Whatever You Call It, It Tastes Like Grief

Review: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

by Wynter K Miller

I tend to appreciate reviews that include, in some form, a comparative recommendation — an opportunity to quickly determine if a book belongs on my TBR shelf. “Perfect for readers looking for Erik Larson-style true crime that reads like fiction.” “If you liked Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you’ll love this.” “It’s In Cold Blood, but set in the Old South.” (Incidentally, publishers know readers appreciate this, and thus consider comp titles a key component of book pitches.)

I intended to open this review of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart with recommendations in that vein. “A memoir perfect for melomaniacs interested in the inspiration behind Japanese Breakfast’s Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet.” “Crying in H Mart is Molly Wizenberg with Korean flavor.” “If you liked The Year of Magical Thinking, Zauner’s account of losing her mother is a must read.”

But none of these comp-recommendations are strictly accurate because Crying in H Mart isn’t strictly one thing. If my local bookstore were to shelve it next to Acid for the Children or The Year of the Monkey, I’d understand the decision. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in sections devoted to food writing, or object to its labeling as either a “food memoir” or a “grief memoir.” By flexible definitions, it is all of the above.

Zauner’s authorial debut germinated from a seed planted in 2018 when her New Yorker essay of the same title went viral. It became the first chapter of her memoir, which opens with the same sentence: “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” When I read that line, I didn’t know about the essay, and I had no idea who Zauner was. I thought I was reading a food memoir, potentially by a well-known chef that was nonetheless unknown to me. But, it quickly became apparent that Zauner was probably not a culinary expert.

Crying in H Mart is not an unpacking of culinary success; indeed, it’s mostly a catalog of failures.

Zauner doesn’t know how to prepare doenjang jjigae or jatjuk, tteokguk, or even kimchi — foods it becomes important that Zauner prepare correctly for her mother, Chongmi, whose appetite is waning following two rounds of chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer. As the narrative unfolds — as Zauner describes her relationship with her mother and Korean food as a child, and details the transformation of both after Chongmi’s diagnosis — Zauner’s limitations as a cook become a proxy for her sense of exclusion from her heritage. When Chongmi’s health does not improve, Zauner wonders: “Without my mother, did I have any real claim to Korea or her family?” Chongmi’s diagnosis and eventual death give Zauner a reason to explore the question, and, ultimately, find an answer.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to melomaniacs, Molly Wizenberg fans, or Magical Thinking readers (for what it’s worth, I am none of the aforementioned and I still enjoyed it). That said, if you are looking for something specific, check out the recommendations at the bottom of this review and skip Zauner’s memoir. For everyone else, Crying in H Mart is a poignant reminder that human beings, for better or worse, defy easy categorization.

Rating: 3 stars

Favorite Lines

Some of the earliest memories I can recall are of my mother instructing me to always save 10 percent of yourself. What she meant was that no matter how much you thought you loved someone, or thought they loved you, you never gave all of yourself. Save 10 percent always, so there was something to fall back on. “Even from Daddy, I save,” she would add.

That night, lying beside her, I remembered how when I was child, I would slip my cold feet between my mother’s thighs to arm them, how she’d shiver and whisper that she would always suffer to bring me comfort, that that was how you knew someone really loved you…. Now, more than ever, I wished desperately for a way to transfer pain, wished I could prove to my mother just how much I loved her, that I could just crawl into her hospital cot and press my body close enough to absorb her burden … but I could do no more than lie nearby …

Recommendations for Specific Readers

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California. @wynterkm