They’re cuddling on the couch and getting their daily dose of televised Valium. Little Bear, how I love you. Henry, four, has draped himself in a way that covers most of the cushions. Hazel, almost two, sits on top of him. These are my kids, adopted from South Korea, and this moment is close to perfect. Hazel’s not grabbing anything, and Henry’s not hitting her. Sweet. I think twice about telling them TV time is over. The credits roll.
“Time to turn off the TV and make dinner,” I say. “Beast, will you turn it off?”
“Or should I do it?”
Henry picks up the remote and turns off the TV. Then he points it at me.
“Click. You’re not my best friend.”
He dumps Hazel on the floor, pushes past me, and heads to his music box. He takes out the loudest instrument—a Korean lollipop drum he’s not allowed to play with drumsticks—picks up a wooden spoon—technically not a drumstick—and bangs a furious rhythm.
“Your’renotmybestfreindyour’renotmybestfriend. You’rrrrrrrrrrrre.” Beat. “Not.” Beat. “My best friend.” Drum roll.
So begins the rush to get both kids fed and in bed by 7:00 without tears and toxic meltdowns. Henry marches through the kitchen pounding his drum with Hazel in tow. It’s cute—sort of—in that freeze-frame moment before worlds end. They’re giggling now and not singing about best friends, but diggers and bulldozers. In the kitchen, Henry stops, takes my hand, and kisses it. “You’re my best friend.”
I’ve piled fresh vegetables on the counter: spinach, whole carrots, broccoli, shitake mushrooms.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Bi bim bap. Wanna help?”
He heads off for another lap through the dining room pounding his drum. But Hazel is interested. Help. Help. Help. We call her Pest or Princess. But the most appropriate name is the Destroyer. She drops her teapot, lifts the step stool and carries it to the prep counter. With eyes level to the cutting board, her wingspan reaches at least two feet in every direction. Little arms flutter and carrots rain down on the floor. When Henry comes back in, I break up a skirmish over who gets the step stool. Not interested in sharing, Hazel heads for the kitchen stool. It’s taller and allows a longer reach. Henry starts breaking broccoli while I chop mushrooms. A calm settles over the kitchen with the repetitious tap-tap-tap of my knife. Hazel hovers in the background. Help. Help. Help.
Cooking is an Aiello family tradition. I started cooking with my dad when I was ten. It runs in my wife Alison’s family, too. As the president of Poly-O, her stepfather was credited with invented string cheese. Cooking is the glue that binds our relationship. Our house was renovated around the kitchen to make it the family’s Grand Central, a concept passed on by my mom. We eat breakfast and lunch together in the kitchen, the kids color and play on the computer in the kitchen, and, of course, we cook in the kitchen. But time spent there isn’t just about bonding or cooking. As a mixed race family, the kitchen is our melting pot: a place to blend cultural heritage with our own sense of family tradition.
My parents divorced when I was two, and I divided my time between two parents and two kitchens. Growing up, I came to define myself by their differences. My mom was queen bee of the house and the kitchen was her throne room. NORAD is what her friends called it. With varnished maple counter tops—chopping prohibited—rubber Pirelli floors, and an island counter big enough to seat a family of five, my mom’s kitchen was designed more for entertaining than cooking.
Cooking with my mom was one-part dish, one-part food-preparation, and one-part spectacle. As she breaded pork chops, Carlton Menthol 100 smoldering in one hand, pork chop in the other, she’d tell whoever was in the kitchen—or on the phone—about the fabulous shoes she found on sale at Montaldo’s, or how, while having drinks at McFann’s two of her boyfriends showed up. “What did I do? I introduced them.” Big sizzle as she dropped the pork chop into the cast iron skillet.
My dad called me a little shit when it came to food. I grew up in Denver, Colorado during the eighties. Iceberg was still the only lettuce. I was happy eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and everything Chef Boyardee. A special treat was a Hungry Man Fried Chicken dinner. This was endlessly frustrating to the father who added chopped onions to marinated hamburgers he served on whole wheat bread. I’d ask for fish sticks and French fries and he’d make blackened catfish with roasted sweet potatoes. I hated the food he made, and he resented me for never trying anything new.
That changed when I was ten. I was alone at my dad’s for the weekend. No girlfriends. No brother. No sister. No friends. We met in the kitchen after my Saturday morning routine: Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, Thunder Cats. I was rummaging through bran cereals looking for the closest thing to Captain Crunch when he came in carrying a couple pounds of frozen meat.
“Want to help make Grandma’s spaghetti sauce?”
