This Thanksgiving will be only the second time in thirty-six years I won’t be with my mother for the holiday. Last year was the first, when I spent it with my wife and her family. All day long I sat in her mother’s condo above the shores of Lake Erie—ice floes stretching to the horizon—and I thought about my mother, how she always labored over the turkey and dressing, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, dumplings, corn, green beans, and three of four pies. That’s probably not that uncommon in a lot of homes across the country or in the Appalachian South where I was raised and where we like to serve two starches for every vegetable. But what is unusual is the sight of my mother, a Korean woman of five feet four inches, with beautiful salt and pepper hair, and a round face and almond-shaped eyes working away in the kitchen. Forty-three years ago she left Masan, South Korea, after marrying my father, and when she came to this country, after brief spells in Phoenix and Toledo, they settled in the hills of southeastern Kentucky. She was a vegetarian then but that was not a lifestyle decision. It was borne of necessity. Her family had never had enough money to afford beef, pork, or poultry, items considered expensive delicacies when she was a child, and her body had not learned to digest them. Rice (bop) was scarce and precious, as precious as cornmeal to my father’s family when he had been a child, and it was often the only thing she had to eat. And when there was no food at all, my halmuni still lit a fire and boiled water so that smoke would rise from their chimney and the other villagers would not know the family had nothing to eat.
My father grew up in similar circumstances and so I have often imagined what it must have been like when he brought her back to his childhood home. It was just a short drive to Kentucky Fried Chicken, southern food’s most successful fast-food legacy, but it would be years before my mother tried it herself or began frying her own chicken. Those first years must have been odd for everyone. My mother with her finicky eating habits that were sated by trips to Lexington, an hour and a half north, where there was an Asian market and she could find the ingredients to make kimchi. Napa cabbage coated, mixed, and then soaked in hot red pepper powder, garlic, vinegar, salt, ginger, fish sauces, leeks, Korean radishes, and green onions. On the streets of L.A. and New York, and nearly everywhere else, kimchi—what it is and how it tastes—is now common. It’s even served at a local food truck here in Central Ohio where they also make bulgogi tacos, but in 1970 in rural Appalachia—and long before the Food Network and the abundance of satellite and cable television—its pungent smell ran through the house my mother shared with her in-laws. It seeped into their clothes and skin and its scent was so strong, my mother came home one day to find her mother-in-law had thrown the salad in the trash, thinking it was something spoiled. She cried as she explained what the kimchi was but it was clear her tears had little to do with her inability to head out to the nearby Piggly-Wiggly and restock.
For my grandmother’s part, her actions spoke more to ignorance than insensitivity. Like my halmuni, proud and hardworking, she had scraped by with inconsistent paychecks from my grandfather. The meals she made often consisted of just boiled potatoes, a few ears of corn, and cooked cabbage. How did she and the rest of my father’s family view my mother when she wasn’t interested in soup beans and cornbread, vegetables glistening with pork fat or shortening, or chicken fried in lard? They had understood what it meant to have so little and here was this woman, whose physical appearance in that landscape was especially strange and striking, willingly turning down food, preferring a spoiled concoction in the fridge and bowl after bowl of bland white rice until necessity dictated she eat the food they all clamored over. Though they all lived under the same small slant roof and walked its uneven floors, the food they chose to consume symbolized the greater divide of their cultures. How much my mother would change.
When I was five I used to watch my mother make kimchi in our small kitchen. A window above the sink let in a square of sunlight where she squatted over a bowl big enough for me to sit in. She was only thirty-two years old, younger than I am now, and I would sit with her while she made it. When it was time to put the fish sauce and minced garlic in, she took the bowl outside and finished in the small side yard. My father often kidded her about the stench, mostly in a good-natured way, but it was true that after she made a batch the house smelled of it for days.
After my brother was born, my parents left the house down in the country and moved into town. Eventually my father got a job that would lead to him becoming an executive and with my parents’ ascendency into the middle class my mother had the chance to realize one of her earliest dreams of America: education. As she began her coursework at a local college the smell of kimchi left our home. But the path had been set when she was pregnant with Tim. She had never longed for meat but when she became pregnant she began to crave chicken skin and my father, fearing that she wasn’t getting enough nutrients from her vegetarian diet, implored her to start eating meat. In isolation and living in a part of the country where there was still not a supermarket explosion, she listened to my father and began changing her diet. Even into the early years of my life she still tried to prepare two meals, one for her and one for us, but soon it was too much work.
Another thing that happened around then was that she joined a women’s bowling league. She had made friends with some other stay-at-home mothers who bowled in the mornings then went to Jerry’s Restaurant for coffee and breakfast. Here she was introduced to grits with plenty of butter and salt. Later, they introduced her to sweets. This was before I started school and I remember her taking me with her and letting me carry the heavy bowling bag in its brown vinyl case with white and orange stripes in and out of the car. Once we arrived at Jerry’s she and the other women ordered me eggs that had peach halves in their center to appear as if they were over easy. Afterward they would order me a chocolate fudge cake with a thick layer of whipped cream and a cherry on its top.
Soon our household menu was typical of most Southern homes. We ate sausage and biscuits with gravy for breakfast. Fried bologna sandwiches with thick slices of tomato for lunch. Pork chops and fried okra for supper. And for better or worse, my mother was turned onto junk food and one of my best memories of her is when we would go to the Kroger and she’d buy a bag of Grippo’s BBQ chips or Chips Ahoy! cookies and let us open them up in the car on the way home.
