Grace Cho’s Memoir of Food and Empire

Grace Cho’s Memoir of Food and Empire


Grace M. Cho’s memoir of food and empire.


Some 20 years ago, in Beyond the Shadow of Camptown, a book about Korean military brides in the United States, the historian Ji-Yeon Yuh devoted considerable attention to food. The women brought stateside in the first decades after the Korean War found themselves in “the proverbial land of plenty,” she wrote, yet they wasted away, complaining that “here, there was nothing to eat.” They “not only longed for Korean food, they also searched for it, invented ways to replicate it, and gave it an emotional loyalty they never developed for the American food they ate out of necessity.”

The stories Yuh collected—of brides who transformed stale bread into ersatz gochujang and were forced by their American husbands to hide their kimchi—echo throughout Tastes Like War, a new book by the sociology professor and pastry chef Grace M. Cho. Tastes Like War is a food memoir of sorts, a catalog of what she and her family cooked and ate and refused to eat. Food is a clock by which Cho measures her mother’s life, from a youth dismantled by the Korean War to her stint as a waitress and a sex worker at a bar that catered to US servicemen; from her marriage to Cho’s father to her emigration to small-town Washington state to and her long decline as a result of schizophrenia. “In my lifetime I’ve had at least three mothers,” Cho writes: healthy, sick, and sicker still.

In its attempt to recover an unnamed mother, Tastes Like War is a sequel to Cho’s first book, an academic study called Haunting the Korean Diaspora. There, Cho investigated the yanggongju, a word that translates literally as “Western princess” and was cruelly applied to a range of Korean women who fraternized with American military men: “Bar girl. Entertainment hostess…Camptown prostitute. Military bride.” Cho wished to reclaim the yanggongju as a tragic but admirable figure and a linchpin of Korean chain migration to the United States. For some 100,000 postwar Korean military brides, Cho wrote, life in America meant being “absorbed into a story line about immigrant success and honorary whiteness, a story line that attempts to erase traumatic history and make the yanggongju as ‘Yankee whore’ disappear altogether. But when she is made to disappear, what comes to occupy the space of her departure?”

Tastes Like War, which was recently long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction, is a far more intimate project. Published by the Feminist Press, it collects a series of essays that explore trans-Pacific trauma and search “for the exact recipe” of schizophrenia—how one mother became a second, and then a third. The writing is casual yet retains a sociological approach, as Cho fills her late mother’s silences with historical fact. A tension thus emerges: In a biography or memoir, what are the limits of analogy? At what point does the structural threaten to obliterate the personal? As the scholar Hazel Carby has observed, “family stories and historical accounts sit uneasily side by side.”

Cho’s book unspools in short bursts, out of time, echoing the wilding of her mother’s mind: “American Dreams, Korea, 1961.” “Kimchi Blues, New York City, 2008.” “Schizophrenogenesis, Chehalis, Washington, 1976.” “Crust Girl, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994.” Its 15 chapters zigzag across 70 years, from southern Korea to the West and East coasts of the United States.

The family’s origins are tied up with the American empire. Cho’s mother was from Gyeongsang Province, and her father was a US Merchant Marine. They met in a bar near one of the many US military bases in South Korea, bonding over their love of cheeseburgers and the hunger that marked their childhoods. They married and, in 1972, took Cho (1½ years old) and her half-brother (age 8) from the port city of Busan to her father’s hometown of Chehalis, Wash. “We were the first Asians to settle there, the first immigrants in decades,” Cho recalls. Their early years were painful in ways both typical and extraordinary for a mixed-race family in a conservative white town.

In Chehalis, Cho’s mother stepped into unforeseen obligation. Her husband worked abroad for months at a time and had a serious cardiac condition that resulted in several heart attacks, so she raised the kids mostly on her own. She found work as a house cleaner, then on the night shift at a juvenile detention facility that was later revealed to be rife with sexual abuse. Yet, “with what she had made of herself,” Cho writes, “she sponsored relatives to come to the United States and supported others in Korea.”

Though her mother had limited formal education, she was a brilliant, astute woman with a talent for cooking and hospitality. She looked after the few Korean children adopted by white families in Chehalis and mastered the American cuisine of the era to earn acceptance in the local community. At the end of Cho’s first year of school, her mother decided to host a party for the district staff “to give her children an advantage in school.” She prepared “thousands of hors d’oeuvres” adapted to the American palate: sausage-stuffed mushroom caps, bite-size Korean barbecue, flower-shaped crudités, and fruit cut into little fans. “This was perhaps the first time that she flipped the script; this was her territory, and she was now the host rather than the stranger,” Cho writes.

The mother’s involvement in food soon became more elaborate and entrepreneurial. She drew on her memory of Korea, or old habits, to find edible treasures where no one expected them to be. She picked countless wild blackberries, selling them fresh or frozen at $13 a gallon or in the form of perfectly confected pies. She studied The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide with scholarly devotion and sold hedgehogs, chanterelles, lobsters, and chicken of the woods to a distributor called Madame Mushroom. (Cho’s descriptions recall the foragers of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World.) “Somehow she singlehandedly supplied the whole town, and later the whole region, with wild produce,” Cho writes. “She did it for six or seven years while also keeping her night job, and maybe, at the root of it, she didn’t want to see the people around her ever be hungry again.”

