“Coming Home Again” by Chang-rae Lee
What purpose do food and travel writing serve, when an author is grieving?
Today’s piece focuses on author Chang-rae Lee’s preparation of traditional Korean family foods when his mother becomes very ill.
Not everyone is a master chef. Some of us hack and chop and frizzle away. The author’s frustration is, in fact, at his at his inability to understand and prepare the great traditional meal. It is an imperfect language, excavating Lee’s frustration and struggle to articulate that as a young son he didn’t appreciate her love, sacrifice and self-effacement in the face of his own hubris. The metaphor is that of food and trying to duplicate the family meal and in part, failing. The agony of that.
“I would enter the kitchen quietly and stand beside her, my chin lodging on the point of her hip.” “The bone fell away, though not completely” Then later, “careful not to dislodge the bones, I asked her why it was important that they remain connected.”
It may be useful to compare Lee’s piece with Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman” in terms of the bones in the land; and that the chronology of events shifts back and forth via flashbacks yet all of the times are woven together to create, in the mind’s eye, that thing, that awareness, which had never been seen.
The final spectral image of the parents pulled over in the car and the son (in a different age) driving by and “seeing” them is the culminating image of his mourning. It is a synthesis.
It is not so much a piece about cooking as it is about coming to terms with the unfamiliar, death, (the tenor) in terms of the familiar, traditional Korean cooking (the vehicle).
The shadow-side failure at trying to say to someone, ” I love and respect you” through the preparation of a traditional meal for a mother, a child, who will not eat.
His clumsy, imperfect mourning via cooking to understand his stalwart mother’s impermanence.
The piece was originally featured in The New Yorker Magazine, October 16, 1995.
Let us know what you think!
. . .A bit about Chang-rae Lee . . .
Chang-rae Lee (born July 29, 1965) is a Korean American novelist and a professor of creative writing at Stanford University,. He was previously Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton and director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing.
Lee was born in South Korea in 1965 to Young Yong and Inja Hong Lee. He emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old.
Lee’s first novel, Native Speaker (1995), won numerous awards including the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
Lee explores issues central to the Asian American experience: the legacy of the past; the encounter of diverse cultures; the challenges of racism and discrimination, and exclusion; dreams achieved and dreams deferred. In the process of developing and defining itself, then, Asian American literature speaks to the very heart of what it means to be American. The authors of this literature above all concern themselves with identity, with the question of becoming and being American, of being accepted, not “foreign.” Lee’s writings have addressed these questions of identity, exile and diaspora, assimilation, and alienation.¹
“The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers
By 1953 Carson McCullers’s dysfunctional marriage was at a breaking point. During a summer in Paris she and her husband were both drinking heavily, and Carson found out that Reeves had (once again) forged Carson’s name on checks. He attempted to kill himself and tried to talk Carson into committing suicide with him. She fled Paris alone and returned to the United States.
Around the same time, Holiday magazine had offered Carson McCullers fifteen hundred dollars to write a piece on Georgia where she returned in November to gather materials and memories.
While staying with friends McCullers learned that her husband had committed suicide in the Hôtel Chateau Frontenac on November 18.
Although her hosts initially urged her to remain at their home to recover from the shock, McCullers insisted on going to visit Hervey Cleckley, a friend who was also a psychiatrist. Cleckley, who was busy at work (with coauthor Corbett H. Thigpen) on his book The Three Faces of Eve, later told Carr that he and McCullers discussed his research in psychopathology and talked at length about Reeves’s suicide. Their conversations helped McCullers understand both her husband and their relationship, as she later described in her unfinished memoir:
McCullers (enduring what seems to be a rather uncomfortably close interview) about “The Member of The Wedding.” McCullers states that the basic premise of the play was just “to belong- to be a part of something; a part of life.” Perhaps this is also true of those who write about food and cultural tradition when they are grieving.
“Hervey Cleckley has written a masterful book called The Mask of Sanity, and in that book I could see Reeves mirrored. Psychopathic people are very often charming. They live on their charm, their good looks and the weaknesses of wives or mothers.”
McCullers finally returned to Nyack, NY at the end of November—and the next day The New York Times published her husband’s obituary, which suggested as a possible cause of death injuries suffered from a car accident several weeks before. Yet the actual cause was hardly a secret to the couple’s acquaintances and, amidst the deluge of calls and condolences, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief among some of McCullers’s friends. Carr reports that the actress Helen Hayes, who also lived in Nyack, dropped by and told Carson’s mother, “I’m not going to say I’m sorry, Bebe, because I don’t think I am.”
McCullers soon returned to the task of writing the food article for Holiday, and she completed a version in early 1954. The events of the previous year surely explain the wistful and somewhat melancholy tone, and the essay was rejected because the magazine was “looking for a lighter, more descriptive, less personal piece.”²
Here is “The Great Eaters of Georgia” by Carson McCullers
McCullers’ bittersweet narration (recovering from her spouses’ suicide and reeling from a bitter marriage), evokes a longing. She discusses regional foods and all but also gets to the heart of longing; using the communal (or isolated) act of eating; of belonging or not belonging in a household, a family, a community. Of again, not the rosy magazine-slick travelogue her editors were expecting (this piece was ultimately rejected and was not published in Holiday Magazine) a much more meaningful exploration of cooking and dining as it expresses friendship, marriage, widowhood, isolation, etc. Again, the shadow side of the meal.
Consider an old man who has just lost his wife, slumped in a wheelchair, trying to “enjoy” a steak at a family picnic and not wanting to chat but doing his best to make pleasant small talk. The Vietnam Vet at a Christmas party. One is perhaps able to move past the facade of emotionless silence to sense a great chasm of grief which was inarticulate as both Lee and McCullers went through the motions of describing and preparing food. The beauty was not in the eloquence or grammar nor in the perfect execution of a meal (although McCullers seems much more master of that!) but in the simple recounting of how they could NOT function normally.
So often today we have celebrity chefs and Food TV gurus, who “Celebrate Holidays!” and take smiling to another extreme with “Today on our show: Traditional Foods!” . . .it’s all so flouride-whitened. Perhaps these pieces are the yin to that yang. The power in the taking in of nourishment but not the outward power of flawlessly preparing it. The clinging, barely, to the memory of fruit, the children’s treats, the holiday punch, as a rote attempt to return to normalcy and be nourished.
The foods and their memories and preparation become, perhaps, a sort of prayer for healing.
. . .A bit about Carson McCullers . . .
Carson McCullers (February 19, 1917 – September 29, 1967) was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and poet. Her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the U.S. South. Her other novels have similar themes and most are set in the deep south.
McCullers’ oeuvre is often described as Southern Gothic and indicative of her southern roots. However, McCullers penned all of her work after leaving the South, and critics also describe her writing and eccentric characters as universal in scope. Her stories have been adapted to stage and film. A stagework of her novel The Member of the Wedding (1946), which captures a young girl’s feelings at her brother’s wedding, made a successful Broadway run in 1950–51.³
¹ Source: Wikipedia
²Summarized from The Library of America