Michelle Zauner’s best selling book Crying in H Mart punched me right in the gut. It is a deeply personal exploration of grief, trauma, and identity that brought me to tears while also making me feel wonderfully alive. I empathize most with how Michelle uses food to connect with her mother and her cultural identity, and how cooking helps her center herself through tumultuous times.
As silly as we get here at Sporked, there is something deeply meaningful about the way food helps us find purpose and connection. Oftentimes, it’s the thing that makes our worlds make sense. I’ve been cooking professionally since I was 16 and writing about food for the past six years. And if you ask me what I love most about my career, it’s the way it has strengthened my relationship with my family and, thus, my humanity. (The conveyor belt full of mozzarella sticks is good, too, but a distant second.)
Crying in H Mart allowed me to reflect on my own family, and helped me appreciate my mom even more. My mom has had breast cancer for almost six years. There’s been ups and downs, but more ups than downs, and we all feel incredibly thankful and lucky that she’s still with us. For her first few years of chemo, I always flew home on her birthday, August 13, and we would have this big-ass, exuberant feast. There was an insane amount of food: lamb, burgers, crab legs, side salads, cakes, pies—too much to fit on one picnic table. It was a lot of work for me on what was technically a “vacation,” but I could tell that this tradition made everybody so happy. Birthdays are often a celebration of life, but this was something even more profound. It felt like we were actually celebrating life, not just dragging ourselves to a birthday dinner out of some sense of obligation.
My mom has given me an incredible gift in life: A deep-seated love and appreciation for food. The foods that she and my grandmother bought and cooked when I was a kid inevitably shaped my palate and my creative interests. But, what about the foods she liked to eat? What did she snack on when no one was looking? That’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: Those candid moments where I would peripherally catch my mom chowing down on some chips, crackers, pickles, or ice cream. What did she crave when I was up late playing video games and we crossed paths in the kitchen? Or when I walked in through the front door after school? Here’s what sticks out the most in my memory:
- Saltine Crackers with Swiss Cheese, Hot + Sour Pickles, and Mayonnaise
This little plate of dressed crackers was multipurpose. It fed me and my siblings and kept us from whining, but it also served as a delightful snack for my mom while she sat down to watch the soaps. To make this, she would take Premium Original Saltine Crackers, spread some Hellmann’s mayonnaise on them with a butter knife, then top them with deli swiss cheese and Bell-View hot & sour pickles. Those pickles are deliciously sweet, sour, spicy, and crunchy. Bell-View is from Pittsburgh, where I grew up, and they are unique in that saccharine, high-fructose corn syrup-laden yet boldly spiced way only regional Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic products can be. I love that these little cracker sandwiches feel like a low-rent charcuterie board that costs probably 75 cents to make.
- Pasta Salad
My mom’s pasta salad is iconic. Want the recipe? It’s right here. I’m Danny Palumbo and I have always been transparent about my pasta salad. Her pasta salad always featured tri-color rotini, olive oil, vinegar, Italian dressing, big ol’ cubes of salami and pepperoni, and similarly cubed mozzarella and cheddar. However, the big thing that bound this cold and starchy side together was Salad Supreme. Salad Supreme is a wonderful mixture of 10-plus spices, and it stains the pasta with its vibrant orange color. It’s the secret weapon to a good, meaty pasta salad, which we would all eat for a week when my mom made it. On summer mornings, she and I would often bump into each other preparing a bowl of cold pasta salad for breakfast. We are truly of the same kin.
- Popcorn with Melted Cheese
You’ve heard of making nachos in the microwave but have you tried popcorn? My mom would often pop a bag of Pop Secret or Act II, then pour the popcorn in a bowl and add some shredded cheddar cheese. Then, she would melt the cheese on top of the popcorn in the microwave for an additional 30 seconds or so. Voila, popcorn nachos. Often she would add some seasoning as well—like paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder. As she got older, my mom’s tastes got a bit fancier. In place of basic shredded cheddar, she would often use truffle cheese, good Pecorino Romano, or sharp provolone. In my home, popcorn was a melty and messy undertaking. I also have memories of my mom and I melting a few tablespoons of good butter in a clear microwave safe dish and pouring it on my popcorn. A bag of plain popcorn eaten as is? Blasphemy, in my mom’s eyes.
- Lean Cuisines
When I was in tenth grade, I decided to lose a few pounds after my classmates’ jokes about my weight started to bother me. At that point in my life, I did not have the healthiest eating habits (i.e. melting tablespoons of butter to drizzle over popcorn) and I didn’t quite understand portion control. In my defense, I was being served a lot of pasta. And I still don’t know when to stop eating pasta. Nobody does!
So my mom suggested we start eating Lean Cuisines together. Steak and portabella mushroom, shrimp scampi, and herb roasted chicken were all packaged in limited portions that were, get this, tasty enough that I actually grew to like them. Lean Cuisine meals were well-seasoned and felt like good food that had just been properly sized. Soon enough, I started to lose weight. I finally had some of that elusive and often fleeting high school confidence I’d only witnessed in movies. When I think about how my mom sat there with me eating Lean Cuisines while my dad ate his third salami sandwich of the day, it means the world to me.
- Chips and Onion Dip
If my mom had a tragic weakness when I was growing up, it was chips and dip. A regular sight for me was a bowl of Classic Lay’s and a tub of Dean’s Onion Dip lying on top of the New Castle News like it was a fine tablecloth. There is something so quintessentially Midwestern about chips and dip. It’s our answer to tortilla chips and salsa—a ubiquitous snack to be enjoyed during the game or in glorious privacy. This was how my mom unwinded after gardening or a long day of grocery shopping. She would sit in one of the Amish-made wooden chairs in our small house and enjoy this combo like a veteran enjoying a cold one at the local VFW. Eventually, due to her health, hummus and pita chips replaced this undeniably unhealthy combo. But the combo of fat-fried, salty potato chips and a creamy, tart, pungent onion dip is a humble yet decadent snack that I associate not just with my mom, but all Midwestern moms.