Cully Perlman shares his desperate attempt to break his Korean mother-in-law of her old-school eating habits. (You’ll be hungry after reading this.)
My mother-in-law refuses to eat when I cook. She won’t do it. I can make the best meal of my life, spend all day chopping, dicing and marinating, taste-testing flavors and sauces, modifying side dishes and arranging all the accoutrement. It still doesn’t matter.
Whatever I’ve decided to plate up for that evening, she won’t eat; when dinner’s ready, she’ll head home. She’ll walk or have my wife or me drive her so she can eat the same food day in, day out. Rice. Kimchi. Soup. Different types of banchan, probably some lettuce wraps.
You’d think after a few years it wouldn’t bother me. But it does. It drives me nuts.
My mother-in-law is from a small town in South Korea. I don’t know the name of the town even though I’ve been told the name dozens of times. My late father-in-law was from the big city. Seoul, I believe, but somehow, I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s my memory; maybe it’s the nebulous details of my wife’s telling of their history. I don’t know. I can’t remember.
But food—theirs, mine—has always been a focal point of our bonding, the nucleus of our understanding of one another. Mostly, it’s me enjoying and appreciating Korean barbecue and all of the side dishes, the banchan, that accompany it, while my mother-in-law passes on whatever it is I’ve had to offer in return.
I don’t know why it bothers me—trust me, I’ve thought about it. Being a Puerto Rican Jew and enjoying the culinary delights of both sides of my heritage, I’ve made pasteles with chicken and pork, yellow rice with gandules, yucca with mojo criollo, platanos maduros and bacalao with peppers and onions. I’ve made matzoh ball soup and knishes, briskets and lox and nova plates (in case it was about the salt!), all of it to no avail.
A few times she’s put a drop of whatever I’d made on the tip of her tongue, testing, apparently, if I had used explosives. But never have I seen her eat an entire meal. Not even half, I don’t think, if I’m to be honest.
My wife has excuses for her mother, like any child does for their parent. When she vocalizes her excuses, they make sense. Normally, I’m unfazed. But sometimes I just don’t get it. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make any sense.
You don’t have to get it, my wife assures me. It’s cultural. It’s who she is—she’s a simple Korean woman from a small village. She’s seventy years old. She’s used to what she’s used to.
She’s lived in L.A. for almost forty years!
In Koreatown, my wife says. Not L.A.
She’s right. The truth is, my mother-in-law has never needed to venture very far from the communities in which she’s lived. Her move to the United States, to Los Angeles, while a world away in terms of distance, was not a life-altering change in terms of culture. In Koreatown you can pretty much get what you got in Korea.
Dried squid and panko, seaweed laver in a thousand varieties: salted, roasted, plain. You can get Choco-Pies. You can buy Maxim single-serve coffee and pre-packaged bulgogi sauce, red pepper powder and bright red tubs of spicy gochujang paste. In another city, it may be difficult to find thinly-cut short ribs for kalbi. In Koreatown it’s as common as ketchup.
Koreatown, quite simply, is Korea in the U.S. And for me to think otherwise would be an exercise in self-delusion.
But I’m not a quitter. Quitting is just something I’m not good at. Doesn’t matter what it is. Right now, for the last few years, getting my mother-in-law to eat something other than tteokguk, to try something besides gimbap or sundubu jjigae with her sides of cold boiled bean sprouts, stir-fried and seasoned aster scaber, with her stuffed cucumber kimchi, has been a formidable task. Frankly, it’s been impossible. She just won’t do it.
She’s not like me—and that’s fine. Maybe she’s the smart one. While she refuses to eat my food, I’ve had my fair share of raw fermented oysters. I’ve burned holes in my stomach by eating too much spicy tofu soup. I’ve picked up addictions—to dried squid jerky, thin pencil-looking chocolate sticks called Pocky. Pickled radish. And laver. I leave everywhere in our house trails of thin, roasted seaweed laver crumbs that my wife vacuums up.
I take 80 milligrams of Nexium now. Occasionally I pop a Pepcid, some Tagamet. And that’s fine. I have my plans. I know I’ll get my mother-in-law to try my arroz con pollo one day. My kreplach. I may have to coat it in soybean paste, drown it in ganjang. But I’ll get her on my side. I’ve got to. I’m in it for the long run. And I know, in time, I’ll break her down. I’ll win her over. Even if it kills me.
Image Credit: Sara Elizabeth Stark/Flickr