on the inauthenticity of food we cook

“Where are all the side dishes? And why does this spinach taste like dick*?” Grandma questioned us while avoiding what I thought was a decent plate of greens, blanched and seasoned with salt, minced garlic, and sesame oil. (I can’t even quite recall if it was actually spinach or a random bunch of greens my mom picked at Hong Kong Market.) My mom continued to lay down the tall stainless steel spoons and chopsticks in front of a meager spread of blanched vegetables and an entree of sautéed beef. Fishy, radishy soup in bowls next to purple rounds of rice. Grandma continued to eat everything but the spinach, jabbing at the beef with the chopsticks in her fingers, thick with work and gold rings.

My grandmother flew from South Korea to Dallas this winter to see my husband and me get married. I was her first grandchild to get married, so she flew the 15+ hours to attend my wedding by herself. She arrived in her silvery mink fur and stretchy athletic pants, a winter’s uniform for her that had transitioned quite nicely in the midst of the Polar Vortex ice mess (melting by day and refreezing at night). She came to see a nice wedding and to meet my husband’s family. She did not, however, expect to eat such horrible, inauthentic Korean food in her own daughter’s kitchen.

We couldn’t really answer her. I grew up on my mom’s cooking, and I thought it was pretty good for the most part. She actually attended a cooking school in Korea while running a small motel and raising my sister and me. My dad was busy teaching at an all girls’ high school and never did much housework (he still doesn’t cook, do dishes, or run the laundry, much to my mom’s chagrin). When Mom first started going to the cooking classes, I remember looking forward to whatever new recipe she learned, like the flat beige pads of “American” pancakes she cooked on our frying pan. Once it cooled down a little, I ate it with my hands like I would with hodduk.

But her cooking changed with time, out of pure need after moving to the U.S. 18 years ago. Our tastebuds still craved the stinky soy paste and garlicky stews, not pizza and cheeseburgers that I had to eat in the cafeteria (though I would grow to love them too, with more time). My parents raised us in Arkansas and East Texas when I was younger, because her brother lived in Little Rock already. That’s what you do as a new immigrant–you go to the city where you already know someone (I don’t actually know who my uncle knew in Arkansas, of all places). And when we lived in Hot Springs, Arkansas, or Texarkana, Texas, it was extremely hard to get specific ingredients to make Korean food, unless we loaded up from a recent trip to Dallas or after receiving a shipment of funky-scented cardboard box from Korea (“Is it anchovies? Dried seaweed? The bottles of sesame oil definitely leaked in there somewhere.”). So, like many immigrants do when they arrive in America, Mom worked with what she had.

And that’s how she continued to cook, even when we left the piney woods and relocated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with its luxurious array of Asian grocery stores and where I could get ddukbokki or bubble tea in a drive that’s less than 30 minutes. I became spoiled by this constant access to all kinds of “good” or authentic Asian cuisines, thinking I had it pretty good when it came to eating authentic Asian food. So when my grandma openly criticized my mom’s cooking, it didn’t make sense at first… but the longer I’ve thought about this, I wonder if her cooking had evolved and changed into a Korean American variety. I’m not talking about a pizza with bulgogi topping or fries sprinkled with cheese and kimchi and Sriracha mayo, not the fusion kind of Korean American. The kind that happens with time, after families go through assimilation (through the ridicule of food smells, through lack of access of certain kinds of ingredients), rendering us less “authentic” to the culture we come from and never quite “American” to those who do not realize (out of willful ignorance or a setting of hierarchies of culture) that the “American” experience does include trying to make kimchi out of whatever greens you may find.

Can we, my mom and I, ever make “authentic” Korean food in America? In a similar experience that my mom had when she arrived in Arkansas, I moved from San Francisco (a haven for Asian cuisines and ingredients) to Baton Rouge and was immediately aghast at how small and expensive the Korean groceries were. The smallest jar of gochujang was at least $6, which made me reconsider the times I wanted ddukbokki at home. “Do I really want to get the preservative-laden ovals of rice cake so I can eat half of my jar of pepper paste?” Eggs and rice, it was.

Even if I had the freshest, most expensive ingredients ($$$ as resource), do I have the time, patience, space, and skills to replicate in an authentic manner (time to cook/learn as resource)? After making the stinkiest, tastiest meal, do I have the energy to wash and Febreeze every soft surface of my home so I don’t smell too authentically Korean when I go to work?

Concerning food, I think it’s limiting, quite boring, bland, to say that something is “less good” because it is not authentic. Yes, there’s something to be said for pungent smells and distinct flavors. Think Chinatown in San Francisco or puffy tacos in San Antonio. But concerning labels that deem food and culture more or less “authentic,” I think it boxes us in. I want to think beyond authenticity… but need more time and modes of thinking to think about what that means for me. (Edit: Or do I continue making and eating as I do? Write poems, eat what I cook. Is this less political than I make it out to be?)

*My husband asked, “Did she really say ‘dick’?” Yes–yes, she did.

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