A Conversation with Eric Kim
Talking to the author of 'Korean American: Food That Tastes Like Home.'
You're listening to From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy, a food and culture podcast. I'm Alicia Kennedy, a food writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Every week on Wednesdays, I'll be talking to different people in food and culture about their lives, careers and how it all fits together and where food comes in.
Today, I'm talking to Eric Kim, a staff writer at The New York Times food section and author of the just released cookbook Korean American. I've admired Eric from afar via social media, as well as his beautiful essays. And it was a thrill to finally get the chance to talk to him and find out that he comes from a literature background, which explains the beautiful writing. We discussed how he came to food, the way his cookbook took shape during the pandemic, going viral with gochujang glaze, and his relationship with meat.
Alicia: Hi, Eric. Thank you so much for being here.
Eric: Hi, thanks for having me. It's so great to finally meet you.
Alicia: I know. It's so great. I'm meeting so many people that I've wanted to meet for a long time. [Laughs.]
It's kind of funny. I won't say the person's name, but we have a mutual friend. And anytime I want to say something to you, I say it to this person instead of just—I should just DM you and be like, ‘Man, that latest newsletter was great.’ But instead, I just tell your friend and hope that they tell you.
Alicia: Yeah. I mean, we can be friends. We can be friends. That's ok. [Laughs.]
Eric: So great to meet you, though, seriously.
Alicia: For sure!
Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Eric: Yeah, sure.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, in the suburbs. My parents moved there in 1983. And they've been there since. And I was there till I was 18.
And I ate mostly my mom's food. She was a cook. She cooked a lot of Korean food, Korean American hodgepodge dishes. And I think when I got old enough to drive especially, but even before then, when I kind of was tall enough to stand at the stove, my brother and I were latchkey kids. We ate a lot of convenience foods. And I think that's a big part of my life and my nostalgia. It's become a theme in my work, because I just love these memories of these frozen meals actually span so much farther than myself. And I think about this all the time, actually, my—the way my micro life has macro resonances. And so you just say one thing, like ‘Remember this?’ And then thousands of people are like, ‘Yeah, me too.’ And almost always they are children of immigrants and I think that is something I have discovered recently. And I feel it's a real power. It's a power to harness, I think. It's really nice.
Oh, and just like in terms of dishe. I vaguely specifically remember this one after school snack that I ate a lot, which was the broccoli cheddar chicken hot pocket, which is the best one and kind of very substantial. It's got some vegetables in it, but what I would do is I would take the first bite and then squeeze it out onto a bowl of rice and ust mix that up. And then later in our, later—our Thanksgivings had this broccoli cheese rice casserole dish. It was like I was manifesting that or something as a kid. And now, it's a regular staple in our—on my Thanksgiving table.
Alicia: Yeah. The combination of broccoli and cheese, I have to admit, is just unbeatable.
Eric: Sublime, for sure. Delicious.
Alicia: I used to get the Stouffer's with broccoli. When I had my first job, I would put that in the microwave because I made no money. So I'm like, ‘Alright, I'm gonna go to the supermarket, get a Stouffer's mac and cheese with broccoli. And because it has broccoli in it, it's fine. It's healthy.’ [Laughs.]
Eric: It was a classic. I mean, what a genius move, because that—once you eat the macaroni, there's still sauce. There's so much sauce. And so, kind of having that broccoli moment is really lovely. That's funny. Yeah.
Alicia: Well, you're one of those food writers who is a really good writer too. Not to say that there aren’t many. [Laughter.] But what came first for you, writing or food?
Eric: Oh, man. I've actually never been asked that. That's funny. Well, food. Yeah, for sure. But I didn't have consciousness of it until after writing.
So I think about this all the time. Maybe this is a good story. But I was doing a PhD in comparative literature, and I had just taken an oral exam. It was kind of the big moment before you go off and write the dissertation. It's after your third year. And so what happens is all your friends show up outside the door of your exam room. And it's almost a formality, at least at the program that I went to. And you get flowers and you get a laurel, a thing around your head. And kind of that's your badge of honor, a rite of passage.
And then I didn't pass mine, though. I was one of the few people who didn’t because I was horrible at speaking. And yeah, it was this huge wake up call for me because I'd wanted to be an English professor since 10th grade of high school or something like that. And there I was, kind of like halfway through a program that would let me do that. And I got a low pass. They called it a low pass. When I walked out of that room, my friend had this huge bouquet of flowers, and then slowly lowered it.
My advisors were like, ‘You can either leave. You can leave the program with a master's degree, or you can take the exam again and then continue on to the dissertation.’ And I think at that moment, it was the first time in my life I really just realized that wasn't for me, the academia. And that writing was for me, though. And that was the part of the program that I excelled at, I think. And there was even a writing portion that was good that I did well on, apparently.
