Frances Park, who grew up in Alexandria and Springfield from the age of 3, shares the memories of a “Korean Baby Boomer” in her latest book, That Lonely Spell (Heliotrope Books), a captivating collection of personal essays. In “Between Us,” a chapter excerpted here, Park looks back on two intertwined topics: her mother and food.
In the early years—the 1960s—my parents would drive all the way to a little grocer below street level in DC’s Chinatown, the only place to buy the makings for the likes of kimchi and mandu, dishes unheard of in a Virginia suburb with Mayberry airs. Tuna casserole, anyone? Meatloaf? Well, maybe my mom made those, too, but Betty Crocker recipes never made their way to my memory book. Meanwhile, a mere whiff of baechu—napa cabbage—and I’m right back in our sunny brick rambler, my parents just in the door.
Enlisting her daughters as helpers, my mom would show us the ropes, Sarge-style. Granted, sometimes she could be more military than maternal. As a girl, I had no idea she had been forced to leave her mother and a fabled life in the far reaches of northern Korea behind, had been captured by a Communist soldier, gun to her head. 1947, sixteen, alone. The eventual toll of war—three brothers dead, her mother’s fate unknown—left its mark. No wonder her mood could be distant. No wonder she hadn’t quite developed that lovin’ mom feeling.
“Do like this, I say …”
Mother-daughter, her history between us.
If I was lucky, my kitchen contribution might be slicing little red radishes into thin coins for kimchi—a quick chore and I was out the door. Better yet, occasionally stirring the galbijjim-braised short rib stew. Easy-peasy. Aromatic! But a mandu meal meant my whole afternoon was shot: dip finger into egg wash, rim dumpling wrapper, drop small spoon of moist meat mixture into center, fold up into triangle, pinch closed. Tada! On floured wax paper, I’d assemble my mandu in perfect rows, waiting for a smile or nod that never came.
“OK, you go now, Frances …”
Tteok was a rare affair. Background: My parents were part of a trickle of Korean academics and their wives to this country in the 1950s, a good decade before the national quota system was revoked, resulting in a larger wave of Korean migration. That said, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that rice cake shops popped up in our suburb showcasing tteok, sticky yummies encasing sweet red bean paste. And here I’d been calling them duck my whole life! Well, maybe my ears were American but not my taste buds—Twinkies, take a hike.
Tteok-making began with rice flour, beans, and sugar, and ended with my mom dropping our hand-molded creations into boiling water before draining each one in a slotted spoon and lowering it into a large glass bowl with the others. Oh, almost forgot the finishing touch: a drizzle of sesame oil. North Korean legend had it that the prettier they turned out, the prettier your future daughters. My mom’s tteok were like sculpted flowers, while mine were bona fide blobs. That always got her chuckling. And then, with proud carriage: “My daughter all beautiful.”
To say she kept her family well-fed is an understatement—compared to my friends’ suppers, our portions were sumo-sized. She could also whip up continental feasts for frequent dinner parties they held for my dad’s World Bank colleagues and their wives, with an I-Dream-of-Jeannie blink. Later in life I’d learn my mom’s secret, even if she wouldn’t recognize the French expression: mise en place. The vision of our long buffet table lined with beef stroganoff, vegetable tempura, mini egg rolls, and my favorite Korean food—chap chae—warming in silver chafing dishes, was enough to keep me wide awake until the tea candles burned out, and all the guests were gone. To my disappointment, no leftovers.
After my dad died—his life robbed by an untimely stroke in 1979—my mom began to spend less time in the kitchen. No husband, children bigger now. At forty-nine, her role as the meal-maker came prematurely to an end.
“I’m mood for Victor’s.”
And off we’d go!
Pizza at Victor’s. Chinese at Tau Tau. Tacos at Taco Bueno. These were the offerings of the day and, to my mom, it was all good. Over a four-decade span, our suburb went from Mayberry to multicultural, and our dining options expanded. My mom wanted to explore them all, forever carting home leftovers. I always lived close by and eating out was our thing.
“No more cook!”
During our outings, she would talk about her idyllic childhood, humming Korean songs on the way home. It all felt healing, and in time I knew everything.
Yet even toward her last years, one constant remained: Sometimes I’d walk in the door of the house she shared with my sister’s family and find my mom hovered over a large skillet, her chopsticks going crazy, her face in fragrant steam. Oh, I knew what she was up to: preparing me chap chae. Honestly, I wished she wouldn’t. Chap chae was not her favorite dish by a longshot and, moreover, whenever she stood in one spot for long, the pain in her legs became unbearable, followed by searing night cramps. Her old recipe required washing a mound of vegetables—carrots, scallions, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini—and sliced so sliver-thin they got lost in the glassy cellophane noodles. Too much trouble.
Although I admit, a beautiful sight.
“All for you, Frances.”
Mother-daughter, our history between us.
A virtual book launch for That Lonely Spell is planned for 6 p.m. March 23 at Politics and Prose in DC. For more stories like this, subscribe to our Family newsletter.