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Fifty Years of Eating Together: For the Love of Food

My parents' stories of food through a golden anniversary of marriage.

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Fifty years contain a lot of food, so it’s no wonder a couple coming up on their golden anniversary has made many delicious memories together. From coffee and Korean food to snack-size Hershey bars and homemade sushi, here are culinary snapshots from half a century of eating together, and what this writer’s parents have taken away from their experiences.

My Dad is the one who suggests we have this interview over dinner.

“6:00, OK? If we are eating, I can be more focused.”

My Mom is actually on the same line on another phone in the house when this conversation is going on, and chimes in, “OK, good! You know your Dad!”

My parents are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year. I often marvel at how these two have created this life together—a life that includes children, grandchildren, many friends, and much family spanning the globe, and having set up proud American roots in New York in 1973, fulfilling one of my Dad’s dreams as a lifelong Yankees fan. Food has been a big part of their relationship, of course.

For the past decade, my Dad has eagerly taken over the cooking duties and he has definitely come a long way from my memories of him simply throwing Dinty Moore beef stew into a frying pan.

I could describe his cooking style now as quick-moving but focused and artistic, very conscious of textures and flavors. He has proclaimed himself the best cook in the family, and, well, since the man gave both myself and my siblings life, we will let him have it.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Choe

With health concerns now a factor, there have been changes both major and minor to the food my parents prepare. They no longer use their oven or cook rice anymore except for special occasions, but there is still such warmth that continues to come out of their kitchen, even in the self-proclaimed “simple” meals my Dad makes, that my Mom has absolutely no problem having every day. “I can survive with little food, but my appetite is still so good,” she says, “I am not a big restaurant-goer, but he is a good cook, so I am very happy.” Dad says to that, proudly, “The food she likes doesn’t always taste good to me. I know what tastes good!”

His most visible way of showing love has always been on those special occasions. Dad prepares a meal for Mom with all her favorites: fresh salmon sashimi and sushi rolls on her birthday, and bo ssam on Christmas. Almost always, he will start prepping and cooking promptly half an hour before serving. It’s quite remarkable. But it wasn’t always this way.

How It Began: Music & Coffee & Korean Food

Though the story seems to change every now and then on how my parents met, this was the one that they gave:

While both students at Seoul National University in 1966, my parents, Jinhoon and Chungkee, crossed paths on campus for a few classes and both ended up being student musicians in the Pops Orchestra. My father was a medical school student playing the French horn, my mother a Liberal Arts college student who played the violin. There was a tea parlor the students went to after rehearsals to have coffee and chat about music, and my Mom asked if anyone knew who “Jinhoon Choe” was, someone that her senior friend mentioned in passing. The orchestra conductor loudly pointed him out in the crowd, “Jinhoon Choe. That’s him!”

Photo courtesy of Caroline Choe

Though they were never officially introduced that day, my Mom recalls walking on campus with her friend some time after that when my Dad saw her and offered her an extra ticket he had to see the Korean Symphony Orchestra. She accepted the invitation and the rest is history. They were married on Feb. 28, 1970 at Kyungdong Church in Seoul, but food didn’t have much to do with it yet—Dr. Jinhoon and Mrs. Chungkee Choe apparently only got to share bites of wedding cake that day and not much else.

Then, only a month after they were married, my Dad was off to do his army service and my mother stayed with her mother, teaching English in Seoul. (Though the flavors of Army food were not kind, of course, my Dad discovered that the currency going around the camp was none other than MSG. “There were superior officers able to smuggle some in. They gave me some, and sprinkle a little on your food? Oh! Definitely made me able to survive!”)

Photo courtesy of Caroline Choe

Eventually, in his second year of army service, my parents lived together in a small apartment in Samsungkyo. They would go to the local market every day, and since they had no refrigerator, would have to cook whatever they bought on a communal coal stove to be used amongst the building residents. “We cooked two times a day, but we had to be timely about it,” Mom says. “The landlord would sometimes give me rice or kimchi that they had made. We would make broiled fish, small mussels, jangjorim (soy-braised beef) and have them with namul (bean sprouts) and gakdoogi (cubed radish kimchi).”

My Dad adds, “I never tasted her cooking until we were married. We also ate Kraft American cheese. It was available in Seoul!”

Though my Mom’s pickiness was high as a child, my Dad credits himself for why she expanded her palate. “She tried more pork, and I introduced her to mandu (dumplings), bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), jjampong (spicy seafood soup), and naengmyun (cold noodle broth soup). I showed her North Korean food, because my grandmother came from Pyongyang.” To this day, I marvel at how my Mom can seriously inhale a huge bowl of naengmyun. Well done, Dad.

Then There Was Us: Familiar Flavors & New Taste Traditions

Another way one could measure 50 years is definitely in distances. In this case, my parents’ lives took them from South Korea to Brooklyn to the Bronx, and eventually to where my siblings and I grew up: suburban Westchester County in the town of Ardsley, New York.