And I remember looking at the room. And it was these four white men. I was like, ‘What happened? How did I fail this? Why didn't you prepare me?’ And I didn't ask it like that. I'm sure I barely spoke. I was like, ‘You said that the written portion was good, right?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, the written portion was good. But the oral part is really important.’ I think it was in that moment, I was like, ‘Ok, I'm gonna want to pursue the thing I'm good at.’
So I didn't know what that meant yet. But what happened was, I called my brother after I was in my suit, or whatever the—it was probably the first suit I'd ever bought or owned. And my brother was kind of like, ‘Hey, Eric, you were never happy there. You love food. You're talking about food all the time.’ And at the time, I was Instagramming. That was my food blog mostly. Those Instagram captions, I would just write as long as I could until I hit the word limit. And that was sort of how I got started with the food writing, I think.
And then, so my brother made me realize that food was always there. It was the one constant. And I happened to have an old boss at Food Network who was able to give me a job. And that's how it all started. So it's kind of a bit of both. It was writing first, but the consciousness—It was food first, but the consciousness was later. Yeah.
Alicia: What made you want to be an English professor? Who did you like to read?
Eric: Hmm. Oh, yeah. I mean, you can see it on my bookshelf here. But it's sort of my love for Michelle Branch. [Laughs.] Which I don't hide. But I think about this all the time, when you're so young and you have no frame of reference for anything. And then something comes at you. And it just really sucks you in. A certain song is super catchy. And then that person’s second song is super catchy, and that third song. And then you just realize, ‘Wow, I just really like this person's music.’
And then, for me, that was 20th century American literature. Throughout high school, just kind of breezing through my English classes and not really paying attention to it ’cause math was so hard. And all these other things were harder. And so, I just kind of didn't take it seriously.
And then there was a moment in the 10th grade when I looked back on my favorite books, and they were all from John Steinbeck. Or they were all from a very specific time period in American and American literary canon. And I was like, ‘Okay, I guess this is it. This is my Michelle Branch of books.’ So yeah, I pursued that in college.
And I just loved college so much, which is such a lame thing to say. But I had a great time in college. And I had really lovely professors. The English department at the college I went to was just so supportive. And they were great. I just figured why not keep doing this, you know? And so, yeah, I kept doing it. And enjoyed the part of being a student, but I think I didn't enjoy being a PhD candidate. That was a very political thing, very performative. And I sucked at talking. So I was really bad at it. I was really bad at acting.
Alicia: Yeah, I can relate.
But you came to food media. You were at Food Network? How did you get into the recipe writing aspect, which you've had such success in?
Eric: Thank you. It happened randomly, I think. Oh, yeah. Like most things, it seems random. But then when you really narrate yourself, you can narrativize the trajectory.
But so for me, it was Food52, the job after Food Network. I was mostly an editor at Food Network. And then, I became a senior editor at 52. And was sort of a really just—It's a messy startup place. It's a very disorganized kind of place, which meant that you could do whatever the hell you wanted. And so, I really felt that there were a lot of opportunities if I wanted them, and so there was no one—It's a really self-starting kind of place. So if you're a self-starter, I think that helped me when I went. When I was there. I was like, ‘I'd like to develop recipes and write about them.’ And so, I did that once in a while.
It was a column pretty quickly, actually. I had this theme that I was really interested in, which was cooking for one. And ‘cause I was so depressed and lonely, I think that's where I kind of practiced. And I practiced on real readers, I guess. The recipes are pretty popular. And they did well.
And I think what, the one thing I believed in always was that my food tasted good. I knew that I had something, I think in Korean, you would call it son-mat. It's called hand taste. But it's this magical quality of—it's called nafas in Arabic. I knew that I had something where my food just had a taste. I knew that when I put it in front of people, I loved seeing their faces light up with that first bite. That's how I knew that maybe I had something.
And so, that was a good playground for it. And every week, I was able to see people's reactions and kind of watch them incorporate these dishes into their everyday lives. And so these readers became sort of my—they were my lab rats.
And I think people don't realize maybe that wasn't that long ago. So I got to the Times and it became my permanent, my daily job of—So I cook every day now. And I'm flexing that muscle, or trying to hone in. I'm definitely learning so much, because I have so many people above me who are way more experienced. And they're teaching me every day. And it's just, if I forget about my past-
It seems random that I'm doing this now. But the other day, actually, I was looking—I went to archive.org. And I looked up my old website, which had this one section. It was mostly an academic website, a CV kinda. But it had one section that said ‘cookbook,’ and it was just where I put recipes, things that I cooked. And a lot of them were just Nigella Lawson recipes that I really liked and that I wanted to have down somewhere, cause I would have dinner parties and friends would be like, ‘Whoa, what was this?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, it's this thing. You can just go to my website and cook it or learn how to cook it if you want.’
