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The name Michelle Zauner may not sound familiar, but perhaps Japanese Breakfast rings a bell. One of the most celebrated indie musicians out there right now, she has a new album out, and a new book, too. The book, Crying in H Mart is a food memoir, titled after her viral New Yorker piece. The book deals with her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, one that forced her to rethink her identity as it pertains to food, language, and history.
Michelle told me how much she likes food, and how food helped her forge an identity while growing up between two cultures, Korean and American. She told me how her mom always made eating a celebration—how it was a love language. She told me a story about how she was out to dinner with her husband, his best friend, and his fiance, and how they had to ask each other if they liked cilantro. Knowing people’s food preferences, to Michelle, is fundamental. So for her five books, it’s only fitting she decided to recommend five books around food and how it can create a sense of belonging.
The Gastronomical Me
“When I told my old professor that I was writing this book, I was told I had to read this. I feel like I’ve learned everything about writing from M.F.K. Fisher. The way she writes about food is so delightful—whether those experiences are good or bad,” Michelle said. It’s true, both books are similar insofar as they both position food as more than food—they are a way of seeing and experiencing the world, as well as the self.
“I read this when I was in Korea working on the book,” Michelle said. “I didn’t know anything about it but it just looks so creepy, so I was intrigued.” She wasn’t wrong. “The book is haunting,”she said, “it just blew me away.” Michelle particularly loved how “Kang delves into eating and food as the grotesque.” This she says, “gave me a lot of ideas where I was writing the parts where my mom is unable to eat, and where she began to become emaciated, and how that impacts one’s health and sense of self.”
A Cook’s Tour
“Anthony Bourdain is the GOAT. I just feel like he’s such a character and a phenomenal writer — he writes with so much depth and nuance. He wrote this short story called ‘Back To The Beach’ about this beautiful coastal town that his parents used to go to and how he goes back in search of the perfect meal. Of course, since his father passed away he won’t be able to find it,” Michelle said. “He writes about first world guilt very well, and you know, this provided great insight for my process as well.”
Tender at the Bone
“My agent recommended I check this one out and I ended up reading this while I was writing,” Michelle said. “It’s about the narrator’s relationship with their mom who’s not the greatest cook in the world.” The book traces Ruth Reichel and how she became so enamored with food and used it to make sense of the world. “For me, I think this book helped me realize, you know, that food isn’t just food—and when you’re writing about food, you’re not always writing about food either.”
A Moveable Feast
“I recently re-read this one and I just love how sassy and petty Hemingway is throughout the book. He’s just a gossip. It’s a nice way to see a book that’s more about joie de vivre than anything else and yet it’s so compelling. Especially during quarantine, reading about - french food and digestifs—it really just makes you long for hanging out at a bar with friends w/ apps and liquors.”
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