It was around this time, in Cho’s adolescence, that her mother began to show signs of paranoia and schizophrenia. “We had long been the subject of gossip,” Cho explains, “but then her suspicions would grow into an elaborate pyramid of potential enemies” that included neighbors, coworkers, and government officials. She no longer showed any interest in food: The pantry was empty; blackberries rotted off the vine. Cho was so alarmed that she consulted psychology textbooks and diagnostic manuals during lunch recess. She even met with a counselor at a local mental health clinic but was told, “Your mother is forty-five. I’m afraid it’s too late now.”

Cho describes this second iteration of her mother as “socially dead…on the couch for years on end.” There was little change in her condition as Cho went off to college at Brown and graduate school at the City University of New York, or when Cho’s father died in 1998. At one point, Cho’s brother and sister-in-law persuaded their mother to live near them, in New Jersey, but there, too, she refused to leave her home and attempted to kill herself. She gave the plural name “Oakie” to the voices she heard all day—“ethereal beings spawned by the trees on our property in Chehalis,” Cho writes.

Schizophrenia is usually considered a young man’s disease, but women get it as well, often “starting at the age of forty-five and typically coinciding with menopause,” Cho notes. She wondered about possible triggers: the drop in estrogen, her mother’s “past in the camptown” or her work at the youth prison, or the time Cho’s father beat her until her eardrums broke. “Or maybe the culprit was grief,” Cho writes. “My grandmother had died several months earlier.” Cho indexed her mother’s story to events in 20th-century South Korea. “I imagined her in every scenario that I wrote about, and wondered if that might have been the thing that pushed her over the edge,” she explains.

Cho responds to the many voids in her mother’s narrative with a composite of grim historical accounts. Her mother’s fondness for cheeseburgers leads Cho to picture her as a villager picking through a US military dumpster. Her mother’s antipathy for powdered milk—“Tastes like war,” she says—reminds Cho of the Korean civilians murdered at Nogeun-ri, South Korea’s My Lai. She imagines her mother raped by an occupying US soldier or walking arm in arm with another.

But why make these leaps? Why assume such superlative suffering? Jeehyun Choi, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley, has noted “the predominance of melancholic historicism” in Korean-American literature—an affective spectrum of sadness, grief, and rage, informed by war and empire. Cho admits to this tendency as a product of her own trauma but insists on its structural logic: South Korea is a small country with a tightly compressed modern history. The colonial period was so regimented, and the Korean War of such a devastating scale, that most people of a certain age and class had similar experiences. (“By the time my mother reached the age of twenty, half of her family had already died,” Cho writes.) The same goes for the many communities dependent on US military camptowns. Korean emigrants—who arrived in the US en masse in the 1970s and ’80s—passed these experiences on to their children, but in abridged, perforated form. The next generation, myself included, nurtured catastrophic visions. How else to proceed, Cho suggests, when the past is, “in itself, a question”?

In Tastes Like War, Cho uses food to pry open her mother’s history. “The mother of my thirties,” Cho writes, was deeply unwell and lived with Cho’s brother in Manhattan, then with Cho and her boyfriend in Queens, then in a Princeton apartment adjoining Cho’s brother’s home. For this third, sickest mother, food became the occasional portal to a happier self. She expressed cravings for old-fashioned Korean dishes like saengtae jjigae (pollock stew), which Cho cooked on demand, as the pitch of her disease rose and fell. For the most part, her Oakie voices instructed her not to leave her room; they did permit her a 60th-birthday feast of galbi, grilled chicken, kimchi, kong-nameul, cheeseburgers, and lemon cake.

On Cho’s last visit to her mother, before her brother would find her body, the two ate saengtae jjigae and lay next to each other on the couch. Her mother asked her to stay longer, to catch the next train to Manhattan, and Cho agreed. “After my mother’s death, I replayed our final moments together on a loop. I obsessed over the exact sequence of events, minor details of the weather, the sound of her voice,” Cho writes. Like so much else between them, these facts took on a heightened significance.

Her mother became the titular ghost of her first book and “began haunting me in a new way once she was actually dead,” Cho writes in Tastes Like War. Such specters were not new. As a girl in Chehalis, Cho had seen a “ghost-child” in the yard. “I wondered if it was an apparition that had crossed the Pacific with us,” she writes: “one of my mother’s relatives perhaps, or someone she had seen dead or dying on the side of the road.” The book is full of phantoms: an uncle and grandfather who died during the Korean War; a student in Chehalis who died by suicide; the child of a Korean immigrant in North Carolina who was killed in a tragic accident.

I recently visited Cho’s hometown and was put in mind of these shadows. Chehalis was much as Cho describes it in Tastes Like War: white, evangelical, old-fashioned. But it was not untouched by the times. There were several Asian restaurants and Black Lives Matter signs; a giant pride flag proclaiming “Lewis County Welcomes Everyone” covered the back of a building. I pictured Cho and her mother, walking down Main Street, and wondered what they might make of the town now. When her mother was still healthy, Cho writes, “some of her hungers were so big and beyond her reach that it was hard to translate them into words, so she asked for the nameable things she knew she could get.” Nokdu juk, suk, saengtae jjigae, blackberry pie, and cheeseburgers.

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