American Childhood I Didn’t Have – Meaty Cheesy Casserole

meaty cheesy casserole
As much as I would love to say that I had a very Korean upbringing and that “American” foods were foreign to me in my childhood, I can’t. Wouldn’t it have been an utterly charming story? A FOB (fresh off the boat) Korean girl faces all-American foods for the first-time, wide-eyed upon my first bite of an In-n-Out Double-Double, animal-style, then flutzing around in the kitchen armed with Betty Crocker, trying my hand for the first time at…meatloaf. But I’m not first generation, fresh off KAL flight 011 arriving LAX at 14:30 with a medium-sized Tupperware half-full of bi-bim-bahp, the last Korean meal I’ll ever eat. I’m not even a Korean immigrant who spent my childhood back in the motherland but came to the US early enough so that the accent comes out only every once in a while – what we call the 1.5 generation, now longing for the authentic taste of soon doo-boo jji-gae and naeng-myun that is so sorely missing in this brave, new country.

No, America is my country. I was born in the Motor City. I grew up in Buffalo wing, New York. I visited the Alamo every weekend, and listened to WKRP in Cincinnati. I did have an “American” upbringing.

Sort of. (WKRP isn’t a real station).

I had as an “American” upbringing as a second generation Korean girl could have.

My Delicious Korean family lived in neighborhoods that had very sparse Asian populations, so the availability of Asian foods to my family was limited. Despite this, Mom did an excellent job of “making do” with what was available to her – herbs and vegetables she grew in her garden (perilla leaves), ingredients available at the local HEB in San Antonio, A&P in Bloomfield Hills, and Kroger in Cincinnati, as well as the goh-choo-jahng, gim (nori), and oh-jing-uh (dried squid) she smuggled back from trips to Korea. As difficult as it would seem, we ate Korean food all the time, and I naturally loved every fishy, pungent garlic, stinky fermented soybean and rotting cabbage.

And yet.

And yet we were all trying very hard to be “American.”

Dad didn’t want his three American-born daughters to ever be thought of as refugee immigrant orphans. He would tell us “You are Korean,” immediately followed by “But you are also American.” It was always an introduction to a tactical lecture about how to integrate with American society – speak correctly, dress conservatively, and never forget that anyone who isn’t Korean thinks kimchee stinks to high heaven.

meaty cheese casserole
goes well with kimchee

We were Korean living in a very non-Korean Midwest and South, and of course, this all made me that much more aware of my being Korean, I think, than if I were living amongst a large population of Koreans. Having a different ethnic identity, coupled with the fact that I was already battling normal adolescent mental weirdness, it made being Korean one more thing to make me different when all I wanted to do was blend in with the Heathers. I tried the best I could to ignore the fact that I was Korean. I never wanted to be known as Korean, and in fact, I don’t think I even really understood myself as a Korean person, only as “oriental.” It is only in recent years, college perhaps (which yes, don’t remind me, is not so recent), that I began to really appreciate my Asian ethnicity, my Korean heritage, and outwardly acknowledge how much I love the Korean foods I ate as a child. Wow, talk about a girl with some serious psychological dual-identity baggage! Don’t worry, Sarah and I both think the therapy is working. ;)

The things I wished we would eat more often were “American” things – steak, dinners out at Denny’s and Big Boy, and spaghetti. None of these are truly American, but we kids called anything that wasn’t Korean or Chinese food “American.” Last August, I got a chance to write about my five favorite childhood food memories. My choices are curiously telling, though, now that I think about them. Although some of them reveal the influences of my Korean heritage, like stirring goh-choo-jahng (Korean red pepper paste) into just about every dish and serving kimchee at every meal, none of the foods are Korean. They were foods that my parents served us to teach us “American.” I remember loving linguine with white clam sauce, “canned” meat products like Dinty Moore beef stew, Vienna sausages, and corned beef hash (spam was never a favorite of mine), Little Caesar’s Crazy Bread, apple cider doughnuts, and watermelon tips.

But as American a lifestyle that we were trying to imitate in Detroit, Cincinnati, Buffalo, we never ate some of the other classically American foods: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, pork chops. I don’t think Mom ever made a single casserole, even though she owned a complete set of the covered Corning ware casserole dishes that have the little avocado green and mustard yellow fruit and floral designs on them. You know the ones, because your Mom had them, too. Isn’t that weird? And yes, if you look in the lower cabinets under the counter across from the stove right now, you’ll find them. Mom still has hers, and I think she still doesn’t use them.

meaty cheese casserole - cooling
that sure doesn’t look like jahp-chae

My sister and I made dinner together the other night, and something possessed both of us to make a casserole. This retro-domestic demon came out of nowhere, since we didn’t grow up on casseroles. My suspicion is that the brand new Bunny has turned her into a housemom. We had to wing it because we never stood on tip-toe, just barely able to peer over the counter’s edge to watch our Mom make Tuna or Hamburger Helper. We made the casserole, as I call it, by “nook-kim,” a Korean word that doesn’t have an exact English translation, but means something like “feeling” or “instinct.” She and I were in the kitchen, laughing our heads off about the McGoey brats we used to babysit and trying to figure out how Mrs. McGoey would have made a casserole. Isn’t there supposed to be more sauce? I don’t know, is there?

