Why I cook
May 5, 2008
My father was someone who ate to live. He was appreciative of any food, from the humblest meal to a gourmet feast. This gratitude, I am sure, was formed from experiencing a devastating war, loss of family, and near-starvation. When I was a little girl, he once plucked a broad-leaf plantain, a common weed, from our lawn and informed me he survived on plants like that for three months while evading the Communists. Naturally, he had little patience for picky eaters – we all learned to eat whatever was placed before us.
My mother, on the other hand, did not view food in such black and white terms. Yes, food is sustenance, which she learned in the same way my father did. As a young teenager during the Korean War, she and her sister decided to sell strawberries to augment their modest and inconsistent income. Unfortunately, their entrepreneurial skills could not withstand their grumbling tummies and their goods quickly disappeared, thus ending their very short-lived career as fruit sellers. I wish I could have seen my mother and my aunt, sitting in a gray crumbling city as they sat giggling and licking their sticky red-stained fingers. The strawberries’ sweetness, while lingering on their tongues for a fleeting moment, meant more to them at that moment than making a few won to buy a necessary staple like rice.
Eventually, my mother become a very good cook, learning as many do not by reading cookbooks or using measuring spoons. She was taught in that universal old world method – using a knuckle, a pinch, a fistful, all while tasting frequently until it’s just right. I remember the first time my mother taught me how to cook rice, eschewing measuring cups for an imaginary line on the back of my hand when placed flat in the water on the uncooked rice. And in a couple of years, I will teach my children the same way my antecedents have been making rice for time eternal.
The most important thing she taught me, however, was not methods or recipes. It was never spoken, but it was seared into my person more permanently than if it had been. It was something I gathered from years of observing my mother getting up at dawn meal to prepare a meal for a special guest. I learned it from watching her take over the kitchen with bowls larger than some small cars to make kim chi. I understood it from the countless hours she spent chopping, grinding, mixing, frying, boiling, and grilling.
It was that food mattered. Food was more than something that just powered you to get through the day or a thankless chore than simply needed to get done. More specifically, it was that you mattered and that you were worth the time and effort to make something delicious and worthwhile. Cooking is giving a piece of yourself, making yourself vulnerable, hoping that others will recognize that tiny particle of you in that meal. And hopefully, they’ll love you for it.
This photo was taken soon after my mother immigrated from South Korea to the United States. She sent this picture to her sisters back in Korea to show how richly she was living. Apparently, bananas were exorbitantly expensive in South Korea in the early 70s. I guess no one told her bananas brown in the fridge.