Throughout human history, our need for food has informed a good deal of our behavior. This need scattered nomadic tribes across the world and laid the foundation of civilization. It drove humans to daily experiments in their first laboratories – the kitchen – and from their results an array of cultures began to distinguish themselves.
Food does not just sustain our bodies. It is the framework of identity – a tangible way to access the history of a culture at a level more fundamental than language or music. What is French culture without cheese? What is England without tea? What is Korea without kimchi?
I began thinking about how food informs my own cultural identity after a recent trip home to Louisiana. I gave my mother a call a few days before my trip. We talked about the basics: arrival time, clothes I should pack, people I would have to visit. Then she asked the only question I wanted to hear: “What do you want me to cook?” My mouth began to water. I casually told her one or two dishes, trying not to seem desperate. But I was. My mom is a great cook. I know everyone says that about their moms, but seriously, my mom is a great cook. Every woman in my family cooks well. It is a point of pride for every Southern Creole woman (to be accused of cooking bland or watery red beans is a reason to hang your head low in the community). Besides a basic proficiency in Creole staples, you are expected to refine a signature dish. My Aunt Debra’s macaroni and cheese is unmatched. Grandma Mae’s white beans are creamy perfection. Grandma Yola’s spicy tripe is unforgettable. Aunt Lois’s red beans and rice have just a touch of sugar. And my sister’s mustard greens are a sophisticated take on a traditional recipe.
Though my family never taught me how to speak Creole, they made sure I knew how to cook like a Creole. They cooked by instinct, guided by taste, feel, and tradition. Some of my fondest childhood memories are set in the kitchen with my family. I remember helping my grandmother grind fresh meat for hamburgers with a worn cast iron grinder. I remember helping my Aunt Margret dollop gooey caramel onto sheets of aluminum foil to make pralines. And every Christmas Eve, I wax nostalgic for the all-nighters my sister and I would pull preparing Christmas dinner for our family. Those moments have shaped who I am today.
After my recent trip home, I returned to Korea a little heavier but very inspired. Korea, especially Jeolla, has become like a second home to me, so naturally I have a desire to learn more about the culture. Understanding the rich history of Jeolla’s food helps me understand its people. So, I decided to start a project to celebrate the stories of Korean women through their cooking experiences. This year, with the help of Gwangju News, I will interview mothers and grandmothers in Jeolla, collecting their recipes and the personal stories behind them. I hope you will enjoy these stories in the upcoming issues. If you would like to submit the name of a Korean woman (50+) to be interviewed, you can contact me at [email protected] The series will begin next month. Until then, enjoy my personal story and family recipe.
Sunday Smothered Cabbage
Here is my Grandma Mae’s recipe for smothered cabbage. She would cook this every Sunday for lunch with smothered chicken and rice.
Sundays were always a chore for me as a child. My family would wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for church, where we would spend the next few hours. For my mother, church was, in large part, a social affair. I spent a lot of time tugging at my thick, scratchy stockings and praying that she would stop chatting so we could go home. When we finally did arrive home, we would get dressed in casual clothes to meet my aunts and uncles at my grandmother’s house for lunch. My mother had seven siblings, so with the addition of my cousins, this was a raucous event. My Uncle Kenneth and Aunt Debra entertained us with their impersonations of celebrities, and my mother filled everyone in on the latest church gossip. My grandmother insisted that she was smarter than anybody at the table, although my Aunt Lois questioned the logic of her conclusion. Meanwhile, in the living room, I tried to tune everyone out as I adjusted the bunny ears on my grandmother’s TV. Reruns of “Magnum P.I.” were playing, and nothing else mattered.
1-2 cabbage heads
1-2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
1-2 tablespoons black pepper
1-2 teaspoons salt
1-2 tablespoons garlic powder (optional)
3 tablespoons honey
2-3 strips of smoked bacon (A smoked hock, smoked turkey leg, or smoked turkey neck is better, but unfortunately they are not available in Korea to my knowledge. But feel free to let me know if you run across any.)
Wash the cabbage heads thoroughly. Remove and discard any leaves that are discolored. Cut the cabbage in half. With the cut-side facing down, cut the cabbage in thin 1-inch slices. Discard the cabbage core. Cut the strips of bacon as thinly as possible. Chop the onion. Put the bacon in a large, deep pot, and sauté over medium heat. When the bacon begins to release fat, add the onion and sauté. When the onions begin to caramelize, add the cabbage. Season with cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, and garlic powder, then add about 1 1/2 cups of water to the pot, and cover. Let the cabbage cook down (about 40 minutes). Be sure to check the pot periodically to make sure that the water has not completely evaporated or your cabbage will burn. If the water has evaporated, add more water and adjust heat. When the cabbage is well-cooked (limp and translucent), stir in the honey, also thoroughly mixing in the seasoning. Caramelize the cabbage for 5-10 minutes. Be careful not to burn the cabbage. Taste and adjust seasoning, and serve.