Edible Sorrow: Michelle Zauner's memoir Crying in H Mart reckons with grief through food - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

In grief, we remember. The past comes to us in vivid flashes, or as dim figures we ache to see more clearly. In grief, we wonder: Who am I without the one I’ve lost? Who am I because of the one I’ve lost? In grief, we reconcile the dark and the lovely traits of the person who’s died. This squall of interior preoccupations—memory, identity, reckoning—can come to feel dizzyingly abstract. Sometimes we need a tangible way through.

For Michelle Zauner, the way through is food.

Though Zauner is best known for her dream-pop musical project Japanese Breakfast, it’s not musical but culinary considerations that animate her new memoir, Crying in H Mart. This is the story of a mother’s illness and death, and the story of a daughter’s mourning. In spite of its subject, the writing is far from grim. Through vibrant, sensual prose, we accompany Zauner on savory adventures through fish markets in Seoul, the kitchens of Philly restaurants, and the author’s Greenpoint apartment where she learns to make the kimchi that had been a staple in her mother’s kitchen. Along the way, we learn all that food can mean to the bereaved. 

Food tethers us to the present moment—our hands in the brine, the tart on our tongues—even as it transports us to the past. Taste and smell are famously linked to memory and can uniquely return to us the people we’ve lost, if only for a moment. “Ever since my mom died,” the book begins, “I cry in H Mart.” The Korean grocery store, Zauner explains, awakens memories of her mother’s cooking, the primary means by which the brusque, pragmatic woman demonstrated her love. Between commercial fridges and freezers, Zauner remembers the taste of her mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup, and the feeling of dumpling skins pinched between her fingers as she and her mother cooked together. Here in the aisles, her mom is resurrected—her most generous, attentive, and nurturing self. Food grants access to memory.

As a half-Korean, half-white woman born in Soeul and raised in the States, Zauner discovers that food also grants access to the heritage only her mother could open to her. While her mother lived, moments at the table made the author feel most connected to her Korean identity. On trips to her grandmother’s Seoul apartment, Zauner and her mom would brush shoulders over tupperware bins of banchan in the glow of the refrigerator’s light after midnight. As the two ate heartily and delightedly, her mother would say, “This is how I know you’re a true Korean.” Her mother gone, Zauner wonders, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” Bereaved, she resolves to learn to cook the way her mother did, ritually studying YouTube videos by the food vlogger Maangchi. Her hands squeezing water from boiled bean sprouts, her stomach full with black bean noodles, she finds new ways to inhabit her Korean identity. “I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart it feels like I’m fluent,” she writes. Food opens the doors of culture.

Michelle Zauner | photo by Barbora Mrazkova

One of the merits of Crying in H Mart is the complex rendering of Zauner’s mother. On these pages, she is both monster and martyr, archetypes that Zauner seeks to reconcile as she looks unflinchingly at the relationship the two shared. This mother is devastatingly critical of her daughter, poking at her posture and smoothing out her wrinkles. In her practicality and grit, she can seem unnurturing. But the same woman sends care packages to her daughter’s college dorm room every month. One contains new leather boots, already softened, because she’s worn them around the house for a week to save her child the pain of breaking them in. And observe her in the kitchen: Before Zauner returns from college, her mother spends two days marinating short ribs and fermenting kimchi just the way her daughter likes them.

When the author receives news of her mother’s cancer, she moves across the country and becomes a primary caregiver. Back in her home kitchen, she recalls all that her mother has done to nourish and nurture her. She finds that her resentments have softened. And in a powerful reversal, Zauner longs to nourish and nurture her own mother. Food paves paths of forgiveness.

In a powerful scene from the author’s teenaged years, Zauner throws a cutting remark at her mom, and her mom tackles her, intolerant of disrespect. The author remembers, “She smelled like olive oil and citrus. Her hands felt soft and slick, greased with cream, as they pushed my wrists against the coarse carpet.” Just as Zauner writes with poetic sensuality about food, so does she write about the body. Her mother ate oysters and drank Chardonnay. She laughed with eruptive vigor. She smoothed her fingers over her teenaged daughter’s forehead to iron out her nascent wrinkles. She smelled like olive oil and citrus. These details remind us that the people we’ve lost are not abstractions—archetypes of monsters or martyrs—but enfleshed people, capable of violence and tenderness, both.

As I write this, the toll of COVID-19 deaths in the United States has crested half a million. The idea of death is more present in our national mind than ever in my lifetime. Still, with numbers this high, for those whose hands have not tended to the ill, death risks becoming an abstraction.

But Zauner reminds us that death is never abstract. The experience of loss is always embodied in the particulars of the senses—in the food we serve to nourish the sick, in the touch that speaks to the comatose, in the smell of the lotion that anoints the hands of the dying. It is trying on your mother’s coats, sliding your arms through their leather and feeling each’s peculiar skin before you place it in the donate pile. It is lying beside a body just after its breath has slipped away, then struggling to dress its stiff flesh in clothing somehow befitting the beauty of the life that has ended. It is the salt of your tears and the salt in the brine. It is the weight of the onggi, the earthenware jar in which you finally teach yourself to make kimchi just the way your mother made it.

Michelle Zauner will join author and podcast host Youngmi Mayer in conversation for virtual book talk event sponsored by Asian Arts Initiative, Union Transfer, and Blue Stoop on Friday, April 30th. For more information and to register, go here.

Catherine Ricketts writes about the arts, grief, and spirituality. Find her on Instagram at @bycatherinericketts and visit her website at catherinedanaricketts.com.

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