My parents were party fanatics. Whenever there was a holiday, the celebration was at our house. A birthday? A promotion? A new car? Any excuse to throw a party, and our doors were wide open.
I always thought my mom was the instigator, but in retrospect, my dad was happiest with a drink in his hand, sitting at the head of a table full of his friends and family. I remember when I was about 11 or 12, we had an impromptu New Year’s Eve bash. At 6 o’clock, my dad called from work with this crazy idea to have a party (or chanchi ) that night. By 10 o’clock, our house was brimming with dozens of people.
Many weekends of my childhood were filled with smiling faces, loud chatter, days in the kitchen and piles and piles of food. Cooking for 40, 50 or even 60 people wasn’t so much a chore as it was a habit.
And don’t even tell me about the dishes. We were crying with joy the day we moved into a house with a built-in dishwasher, especially my brother. He had never forgiven me for convincing my parents that he should help with the household chores, even if he was a boy. In fact, my siblings and I used to say that my parents only had us because they needed caterers for their parties.
I remember when I left for college and my parents were seeing me off. When my mom noticed the tears welling up in my dad’s eyes, she asked him if he was sad because he was losing his little girl. No, he was losing his cook.
Weekend after weekend, it was work, work, work for us kids.
The excitement would start early. By the time I rolled out of bed and made it down to the kitchen, my mom and her friends would already be cooking. All day long, the troops would arrive, one by one. Grabbing another apron off the wall hook, they would tie it around their waist, wash their hands and start working, not breaking the flow of the conversation they began when they took their shoes off at the door.
I loved to hear about how things were in Korea when they were growing up, funny anecdotes about some dumb relative or even exaggerated tales of their adventures. Still, the best ones were those about my mom and dad, pre-children, pre-marriage. It was like hearing about someone I didn’t know. As a girl, or even as a teenager, I couldn’t imagine that my parents had a life before the family.
More often than not, there would be several conversations going on at once. Every once in a while, I’d catch some juicy bit of information about my parents 20 or 30 years ago and look over at my sister, who would exchange a surprised look with me.
We’d slice, dice, fry, boil, mince, crush, chop and mix for hours until the tables were overflowing with a fabulous feast.
My major responsibility was to make the chon . Chon is a generic word loosely used to describe such foods as flat cakes, battered fish, vegetables stuffed with meat and basically all foods cooked on a flat frying surface.
I would stake out my territory in a corner by laying out a bunch of newspapers in anticipation of splattering grease, plugging in my electric frying pan and getting a seat cushion for my tender bum. Armed with pair of a chopsticks in one hand and a spatula in the other, I would be prepared for many hours of uninterrupted labor--it would take quite some force to dislodge me from my station.
I would be bombarded with a constant stream of food that needed to be prepared. Sometimes it would be fish that needed to be dipped in flour, then in egg batter and prepared with just the right green garnish on top. Sometimes it would be a bottomless bowl of mix for noktu puchimgae (a type of flat cake made from mung beans).
I was the champion puchimgae -maker. My sister may argue with me. She may even say that she’s the champion puchimgae -maker. Sure, she may have spent her share of hours in the trenches with me, making one after another of those endless flat cakes. She might even be better at the flipping, skillfully turning them with one flick of the wrist. I would chase those pesky things around the whole surface of the frying pan, trying in vain to get that unwieldy plastic spatula under their elusive bottoms.
But no one can argue that I didn’t make the best-looking ones. I could pour those cakes exactly the same size, as if I were a machine stamping them out. Then I’d cook them to just the right golden brown, perfect for eating hot off the griddle. Everyone would grab a hot puchimgae right off the frying pan, slapping it back and forth to keep it from burning their hands.
Everyone but my brother. He didn’t eat them right off the frying pan. No, that would have been uncharacteristically nice. He waited for just the right moment, when I had them laid out on the large platters, arranged beautifully fanning out from the center. He learned to wait until I had the last puchimgae in just the perfect place before he sneaked out of nowhere and grabbed the one that would throw the whole presentation off balance. He must have learned that kind of patience in little brother school. Then, as quickly as he materialized, he would disappear, while I shook my fist in fury.
Despite my little brother’s efforts, I still enjoyed cooking for a party. I especially liked looking over at the women swarming in the kitchen, laughing and gabbing and chopping and stirring.
I must have inherited this love for throwing parties from my folks. I’m usually the one calling up 10 or so friends for an impromptu dinner. People call to invite themselves over for celebrations I never even intended to throw, and I’m always ready for them. Although some of my friends balk at the idea of cooking for 30 or 40 people, I welcome the challenge.
Besides, that’s nothing. Try making dinner for a hundred. Now, that’s a party!
Lee is working on a book about Korean food.