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During the Korean War, Grace M. Cho’s mother was just a kid when she got separated from her family. Eventually, she found her way back home but had to survive on her own off of kimchi and rice for months. This week, Cho shares her mother’s story of war, survival and how cooking opened a door between generations.
We also learn about ginseng digging in Appalachia; we make Spaghetti with Ricotta, Tomatoes, and Herbs; and Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette share the rules of the dinner table—and the best ways to break them.
Questions in this episode:
"Do you have any ideas for new salad dressings I can try to make at home?"
"What’s the best way to soak beans?"
Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host, Christopher Kimball. What's the best way to tell a friend they have a little ketchup in their beard or mayo on their face? Martha Burnette has one idea.
Martha Barnette: And that's the expression. There's a gazelle on the line, or there's a gazelle in the park.
CK: Today, Martha Barnett and Grant Barrett from a way with words share the secret code words families use around the dinner table. That's coming up later in the show. But first, to help us understand the long history of ginseng in Appalachia. I'm joined by Luke Manget, author of Ginseng Diggers, A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia. Luke, welcome to Milk Street.
Luke Manget: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
CK: So, ginseng was a huge trade item between mostly Appalachia, I guess, and China in the 19th century. But let's start with the obvious question, which is what is ginseng?
LM: Yes, so ginseng is an herbaceous perennial plant and regrows about 18 inches high if you walked by it in the forest. If you didn't know what you're looking for you you would walk right by it, you know, and it's a medicinal plant long used in Asia for a variety of purposes.
CK: You right, that right after the American Revolution, we were trying to send a trade expedition to China. And a boat reaches China with 100,000 pounds of ginseng. So, so ginseng was not just an economic issue for the people digging it but it also had implications for trade on a national level as well.
LM: Yeah, you're right. It helped open trade between the United States and China. The US had traded ginseng and sent it to China for you know, few decades before that, but it had always gone through Great Britain on British ships. But after the revolution, we were eager to to establish economic independence. And the Chinese were pretty happy over there across the Pacific and didn't want a whole lot of what we had. But it did want ginseng. So, it helped kind of establish that kind of trade relationship with China.
CK: And as I guess that's not a crop because this was wild. But you were talking about 25 to 60 cents a pound before the Civil War. You see other plants true from two to 20 cents a pound. Right? So, this was this was gold in the Hills. I mean, this was highly valuable, right?
LM: Yes, yes. You know, you could make as much money digging a pound of ginseng as you could working for wages you know, for a couple of weeks, it was readily available. I mean, people are talking about digging 60 pounds a day.
CK: So, let's talk about the commons. You know, in England, there was common land in a village where everyone could graze their sheep, for example, but this idea of the commons common land, persisted, I guess, in Appalachia as well. So, for example, if you were digging up ginseng, was there an idea that there was sort of a common claim to land?
LM: Yes. So, the the Appalachian kind of enforced commons, were never inscribed in law. They were never formalized. I mean, it was more just conducted on local levels between landowners and commons users. And it was tradition established fairly early on that these wild plants were property of the harvester. I mean, if you found them, you can dig them wherever they were.
CK: But as an economic commodity, it became a serious trade product. Right?
LM: Right. I mean, especially early on, when pretty much anybody who knew how to find it could dig it in and they would dig it. So early on. Yeah, I mean, it was people of all socio-economic backgrounds, dug it, as one guy put it, you know, the best citizens of these counties in West Virginia, were the ones digging ginseng. That changes a little bit over time, by the late 19 century, especially in the wake of the post-Civil War depression. It seems to be only those people who are, you know, landless land poor. On the lower end of the socio-economic scale, were the ones digging it.
CK: I really loved it. So, you wrote the Daniel Boone was part of this it was part of the story was so exactly what do they have to do with ginseng?
LM: Yeah, so Daniel Boone, of course, becomes famous as a long Hunter right and trading furs and skins but in the 1780s he moves over to the mouth of limestone Creek in Kentucky and starts digging ginseng, and he got his sons to dig it. He purchased it from his neighbors became something of a dealer and then hauled it up the Ohio River on flat boat towards Pennsylvania. And he you know, the flat boat apparently according to the lore, capsized and sunk and ruined you know, most of the shipment, but he still still received quite a bit of money from it. But yeah, he was a big-time digger.
CK: Was there a domestic market for this?
LM: It was almost entirely an export product. It was valued so much as a commodity that people traded it rather than using it. And American medicine never developed a fondness for it, really until late in the 20th century, when, when it becomes part of this kind of natural foods, natural medicines movement. You got to remember what American medicine that the kind of the theories underpinning American medicine before the germ theory really takes hold in the late 19th, early 20th century. And so, they believed in this in humoral theory, and so it was about balancing the humors. And so, you bleed people, you purge them, you make them throw up, right, you get diarrhea, I mean, so, so what they wanted out of a medicine was was was action, right? And it needed to have a powerful effect. And ginseng just didn't have that powerful effect it didn’t make you throw up. You know, it didn't it didn't give you diarrhea. And so, it didn't fit in with a lot of what American physicians’ kind of believed was was, you know, effective medicine.
CK: Your great great grandfather was a ginseng digger. Did I get that right?
