At the dinner party I wrote about last week, one of my friends, who I know happens to have plans to see Japanese Breakfast soon (and who, in turn, knows I saw Japanese Breakfast a month or so ago), noticed my copy of Crying In H-Mart lying on my desk with several other books. She asked me how it was, and I sheepishly told her that, just like its neighbors in the stack, I hadn’t actually read it yet. I had plenty of time to do so- I preordered it and received it basically immediately upon its release, and a number of food events had been held- including a dinner hosted by Table of Contents, several cooking videos (including one where she cooks with Maangchi, whom unwittingly played a pivotal role in the book), and a collab with Noona’s Ice Cream for a persimmon punch flavor- that would have made this kind of write-up a timely one to publish. Alas, the thing that finally gave me the final push of motivation to once again pick up a book was shame.
Zauner lets you know upfront what her memoir is about: since the death of her mother, the only way she can feel connected to her Korean heritage is through food. But, on some level she also has a hard time separating the food from memories of her mother, thus the titular crying when she goes to H-Mart. I have to admit that I feel similarly with my fraction of Japanese heritage, having been raised with little to no exposure to Japanese culture outside of its cuisine (and the occasional anime).
The book isn’t all about food, of course, but food always seems to work its way back into the picture one way or another, from the pizza place where she played her first open mic night to asking her mom to not pack her Korean food in her lunches anymore out of fear of being seen as too “other” at school. But perhaps the hardest hitting of all of these is the way that she as though she’s failed as a caretaker when she’s unable to cook anything her sick mom can tolerate. She had clung to the hope that if she had just been able to make her one of her favorite stews, it would give her mother the strength she needed to fight off the cancer- but when everything she makes proves to be too rich for her mother’s stomach, she’s devastated.
However, cooking would also become what pulls her from her grief. After a bender of comfort food binging that failed to fill the void, she turns to Youtuber Maangchi to learn how to make the classic Korean dishes her mother never had the chance to teach her to make. One by one, each dish subdues the trauma by bringing memories of the good times with the Korean side of her family back to the surface. I feel like it’s also worth pointing out that most of her culinary efforts are described in such detail that you would feel as if you’re supposed to be using said passage as a recipe to cook along with her if it wasn’t for her occasionally wavering confidence (at one point she refers to a paste of rice flour and water as “jizz porridge”).
Compared to the last book I read (Kitchen Confidential), I have to admit that this was a much more gripping read. Both are memoirs with forgone conclusions; Michelle Zauner’s mother died of cancer, Anthony Bourdain became a successful chef. While Bourdain’s experiences (early on in his career, of course) are technically more relatable for me (in that my mother is still alive), there’s a frank honesty about Zauner’s emotions that I find much more captivating. She doesn’t shy away from admitting to being angry about seeing a man her age eating lunch with his mom, jealous that his mom gets to live while hers died, or from coldly accepting that while some families might have become more tightly knit during such a crisis, it did nothing but drive a wedge between her and her father. In short: Crying in H-Mart’s journey of grief and catharsis is one that was almost impossible to put down, no matter how much it hurt along the way.
I really want to eat Korean food now. And I should probably call my mom.