Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Book Review: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Japanese Breakfast is the whimsical moniker of an American shoegaze-pop band I have been following for some time. Somehow the band and their wonderful lead singer Michelle Zauner have escaped this blog's musings until now.

I was lucky enough to get a close look at Zauner when she graced the Pitchfork Music Festival stage in Chicago this past summer. She is a magnetic performer, dressed in her trademark Miu Miu shoes and a top seemingly tailored out of someone's beloved childhood stuffed poodle. It was a monumental outfit. 

Michelle Zauner performing as Japanese Breakfast at Pitchfork '22.

As Zauner belted out dreamy lyrics about the diving women of Jeju Island and memories of her departed mother, I noticed a fan in front of me waving around a book with a red cover. It was a cover I had seen before - Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Please understand that while I had seen this book before - as a lover of Korean food and frequenter of my own H Mart back home in Richmond Hill, I didn't realize it had been written by Japanese Breakfast, creator of so many moody and earworm-esque tunes in my playlists. That'll teach me to like a band without knowing the names of the members. 

Book cover of Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

I suppose I also didn't realize that someone who was so musically talented (and intensely fashionable) could also be gifted enough to write a NYT bestseller memoir. Thus began my wonderment at all the amazing facets that are Zauner. She had also partnered with Chicago's Goose Island brewery to create a persimmon beer for the festival, and created an amazing soundtrack for indie video game Sable

But this post is largely about the many feels found inside the red-covered book flailing in the hand of the fan in front of me this past summer. Said book is also apparently being made into a movie. That I can't wait to see. Crying in H Mart is a memoir of a very specific flavour, displayed on the cover in the form of a delectable amount of noodles. The book revolves around the youth and experiences of Zauner through childhood and the eventual passing of her mother in her early fifties. This is outlined at the start of the book in a very honest and earnest way, in a tone I have rarely heard during moments of loss in my life. Zauner expresses envy of the mother-child relationships she sees in other patrons of her local H Mart, which I found to be very real, endearing, and had me in tears in moments after cracking the book for the first time. 

Zauner's writing of her relationship with her mother reminds me of the one I have with my mother in some ways, again perhaps because her tone feels so honest like she is pouring out her soul onto the page. From the reader view it seems like she had a difficult childhood living up to the standards of her mother, who only wanted the best for her but expressed her love in non-normative ways. Zauner recounts in wistful moments of the book that her relationship with her mother was at its best before her mother's untimely illness struck, and had it not struck, they might have gone on to share a better relationship as two adults. For my own honesty and because my mother may read this at some point, let the record state that I think our mother-daughter relationship is at its best in my adult years, and this created a force of empathy that I felt for Zauner through my reading.

I would be remiss to get this far into the review without talking about the food of it all. Having lived in Toronto's Koreatown for six delicious years, I was delighted at every turn of Zauner's descriptions of Korean dishes mixed in with her memories of making or eating them. The connection she must feel between food and culture (going by these descriptions) is something I find reminiscent in my own upbringing in a Reform Jewish household and the traditions of many Jewish foods. To me it is something that guides a sort of mixing of past and present, honouring one's traditions and ancestors, and telling a story or communicating an emotion through the senses of touch and taste. 

This can be found in pretty much every Jewish holiday, from the Passover seder's many varied acts of food-as-story to Hanukkah's potato latkes and fried donuts symbolizing the miracle of oil. While I am only scratching the surface of what the various Korean foods mean to Zauner, I can appreciate the influence food has on her life and also share her obvious passion for cooking as a way to feel grounded and experience tradition. Being that we are around the time of Jewish New Year right now, I am looking forward to making Honey Cake in my grandmother's recipe and Tzimmes, something I have not made before.

A short guide to the many holidays of Judaism - note how many of them involve eating.

Zauner expresses in some moments of the book that she wishes she had learned more of her mother's Korean cooking before her passing and mentions that she did get to learn some aspects from other elders in her life. What stuck out to me was her discovery of Maangchi's series of Youtube videos on Korean cooking. Immediately after watching the intro to just one video, I felt this woman's motherliness wash over me. 

As Maangchi explains about Korean spicy soft tofu stew with seafood (Haemul sundubu-jjigae), she references the weather getting colder outside and the need for a warm stew to stay cozy, as well as a reminder for us, the viewers, to remember to check the expiration date of the soon tofu tubes at our local store before we buy them. I melted immediately.

I am so happy for Zauner in her discovery (and sharing in her book) of Maangchi. I am continually astounded by the mass of information that exists on the internet and the fact that Zauner can learn to cook these dishes and experience a part of her culture. And how am I going to make Tzimmes, the dish I have never made before, nor did my grandmother leave me a recipe for? Via the internet of course. There are lots of Jewish cooking blogs, but I usually end up back on Tori Avey's collection. In her recipe for Stovetop Tzimmes, she references its sweetness as the perfect side dish for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) when we eat sweet foods to bring a sweet year ahead. She also mentions the meaning behind the name of the dish, which means "to make a big fuss", a sort of joke about the peeling and chopping of all the root vegetables involved. I guess I've been warned.

Tori Avey's Stovetop Tzimmes

This memoir about cooking and family relationships and Korean culture and music and so many other things was a very special read for me and has only underlined my appreciation of Japanese Breakfast's music. I definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates food (which should be everyone, right?). But just in case you're not convinced of Michelle Zauner's overall awesomeness, check out this Vogue clip on her outfits of the week.