Crossing the Divide, One Dish at a Time

By CHELSEA HAWKINS
This story originally ran in City on the Hill Press in May 2011.

For me, home smells like garlic, sesame oil and briny vegetables — soups bubbling over stove-top flames and chive cakes crackling in frying pans. The early morning chill rolling in through cracked windows as life starts yawning and rumbling through hallways. Home, for me, has become synonymous with the glow of kitchen lights in the early morning, and the smells and sounds of my grandmother’s cooking: the thud of knives against wooden boards as she slices vegetables, the clang of metal pans and spoons as she concocts meals from memory — no measurements, no hesitation.

There are days when homesickness can only be cured by a bowl of kimchi jjigae. The spicy stew is my madeleine dipped in tea.

My grandmother, a native of South Korea, has been a consistent force in my life and I can’t imagine where I’d be without her. She came to America after marrying my grandfather, a member of the U.S. Air Force. Her first stop was a base in Kentucky — not the ideal location, and not exactly what she imagined when she boarded the plane.

I have tremendous respect and affection for my grandmother. She is resilient and — there is no other word for it — tough. But that doesn’t mean we’ve always seen eye to eye, and a couple of years ago, our relationship was tested. For a few months, we became estranged — something I had never anticipated ever happening, and it was difficult to wrap my mind around the consequences of separating myself from her. But in the end, it forced us to approach our relationship differently. I was no longer a child, and the generational gap was more apparent. I had to approach my grandmother as an adult, and she had to recognize that I was no longer a little girl.

And when things were mended and we were confronted with our now-altered relationship, Korean food became the bridge between us.

It served as a talking point: She’d make something, I’d ask what it was, we’d talk about the food in front of us, and eventually, while we were eating we’d talk about the little things going on in our lives. It segued into the bigger discussions we needed to have. But it also became a way for us to reconnect.

Over the last year, I’ve learned more about my grandmother and her culture and history over plates of noodles and pickled vegetables than I have over a decade of weekend visits. Sharing in food culture has become a way for my grandmother to share things she loves with me, things she thought I wouldn’t have had interest in before.

Even simple trips to grocery stores and Korean markets become a maze of ingredients, possible recipes unfolding in front of us. It becomes another way for my grandmother and I to connect. We can talk about what we like, what we don’t ever want to eat again, and what we should plan for dinner or lunch or breakfast or whatever in-between snack we want.

And there are so many things to explore in a culture’s food alone that it becomes an endless exploration of spices and flavors and textures and stories. Daikon? It can be sliced and served in soup or pickled and spiced and served as a side dish to a steaming bowl of rice. But more than that, it can be the beginning to a story of my grandmother’s memories of my father when he was eight years old.

But all of this — the cooking, the planning, the exploration — that’s not what this really boils down to. I had never realized how much I didn’t know about my grandmother — the little things that really mean so much that she just never wanted to talk about or never felt I’d be interested in, like her transition into life in the United States and the tiny discomforts that accumulate and alienate.

Recently, my grandmother told me about how when she had first come to the United States, she didn’t like American food and eventually, she craved kimchi — that national dish that has come to represent Koreanness — something impossible to find in the average grocery store when she first immigrated here.

Her solution? Try and make it from an assortment of ingredients that are not quite right, but related enough that she could throw together an imitation. In her words: “It was disgusting.”

And although it’s only a little story, an anecdote on the strange little transitions from one culture to another, it’s one she had never mentioned and one that offers me insight into her own experiences. It’s something she would have never mentioned if she hadn’t realized I am interested and I do care and I want to know as much about her and her experiences as I can before I no longer have the option to sit with her, have tea and just talk.

Food culture has become an avenue of communication, an antidote to the cold war that could have lasted between my grandmother and me. Korean food, specifically, has given us something in common and something to share with each other. While my grandmother teaches me recipes and traditions and I stumble through them — the taste usually off, and never quite right — I’m actively seeking out new things to talk about, reading food blogs and cookbooks and anything else that gives me a little insight into the culinary world my grandmother exists in.

When it’s time for us to sit and to eat, she will turn to me and ask, “What is it you want?” And the only right response? “Whatever you like. Something I’ve never had before.”

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