When I was growing up, I always associated holidays with cooking. Even when my parents were working 13 hour days, six days a week, my mom always took the time to cook a few special dishes for the holidays.
When my sister and I were in college, we would always go to my parents' dry cleaners on the day before the holiday, sometimes for the whole day but more often, just for the afternoon. We would walk about 45 minutes from my parents' house to the LIRR station in Port Washington, and ride to Little Neck. From the Little Neck station, we would either walk or my dad would come pick us up to take us to Mayflower Cleaners, located where Northern Boulevard meets Great Neck Boulevard. There, we would help my parents finish up their labor for the day: handling customers as they came in, sorting the clothes, removing the lint from each of the items, bagging the clothes in plastic, putting them on the conveyor belt, restocking all the supplies for the next work day, vacuuming, and wiping down the counters.
Once in the Mercury Sable, my dad would adjust the old sofa cushion on his back, which he had put in place after the seat electrical adjustor broke. My mom would ask him whether he had put the black leather bag in the back seat, and my sister and I would pipe up that the bag was right there next to our feet. She would then remind us to give it to Dad before we went into the grocery store.
From there, we would drive to the Korean grocery on Northern Boulevard in Flushing. Even if we arrived close to 8pm, the parking lot would be packed with people thronging everywhere. My dad waited in the locked car with the black leather bag under his seat, while my sister, my mother, and I went to shop. I usually pushed the cart while my mom and sister went ahead, picking out items we needed. We went through every aisle methodically, with my mom clutching her grocery list compiled on dry cleaner slips held together by a safety pin. We usually left the store with bags of groceries and a small package of prepared foods, like fried calamari, kim bap, soon dae, or mandoo. We often arrived home one package lighter.
The next morning, my mom would wake up around 5am to start preparing. By the time my sister and I woke up, around 6:30 or so, she would be ready to direct. Chop these, wash those, pan fry these. We would cook, as we gabbed about this or that. Whatever we wanted to discuss. School. Our friends. Books we had read. Movies we had watched. Things we had seen in school. Our relatives in Korea. With my mom standing at the sink, washing some vegetable or another. My sister standing in front of the stove with a spatula in hand, pan frying some dish. Me sitting at the table chopping. Talking made easier because it was centered around an activity.
Hours would pass like this. We would eat breakfast, fruits, and samples as we cooked, and take out little plates for our dad sitting in the living room behind his newspaper. We would often finish by the middle of the day, and we would then take a break to watch some melodrama on TV chosen by our mom.
After, we would sit down to eat what we had cooked. More than enough for a few meals. A bounty we had come to expect on occasions like these. A day to feed ourselves after working, working, and working some more. A day to remind ourselves that we may not be able to eat like this in Korea, even if we had more money. A day to remember the justification for why my parents worked as they did. A day to engage in one of the few family activities that we had.
These days, I no longer cook with my sister and my mom. My sister has estranged me and we no longer talk. The last meal we shared together was in 2006 at a restaurant that has since gone out of business on Valencia near 24th in San Francisco. We had sat across the table from each other, failing to understand each other. My mother visits from New York once in a while, and we sometimes cook together, but not very often. Nowadays, her cooking is hurried, impatient, and sometimes begrudging.
For the holidays, I make plans to cook. I pour over my cookbooks, make my lists, shop in advance. But my children are too young to cook with me and too small to eat much more than a few spoonfuls. My husband sees little point in cooking and asks if we really need to bother. My in-laws, who live nearby and are invited for every major holiday, eat like birds and have no inclination to humor the cook. "No, I don't eat that" is not an uncommon response when I hold a dish out to them. When I try to send them home with something I made for them, my father-in-law says, "I don't need your mercy food."
But yesterday, I cooked. I decided to cook for me. Just because. Just because I once found pleasure in it. Just because I want to be the kind of mom who knows how to feed her family. Just because I have hopes of being able to nourish myself, even if others do not join. Just because I don't want to give in to the past and give up on the future.
So I turned on some music as I patted the turkey dry. I rubbed it with herb butter that I had prepared the night before. I filled its cavities with onions, carrots, and celery. I soaked a cheesecloth with chicken stock and covered the bird, and repeated the process every half hour for the next five hours. I then prepared the stuffing, first cooking the bacon, and then mixing it with chestnuts, onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, bread crumbs, chicken stock, and milk. After, I cooked the candied sweet potatoes and heated the cranberry-ginger chutney that I had prepared the night before.
I didin't talk much as I cooked, although I sang along to the Beatles. Just a few feet away, my husband played with the kids, and the house felt nice and toasty from the oven. The turkey balloon bopped in the middle of the room. The flower cornucopia adorned the table. And I remembered to be thankful, even as I remembered all that was gone.