It wasn’t until I was home from college my freshman year, watching as she taught me to make gravy, I realized what exactly she had done. When I left for school, though I had chosen to stay in state, I moved nearly three hours away to the west. In that part of Kentucky, my accent and the things I grew up around were a different kind of country than what the people out there were accustomed to. Almost every time I met someone they asked me to repeat words with long “i” sounds such as “ice” or “like.” I found it odd that even in Kentucky I could be considered some sort of hillbilly. Rather than conform, I found myself clinging fiercely to my Appalachian roots and taking more pride in where I was from than I ever had before. So as I watched my mother teach me, I took notice that her olive skin still held her tan from the summer. I listened to her singing and humming along with a Korean folk song on the tape player, her voice soft with the music, but direct when she spoke to me.
She spread the bacon grease around the skillet and sprinkled in the flour with her hand, leaving the tips of her fingers white—those fingers her father’s, thin and long like vines. “Get me some milk,” she said, stirring the flour and grease. Without looking at me she instructed me to pour, and a few seconds after I had tipped the jug, she quickly stopped me.
I held the cold container close to my body as she worked the flour, grease and milk with a wooden spoon the same way she had hundreds of times before. “How’d you learn to do this?” I asked.
“I watched your grandmother make it for your father when we lived in the country with them.”
The skillet sizzled and the flour turned brown and creamy. “Here,” she said, handing me the spoon. “Stir it like this.” She kept pushing the mixture into the center, making long circles along the perimeter.
“That’s all there is to it?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said. “It’s not that hard.”
But in that moment I thought about my mother in a way I hadn’t before. My first semester away from home I had been reassessing my parents, my upbringing. I saw more clearly just what she had accomplished in her life and a series of images flashed into my mind. How she navigated our first new car, a white Cutlass Supreme, up the steep hill to our house in the snow; the nights I went into her room and she sat on the bed with textbooks scattered around her, telling me later that for the first two years she had to translate everything into Korean then back into English; those days when Tim was at basketball practice she and I, after her classes were over, had driven all over our neighborhood to deliver Tim’s paper route. Then there were the countless snapshots taken with a bulky Polaroid of her with my brother and me on vacations in which my father had been too busy at work to ever come along: the three of us with Yogi the Bear at King’s Island, the three of us at the Grand Canyon, the three of us in Korea at the 38th Parallel.
She had done all these American things with us and she had learned to cook the food of my father’s people. She had not adapted to a new culture; she was part of that culture.
I once heard the poet Alan Shapiro say in a lecture that he thinks we are most American in our hyphens. Jewish-American, Asian-American, African-American. I’d argue that hybridity is at the core of our country and what gives America such vibrancy as a nation and what allowed my brother and me, like our mother, to almost float between two cultures. Our culinary lives were a mash-up of America and Korea. When we could convince her, Mom bought us plenty of junk food but we also loved the octopus and squid jerky we got from the Asian market or rice rolled in seaweed paper dipped in hot red pepper paste. I may have been the only child in America to leave home on a stomach full of biscuits and gravy to come back that night to a plate of bulgogi and egg rolls for dinner.
The egg rolls were a particular favorite of ours and by the time I was in high school, they had become popular in my hometown. The word would get out that Miss Paek (her maiden name, pronounced like “beck”) was making egg rolls and members of our church, my teachers, and coaches would call or see us in town and want to know where their egg rolls were. Because the process was so time-consuming, she began enlisting the help of her friends and my aunt. Mom taught them all how to pack the filling of cabbage, sesame oil, garlic, pepper, salt, and onions into the cream-colored wrappers and wipe the edges with egg wash so they would hold when folded over and fried. She set them up in an assembly line in our kitchen with two pots of oil going on the stove. She’d sometimes make more than a hundred egg rolls a night and true to southern form, they were bigger than the ones you would get in any Asian restaurant, closer to the size of burritos. At Potluck dinners they took their place on tables already weighed down by country ham, fried catfish, hush puppies, poke salad, turnip greens, baked beans, and fruit cobblers. None of it seemed strange or out of place then. Not to anyone it seemed. It was one world meshed with another.
In a week, my wife and I will be hosting friends for Thanksgiving dinner, beginning our own traditions. She’s a lifelong Clevelander who’s come a couple of hours south after our marriage this summer. We’re excited about starting our life together, navigating the holidays as a married couple. She’s especially thrilled to be making her first turkey and stuffing, her first gravy, from recipes handed down from her mother. If I were back in Kentucky, Mom would put me in charge of peeling potatoes, brewing the sweet tea, buttering the biscuits, and setting the table. Just before dinner I’ll call her and FaceTime with my family. I’ll ask her to show me the dinner spread and then I’ll show her ours, and when she looks I’ll want her to see the egg rolls I’ve made, that I’m going to always make at every holiday I am away from her.
Michael Croley was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in Corbin, Kentucky. His stories regularly appear in Narrative, and he was named to their list of “Best New Writers” in 2011. His other fiction and criticism has been published in Blackbird, The Louisville Review, The Southern Review, Fourth Genre, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. He lives in Granville, Ohio, and teaches creative writing at Denison University.