Sudden-onset grief is an especially harrowing experience. In the winter of 2016, death visited our home like a vicious thief in the night. On a Sunday afternoon, while the kids were napping and snow was falling, my wife got a phone call. Her brother told her that their mother, their omma, was gone. No warning, no bracing yourself for loss to come, no goodbye. Just like that, my wife was on a plane to Mississippi.
The word harrowing has its roots in agriculture, being the process of breaking up dirt clods and burying seed in a plowed field. Perhaps it came to be associated with suffering because in intense seasons of loss it feels like we have to regrow hope and a sense of belief from scratch. It comes naturally for well-meaning friends and family to offer words of Scripture as truth and comfort to cling to. Faith to balance the grief. But, grief doesn’t keep nearly so clean a ledger. As weeds do, doubts and anger quickly spring up and threaten to choke out joy in a tangle of thorns and thistles. While those seeds of hope sown by well-meaning friends and family are valuable, they can be agonizingly slow to sprout and slower still to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the heart aches.
God beckons us to allow Him to fill this ache Himself, a meal unlike any other. It is a means to taste and see that God is good and a reminder that creation can be ordered to sing of His goodness even in the midst of deep sorrow. My wife and her brother found His nourishment when they turned to the Korean table, the table of their childhood and their omma’s childhood, for comfort. And as I joined them these feasts became my home table too.In many ways, the story of Korean food and culture in my life, with its Kentucky Baptist roots, is the story of how we travel through the world.
The Sun Rises
Korean food wasn’t a predictable cuisine for me to embrace. I grew up in Athens, Kentucky, off I-75 just where outer suburbia gives up and admits to being rural. That’s Athens with the “A” drawn out long like an amen, a small hamlet nestled on the border between Fayette and Clark counties in the middle of a state that’s too northern for the deep south, too southern for the yankees, and too Kentucky to think of itself as midwestern.
It was here that I attended a small Baptist church, Boone’s Creek, founded by the nephew of Daniel Boone. Being that Boone’s Creek was a small church, just about every gathering outside Sunday services was either preceded by a potluck or just was a potluck. Those meals held us together and by them I have a deep familiarity with a whole host of casseroles, puddings, bacon-infused vegetables, lettuce-free salads, and deviled eggs (which seems a rather risqué choice for the Baptists, but those always disappeared first, often two and three to a plate).
Those potlucks are embedded in my DNA. The cold, tan metal of the folding chairs in the basement fellowship hall, all the accordion-fold partitions pushed back to the walls; the din of conversation punctuated by the tin honk of those chairs scooting across the tile floor; the feel of a weightless paper plate growing heavier and heavier as you moved through the line. Country church people are structural engineers by instinct: they have a knack for knowing just how much to fold a paper plate to achieve enough corrugation to support the weight of fried chicken, potato salad, beans, and slaw—without sacrificing so much surface area you can’t squeeze in some corn pudding.
I could walk into the Boone’s Creek basement in 100 years and the apparition of those potlucks would yet linger. Since the building itself is a certified nuclear fallout shelter, I suppose it would probably still be there, surrounded by the changed and changing world.
Kimchi is about as far from a Southern Baptist potluck flavor as it gets. On the label, the ingredients are straightforward. Some vegetable (often cabbage or radish), hot pepper, garlic, onion, salt, sugar, fish sauce. But, the best kimchi doesn’t come with a label. It comes from someone’s kitchen. And the most important ingredient is time. It needs to ferment. With good, mature kimchi, you get a flavor that I can only approximate to electric fire. It’s bright and tart and spicy and crunchy. Kimchi is literally at the heart of a Korean meal with up to a dozen or more varieties—collectively called banchan—set out in small bowls in the middle of the table for all to share.
Kimchi wasn’t served at Boone’s Creek. But it has carved a place in me just as deep as those potluck meals.
