My step-monster was an incredible cook.
So I guess it should be no surprise to me that among the many painful memories from my dark, anxious childhood, her food (delicious food) stands out as the single, shimmering beacon of joy.
One of my earliest childhood memories is sitting at our table at around the age of four or five, my bony chin resting on the cold surface of the tabletop with my rice bowl in front of my nose. A spoonful of rice clutched in my fist hovering horizontally above my bowl, waiting for a morsel of fish to be picked free of pin-bones and plunked on top of the steaming rice before I could shovel it into my eager mouth.
Growing up in a Korean-American immigrant home, our meals resembled miniature feasts. Each meal consisted of no fewer than half a dozen freshly prepared side dishes, or ban-chan, serving as accompaniments to a brothy soup or hearty stew, along with a grilled fish or meat. Not an ounce of it was processed or packaged; prepared with plenty of fresh garlic, herbs and vegetables. Among my many favorites, what most non-Koreans think of when they think of Korean food – Korean barbeque: small slices of marinated meat, grilled just so, delicately wrapped in hand-trimmed lettuces and anointed with a smear of unctuous fermented dwen-jang sauce.
Holidays and special gatherings brought an unimaginable volume of other delicacies – platters of dumplings, stir fries, lightly fried vegetables and seafood, savory pancakes, silvery translucent noodles interlaced with perfectly julienned shreds of vegetables and succulent mushrooms, countless varieties of fresh kimchi and sweet rice cakes – just to name a few.
Just thinking about some of these dishes triggers an instant Pavlovian response.
I can almost taste the salty, tangy dipping sauces, and smell the musky hint of grease in the air that always lingered for a few days following a good deep-frying session.
For Koreans, as in so many other cultures, food = love. And absent any other loving, nurturing, maternal way to show us her love, my cruel stepmother showered us with delicious, painstakingly prepared food in one moment, and wielded biting criticism and senseless physical abuse in another.
I lived this way, nurtured with food and starved of love, until I’d had enough and moved out for good when I turned 18.
Since then, as I grew older and closer to a time where I contemplated starting my own family, I’d often wondered what kind of mother I’d be. You don’t have to be an expert in psychology to know that experiences in childhood affect the way you process emotions and behave towards others; ergo the dreaded “vicious cycle” of abuse. Once pregnant with my first child, I was horribly afraid of how I’d be with him/her. Would I know how to love the baby? Was I good enough? Would the baby hate me? Would I hate myself?
Was the baby doomed?
Any pregnant woman will tell you that there is a love/hate relationship with food for at least some duration of the pregnancy, if not for months (or let’s face it, years) after. After going a few months without a hint of any specific hankerings, it turned out that I was no different, happening upon my first food craving at 10pm while watching an episode of Madmen with my husband. Several of the characters were working late at the agency and were sharing a few cartons of Chinese takeout. I spotted what appeared to be a nugget of sweet and sour chicken between a pair of chopsticks.
I turned to Matt and said, “oh my GOD. That looks freaking amazing”.
While discussing this important revelation with my sisters months later after Sofia was born, I confessed that what I really craved was a dish that my stepmother made when we were little. I described the dish: a thumb-sized ball of rice covered entirely with a thin coating of egg, pan-fried and served slightly warm. I remembered eating them as a child and craved them off and on throughout my pregnancy, but for some reason or another had never gotten around to making them. My three sisters looked at each other, confused and slightly amused.
“Stepmom never made those” my second oldest sister, Kate, chimed in. “But mom did”.
I immediately burst into tears.
My real mother died from breast cancer when she was 37 (a year younger than the age I am now). From the moment I realized my stepmother was not my mother — while rifling through an old album in my parents bedroom on a rainy afternoon with my sisters when I was seven, I happened upon my mother’s photo and exclaimed to my sisters, “that’s mom!” — I ached for her. The revelation itself told me that some part of me remembered her still, but I couldn’t put my finger on any actual memories of her.
I pined for her memories while poring over her pictures day after day in that old album with the worn, velvet-green, pinwale corduroy cover.