But I went back because I'm developing this loaf cake. And I had a cake that I would make all the time. And I sort of started from there. It was awful, by the way. Years later, I baked it in my own kitchen. And it wasn't very good. And I worked on it. But so, I was always writing recipes, I guess for years. And even after high school, I started a blog called Air cooks. It was a Blogspot. I just had been bouncing around just these food blogs. And so, it's always sort of been there.
And it wasn't until the Food Network job though, actually, where I really learned how to write a recipe. Because my job was—I was called Digital Asset Coordinator, Recipes. So my job was to data entry from the Excel sheets that we got to the website. And so, I sort of saw this one style of recipe writing, which is pretty—they're very neat over there at the Food Network. So that's how I learned how to write recipes from that job. I would say, yeah. And then, I got to practice at length later in life.
Alicia: Well, I promise that we're going to talk about your book, but because you mentioned her I wanted to ask about Nigella. How did Nigella become someone you look up to, an icon for you? How did that happen?
Eric: Oh, my God. Now I'm actually nervous, because I know she actually was—she listens to your podcast. She's a fan of yours as well. And so Nigella, turn, maybe turn off your, turn off the podcast at this moment, if you will.
She's someone I watched for the first time on the Food Network, like many people. I think it was either a syndicated version of Nigella Bites, or it was Nigella Feasts, which was the Food Network program that they developed for that book, which actually is my favorite book of hers. And then from there, I made one of her recipes, I think, and then that made me a fan for life. It's like the Michelle Branch songs. I made the next one, and then the next one. They were all perfect. And they all tasted good. And I think it's because she's a good writer that she's able to translate those flavors to the home cook.
And so, I think I just started following her. I bought her books, and then they were making me cry on the train to my Food Network job and then to my other jobs, and I kind of had this realization that I think this is something I'd like to do. I'd love to make people feel something. So I just, I'm a huge fan.
And I think when I first met her, I was so shocked. It was at a 92Y conversation. I met her. I was so shocked that I barely said anything. She was really kind to me, and she wanted to sign my book. I had three of her books in my hands and I was embarrassed. She signed the first one, and I started walking away. She was like, ‘No, I'll sign the other ones.’ I was like, ‘No, it's ok. It's fine.’ She's so generous.
And then, the second time I met her was actually for her book release for—Hmm, which book was it? I think it may have been either Simply Nigella or At My Table, maybe. But she was at the Food52 offices. And that was her launch. That was one of her parties in New York. And I had just accepted the job there. So I was meeting my colleagues for the first time and seeing my office for the first time and meeting Nigella and talking to her. And I just started bawling. [Laughs.] Sorry, this is so embarrassing. I couldn't hold it in. I remember exactly because it's—I just started crying. And she was like, ‘I don't know whether to feel good or bad that I've made you cry.’ And on top of that, my ex-boyfriend was with me. And he's a good friend. But it was just—It was also awkward. And I felt so lame. And then, she was really kind and generous, of course. But so, I was embarrassed.
So after that, the very second piece I wrote for Food52 was about cookbooks that make me cry. I told the anecdote through my writing, and I made myself look better in the writing. That event was really embarrassing. And anyway, since then, she's sort of been checked—I think she reads my columns once in a while. And that always surprises me. I try to keep my distance, ‘cause I'm still—I haven't changed. She's still my hero. So it's a lot of pinch-me moments, I think.
And anyway, she's a big reason why I'm here.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah.
No, I feel like crying just listening to your story, because thinking about—No! Just how generous she is, and to young—I mean, I'm not young anymore, but to anyone who's coming up, she just really is so generous. And that she responds to everyone on Twitter who makes her food or asks her a question. So, it's not something you get used to. She brought up a piece I wrote that came out the middle of last year, last week. And I was like, ‘She remembers my piece!’ [Laughs.]
Eric: Yeah. It's wonderful. It's wonderful.
It's hard though, for me, because she is someone who—And again, Nigella, hope you're not listening. She's a big culinary influence of mine. I learned a lot about just regular cooking from her. How to Eat was monumental for me and for the world. But I would say that, because of that, it's really hard not to write her into my pieces, because that is my education. But I don't, because I know that she reads them sometimes. I just don’t want her to think I'm obsessed, and—which we all are.
Alicia: We all are, yeah. [Laughter.]
Eric: She is very kind. That's the most important thing, I think. And that's the difference, I think, yeah. Her emotional intelligence really just jumps off the page.
Well, and to finally get to your cookbook, Korean American, it is beautiful. It's about homecoming. It's a love letter to your mother. [Laughs.] I can't wait to see a physical copy, because I have a digital one.
But how did you decide to approach your first book? How did this all come about?
Eric: It started off completely different. I was looking at the Publishers Marketplace announcement recently, just being all nostalgic. And it said, The Essentials of Korean American Cooking. And I was just like, ‘Oh my god. Can you imagine if that was the title?’ I don't know what I was thinking.
