Harsh times for price controlsThe environment becomes increasingly more hostile for most living organisms during the onset of winter. Many lives, human and otherwise, will fail to survive the dark days of the colder months. Those that manage to cling to life might only do so by the slightest of margins.
During winter, the trees look thin as most of their leaves fall, and the countryside quiets because many animals hibernate. In the past, people were forced to eke out a scanty livelihood due to a shortage of firewood and food.
This is why many kinds of winter food were fermented and thoroughly dried. People had to make sure they remained unspoiled for long periods of storage. Worrying about taste was regarded as an extravagance; nutrition was obviously more of an issue.
It is paradoxical that the unique taste and spicy smell of these winter foods are considered to represent the food culture of each nation these days.
Most Koreans ate fermented vegetables during all four seasons and did not separately produce winter food. However, they produced a large quantity of food at a time and took only a small quantity of food out of storage.
The only solace for poor people who relied on kimchi was the way the taste changed day by day.
Preparing a huge amount of kimchi in the late autumn was referred to as chimjang, which was changed to jinjang, and finally to kimjang.
Because of the hardship, ordinary people would find it difficult to prepare themselves for the winter cold. To alleviate their anxiety, housewives used to store massive quantities of briquettes and pack up large servings of kimchi in jars that they kept in their yards.
This kind of dependence on one food source was risky, as witnessed on Nov. 11, 1903. On this day, vegetables disappeared across Seoul during the height of the kimjang season because the police arrested all the vegetable wholesalers. Their actions had been to appease housewives angry at the soaring cost of vegetables as winter drew near.
The price inflation was due to an oversupply of money resulting from minting too many nickel coins. But the arrests did little to bring down the cost of food and many innocent merchants suffered.
Relieving people’s concerns about winter survival was one of the basic duties of the Joseon Dynasty. The office of the Joseon governor general during Japan’s colonial rule ceased to crack down on the market during the kimjang season and the past administrations endeavored to keep prices under control after liberation.
But these days kimjang seems to have disappeared. A kimchi refrigerator renders kimchi jars useless and kimjang kimchi has been replaced by factory kimchi.
I hope that the current central control of food prices, which is so cruel to sellers, will end, too.
The writer is a research professor at the Center for Hospital History and Culture at the Seoul National University Hospital.
By Jeon Woo-yong