The Stars Come Out
The sensory world into which we’re born, especially if we stay put for a while, can hang in the air like a sun. That we start out basically helpless in the matter helps set this impression. We go where our parents take us, we eat what we’re fed, we spend our time with the people whom the grown-ups around us seek out. We are en-cultured with no say in the matter. (Whether or not we like our first taste of the world is, of course, another matter entirely.) By all measures, the little country church my parents brought me up in, a church with a strong communal meal tradition, was a pretty good start. Even so, you can’t stay where you started if only because nothing lasts forever.
We moved out of Athens when I was nine to get closer into town. At 18, I went downtown to college, which was when I tried Indian food for the first time. It felt like a curtain had parted, revealing a constellation of flavors lighting up the path away from childhood. Indian chicken chili became a cultural artifact, one I didn’t inherit but came to on my own. It foreshadowed the idea that not only were new cultural connections possible, over time they would be necessary for the nourishment of my soul. Eventually I finished college and moved away to Louisville. A few years later, I found myself at another Indian meal on a first date with the woman I’d one day marry.
I had never tasted Korean food before I met my wife. Her omma was born in Korea and moved to the United States after marrying an American serviceman. Widowed when her children were quite young, she raised a daughter and son on her own in a home filled with the aromas of her homeland. Though my wife jokes that as a rebellious kid all she wanted was hotdogs and hamburgers, those Korean foods were always going to become her home table; meals she turns to as an adult, lighting her path back to childhood.
In many ways, the story of Korean food and culture in my life, with its Kentucky Baptist roots, is the story of how we travel through the world. A reminder that while some of us leave our first culture quickly, others drift slowly and imperceptibly—and some get yanked out kicking and screaming. Whether we go out into the world or the world comes looking for us, we all eventually look up and find what was once a sun is now more the size of a star.
Let’s talk about something called kalbi. In Korean cuisine, one of your closet allies is your butcher. You need someone who knows the technique. In the West, meat is usually butchered into big slabs and served in quantities apt to result in sweats and possible coma. Korean cuisine uses meat more sparingly, and so it’s sliced differently, as something to be incorporated into a broader experience. Kalbi is a short rib, but instead of working with a whole length of rib, it is sliced thin and in cross section, against the grain of the meat so that you end up with a collection of morsels each about the size of a small wallet photo with a piece of the rib bone attached to impart flavor. Barbecued and garnished with thinly sliced scallion, this dish has the soul of a feast without the hangover.
In my traditional cuisine, the star of the meal was a hearty cut of meat. And there were sides to complement it. But in my wife’s? The meal was an experience, incorporated and infused, everything working together.
A New Family Meal
My love for Korean food began as a series of infatuated firsts. First taste of kimchi. First time at a Korean restaurant seeing the eruption of color and spice on a tray of banchan, a smorgasbord of textures and flavors, from dried fish to pickled jalapeños. But the best part was my first home-cooked Korean meal. That was my first experience of the cuisine not as a tourist and consumer, but as a friend and companion, partaking in a cultural tradition through affection and relationship. Over time, each newness gave way to familiarity as Korean food became my family meal, too. Not the family I was born into but the family I left home to find.
Once we were married, Korean feast nights became the thing we would invite people into—our first forays into hospitality. Often our friends had never had a Korean meal so it was especially fun to introduce them to a world of flavors we already loved. These feasts helped knit my wife and me together in unity as it morphed into a culinary hearth around which to gather. My wife would start days earlier, preparing the marinade for the bulgogi beef so the flavors would all meld together. Then, on the night of the dinner, she would bring out the biggest skillet we owned and set the beef on a high flame to cook through. She’d drop the heat low and let everything slowly reduce until only the perfectly caramelized, flavorful, tender meat remained. While she chopped garlic—so much garlic—and hot peppers, I would clean up the apartment, and together, we would open our home. This mutual work helped deepen our affection for each other, and its fruits helped join our union to a larger community.
