by Michelle Kim
Commercialized farm-to-table eateries have seemingly popped up everywhere. As demand for local, sustainable, and high-quality food has grown, so has its offerings. They dot city corners and create winding lines of corporate employees on their lunch breaks. Chalk signs decorate their storefronts, displaying witty messages about their revolving menus and week’s specials. These chic, colourful, and simple dishes provide a sense of relief.
My family has unknowingly been frequent customers of one of these restaurants our whole lives. Every week, or even a couple of times a week, we receive calls from our favorite place to dine – the one run by my halmoni.
“Come by,” she commands over the phone and just as quickly hangs up. Having exchanged this dialogue for years, we already know what we are coming for and drive to her house as soon as we can.
When we pull up to the end of the driveway, she is waiting with containers stacked on top of each other, all tied up with plastic bags she reuses after grocery shopping. Sometimes, she adds a pot of stew with it, which means we’ll have to drive back even more carefully.
We’re never quite sure what she’s giving us. We just know it all tastes to perfection. From her backyard garden that sprawls across the perimeter and the fermentation pots on her deck to our matching dinner plates, her food has gone farm to table.
Day in and day out, I see my halmoni outside, squatting in her garden. Even in blistering heat, I can find her out there in the same faded pink visor and thready clothes that don’t match. Sometimes, I’ll saunter over to see what she’s doing.
“Go inside! The sun is bad for your skin!” she’ll remark, even though she’s been out in the sun every single day.
When I refuse, she’ll giggle and lament about the deer and bunnies trespassing again. She already surrounded her expansive garden with homemade stakes and fences, so she’s at a loss on what to do.
And of course, every fall, she makes kimchi as soon as cabbage is in season. The extended family, all her church friends, and various neighbours wait for this kimchi. It sustains us year-round, quenching our cravings for its flavour, tasting even better with time, and reminding us that we are indeed Koreans.
At our annual holiday family party, cousins from various states drive up to spend time together and celebrate. Throughout the day, we lament on how big the kids have gotten, exchange gifts, and awe over the potluck. But really, we’re there for the grand finale: the kimchi-jjigae. It’s the only time of the day when we’re silent, meditatively taking in how joyous and delicious the jjigae is. During a recent get-together, my pregnant aunt took two full bowls, almost in tears at how much she’s been looking forward to it, letting the bowl rest on top of her bulging belly. When we finished, my halmoni already had containers ready for everyone to take home and enjoy throughout the week.
My halmoni sustains us with unparalleled nourishment, working outside in her garden or inside her kitchen for hours every day. Her commitment to sending homegrown and home-cooked meals to anyone she knows accentuates why we seek more farm-to-table options: the greatest display of love is often through food, whether for others or ourselves.
It’s been a year since I’ve been able to share a meal with her; instead, swiftly taking it to-go. Because of the pandemic, we’ve limited our interactions to smiles from the car as she stands at the front door, excitedly waving back. Now she places food at the bottom of the steps, where we also leave items she might need. There’s been no summer days in her garden, fall weekends making kimchi, or Christmas celebrations with the extended family. We don’t receive random calls from her telling us to stop by. Like the rest of the world, we lost the opportunity to connect.
I sharply remember other times when her kitchen had to come to a halt. When I was in middle school, Hurricane Sandy upturned the northeast and hurled through the area my halmoni and I live in. We received a call from her to let us know an old oak tree, which used to serve as an umbrella over the house, had fallen through her roof. My mom immediately sped to her house, past broken traffic lights, and confirmed, thankfully, she was unharmed. For the next three weeks, we huddled around a butane stove to assemble meals out of emergency pantry food, hoping the world would be recognizable and our neighbours would be okay when we resurfaced.
When we started rebuilding, there was a lot of work to be done. Smashed cars were swept away by fierce winds, businesses were destroyed, houses were flooded, and entire lawns were ripped out, as if they were flimsy carpet laid out in the first place. Many people, young and old, struggled in the cold and were unable to find help quickly. It was devastating to see first-hand how destructive climate change could be.
For me, a mark of normalcy during that time was when my halmoni started making homemade meals and distributing them across her network again. It was a consistency that returned with the low hum of her rice cooker and pungent smell of garlic in the house after the roof was rebuilt. When she rebuilt her garden and replanted seeds, I felt like things were sure to improve. By the next summer, it was back in full bloom and due to the great privilege of resources, much of the reconstructing work in our community had progressed.
I mourned for her already as I imagined our time together depleted. I worried for the elderly as the pandemic ravaged on and hospital counts escalated. I raged as the pandemic heightened and exposed how unsustainable we have made our society, with extreme inequality and lack of community support. Most dishearteningly, I felt powerless.
But I also remembered some important lessons both my halmoni and mother repeated throughout my life, including the importance of protecting those who have spent their lives protecting me. They reminded me that there is a human duty to help the most vulnerable.
When this pandemic is over, my halmoni will be back in her garden at full steam. She’ll be overloading her cart at the grocery store, directing us to heave bags of rice and other ingredients into our car. Before we can even unload, she’ll already be back in the kitchen, washing the produce she pulled out of her garden.
When this time comes, I’ll probably notice her walk has gotten a little slower, her breath up the stairs heavier, her full grey hair that she no longer tries to hide. Nonetheless, her kind eyes will still sparkle through eyelids that droop further than before but I’ll be reminded again and more frequently that our time together is not eternal.
We’re likely to have more natural disasters and catastrophic global events on a planet that cannot sustain us any longer, as we hack away at it. One day, my halmoni will not be around to provide us with these home-cooked meals and farm-to-table foods, heralding the way forward to recovery and growth. I am reminded that it is up to us to protect each other and the planet.
I’m uncertain about exactly how I want to change in supporting my community and taking care of the earth, and if I’ll succeed at following through. What I do know is that I want to at least try to do better. I’ll begin by emulating my halmoni and actively work to be a source of support and kindness for others. From wide-reaching community outreach initiatives to personal self-education, I strive to be more engaged with my neighbours and various networks. Above all, I intend to step into the kitchen myself and learn my halmoni’s various recipes so that I, too, can cook nutritious meals for others and bring people into my life and home.
On the other side of devastation is the determination to care for each other and create a better world. In the end, it is not just food itself that transports love. It is through providing for others that we create jip-bab.
So please, come on in and make yourself at home. Just don’t forget to leave your shoes at the door.
Michelle Kim is a Korean American currently based in New York City. She grew up in New Jersey and received a BBA at the University of Michigan. IG: @meeshdrinkscoffee
Sena Kwon is an illustrator and graphic designer from South Korea, currently living in Brooklyn, New York. After studying Graphic design at Kyung Hee University in South Korea, she finished her MFA in Illustration Practice from Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. She enjoys visual narratives using ink and graphite materials, especially portraying international myths and religious parables while carrying a voice for feminism and diversity. Website: kwonsena.com, IG: @kwonsenart
일러스트레이터 권세나는 경희대학교 시각정보디자인학과를 졸업한 뒤 Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)에서 일러스트레이션을 공부했으며, 신화와 종교와 같은 주제를 토대로 작업하고 있다. MoCCA와 Creative Quarterly, AIAP (American Illustration American Photography)등에서 수상했으며 현재 뉴욕에서 거주하며 활동하고 있다. 웹: kwonsena.com, 인스타: @kwonsenart