The very act of eating, as Zauner shows, can buoy the bonds between loved ones. If Oregon could feel like a confusing place for her to come of age, she’d find comfort spending summers visiting her Korean family in Seoul. There, on sleepless nights, she and her mother would scavenge the refrigerator for any snacks they could find: cucumber kimchi, yellow sprouts with scallions and sesame oil, braised black soybeans. “This is how I know you’re a true Korean,” Zauner’s mother would tell her. These meals would tether Zauner to her Korean heritage. Yet her mother died early, at only 56. Zauner and I were the same age—25—when we lost a parent, and in the same way, to cancer. The loss felt seismic, and Zauner forcefully articulates the gravity of losing a parent at a pivotal age. “It was the year her life ended and mine fell apart,” she states early on.
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Zauner is specific in recounting her mother’s sudden diagnosis and swift deterioration, refusing to collapse into generalities about grief. She is precise and unsparing in describing cancer’s physical indignities, for example, and she’s especially graceful when placing food in these memories. Zauner recalls feeding her mother tteokguk, a soup of rice cakes in mild beef broth. She renders the scene in plain, effective terms: “Again she resisted, managing only a few bites, which she vomited later that night.” Later in the book, her mother’s body breaks down, and Zauner watches in horror. “Her tongue looked rotten—like a sack of aging meat,” she observes. Her mother’s final breaths resemble “a horrible sucking like the last sputtering of a coffee pot.” These food metaphors help capture the illogic of this disease, how cruelly it deprived her mother of life.
Grief has long been fertile narrative terrain for food memorists, many of them women. Zauner’s book recalls the writer Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life (2009), in which the death of Wizenberg’s father from cancer clarifies her desire to commit her life to writing about cooking. Donia Bijan starts Maman’s Homesick Pie (2011) by describing the freakish death of her mother, an immigrant from Iran who’d been run over by a car. The book reads like an elegy: Bijan perceives her mother’s trove of old recipes as a way to understand the enormous courage it took to leave Iran in exile at the start of the Iranian Revolution. A more recent entry in this micro-genre is Olivia Potts’s melancholic, often funny book A Half Baked Idea (2019), which begins, too, with her mother’s unexpected death from a stomach ulcer. I offer these comparisons with caution—each of these books comes with recipes, and Zauner’s does not—but in all of these memoirs, loss animates the appetite.
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Though it lacks recipes, Crying in H Mart teems with descriptions of food, and one’s mileage may vary with them. Zauner front-loads her book with elaborate memories of consumption that sometimes have a flimsy connection to the narrative spine. She regales readers with recollections of an herbal tea she had in Seoul, writing that it “tasted like fruit rinds soaked in murky lake water and was the most bitter thing I’d ever consumed.” She describes how her grandmother would cook “large batches of yukgaejang, taking pounds of brisket, bracken root, radishes, garlic, and bean sprouts, and bubbling them into a spicy shredded-beef soup, which she would ladle into small plastic bags and sell to office workers on their lunch breaks.” Zauner devotes lines to the “decadent jjajangmyeon noodles, dumpling after dumpling served in rich broth, tangsuyuk pork with mushrooms and peppers, and yusanseul, gelatinous sea cucumber with squid, shrimp, and zucchini” she ate with her Korean family at a restaurant.