and splashed with hard work. He was tall, ducking beneath his sign, unfolding himself from the kitchen space with his hat in his hands and a careful smile on his face. Another baker followed him out from the back and stood at his right hand. Katie-behind-the-counter stood at his left. I asked questions and they asked Juhnee and he told them and they told me.

Juhnee’s been baking for 20 years. In Seoul, he was the head baker at a hotel. In the time since he landed in the Puget Sound a few years ago, he’s opened this place and another one like it in Bellevue that delivers his goods all over Western Washington. I wondered what had made him stay in Federal Way, what with his business expanding so rapidly. Why this little space in this (relatively) little city?

“Why’d he stay in Federal Way?” I asked Katie. She asked Juhnee and he looked me in the eyes with a smile on his face.

“This is my hometown,” he said.

I thought about that for days. Every time my phone chirped or the news broke in on the radio to tell me something terrifying. Every time that fear started to wrap its fingers around the base of me. I thought of red beans and pineapple cream cheese. I thought of Junhee from Seoul, South Korea, with his magical confections in his hometown, Federal Way. I thought to myself that if Juhnee’s pastries could make me forget about total annihilation, maybe they could make some world leaders forget about their differences. I thought about how hard it would be to press a button with your hands full of pastries and a belly full of happiness.

So spread the word, people. Because abs won’t stop a warhead, but some pastries might…

Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.