Now we are raising our two boys into our community and love of this cuisine. We have our share of food wars, but on Korean nights, we all leave the table with full bellies and full hearts. Any night without tears at the table, I count as an immeasurable grace and mercy from God.
And, oh how we needed that grace and mercy in those winter nights of 2016. Through the sorrow and doubts and questions that came in the wake of my mother-in-law’s death, Korean food brought my wife and my brother-in-law’s family closer together over shared grief. The table wasn’t a place to hide or ignore our grief; rather it was a place to fight for hope..
If there is one Korean dish that most fully encompasses my love of the culture, it is bibimbap. Bibimbap was the traditional end-of-the-week meal in a Korean household. A bowl of rice mixed with all the leftovers from the week and seasoned with gochujang, a savory hot pepper paste. It is a home-y dish. Of course, you can make it fancy: Top it with a sunny egg. Add bulgogi. Many use a dolsot, a hot stone bowl that has turned as black as a southern cast-iron skillet and for the same reasons. The hot bowl crisps and caramelizes the rice and adds another layer of texture. But, the beauty of bibimbap is that its essence stays constant even in simplicity. It may change from kitchen to kitchen, it may change with the availability of ingredients, but it is always a good meal to gather and enjoy. It is soul food.
The Aroma of Home
In the months leading up to marriage, someone told me she always asks engaged couples, “What is the aroma of your home?” It’s a question that’s lingered in my mind, vivid and probing. Of course, she wasn’t talking about the literal smell. When preparing a meal, the ingredients come together to form their own little culture we enjoy as taste and smell and texture. In our homes, a concoction of other ingredients come together—sights and sounds and people—to meet each visitor and welcome them to our little outpost with an indelible sense of space.
There is another image that stands out from that time in my life: that of a man leaving his father and mother—his home culture—to join with his wife so the two can become one. These two ideas seemed disparate at first, but over time I discovered they’re intricately linked. The culture of our new home is formed as the cultures of two former homes simmer and meld together. In this, we join the long succession of people growing, leaving, and re-rooting; a path that’s been a means of grace through generations of old.
We often think of culture as a monolith. Some big thing loose in the world that we somehow manage to be both immersed in but divorced from. An unchangeable force to be endured, but maybe also engaged and won. The prospect of that kind of cultural engagement is like jumping into Niagara River a few feet before the falls and trying to stem the flood.
The trouble with thinking of culture in those terms is that it cuts the thing from its origins. Long before culture aggregates to the point it shows up on our screens and in our books and in our “national debates,” it flowed through tamer tributaries. And, before that, in tributaries smaller still. And on and on upstream until we find the source: a small trickle. Before any culture is a mass movement, it is two people in a room eating together.
This is the essence of God’s primal command for Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it. He called them to the work of cultivation, a work that could only flow from those two getting together and talking things over and seeing what they could do. Culture is the product of intimacy. Of relationships.
This is a source of great hope for God’s people in a world grown wild. Our big problems reach back to small sources, and so our solutions can start small and, by God’s grace, grow. Probably not enough to solve all the big problems, but maybe big enough to make shelter for our neighbors and perhaps, new possibilities. Making shelter: That’s the best of what culture can do on any scale. Each one of us has a space into which we can bring people and offer them something to eat. Tiny cultures loose in the world.
Culinarily speaking, it’s a bit of a ways from a Southern Baptist potluck to a spicy Korean octopus stew, but really, it’s not all that different. Both are the overflow of a home; and it is our homes that give us the chance to cultivate a touchstone in a shifting world resounding with the bleak vanity of Ecclesiastes. Sharing meals gives us something to gather around while we wait in hope for God to work things together for our ultimate good. In a shared table, we enjoy some of the fleeting goodness we forget also appears in Ecclesiastes. Our homes might, perhaps, be the very place someone arrives in the midst of their sorrow and leaves with restored hope and some good leftovers.