book excerpt

What My Mother Ate

I remember her taste clearly because that was how my mother loved you, in subtle observations of what brought joy.

Illustration: by Manshen Lo
Illustration: by Manshen Lo

Audio excerpted courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio from Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, read by the author.

My mother died on October 18, 2014, a date I’m always forgetting. I don’t know why exactly, if it’s because I don’t want to remember or if the actual date seems so unimportant in the grand scheme of what we endured. She was fifty-six years old. I was twenty-five, an age my mother had assured me for years would be special. It was the same age my mother had been when she met my father. The year they got married, the year she left her home country, her mother, and two sisters and embarked on a pivotal chapter of her adult life. The year she began the family that would come to define her. For me, it was the year things were supposed to fall into place. It was the year her life ended and mine fell apart.

Sometimes I feel guilty about misremembering when it happened. Every fall I have to scroll through the photos I’ve taken of her gravestone to reconfirm the date engraved, half obscured by the multicolored bouquets I’ve left these past years, or I resort to googling the obituary I neglected to write so I can prepare to willfully feel something that never quite feels like the thing I’m supposed to be feeling.

My father is obsessed with dates. Some sort of internal clock whirs without fail around every impending birthday, death day, anniversary, and holiday. His psyche intuitively darkens the week before and soon enough he’ll inundate me with Facebook messages about how unfair it all is and how I’ll never know what it’s like to lose your best friend. Then he’ll go back to riding his motorcycle around Phuket, where he retired a year after she died, filling the void with warm beaches and street-vended seafood and young girls who can’t spell the word problem.

What I never seem to forget is what my mother ate. She was a woman of many “usuals.” Half a patty melt on rye with a side of steak fries to share at the Terrace Cafe after a day of shopping. An unsweetened iced tea with half a packet of Splenda, which she would insist she’d never use on anything else. Minestrone she’d order “steamy hot,” not “steaming hot,” with extra broth from the Olive Garden. On special occasions, half a dozen oysters on the half shell with champagne mignonette and “steamy hot” French onion soup from Jake’s in Portland. She was maybe the only person in the world who’d request “steamy hot” fries from a McDonald’s drive-through in earnest. Jjamppong, spicy seafood noodle soup with extra vegetables from Cafe Seoul, which she always called Seoul Cafe, transposing the syntax of her native tongue. She loved roasted chestnuts in the winter though they gave her horrible gas. She liked salted peanuts with light beer. She drank two glasses of chardonnay almost every day but would get sick if she had a third. She ate spicy pickled peppers with pizza. At Mexican restaurants she ordered finely chopped jalapeños on the side. She ordered dressings on the side. She hated cilantro, avocados, and bell peppers. She was allergic to celery. She rarely ate sweets, with the exception of the occasional pint of strawberry Häagen-Dazs, a bag of tangerine jelly beans, one or two See’s chocolate truffles around Christmastime, and a blueberry cheesecake on her birthday. She rarely snacked or took breakfast. She had a salty hand.

I remember these things clearly because that was how my mother loved you, not through white lies and constant verbal affirmation, but in subtle observations of what brought you joy, pocketed away to make you feel comforted and cared for without even realizing it. She remembered if you liked your stews with extra broth, if you were sensitive to spice, if you hated tomatoes, if you didn’t eat seafood, if you had a large appetite. She remembered which banchan side dish you emptied first so the next time you were over it’d be set with a heaping double portion, served alongside the various other preferences that made you, you.

In 1983 my father flew to South Korea in response to an ad that read simply “Opportunity Abroad.” The opportunity turned out to be a training program in Seoul, selling used cars to the U.S. military. The company booked him a room at the Naija Hotel, a landmark in the Yongsan district, where my mother worked the front desk. She was, supposedly, the first Korean woman he ever met.

They dated for three months and when the training program ended, my father asked my mother to marry him. The two of them made their way through three countries during the mid-’80s, living in Misawa, Heidelberg, and Seoul again, where I was born. A year later, we immigrated to the United States.

We moved to Eugene, Oregon, a small college town in the Pacific Northwest. The city sits near the source of the Willamette River, which stretches 150 miles north, from the Calapooya Mountains outside of town to its mouth on the Columbia. Carving its way between mountains, the Cascade Range to the east and the Oregon Coast Range to the west, the river defines a fertile valley, alluvial plains fit for a vast variety of agriculture. The town itself is coated in green, hugging the banks of the river and spreading out up into the rugged hills and pine forests of central Oregon. The seasons are mild, drizzly, and gray for most of the year but give way to a lush, unspoiled summer. It rains incessantly and yet I never knew an Oregonian to carry an umbrella.

When I was ten we moved seven miles outside the city, out past the Christmas-tree farms and the hiking trails of Spencer Butte Park to a house in the woods. It sat on five acres of land, where flocks of wild turkeys roamed picking for insects in the grass and my dad could drive his riding mower in the nude if he wanted to, shielded by thousands of ponderosa pines, no neighbors for miles. Out back, there was a clearing where my mother grew rhododendrons. Beyond it the land gave way to sloping hills of stiff grass and red clay. There was a man-made pond filled with muddy water and soft silt, and salamanders and frogs to chase after. Blackberry bramble grew wild and in the early summer, during the burning season, my father would take to it with a pair of gardening shears and clear new pathways between the trees to form a circuit he could round on his dirt bike. Once a month he’d ignite the burn piles he’d gathered, letting me squeeze the lighter fluid onto their bases, and we’d admire his handiwork as the six-foot bonfires went up in flames.

I loved our new home but I also came to resent it. There were no neighborhood children to play with, no convenience stores or parks within biking distance. I was stranded and lonely, an only child with no one to talk to or turn to but my mother. I was overwhelmed by her time and attention, a devotion that I learned could both be an auspicious privilege and have smothering consequences.

From the book CRYING IN H MART by Michelle Zauner, to be published on April 20, 2021 by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Zauner.

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What My Mother Ate