But the original proposal was sort of this really deep reported culinary cultural history of Korean American, Korean food in America, the history of it. And I was gonna really travel and do the thing.
But what ended up happening was we had a pandemic. We were in lockdown, and the book changed course completely. And it also was really appropriate, though, that it changed course. And I had to turn inward, and I had to make it about my family. Because not just logistically, but I kind of realized that in order to tell the right story I had to be really specific. And to be really specific, I had to go into memoir. And that was a relief when that happened, honestly, because that is my—the thing that I'm most comfortable with, I would say. And so, that's how that happened.
And it was really fun too, because I was still able to kind of do the journalistic thing. But my sources were my parents. And it was fun to get to really dig in and see what they remembered, because it was really that, just mining their memories. Because my memories aren't that deep. They go back a few years, but not that—as far back as their food does.
Alicia: You write, ‘It's an American impulse to follow written down recipes to a T,’ which I loved, because I—for me, it's really difficult to follow written recipes. I've gotten better at it actually. But there is that fear of instinctual cooking. So how do you approach writing precise recipes for such a big audience? ’Cause not just for the Times, but for this book? It's going to be a big audience of people cooking. How do you do that? [Laughs.]
Eric: Right. Yeah.
That was the irony, right? The way my mother cooks is not with measurements, and then—as with the rest of us. So, having to measure something that I've always felt was immeasurable, even that quality of my mother's hands, the way her food tastes.
Melissa Clark actually, she was making my kimchi jjigae after—I published a version of the kimchi jjigae last year in the Times. And she wanted to make it, and I was just trying to give her tips. ‘Do this and this and this, and taste and do this.’ And the recipe tries to—What you do in those moments as you give precise measurements, but the rest of it's up to the person's palate. And so there are tasting notes, like ‘Add more if you want more of this.’ And so, you need to leave room for that kind of movement.
But I remember in that moment, I just really wanted to kind of 3D print my tongue or something or have it be this USB drive that I can just give to her and be like, ‘It's supposed to taste like that.’ You have to resort to prose. That was a challenge with the cookbook.
But in my day-to-day development, I owe a lot of that to Genevieve Ko. She's my editor. And she just kind of helms the NYT cooking recipes. And she just really knows how to translate it so that it's equal for everyone.
Oh, I have a good story, actually. My very first recipe that I developed with her when I got on staff, it was the creamy asparagus pasta. And that one was just very loosey goosey. It was my style of just taste as you go. There's a moment where you boil the pasta in a kombu broth, like a dasima broth. And so it just looks like a very seaweedy dish. And at first it was like, ‘Fill the pot to a certain amount.’
But she said, ‘I think it should be a very specific number, should be a specific cup amount,’ because—I don’t know about you. But when you make pasta, you probably don't measure the boiling water, right? She was like, ‘I want it to taste the same for everyone.’ So that's why it says very specifically to boil this number of cups so that the broth has the right amount of concentration of the dashima, the kelp. And then because that broth is also used to finish the pasta, so it’s this transfer of flavor. It just had to make it as approximate as possible, while still leaving room for people's taste buds, because everyone tastes differently and everyone's ingredients are different too.
Well, the gochujang glaze for the eggplant became this huge staple in my house. Well, I first made it because I wanted to interview you. And I was like, ‘Well, I have to make a recipe of his, and so I'm going to start with this one because it's already vegan. So I don't have to do anything.’
But my husband who is really—I mean, he'll be upset if he hears this where I'm like, ‘He's very difficult, He can be very difficult to cook for sometimes.’ It's good, though, because lately he's cooking a little bit more. And so, it's becoming more of a thing we do together, which is good, because I think I was actually losing my mind a little bit. The pandemic was making everyone lose their mind with cooking, where it's like, ‘I'm done.’ I thought this was the thing I like to do most. And now I'm just totally at the end of my rope.
But your recipe really reinvigorated my cooking and reinvigorated my kitchen. And we're very happy and we use it on so many things. And I know it was your first recipe to go viral, right? What was that like?
Eric: Yeah, I guess so.
Trying to remember. That was during peak COVID, I guess. It was the peak of it. And I was at my mom's house. And I remember when it was assigned, it was just ‘eggplant banchan’ on it. It wasn't a thing yet. It was the one that I wanted to kind of play around with. I kind of asked her. I was like, ‘Hey, what are some eggplant banchan, umma? I have to write this story.’ And she was like, ‘Well, your grandma likes this one. It's called gaji bokkeum.’ There's also a gaji muchim, but it's basically—she steams the eggplant, and then she tosses it, dresses it in a sauce. And it's usually like this sesame oil thing. But she liked to do gochujang. And she told me that that's something my grandmother really liked. So she would make it for my grandmother all the time. And I thought that was really interesting.
