Queer. Redneck. Nerd. Guido. Through MTV’s Jersey Shore, via a heady undergraduate reading assignment or simply by observing Brooklyn’s rich pageant, it’s become well-nigh impossible to avoid persons reclaiming one-time slurs to affirm their identities.
But reappropriating immigrant accents for a brand name? This could be a first.
We Rub You is the eyebrow-raising name of a new line of mouthwatering marinades made by Texas-raised, Brooklyn-based, Korean-American sisters Janet Chung and Ann Chung Mellman. The sauces bottle childhood melting-pot memories, when their mom made bulgogi sandwiches on white bread from the supermarket.
The sisters’ business, formally known as Korean Delights LLC, started as a sandwich endeavor at Smorgasburg. They stuffed spicy pork, kimchi, cilantro and apple slaw, among other options, into challah from Amy’s Bread, finished with a healthy slathering of gochujang, the fermented pepper paste, on top.
But while Brooklynites snapped up their sandwiches, the sisters were surprised by how few fans ever cooked Korean barbecue at home. To rectify that, this March the sisters introduced bottled We Rub You marinade, simmered and sealed at Farm to Table Co-Packers up in the Hudson Valley, in both sweet and savory incarnations. But while the flavors translate easily into the Brooklyn taste lexicon, the name requires some explanation. A note on the label reads: “The Korean alphabet lacks a distinctive L or V, so We Rub You is a cute way of saying ‘We Love You.’”
Fully assimilated Americans with hyphenated identities can cringe or giggle at their ethnic compatriots’ semi-successful efforts to enunciate English’s tricky Vs, Rs and Ls. The Chung sisters definitely fall into the giggle category.
“We wanted to make something you can laugh about while still being a socially engaged business,” says Ann.
The name, however, collided head on with another evocation: that of Korean massage parlors, and less-reputable businesses that pass as such. Ann and Janet acknowledge the triple entendre’s alternative meanings. “We initially struggled with that part,” says Ann. “Provocative product names are good! But not overtly sexual names; we prefer provocative.”
Janet adds: “There’s a black market in trafficking Korean women, and we’re not into that.” Their concern led the sisters to give a portion of profits to Restore NYC, an organization that rehabilitates foreign-born sex workers brought here against their will.
Meanwhile the mission-driven marinades, which omit food coloring and MSG and are otherwise delicious descendants of the Chungs’ grandmothers’ recipes, are sold at Fleisher’s Meats in Park Slope, Gourmet Guild in Williamsburg and the Park Slope Food Co-op. Ann, who studied engineering and worked in the financial sector, wants to keep any expansion on a human scale.
“Short-term profit maximization isn’t our goal,” says Ann, as Janet nods in agreement. “Hopefully, it can be beneficial to ourselves and others.”
Flavor-wise, it’s a benefit to others indeed—one the sisters had long seen a need for. “I’d been marinating bulgogi for my boyfriend’s non-Korean family, and they kept asking for more,” says Janet. “And Ann had always thrown a lot of Korean BBQ parties and people loved it. We thought it would be pretty cool if we could bottle a sauce to enable anyone to throw their own Korean BBQ party.”
Photo credit: Laurel Golio