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Crying in H-Mart

Lately, I’ve been getting more into food writing – literature that makes food its subject and goes far beyond recipes or cooking techniques. For example, I read Nina Mingya Powel’s Tiny moons: a year of eating in Shanghai and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s a genre that definitely makes you hungry, and in my quest for more, my local bookstore linked me up with other customers via email so we could exchange reading tips. This is how I came across Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H-Mart. In her moving memoir, Zauner recounts the death of her mother Chongmi and her subsequent grieving process, a time during which cooking brought her great comfort.

In her mid-twenties, Zauner is living in Philadelphia, waiting tables and trying to make it big with her band. But when her mother is diagnosed with cancer, she moves back to her remote family home near Eugene, Oregon, to care for her. Zauner’s look back at the time just before and just after her mother’s death is a detailed, cherishing reflection on their difficult relationship. Her mother was a strict perfectionist and Zauner describes herself more as a chaotic, dreamy artist. As different as mother and daughter always were, their love for Korean food – food from the mother’s country of origin – remained a unifying bond. When Zauner begins to recreate the dishes of her childhood and youth after her mother’s death, the smells and tastes evoke memories of an safe home and wonderful trips to Korea: “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought back for a moment an unravaged home” (91).

Stories about Korean food make up the book and Zauner’s life. They also allow her to explore the relationship between food and identity. As a mixed-race child, Zauner had tried to be as US-American as possible and not stand out at her majority white school. With the death of her mother, she lost her strongest connection to Korean culture, which she now seeks out. Zauner addresses the most difficult time and the biggest questions of her life directly and openly. Her book shows that although the loss of her mother was extremely painful for her, she was able to understand more of herself through her grieving process – while cooking.

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