To hear of her from my sisters (12, 10, and 7 years old when she died), dad and relatives, she was the most amazing mother and wife. Beautiful, intelligent, creative, funny, fair, fierce, resourceful, and, selfish – selfish in a way that only a dedicated mother who raised five children and purchased two houses on a young electrical engineer’s salary in South Korea in the 80s could be. I listened to their accounts of her with the rapt attention every storyteller dreams of receiving but rarely attains. I devoured every word, created images and scenarios in my head from those delicious stories they told with the few images I now had of her face.
She became a sort of celebrity to me. A legend. A demigod.
Absent my own recollections, I became jealous of theirs.
I’d assumed I had kept no memories of my mother. After all, I’d lost her when I was just two, and no one remembers anything from that young age. I lamented this fact my entire life: as a fearful and obedient child, a wild and rebellious teenager, and an independent and awkwardly mature young adult.
But in that moment, when my sister whispered, “but mom did”, I was incredulous.
I could picture her fingers, holding out an egg-covered rice ball to me, and me, grabbing the golden package, spongy and delicate, slightly warm and slippery to the touch from the oil that coated the pan it was cooked in. I could smell the nutty sesame oil and mild sulfurous aroma of the egg. I could feel the delicate grains of rice swimming around in my mouth as I gobbled up the ball whole.
I could still feel my body tense up with eagerness and excitement as I asked for more, and more, and more.
I always pictured my stepmother as the body attached to the end of that hand, standing next to the stove and handing me those yummy little globes as she cooked them, one after the other. But I discovered in that moment that the hand belonged to my own mother, lost to me no more.
I can tell you that I haven’t been able to bring myself to cook those rice balls yet. Up until a few days ago, or maybe even a few minutes ago, I could not have explained to you why. I may have hypothesized that it’s because I’m a procrastinator. Or maybe it’s because I’m afraid of not getting it right and knowing I’d be incredibly frustrated because I’m such a perfectionist. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll become sad because I’ll never get it quite right.
But then again, maybe not.
All of my wonderful memories from childhood feasts centered on a horrible maternal figure, the step-monster, whom I loved and hated, revered and detested. I’ve attempted and perfected many of the dishes I’ve loved of hers over the years, and they’ve mostly turned out pretty well. I put them into my regular meal rotation, and my husband and two children lap them up with the same joy and appreciation in their eyes as I once did.
As with a lot of Korean dishes, some of them can be complex. Countless ingredients and spices are combined together in large pots and pans, sizzling and bubbling happily before they are scooped into bowls and plates and devoured at our dining table, my daughter’s and son’s spoons hovering in the same expectant position above their rice bowls.
But the truth is I don’t want to attempt to replicate those rice balls.
As much as I want Sofia and Hugo to experience that same joy, I also don’t want to lose my memory of them. Once I make them and taste them, I’m afraid I’ll lose my memories of what hers looked and tasted like to me as a tiny child. I’m afraid the smells and textures from those ancient days will be muddied and tainted with new ones. I’m afraid the vision I have of those wrinkles and dimples on her fingers will be edited over, replaced with the silhouette of my own middle-aged fingers.
I’m afraid the requests of my own tiny voice asking for more will be erased and substituted with the sweet voices of my children. I’m afraid this single connection, this one, small, intimate moment in my memory of the brief life of her and I together will be washed away. And as much as I love my children and will give them anything and everything of me to make them happy, I cannot let go of the only thing that connects me to their grandmother.
To my mother.
Maybe I’ll change my mind. Maybe making them will be cathartic for me instantly in a way that months of therapy never quite was.
Or maybe I’ll be selfish.
And anytime I doubt myself as a mother and lament the fact that I didn’t have a proper mother to give me a great foundation to be a good and deserving mother to my children, I’ll close my eyes and picture her hand, holding out a small golden rice ball. And I’ll take it and put it in my mouth for the millionth time, biting down and breaking through the egg with a squeak and squish, feeling the grains of rice slide around and ground into mush by my little teeth before being gulped down.
And I’ll smile as I hear my tiny voice asking for more, and more, and more.