Grandma’s spaghetti sauce had chunks of tomatoes and onions and garlic. It didn’t have melt-in-your-mouth, bite-sized meatballs like Chef Boyardee. It didn’t have meatballs at all. My dad and I had an awkward moment while I processed my options and measured the magnitude guilt trip simmering under the surface.
“You don’t have to.”
“No, I will.”
“Maybe you’ll try it when we’re done.”
I smiled to appease his delusions.
As he prepped, I asked questions. Is onion really necessary? Can you chop the garlic smaller? Can we put the tomatoes in the blender? Why don’t we make meatballs with the hamburger? Can I take the seeds out of the sausage? Why do you need tomato paste and tomatoes? Do we really need oregano, basil, parsley and bay leaves? Will I get drunk from the red wine? Once I had exhausted all my suggestions to simplify the recipe, I actually started to learn something.
As the meat sizzled in the pan, my dad showed me how to dice onions by cutting them in half through the core, then slicing them in a grid. He used the flat side of his chef’s knife to smash the garlic free of its skin. We barely spoke: just simple instructions. But the kitchen was alive with the steady rhythm of the knife on wood, and the sizzle of meat in a pan. In a large pot, he drizzled olive oil and sautéed the onion, then the garlic. He added the cooked meat with pinches of parsley and basil, salt and pepper. Next came the tomatoes, then the tomato paste, the sugar, and last, the wine. With each step the sauce became thicker, the aroma in the kitchen heavier. My dad ladled sauce into a small bowl.
“Try it,” he said.
I inspected for chunks. I stirred and scooped until I had a perfect spoonful of meat and tomatoes, no onion.
“Better than that bottled crap your mother gives you?”
The meat was tender and flavorful, the chunks bigger than Ragu.
“I guess.” I hated to admit it.
I didn’t magically open up to all kinds of food that day. But a door opened, and over the years, my dad and I spent more Saturdays cooking together. I learned more sauces: white clam sauce, boscaiola, marinara. His Italian roots, and our ritual of cooking together on weekends became a part of me. So much so that my first jobs were in restaurants. Always in the kitchen, always cooking. I went on to live in Italy for a year between high school and college—a move inspired by my mom’s need for adventure and my dad’s heritage. All of this had a cumulative effect on me. I came to define myself with elements from both parents, mixed with my own interests.
Henry is bipolar in the kitchen. Not officially. He’s only four. But he’s either enthusiastic about helping or writhing in protest on the kitchen floor. No in-between. Tonight he peels carrots, brushes mushrooms, and pounds the garlic with the back of a wooden spoon. Alison is in the kitchen now and Hazel is helping her with the bulgogi marinade.
Hazel hands her the cat comb. “Thank you Hazel.”
As broccoli sautés in a mixture of olive and sesame oils, I finish chopping the shitakes, julienne the carrots, and dice garlic for Alison’s marinade. When the broccoli is slightly crispy, I take it out and individually sauté the rest of the vegetables keeping each one separate in stacked metal bowls. While Alison fries the bulgogi, I crack two eggs in a bowl, whisk, and then make a paper-thin omelet that I’ll roll up and cut into ribbon.
Alison and I didn’t know a lot about Korean culture when we decided to adopt. We had inadvertently dabbled in some things “Korean.” I was a regular in college at the Seoul Kitchen karaoke bar, a dive joint boasting an English music selection consisting of three Sinatra tunes. I was an unofficial Raman aficionado. And when we moved to New York, a childhood friend of mine and his Korean girlfriend introduced us to K-Town and Korean Bar B Q. Hardly enough to raise Korean kids with an appreciation for Korean culture.
In a pre-adoption workshop we met a family we considered to be perfect. They redecorated their Manhattan townhouse with Korean influences, fermented their own kim chi, learned Korean, took heritage trips to Korea, became good friends with interesting Koreans who could act as role models, and they celebrated Confucius holidays. Their kids were well adjusted with a healthy appreciation of their cultural heritage. We thought they were so cool, cooler than families who didn’t think about Korean culture at all. Bi bim bap? What’s that? In workshops, children of the less culturally aware talked about that “ohmygod” moment. Oh my god! I’m Korean. I’m not Italian or Irish or Jewish? They didn’t know how to define themselves.
Alison and I set that first family on a pedestal and worshipped them regularly. We have to redecorate, we said one night looking around our Brooklyn apartment. In the months before Henry was born, we took Korean cooking classes at Kum Gang San in Flushing, Queens. We attended culture days and ordered Korean artwork for Henry’s room. When naming or kids, would keep the Korean name as the middle name—Henry Soo Min, Hazel Hyun Ah. Lying in bed at night, we imagined the interesting Korean people—artists and architects and writers—we would meet to be role models for our kids. We researched culture camps and Korean language lessons. Even before getting our first adoption referral, we were well on our way to being the perfect adoptive parents.