So I kind of did my own take on it by frying it. And there's this thing called pa gileum, which is scallion oil in Korean cooking that's really prominent now. It's maybe popularized by this guy Baek Jong-won, I think that's the thing. Yeah, it's kind of the Emeril Lagasse—oh, we don't like doing that anymore, right? The Julia Childs?
Anyway, yeah, I think I made that dish. And I brought it up to my mom's room. That was sort of the process. She'd be like, ‘I'll help.’ And then, she doesn't help. And then she goes to her room. I would bring it to her room and be like, ‘Ok, it's time to taste this.’ And I remember that first bite, she was like, ‘Whoa, this is something. You should open a restaurant.’ That's like it. When she says that, it means it's good. And Koreans always want you to, Korean parents always want you to open a restaurant for some reason. I'm like, ‘That’s not who I am.’ [Laughs.]
I didn't know that it would resonate with people, because—I don't know. I think that that was the biggest surprise to see it on Instagram. That was when I kind of felt the power of Instagram. Yeah, that share function. And then I saw all these people buying gochujang for the first time, and it was so great.
And I tried to do the same thing the second time, because I thought, ‘Oh, that's great. I got a bunch of people to buy gochujang. That's kind of my point, or my hope.’ So I did gochugaru salmon, hoping that people would buy gochugaru. And I think a lot of people did, but a lot of people ended up making gochugaru salmon from the gochujang they bought from the eggplants. [Laughter.] It worked out and it's all fine.
There's always a reason for these recipes. And I'm glad that it's the eggplant that did well, yeah.
Alicia: Of course.
Well, you describe your mom's garden in detail in the book, and you refer to yourself as a carnivore. And so, I wanted to ask about this. What is your relationship to meat as a food writer, as a person? [Laughs.]
Eric: Great question.
Something I think about every single day, recipe developing, you're just sort of—There are so few reasons for meat to be in something, unless it's a roast or something like that. But yeah, so I’m always thinking about that, how to take out that fish sauce or take out that little bit of bacon that maybe I made it for myself the first time.
Hmm. To answer this, I think I would go back to the way my mother cooked. And I think the Korean dishes that we liked as Korean Americans, Korean American children, a lot of meat, it's—All the meat dishes are the things that you kind of liked. And you'd go to potlucks, and it's kind of that marinated bulgogi that you leave in the freezer, and you bring that to a potluck and—or you fry it outside on the grill at a church picnic. And it's always this paper plate with the rice, and then that sticks to that plate like crazy. And then, the bulgogi on the side. That was a big component of my food growing up.
But I would say that I sort of started eating less meat as I got older and pickier. And when I was younger, I actually didn't eat that much meat. I was always too skinny. And my mom was always worried. And she was like, ‘Eric doesn't like meat.’ So when we’d go to Korean barbecue, I would eat the egg—the gyeran-jjim, which is that steamed egg. I would eat all the vegetables. And I loved rice and the tongdak chicken.
My palate’s changed so much. And I would say that it—it's recently that I forgot I even wrote that I was a carnivore. But I think it was professionally. Once I started cooking professionally for recipe development and work, I kind of realized that you're always thinking about food, and all the other angles around food and the politics of food. And so, I'm much more conscious of it now. I think I'm eating more meat than I would be if I weren't doing this for work, because I'm kind of the one who develops the meat recipes usually. It always ends up being that way.
Sometimes when I'm pitching something, Iwant to give someone a really easy chicken recipe. And that service is something that really matters to me. But I mean, the dark side of this is that after developing that chicken recipe, I'm so sick of chicken, I'm so sick of meat. RIP. It's really hard to eat that much meat and you have all that leftover food and it doesn't go to waste. So it goes in my stomach. And so my relationship to meat has changed in the sense that I think it's a matter of just pitching fewer meat recipes, but that's not always-
Alicia: It's not always possible.
Eric: It's not always possible. But I don't have to pitch a short rib dish or anything. It depends on the story. And I follow the story, but I am very grateful when it's a vegetable kind of dish because I know I can at least just eat a lot of that and feel a lot better.
So yeah, my relationship to being meat is really weird and probably a little disordered. But we'll tackle that in another interview. Or you can ask questions if you want.
Alicia: I mean, I ask about it because—Well, one because you said carnivore, so I had to. And then two, because people do have a complicated relationship with meat. The first iteration of my podcast used to be called Meatless. And it was literally really focused on how people feel about meat. But it gets really complicated, like talking about it with people. But at the same time, it's interesting because people do bring up this—it just gets so heavy for people. And I'm like—Yeah. [Laughs.]
Eric: You're the one person I would love to talk about that with, because I just think—I love the way you write about vegetarianism and veganism. You recognize the nuances, and there's class involved. And there's privilege. And I just think that's all part of the story.
