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- Schilling, Carol
While Michelle Zauner’s remarkable memoir is an expression of her profound grief after her mother died, her story simultaneously reflects on her complicated relationship with the woman she called Umma and with her own Korean-American identity. The H Mart of the title, an Asian grocery chain, provided the ingredients for the dishes that suffused their relationship, her identity, and her grief. Food and memory animate the memoir itself.
Zauner was 25 when her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive late-stage, mid-life cancer. Also the only daughter of a white American father, Zauner was a rebellious child, resentful of Umma’s version of tough love. Growing up the lone Asian student in her Oregon community, she felt both othered at school and an outsider among her Seoul relatives. Just as she was beginning to appreciate her Korean heritage and understand her mother’s love, she learned about Umma’s diagnosis.
The first half of the memoir exuberantly brings to life scenes from Zauner’s childhood and her brief post-college years in New York City, interrupted by her dedicated caregiving. Attempting to save her mother, Zauner at times overwhelmed her with her native foods. “I would radiate joy and positivity,” Zauner pledged. “I would learn to cook for her—all the things she loved to eat, and I would single-handedly keep her from withering away” (69). Her optimistic culinary efforts produce a poetry of exacting descriptions of the flavors and textures and preparation of those foods. It’s grimly ironic that the chemotherapy her mother endured wiped out her ability to taste or digest Zauner’s loving offerings of health.
The second half turns from living with Umma to living without her. Wishing to sustain her bond with her mother as Zauner grieved, she continued to prepare her Korean family’s recipes. Walking down H Mart’s redolent isles generated “waves” of sorrow that mark the enduring ebb and flow of her grief. Unsuccessful with conventional therapy, she found cooking a preferable form of self-care. “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home. Knife-cut noodles in chicken broth took me back to lunch at Myeongdong Gyoja . . . The kalguksu so dense from the rich beef stock and starchy noodles it was nearly gelatinous. My mother ordering more and more refills of their famously garlic-heavy kimchi” (212-213). As if miraculously, a few years after Umma died, Zauner’s itinerant music career ignited. The band she has fronted, Japanese Breakfast, recorded an album, Psychopop (with a song she wrote about her mother, “In Heaven”). Then they toured the U.S. and South Korea. Although her mother was skeptical about a musical career, Zauner imagined that Umma would be “glad that I had finally found a place where I belonged” (233).