Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
These are the five stages of grief according to psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. We do not move through these stages in order and not everyone experiences every emotion.
I could not deny death, because death is undeniable. I was not angry, because she would have wanted me to be at peace. I was about as depressed as a doting grandson could be, and the first night I spent in her hospital room, I accepted that she had a bright red ‘DNR’ bracelet fixed onto her left wrist.
I also found myself bargaining for just a bit more time with her—one week to be exact. She died just a week shy of her 91st birthday. My aunts from New York and Korea had been planning to visit her in our home in California to celebrate, and I wanted to use the occasion to resolve a lingering regret I never got around to settling.
Six or seven years ago, my grandmother made her last batch of kimchi. Making kimchi is a straightforward yet labor intensive process. As a child, I remember the sights and smells vividly. She wore a bandana and planted herself in the ‘kimchi squat’ for hours as she hovered over giant basins of Napa cabbage, assiduously massaging the leaves with salt and red pepper flakes.
The squat took a toll on her knees and lower back, so it was inevitable that she would have to give it up one day. When time finally caught up with her, my New York aunt flew across the country to help her make one final batch. I was also living in New York at the time, but I didn’t make the trip; the significance of it was entirely lost on me. I would live with a swelling regret ever since.
As my eye for stories became more acute, this intimate portrait of mother and daughter bloomed in my mind with a maturing sense of commemoration. I could visualize their aged hands sifting together through shaved radish and sweet rice gelatin. I scripted their dialogue in my mind as they fell in and out of silence. There was always laughter.
I was also learning more about the life, death, and rebirth of Korean families, and the ways in which artifacts and rituals serve as memory for the bodies that have long since passed. Because kimchi recipes are handed down generationally, they also belong within this mnemonic heritage. Koreans refer to this handing down as Kimjang—the custom of making kimchi together as a family or community. It is collective and quite literally an oral history spoken through the inheritance of ingredients and cooking techniques.
Although I didn’t have the language for it at the time, what I really wanted was to experience Kimjang with my grandmother. With my aunts, mother, and grandmother coming together for her 91st birthday, I was eager to not let this opportunity pass again.
I bargained hard for that week. I begged and I pleaded for it. But I lost.
This is the undeniability of death.
Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter.
Koreans take their cues from nature to produce kimchi. In the spring, they take to the seas to catch fish, anchovies, and shrimp, which are later fermented to enhance kimchi’s flavor. In the summer, salt farmers toil away under oppressive heat to yield sea salt, which is crucial in preserving temperamental vegetables. In the fall, chili peppers, originally brought over to the peninsula nearly 500 years ago by Portuguese traders returning from the ‘New World,’ are dried and then ground into a powder. The harvesting of cabbage signals the impending arrival of winter, and the start of the Kimjang season.
Before corporations took over the mass production of kimchi, Kimjang would give occasion for families and communities to gather and make enough kimchi to last everyone through the winter. Our ancestors (and some modern-day traditionalists) stored kimchi in large clay pots, which were buried underground during winter—a primitive, yet ingenious form of refrigeration.
There are over 200 different types of kimchi today. The differences are shaped by variations in regional topography and climate. For example, in Chungcheongnam-do, where my family is from, people rely heavily on salt rather than on fermented fish. The variations are not just regional, but familial as well. Each family has its own recipe, and these were traditionally passed down through a matrilineal line. In past generations, when a daughter married into her husband’s house, she would bond with her mother-in-law through Kimjang and was expected to adopt her new family’s way of making kimchi. In this way, filial bonds were cemented and a precious family heirloom was preserved.
And so, kimchi and the women who prepare it follow a natural order—from spring to winter, from grandmothers to mothers, mothers to their daughters and daughters-in-law, from life to death. Death had denied me participation, and what’s more, I am a son, not a daughter. Nevertheless, I was determined to disrupt the natural order of things—a bold intrusion.
Chalk it up to denial.
Chop. Soak. Salt. Mix. Ferment.
“There are many steps, but not everyone does them all,” explained my aunt.
“Just like grieving,” I thought, as I layered the red pepper paste onto the willowy cabbage leaves.
“As long as you use good salt and the cabbage is fresh, it will be good kimchi. But it’s all about the salt. The salt must be good.”
Finally, we were all together. My two aunts, my mom, my uncle, my cousins, and I gathered over large basins in the kitchen and placed the funeral portrait of my grandmother at the head of the table. Time to learn the family recipe.
Intermingled between all the chopping, mincing, and mixing, my mom and my New York aunt share stories about their early days in America. Apparently, there was a lot of swearing.
There is no ‘F’ sound in the Korean language, so my mom’s preferred curse word was ‘son-of-a-bitch,’ which snapped off her Korean tongue like a whip. When she found out what it meant, she realized that she was being inaccurate. After all, it was both male and female customers who were verbally abusing her at the hamburger shop she managed. She fashioned ‘daughter-of-a-bitch’ to refine her vernacular.
For my aunt though, operating a coffee shop in 1970s Brooklyn required that she access a much broader range of vocabulary. Unlike my mom, she had to perfect her F’s.
Like the time she finally confronted a group of teenagers who had been harassing her store for months. As she hopped over the counter, butcher knives in each hand, she shrieked, “Get the FUCK outta here you, motherFUCKERS!!” This must have been perfectly enunciated because they ran out of the shop and never came back.
My other aunt who never left Korea, mostly listened in quiet contemplation. When she was younger, she ran away from home to avoid her problems, a regret that hung over her like a shadow even to this day. I imagine she was looking at her older sisters with a mixture of admiration and horror. Butcher knives? America had thickened their skins and stiffened their spines. Was she thinking on her regret? I wondered.
My uncle is the maknae—the youngest sibling. He dutifully fulfilled the man’s traditional role in Kimjang, by alternating between taking naps on the couch and wandering into the kitchen to sample the food and offer unhelpful suggestions. His cackling laughter filled the room like a symphony.
My grandmother would not have approved of the language, but she would not have understood it anyway. The laughter though? She would have understood the laughter.
Winter gives way to spring.
Kim In Tae marries Myung Ki Chang. They give life to Myung Sang Hoon. Myung Yoo Na. Myung Dok Wha. Myung Sun Hwa. Myung Sang Oo. She teaches them about the importance of salt.
Her four living children are together, teaching me—the intruder—the family recipe. And we find a reason to laugh together. Life gives way to death, but through Kimjang, there is rebirth. I bear witness to it all with her portrait on the wall.
It wasn’t exactly what I bargained for, but the kimchi was still good.
We used good salt.
Photo credits: Laura Chung, @MissButtercupLC, http://missbuttercup.com/