And another way to talk about this, which is what's the point of that line, I think, if I’m looking back, thinking back on it, which is that chapter unveiled itself to me. Not to sound annoying, but it—there was a Korean barbecue chapter, and I replaced it with Garden of Jean. I replaced it with a vegetable chapter because I kind of just realized that there were so many more interesting things I wanted to write about and explore and develop. Not to mention, we were really—we were all so full all the time.
I wanted a moment to celebrate those really special vegetable dishes, kind of like the discovery of that eggplant, you know? That I made in my kitchen. On the one hand, it's the chicken breasts I’m really sick of eating. But it's also, on the other hand, it's I have a newfound appreciation for vegetables now. Because as I'm developing them, I'm discovering new things about them. And that's really, really exciting. And that chapter was the most fun to write. So it's the one where I got to really, really kind of go off.
One interesting story actually is, so this whole thing about appetite and being a recipe developer who constantly has to taste your own food. I was doing this crispy tofu dish for my column at the Times. It’s a great tofu dish. It has a sweet and sour sauce that tastes like McDonald's. And it's great, but after eating that much tofu. I don't know if you can tell, but my apartment’s tiny. So my apartment was so disgustingly flooded with just oil fumes. And I needed to feel better. So I made a vegetable soup with some of the leftover tofu that wasn't fried, and it was broccoli and vegetables. And then, it was chicken broth. I have Better Than Bouillon Chicken. I love that.
And it was such a good soup. So I pitched it. I was like, ‘This is such a great creamy, broccoli soup that doesn't have cream in it.’ Yeah. I was like, ‘Oh crap, but it has chicken broth in it.’ It was greenlit. I developed it. And I was like, ‘This is easy. I'll just replace it with vegetable broth.’ Nope. No, it didn't taste good. I made 10 pots of that stupid soup. I was so sick of it. And yeah, each time it was vegetarian, vegan, but it just eluded me. I think that stubbornness of that soup, it really empowered me to just—I had to take a break, though, ’cause I was so sick of it.
And then I discovered this.. And I think the recipe will be out by the time this airs. But I remembered a column that my former writer, and friend and—Kristen Miglorious at Food52—I was her editor at, on Genius recipes, there's a column at Food52. And she wrote about another writer of mine, actually. Yi Jun Loh, he's a Malaysian writer, wonderful. He had this coconut water ABC soup. So ABC soup is a Malaysian chicken soup, usually. He discovered that coconut water, tomato, carrot, and onion produced a really delicious broth full of umami. And it makes sense, hits all the right notes. There's that bone broth quality from the coconut milk, the cloudiness. Whatever they call it, a lot of qualities are in that coconut water, like just literally the thing you buy at the bodega.
And so, it was this magic elixir that was much simpler than all of the rest of the versions of the recipe, the broccoli soup that I was trying. So I kind of went that route. And then, it was just like magic. I made the soup one last time. And it was so flavorful, so full of umami savoriness and all the qualities, all the glutamate crazy. It was so flavorful. I had to dilute it with water. And so I love the story of the soup, because I think it tells a story of my relationship to cooking with vegetables, which has been one of discovery and joy because it's so new to me, as a ‘self described carnivore,’ whatever.
It's so funny that whenever someone points out something I've written, I just completely don't remember writing it. And yeah, I don't know if you feel this way. But I feel there's this thing where you blacked out after you write anything.
Alicia: Yeah, I never want to be reminded, ever. No. It goes, and then it's not mine anymore. And then it's something else. I mean, I don't understand how writers—I respect it, because I respect all hustles. But anyone who can make a Canva graphic of their own words? I can't do it. But people do it. I can't see my own words that way. I can't see. I could figure out what might be a good pull quote, I guess, if I had to. I can't do my own pull quotes. It just feels vulgar. [Laughs.]
Eric: No, I totally agree. That's such a thing. I don't think everyone's like us, actually. But I think, I would love a psychologist to sort of examine but, why? Why certain writers black out like that? And I think it's probably self preservation or something like that.
Alicia: Well, I think if you're writing personally—yeah, and if you're writing personally, and you're really trying to get at something or you're excavating your own emotions or whatever, the only way to get yourself to still put it out there is to detach from it, I think, in some way. I mean, you're gonna have a book come out, literally, in a few weeks. That's very personal. And you're not going to be able to be attached to how people respond to it. Because, no. [Laughs.]
I'm really grateful to my editor and my publisher. They were very kind to me and generous with time, because I think I had trouble. This book was so hard to write. It's so personal, of course, but I think that's why—Each pass, I would read it. And I'm someone who, as a writer, I will use up as much time as you give me. That's the amount of time. That's why I had no idea this staff writing job would be excellent for me, someone who needs deadlines, who needs to be pulled away from the writing, before I overwrite. And there's so many moments when my editor will, after the second pass, second edit, she'll just actually take out everything I've added because she’s like, ‘It was good the first—It was better the first time. Stop.’ And I think that's a real lesson. I need to learn how to kind of let go sometimes.