When they’d set up their new American lives in 1973, my Dad was working at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital as one of the doctoral residents and my mother was working as an assistant at Pratt Institute’s Library Studies School. Since finding the nearest Korean food would take a long trek into Manhattan at the time, my parents found alternatives by creating familiar tastes with “obtainable, raw materials” as they put it.

“We would take sauerkraut, boil it and add some red pepper and dashi. It was similar to kimchi jjigae.”

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My Dad also apparently found a way to make homemade makgeolli (Korean rice wine) and wrote on the doctors’ lounge board that if anyone was interested in trying it, to show up outside the hospital after hours. Let’s just say, many showed up with an empty mug!

Of course, that isn’t to say they didn’t indulge in what was otherwise around them. Both of them liked Italian and Italian-American food that was available nearby, and Mom happily ate pizza while pregnant. As time went on and their family grew, with a move from the city to suburbia, access to Korean markets and ingredients gradually became more available. However, as we were growing up in Ardsley, though there were some nearby markets, there was still the planned monthly trip to drive out to Flushing, Queens or New Jersey for my parents to stock up on all the bulk items they needed. Like many Korean-American households, we would have Korean food on our dinner table, but with many diverse neighbors, friends, and families in our lives, there were delicious gatherings of all kinds had, all-around.

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My parents both love sweets, especially coconut cake from Martine’s Bakery in Scarsdale or strawberry shortcake from Riviera Bakehouse in Ardsley. If there should ever be leftovers, both still carry out the tradition of having cake with coffee for breakfast the next day. (As flavored coffee became more widely available in America, my parents both took very much to hazelnut coffee and they’ve been drinking it every day, ever since. Their house will always have its lingering scent in the morning.)

I can’t imagine either one of them was too happy with some of the American food on the market or frozen dinners we bought as kids, but they had their own guilty pleasures. Though we kids were scolded for sugary candy and how it wasn’t good for us, I remember rummaging through the fridge once looking for a bite and finding a bag of snack-size Hershey bars behind the AA batteries on a side shelf. Of course I had to confront my parents and ask whose it was. Boy, do they laugh a lot when they’re sheepish!

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I could never buy a big bag of summer corn, a few pounds of cherries, or a pint of Haagen-Daz coffee ice cream and leave them at the house for even a few hours without them being gone when I would get back. My parents would always be quite delighted in their shared mischief: “Oh! They were just SO delicious!” and “Mm, yes. They were very good. We will buy you more.”

The More Things Change…

Clearly, they have always been united by a love of food, but their roles in the kitchen have changed considerably.

Due to his busy doctor’s schedule and work as a chamber orchestra conductor (yes, in the midst of everything else, Dad also achieved being a maestro with a degree from Julliard!), it’s not surprising that my father wasn’t the household cook when I was growing up. However, what baffled me was finding out that, in fact, my Mom actually hated to cook! For her, it was a relief to no longer have to do it. (She also doesn’t actually like steak as much as the rest of her carnivorous family, but she always cooked it for us, of course.) She hates grocery shopping too, but my Dad loves it and she will still begrudgingly go with him just to keep him company and share their enthusiasm for sales.

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These days, with Dinty Moore far behind him, Dad frequently cooks seafood, and takes pleasure in seeing what’s new and fresh at the fish counter in his local HMart. “After 50 years, we are still eating some of the same fish: croaker, beltfish, and mackerel. You want to make it into a fillet, salt it, and keep it in the refrigerator for three to four days to dehydrate it and make it softer. Best to grill mackerel in the pan, it is quicker and a simple procedure.”

Remember, he knows what tastes good.

So, what do folks sit and talk about after 50 years of eating together? Food! My parents will discuss at length how certain things taste, what makes a dish good, what would make it better, and laugh about the occasional sass or shade they might give each other. The conversation will sometimes divert to politics or people, but it will always return to the food itself. Always.

My Mom laughs as I mention how she once responded to a compliment she received on how lucky she was that my Dad cooked her such beautiful meals: “If I do not eat his food, he thinks I do not love him!” My Dad interjects with, “Yeah! Why would you not eat something I made just for you? It would be terrible. Terrible!”

There is a particular photograph of the two of them that is one of my favorites, of them walking past a department store in Seoul during Christmas time in the late 1960s, both of them smiling, arm-in-arm with my Dad holding an orange.

Photo courtesy of Caroline Choe

I ask them about this, and Dad replies, “Oranges weren’t that common to have in Korea yet, but I bought that on the street. I couldn’t peel it so I had to wait to find someplace to cut it, and we walked past that department store. There was a photographer man there, you know, the people who stand there to ask couples to take their picture? So sneaky, out of nowhere!” Mom chimes in, “Eh, maybe he was mad. I don’t remember. Your Dad is always mad.”

Coincidentally, my Mom asks my Dad if he’d like to share an orange at that moment, slicing it up in front of us. It takes me a minute to realize that all this time later, here they are, still sharing that simple fruit together.

So, what do you know from 50 years of eating together? “I don’t know,” Mom says. “We are just thankful, every day.”

Dad ends with, “Don’t forget to mention I had gall bladder surgery.”

Yes, Dad. Don’t worry, I did.

Header image courtesy of Caroline Choe

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