Then it happened. We got the call that we could travel to Korea to get Henry.
After coming home, we settled into a life of sleepless nights, developmental milestones missed, playgrounds and playgroups, and hundreds of other challenges and decisions. Surviving and “attaching” and sleeping and hitting developmental milestones was where we focused our energy. Sure, we placed Celadon ceramics on our mantle; we bought a Korean Wedding table for the dining room; and we hung a Korean flag in Henry’s room. But everything we did felt passive and we beat ourselves up for not doing more. But what more could we do with a baby? Have in-depth conversations about Korean Isolationism or the dozens of variations of Kim Chi? Was it realistic to expect a person, whose idea of a good time was chewing frozen bagels, to absorb the nuances of culture? Later, we told ourselves. He’ll have plenty of time later.
For close to a year, we let things slide. We still had dinners at Cum Gang San. We celebrated Henry’s first birthday with a Korean buffet of mondu, bulgogi and jap chae. Henry dressed up in a full hambok to perform the Korean tradition of foretelling his future by choosing one item from a group of objects. He chose a whisk (drum stick?). Aside from the birthday, and the culture days, and the Korean food, we stopped worshipping at the altar of perfect adoptive parents. Instead, we scorned them for being so perfect. But we were good parents: Henry was attached to both of us; he slept through the night; he was hitting developmental milestone; and he loved eating.
Rather, he loved eating Italian. And the more he liked Italian, the more we made it. We made homemade gnocchi with a butter-tomato sauce, tagliatelli with bolognaise, linguini with white clam sauce, and Henry’s favorite, wild mushroom risotto. The more Italian food we made, the more we stressed about Korean culture. It was just a matter of time before Henry was off to a Jesuit college where he would try to join Alpha Phi Delta and realize—OH MY GOD—I’m not Italian. He’d feel betrayed and bitter that we taught him nothing about his own culture.
Then one night when we were out for Korean food in Flushing, we had an “aha” moment of our own. As Henry munched on salted sardines, and threw his milk on the floor in a semi-psychotic dance of repetition with the nice waitress who kept picking it up, we realized he was absorbing a little culture. He was comfortable in the Korean restaurant, comfortable eating bi bim bap, bulgogi, and mandu. He was comfortable obsessing about the Korean drums hanging on the walls, and the Korean garden in back. He was the only one-year old we knew who ate both wild mushroom risotto and salted sardines. He was absorbing a mixed culture created by our family. Maybe we could loosen up and take cues from Henry. Maybe we could lay the foundation for him and build on it together. Instead of having his culture and ours, we could emphasize a family culture that encompassed both and was based on things we all loved. Henry was an eater. Food could be our first corner stone. It already was for Alison and me. Over time, his love for Korean food could broaden to other things Korean the way mine had for Italian.
Mixing It All Up
I slide the omelet out of the pan. As I roll it up and slice it into ribbons, Henry sets the table with placemats, chopsticks and the hand-hammered spoons we bought in Insa Dong on our trip to Seoul to get Hazel. He places the atlas placemat in front of his chair.
“Beast,” I say, “Where’s Korea?”
He points to the pink peninsula above China. “Here it is.”
“Who’s from Korea?”
“I am. And so is Hazel and bulgogi and bi bim bap and chongo drums.”
Arranged on our counter is a colorful array of lightly sautéed vegetables and pan-friend bulgogi. Henry climbs up on his step stool and peeks into the bowls. I want this and this and this, he says pointing to mushrooms, carrots, spinach, and broccoli. And not this. He points to the egg ribbons. Bi bim is a nonsense word meaning mix-mix in Korean. Bap means rice. Bi bim bap is a standard Korean dish and there are as many versions as there are families that make it. Our version isn’t completely authentic. The recipe we use for the bulgogi marinade is a mix of several recipes, one of which is from the back of Linda Sue Park’s book Bee-bim Bop. Her parents and Alison’s parents live in the same community and we’ve all become friends. We’re missing the kim chi. And tonight we’re using sirloin, but we’ve used ground turkey in the past. It’s our own version, adapted for our family.
“Henry, Hazel. Wait until everyone’s at the table before eating.”
Alison pours wine and I pour milk for the kids. Henry and Hazel are in their seats at the dining room table. I hear the clink of chopsticks and spoons and when we come into the dining room Hazel is eating. Henry’s chopsticks are planted firmly in the middle of his bowl, and he has a little mushroom on his chin. As Alison and I settle into our seats, Henry says, “Buon Appetito.” “Tito,” Hazel screams.
“Bi bim,” Alison says.
We all mix up our rice and dig in.