Yeah, this book went through it. I asked for an extra pass, because I just needed more time with my words. I wasn’t ready to let go, and it was so hard. And then, they were very kind and did that. And now, the book’s coming out a little later. But that's fine.
Alicia: My book is coming out later. So the supply chain push has delayed everything.
Eric: And the one thing it's that my book isn't is on the bottom of the ocean. So I'm quite grateful for that. I feel so bad for my colleagues, yeah. [Laughter.]
Alicia: It's horrible. [Laughs.]
Well, the photography of the book is really beautiful and bright and vibrant. How did that aesthetic emerge?
Eric: I think this is maybe the first time I get to answer this question. But Jenny Huang shot it, I think many know her in the industry. But she and I met at Food52. She was shooting a couple of my columns and kind of hit it off. And I think from there, we just maybe got dinner and kind of became friends. And she was also kind of just starting out, really. She had changed careers. And I won't tell her story. She should tell her story. Her photos were different. I loved even at Food52 that I could look at it, a photo, and be like, ‘Oh, that's Jenny. I can tell there's a crispiness. There's a Vermeer glamor.’ Vermeer's my favorite painter.
Really, her photography really spoke to me. And I just love that you could look at it and be like, ‘That's Jenny Huang.’ And that's what I want, who I wanted on my team. Because I feel that way about recipe development; I feel that way about writing. I feel that way about talent. Yeah, I think people think talent means level of skill or something. But I actually think it means voice.
And then not only that, she just really went into this with—The art direction was her, 100% her. It was barely me. I kind of was way too busy to worry about art. I was sort of like, ‘Yeah, Jenny, this is your book too. I'll do whatever you say.’ And so, man, she asked for really specific tables. And I had to a specific traditional dress, and she asked for things. And I was kind of annoyed. And then once we were on set and we shot them, I was like, ‘Oh, I see.’ So I think after the first day I was sort of like, ‘Ok, just don't ask questions.’ She always had a vision, showing every photo you see in here. Well, not all of them sometimes. There's a lot of serendipity in the book, but she's already thought about how she wants to angle.
But there's a photo—it’s the kimchi-jjigae—of my mom kind of having lunch. And I can't talk about my mom because, always makes me cry. But she knew that she wanted my mom in a hanbok and to be eating lunch, and it took—for it to be a certain angle and kind of from behind. And then, we saw the picture and we're just like, ‘Wow, that was in her head.’ I think that's why she's a good photographer. It's in her head first and then knows how to get it onto the page.
And I just like that she also thinks about cultural context. So there were moments in the book where she scheduled the shoot. It wasn't dish-dish-dish-dish. It wasn't a food media shoot. It was more of setting scenes, so that she could like a documentary style, kind of go around. And that's how Korean food is.
She's the one who described it like this. So I'm sort of paraphrasing her, but she described it to me, Korean food has edges. When you're setting a table, there's a banchan, there's a rice, there's a stew, there's a meat, there's a lettuce plate. And in a cookbook, in my cookbook, all of those recipes are on different chapters. So she wanted to show the edges of—If you were to cut and paste, you could find the same patterns and see, you can create a whole. But I think in order to show some semblance of connectivity, she was, she did that on purpose, kind of showing the edges of dishes. And I thought that was just so brilliant, and really different. Because I, having white photographers shoot your food your whole career. And sometimes, getting it wrong, on accident, but just because I'd be like, ‘That's not how Korean people eat it,’ or that's not—’No one would do that.’ She was incorporated into her art direction. And so yeah, forever grateful to her no one else could have shot this.
The whole team, I really need a credit. Oh my god, Tyna Huong was the food stylist. And she and I met at a party with Jenny, actually. And so the second I met her, I was like, ‘Ok, she's the one.’ And I just knew I wanted her to style the book. And then Beatrice Chastka is a wonderful prop stylist who works with them. They're kind of this trio. And I couldn't break up the trio. So that's how it happened.
Alicia: That's amazing.
I mean, it does look so different from so many cookbooks that are out, coming out. It's vibrant. [Laughs.] Whereas I feel there's so much whitespace on covers now. And it's like, ‘Stop. I can't take it anymore.’ [Laughs.]
Eric: Yeah. I did not want any whitespace on that cover. I was super adamant about that.
Alicia: Well, how did you maintain this creative energy while writing the book and working? Like, this is my question for everyone lately, because it almost drove me insane, personally.
Eric: This was your last newsletter, right? That was like such a great—
Alicia: Yeah, a little bit, yeah, about productivity, yeah.