The beauty of a casserole, though, is that it absolutely is made by “nook-kim – whatever you fe
el like eating, that’s what you toss together in this deep baking dish and bake at the universal temperature of 350 degrees for the universal bake-time of 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Crap. That’s for brownies. Did I mess it up again? Add more sauce! Add more cheese! For my sister’s and my meaty cheesy casserole, bake until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese has melted.

I’m going to ask my Mom for her casseroles dishes.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 rick james February 5, 2006 at 9:14 am

green bean casserole….. a trailer park delicacy… ghetto fabulous

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2 Admin February 5, 2006 at 10:26 am

Now whats with the date.

The picture makes me want to lick the screen. Do post the recipes too, i, of bachelor cooking will want to try it too.

Reply

3 Admin February 5, 2006 at 10:26 am

Now whats with the date.

The picture makes me want to lick the screen. Do post the recipes too, i, of bachelor cooking will want to try it too.

Reply

4 Swati February 5, 2006 at 7:05 pm

As one “oriental” to another, asian dishes have a “zing-tinga-ling-tastebud exploding quality” that makes us adore home food.
Western food is bland and does fill ones tum-tum, is even fun to make and less hassle too.
My nephew’s wife was a student in Korea and she found the food alien and yucky.
Pity that she did not know this site. Am sure she would have come to appreciate the food.
There are lots of Japanese restaurants opening up in India. In a few years, what with all those industrial joint entures taking off, there may be Korean eateries as well!
Then I will really know what you are talking about.

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5 aoife February 5, 2006 at 7:56 pm

Ooh! I also tried casseroles for the first time, since I didn’t grow up with them either. Check it out

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6 Grace February 5, 2006 at 8:33 pm

“Oriental!?!?” Errrr. Can’t tell if that was a joke or not, so I’ll take it as a joke.

I’ve never made a casserole (due to a lack of an oven my whole life, sob) ever, so my fascination with them is immense. (: Everytime I see one, I have to HAVE to eat it, no matter what it tastes/looks like (except if it has mushrooms – then I refuse to touch it with a 10 foot pole, ha).

But yours! It looks divine! If I made one.. I’d be saying “Moreeeeeeee cheese. Come on, don’t be shy. More. Now.”

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7 sarah February 5, 2006 at 8:38 pm

hey grace!

actually, it wasn’t a joke. when i was growing up in the midwest and the south, i only ever heard the word “oriental” so it was totally naturally for me to call myself that. i’m actually not sensitive to it, though it was only until i moved to the west coast that i realized that many people find the term to be totally offensive. personally, i don’t care either way. eep!

and yes, the onyl thing that held me and my sister back from adding more cheese is that…we ran out. LOL!

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8 Grace February 6, 2006 at 8:46 am

Oooh. I didn’t have your usage of “Oriental” in mind when I wrote my comment, only swati’s, so I guess you can disregard the first portion of my comment. (;

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9 sarah February 6, 2006 at 4:24 pm

no worries, grace! thanks so much for coming back! :)

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10 hermz February 8, 2006 at 1:17 am

When Ira was getting ready to move to Maine, we made a “clean out the fridge” casserole. Spaghetti noodles topped with sausage, onions, pineapple, cilantro, some spaghetti sauce, and some cheese. It was so good we made it again in Maine… haha!

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11 sarah February 8, 2006 at 2:35 am

that is scary.

scary AWESOME, that is!

lol! i can’t believe you put PINEAPPLE in it! everything else is understandable, but PINEAPPLE!

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12 kenneth February 8, 2006 at 6:42 pm

Great post.
It’s stories like this that keep me reading your site.

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13 sarah February 8, 2006 at 6:59 pm

thanks kenneth!

just visited your site…are you from san antonio?!??!

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14 kenneth February 8, 2006 at 11:20 pm

Yup, from SA, but living in SF now.
Just sent you an email . . .

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15 greenyunka January 27, 2007 at 6:36 pm

Hi Sarah, I was introduced to your blog by my sister, who works with one of your friends in Orange County. My sister & I have a similar upbringing like yours, a second generation Asian-American raised in the Midwest. It’s very refreshing reading about your childhood and experiences. I love your entries on the food, too. Keep posting, and I’ll keep reading!

— Kareen

Reply

16 greenyunka January 27, 2007 at 6:36 pm

Hi Sarah, I was introduced to your blog by my sister, who works with one of your friends in Orange County. My sister & I have a similar upbringing like yours, a second generation Asian-American raised in the Midwest. It’s very refreshing reading about your childhood and experiences. I love your entries on the food, too. Keep posting, and I’ll keep reading!

— Kareen

Reply

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