Cooking in the Trenches: An Immigrant Love Story
Rank #61 of 1949
About my essay:
The story of an immigrant family's struggle reveals the power of cooking to connect us to history and culture, gain a better social position, heal the past, and memorialize the dead.
I was five years old the first time someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
My answer? “A cook.” The moment the words came out of my mouth, I knew I had made a colossal mistake. My mother screeched in her Korean accent, “Aaaaawhaaaaaaat?!?” Her fists clenched. Her nostrils flared. Her red face loomed over me as she huffed the correct answer: “You can be. A doctor. Lawyer. Or professor.” Nothing I did ever displeased her as much as speaking those two words. From then on she fought to keep me out of the kitchen.
My mother was a typical immigrant in that she cooked to soothe the ache of a lost home. But cooking was also her biggest weapon.
I first realized this when my mom decided to throw dinner parties for the entire staff of the public school system. She dazzled them with her culinary skills, thereby insuring her kids’ academic future. What she lacked in cultural capital, she made up for in cooking.
The real turning point came when she discovered that our town was fertile ground for foraging. One morning she went out into the forest and returned with 10 gallons of blackberries. The next day it was 14, then 20, each day breaking the previous day’s record. Literally, overnight, our kitchen became filled with blackberries and all manner of blackberry products – pies, jams, syrups – that were given to friends and enemies alike. Then she put an ad in the paper: “Wild blackberries. Fresh or frozen. $13 a gallon.” Within weeks, our house became a major hub of blackberry traffic.
Cooking well meant that my mother could generate income, garner political favors, and live somewhat peacefully in a town that disliked foreigners. But if you asked her why she cooked, she probably would have said, “I just had to.” As an immigrant with no formal education, cooking was the only marketable skill she possessed. She grew up in a war-ravaged country whose entire population was hungry. Food was survival, not a career aspiration.
I pursued cooking as soon as I had a kitchen of my own, but my mother successfully kept me out of hers until I was 27. By then, she had become too devastated by mental illness to cook any more. At first she resisted my efforts, then slowly gave in. She started making requests and I realized that the food she craved was not the same food she used to cook. She had always cooked the things that others wanted to eat. Over the course of 10 years, I mastered my grandmother’s repertoire and we became connected through this act of recovering history. The more I cooked for my mother, the more she looked forward to my cooking. Our meals became the salve for old wounds—hers from a brutal war, mine from a violent assimilation. They also brought peace to our personal battles.
Before dying, she finally admitted: “I’m glad you can cook well after all.”