Eric: Productivity. This is something I've been working on. Because during the pandemic is when my workload kind of quadrupled. I was a freelancer for a year before I started at the Times, but even at the Times, I was sort of dealing with book stuff after hours. And so, it was really hard to find moments of rest. There was no time.
And what was really influential for me was my friend, Rick Martinez. I'm not going to pretend—His name does have a last name. He and I started this process together. Our books are coming out at the same time with the same editor. It was a lot of stars aligning, and we kind of quickly became phone call friends. We would call each other during the book writing process, because it's so lonely. And one thing that he said that was really influential for me was to take moments of rest and moments of joy. No matter how short that is, even if it's five minutes, because that's, that is restful.
And I really have started to see this kind of be true in other parts of my life. My partner and I, he lives in Philly now. So we're still technically long distance. And so, whenever we kind of realized that we only get two or three days together, where before I would have been sad about that, I realized now that time is a circle and that it's the quality of the time that matters, not the quantity. And so for me, it's the quality of the rest and the joy that matters, not the quantity.
So yeah, I take power naps all the time. I had a bulgogi video come out where I was super busy during the shooting of that whole thing. I look tired. I look really messy, and my hair is not gelled because—and then a reader attacked me. They're like, ‘Eric always looks like he just woke up from a nap.’ And actually, it's true. I always am waking up from naps because I get through. So I get through on five, six hours of sleep every night. That's pretty good.
But it's hard. It's hard to find time to slow down when there's just not enough hours in the day. And with this job, this new job, I just—It's so fun. It's a really fun job. And I want to be doing it all the time. But I just kind of had this realization that I need to take moments of rest to sort of make sure that I can come back and be and do good work. And yeah, once I realized it was—it had to be part of my routine. I tried to incorporate it more, but it's not always possible, you know?
Alicia: Well, how do you define abundance?
So I know you asked this to other people, too. And I like to listen to a lot of podcasts to see those answers. And I'm not sure if anyone's done this. But this stumped me a little bit. So I looked it up. I found out that the Latin root is abundantia. Sorry, I don't speak—I never took Latin—but which means overflowing. And I thought it was really interesting that the last definition, it wasn't about overflowing. It's the quantity or amount of something present in a particular area. And this usually refers to natural resources, carbon and nitrogen and bees or whatever. And I realized that this is—
I like that definition. Because it describes abundance as a finite number. And I think, yeah, there's a colonial or environmental reading of this, which is abundance is something to be cherished and not exploited. And I think it's important that with anything in life, whether it's a cultural document or whether it's the environment, the climate, I think. Treating it something that should be preserved and sustained rather than something that's overflowing. I think that attitude about the overflowing fountain, it's really dangerous and very colonial. And I think that's what abundance means to me.
Alicia: Well, that's always what I think I'm trying to get at, is that a little bit—Well, because I do think there is an idea of abundance, as just having a lot of choices in the supermarket, if we're talking about food context. And then I think that that is a colonial concept, is that ‘Oh, we have to have—’ I mean, look at the Defense Production Act, calling meat processing workers, essential workers, that is a colonial idea of what it means to have enough, because it means that other people are living in danger. And yeah, I think what I'm always trying to get at is the idea that abundance is the ability to share, basically. [Laughs.]
Eric: I love that. And the way to share that is to not overmine, so to speak.
Alicia: Well, for you is cooking a political act?
So, I think this is also something—I was gonna be honest, I also looked this up because I was thinking about how I wanted to answer. I'm really bad at on the fly, I guess. But I appreciate that you ask everyone this, so I knew it was coming.
But I think cooking is a political act, because politics are about power. That's the one question that I'm always answering. I'm always answering questions about cultural appropriation specifically, but when it comes to other kinds of politics of gender, or labor, I think food and specifically cooking can be—It's an opportunity to influence change. I'm not gonna say I think of my recipes as things that change or that are political, inherently.
But I think editorially, as someone who's been on plenty of it, on plenty of editorial teams, I know how political it is to decide to make space for a specific type of cooking, a specific type of food, specific look. I've been told in the past that my food was too brown, I've been told that my contributor’s foods were too brown and that they needed a little green or parsley. And that centering of a very specific type of cuisine angers me, and this is—there's nothing more political to me.
And it's been my life's mission after that experience in our really messed-up industry to try to kind of move the needle. And I just freaking love my team. I love my editors. And I'll have a brown dish, and no one will be like, ‘This needs parsley. This needs a sprig of scalings.’ No one's telling me that, because they're just like, ‘This is the way it looks. This is the way millions of people eat this. And this is now our new center.’ And I think that's super important.
Alicia: Well, thank you so much for being here.
Eric: Thanks for having me.
Alicia: Thanks so much to everyone for listening to this week's edition of From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. Read more at www.aliciakennedy.news. Or follow me on Instagram, @aliciadkennedy, or on Twitter at @aliciakennedy.