The Year I Finally Learned That “Made With Love” Is All That Matters
It’s hard to express the pride I felt walking into my classroom and placing the platter of “home-baked” chocolate chip cookies on the potluck table. That pride quickly evaporated.
“They have to be homemade,” I said. My mother’s hand stopped short of the bright blue package of Chips Ahoy cookies. “Homemade?” she asked. “They have to be homemade,” I repeated. “Teacher said.”
My mother crinkled her brow. In South Korea, where we had recently emigrated from, obedience was a virtue. Whatever the teacher said, you did. I had no idea why my elementary school teacher told us to bring homemade baked goods to the Thanksgiving class potluck. All I knew is that’s what she said.
My mother and I roamed the aisles of the supermarket. I worried she didn’t know how to make homemade chocolate chip cookies. She certainly had never made them before.
It’s not that my mother wasn’t a good cook. On the contrary, she was a marvelous cook. To this day, some of my favorite memories are of my mother’s cooking: achingly tender kalbi jim (braised short ribs), a bubbling crock of soon dubu jiggae (spicy tofu stew), and a steaming bowl of sticky white rice with an astonishing array of flavorful banchan (side dishes) — all made from scratch.
When my mother and I taste-tested the first batch, the chocolate chips melted on our tongues like honey.
In the 1970s and ’80s, when I grew up, we didn’t have H-Marts with aisles upon aisles of ready-to-serve banchan. We couldn’t just pick up a jar of kimchi or tub of gochujang or six-pack of seaweed snacks at the nearest Trader Joe’s. We were lucky if there was an oriental grocery (that’s what we called them back then) within a 100-mile radius. If we were very lucky, a Korean relative might send an air mail package of prized ingredients: shiny black sheets of gim (dried laver) and crinkly bags of myeolchi (dried whole anchovies) and gochugaru (dried red pepper flakes). That my mother was able to whip up such delicious Korean meals with the few meager ingredients she had access to remains a wonder to me.
But my mother was not a baker. Dessert is not a big thing in Korea — or at least it wasn’t when I was a child. After dinner, my mother would set out a plate of cut-up oranges or peeled apple slices, and that was dessert for us. As we kids grew more Americanized, my mother would appease us with the occasional bag of Oreos or box of Twinkies, but she devoted her cooking to more savory foods.
“What about this?” my mother asked me in Korean. She held out a roll of slice and bake chocolate chip cookies. I read the label carefully. “Fresh home-baked cookies in minutes,” it promised. Home-baked was the same as homemade, wasn’t it?
Back at home, I excitedly peeled off the plastic packaging, cutting the dough into slices and then quarters, making sure the pieces were evenly spaced on the cookie sheet. Soon, our kitchen filled with the aroma of fresh baked cookies. When my mother and I taste-tested the first batch, the chocolate chips melted on our tongues like honey.
It’s hard to express the pride I felt walking into my classroom and placing the platter of home-baked chocolate chip cookies on the potluck table. That pride quickly evaporated when one of my classmates — a girl with fair skin and blond pigtails like the youngest sister on my favorite TV show, The Brady Bunch — pointed at my cookies and asked, “Who brought those?” Something about her tone made it clear she was not being complimentary, so I stayed silent. She grabbed a cookie and took a bite.
“These aren’t homemade,” she sniffed to another girl. “I can tell. They’re from a package.”
I have no idea how the girl was able to tell that our cookies weren’t made from scratch. Perhaps there was an artificiality to the vanilla, or the hydrogenated fat had an off-flavor, or maybe the texture was just wrong. Whatever the reason, I remember feeling flush with shame.
* * *
My mother passed away on New Year’s Day 2022. They say the first year is the hardest, with each passing milestone — Mother’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries — reminding us of the one we’ve lost. But for me, it was the inside of my 87-year-old father’s refrigerator, filled with half-eaten cartons of takeout and dried-out bits of leftovers, that filled me with the greatest sorrow.
Last November, my father didn’t want to travel out of state for the holidays, so I flew to him to make an early Thanksgiving dinner for just the two of us. I didn’t want to roast a whole turkey, which I knew would go to waste, but was hoping to buy a fresh turkey breast at the local supermarket. The closest I could find was a “homestyle” turkey breast in the freezer section. I was wary of the industrially processed poultry and frowned at the copious additives, salt, and spices in the ingredients list, but there were no good alternatives.
As I sat down to dine with my father, I felt a pang of guilt, maybe even shame, at my holiday offering.
Back at my father’s small apartment, I rinsed the turkey breast in hopes of reducing the sodium content. I roasted the meat in my mother’s old roasting pan rather than the plastic bag as directed on the package. I created a quick pan gravy instead of using the bagged gravy that online reviewers complained was too salty. And I made a few simple side dishes to round out the meal.
As I sat down to dine with my father, I felt a pang of guilt, maybe even shame, at my holiday offering. My mind flashed back to the memory of that little blond girl turning up her nose at the slice-and-bake cookies that my mother and I had so happily made together. Upon tasting his first bite, however, my father proclaimed it “the best Thanksgiving dinner ever.” I looked into his eyes to see if he was being facetious, but his appreciation was sincere.
My father didn’t taste the additives, salt, or spices. All he tasted was the love.
A.H. (Ann) Kim is a mother, community volunteer, and recovering attorney. She is also the author of A Good Family (2020) and Relative Strangers (to be published April 2, 2024). After raising their sons in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ann and her husband now live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.