For musician Michelle Zauner, the death of her mother is her life’s most critical moment, both breaking her from the inside out and propelling her into the most successful period in her career.
In the memoir “Crying in H Mart,” Zauner details her experiences with loss, Korean American identity and how food connects the two. Zauner has years of experience with artistic expression through her music under the alias Japanese Breakfast, and her newcomer status in the world of writing makes this book all the more impressive. Despite this, Zauner makes it look easy, carrying the story of her life with poignant, witty and skillful prose from start to finish.
The first chapter introduces the memoir’s food-based thesis so plainly that it was almost off-putting. This opening rumination is heavy-handed and on the nose, making it feel out of place with the more subtle connections that Zauner makes throughout the rest of the book, an incongruence that could be attributed to the opening chapter being an adaptation of her prior New Yorker essay of the same name.
The introduction aside, I quickly became engrossed in Zauner’s tragic story and her brutal honesty. There is no moment in her mother’s battle with cancer that is too ugly or too embarrassing to be mentioned. The book is far more interested in accurately reflecting the earth-shattering devastation that loss wreaks on our lives.
One particularly salient moment was at the tail end of Zauner’s trip to Vietnam with her father where, after a particularly bad argument, she runs into a nearby karaoke bar to drown out her sorrows. Another patron urges her to go up and sing, and she picks “Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters.
“Talking to myself and feeling old … Sometimes I’d like to quit, nothing ever seems to fit,” Zauner croons. As I listened to the song while finishing the chapter, I imagined the moment as the crescendo in a movie, where the swell of the song would signal to the audience that her life was just about to turn around.
In moments like these, I seemed to live through her grief and struggled unsuccessfully to hold back tears. I often had to set the book down to grab a tissue and cry and process what I had just read.
Don’t mistake the book for a depressing read though — Zauner’s story is just as moving in its succulence and triumphs.
The sections where she takes a microscope to her memories as a child at restaurants in Seoul and her discovery of Korean recipes through Youtuber Maangchi are delightful and meditative. Anyone who has nurtured a love for cooking knows the practice isn’t just about sustenance, but reflection and self love.
This is especially true for Zauner, as her turn to cooking is a reclamation of a Korean identity she had eschewed and became alienated from. In a virtual Q&A hosted by Book Larder and Now Serving, Zauner said cooking was the one thing that helped her lay claim to the parts of her culture she felt were slipping out of her grasp.
“(Cooking is) like a ritual — I’m making something but in my mind I’m thinking of my mother, I’m thinking about the dishes I used to eat when I was a kid and I’m preserving her memory by putting work into something that reminds me of her … that’s what food has come to mean to me,” Zauner said.
This deep attachment to Korean food is clear in the painstaking care Zauner takes in describing the dishes she prepared. Images of painting spicy paste on cabbage, pinching dumpling skins and blending rice porridge with pine nuts are tangible and vivid. Moments like these captured my heart, and reminded me of my own solitary discovery of cooking in my early adulthood.
All in all, Zauner’s memoir is a beautiful and humanistic catalog of what makes up a life and how we process lives that slip away too soon. My recommendation is to pick up a copy of “Crying in H Mart” and find your own revelations in cooking by starting a recipe you’ve been meaning to try. I think you’ll find it satisfying in more ways than one.
Alex McCausland is the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @alexkmccausland