LM: Yeah. So, my great, great grandfather, John Ulysses Greer was born in 1865, right after the war in Pike County, Kentucky, and he loved to dig ginseng. I mean, I think his father, his father taught him, and he taught his sons and sometimes he'd be gone for, you know, for a long time, all afternoon or days. And he'd be out yeah
CK: So, this is in your this runs in your blood.
LM: Yeah yeah it does.
CK: Okay. All right. So, there is this huge, boom, every lot of people out there with shovels digging, why did it continue for a long time? The resource, you know, continued, or was it essentially wiped out after the 19th Century?
LM: Yeah, so that's a good question. And this is a question that drove a lot of my research is just how did the diggers treat this resource, you know, it was a common resources available to everybody, you know, how sustainable was this trade? And so, I found some store leaders from West Virginia, that indicated that some diggers did it adhere to to a season to a ginseng season. So, ginseng goes to seed sometime in September, and you know, if it doesn’t go to seed, you can't replant the seeds, you know so, these merchants refuse to trade in ginseng before September, and it doesn't appear in their books. And so that indicated to me that at least some communities and at least maybe some stores had established some sort of unofficial ginseng season. It was kind of stabilized, right? If people didn't have to just go out and dig as much as they could, whenever they found it wherever they found it. And after the Civil War, though, there was just a lot more pressure on this Commons industry. You know, everybody took to the woods, people started digging it full time, people from outside of the region started coming into these Appalachian communities and started digging it out. And so, you have something of a lot more complicated dynamics at work here that really leads to the disappearance of ginseng. So, you know, it was over harvested, but there were people that tried, you know, there were people that tried to steward the resource replant seeds, but there were also people that, that were eager to dig it out as soon as they could. So, there's always been that tension, I think, in Appalachia between kind of responsible stewards of ginseng, and you know, the gold miners of the ginseng trade.
CK: Luke, thank you very much. It's been a real pleasure. It's been fun. Thank you,
LM: Chris. Thanks for the talk. I enjoyed it.
CK: That was Luke Manget Professor of History at Dalton State College also author of Ginseng Diggers History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia.
Today, people in Appalachia are still hunting ginseng, and some are really focused on conserving it. We spoke with one of them Sarah Jackson, a ginseng steward, and sometimes Hunter based in Batcave, North Carolina.
Sarah Jackson: Ginseng hunting is not the easiest thing to do. It's a very elusive plant. Some cultures say that Jensen can hide, and they say that ginseng can choose to only show itself to people that it feels is worthy to harvest it. In my opinion, ginseng is pretty much one of the most beautiful plants. I would prefer it even over, you know, some of the more showy wildflowers, you know when it sprouts from the ground and spring is this beautiful kind of light green color. Definitely like a spring green. And oftentimes through the season it turns kind of like this dark kind of glow. I'll see green and it develops these ruby red berries. And as summer moves to autumn, the planet turns from dark green to bright gold. Maybe that's one reason ginseng is called green gold. It's because it literally turns gold. When you're out ginseng hunting, there's bears. There bat caves, we have copperheads. We have rattlesnakes, you know, there's also nettles and briars. But it's definitely always worth it when you see golden ginseng plants, or the red berries. Gleaming sometimes in a beam of sunlight, you find you find them you're like, oh, there it is. There you are. It definitely makes all of those things worth it.
CK: That was ginseng steward and sustainability advocate Sarah Jackson in Batcave North Carolina. You can learn more about ginseng stewardship and conservation at United Plant Savers.org. Next up, it's time to take your calls with Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television, also author of Home Cooking 101. So, Sara, you and I have a disagreement.
Sara Moulton: And just one?
CK: Well, one I'm going to talk about now, you decided at some point in your career not to do all the mis en plus at the beginning. I mean, you've been a chef, I get it because you know what you're doing. And you know when to do things ahead of time and when not to. But I think that for people learning to cook or not as trained as you are, getting everything prepped ahead of time, I think is really important for success in the kitchen. So now defend yourself.
SM: All right, all right, here's what I'm going to say. There's two different kinds of cooks. I mean, there's a million different kinds of cooks. But there's two basic categories, people who cook for fun and pleasure and to learn, and people. And sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they do, and people who have to get dinner on the table. And as a working mother for a million years, I was in the latter category, even though I started in the former category. And when you have to get dinner on the table every night of the week, you start looking for any which way to cut corners. And so that's when mis en plus went right out the window. Now you're right, I do have a little more knowledge than most people. But even so if you're working with a simple recipe, you can look at it. And you just need to spend the time to read through the whole thing. And you can see what things you could do. While something else is cooking. I think any beginning cook could figure that out. But if you're the kind of person who just wants to have excitement in cooking, you should do your mis en plus I agree with you there.
CK: I just think I'm so sold on doing all the prep, cleaning up having everything ready. And then doing the cooking I just think makes cooking so much more fun. And the success rate is much higher.
SM: Well, I agree the success rate is much higher.
CK: Anyway, we kind of sort of kind of half maybe agree. Let's take a call.
SM: Yes. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi, this is Brad.
SM: Hi, Brad. Where are you calling from?
Caller: Washington DC.
SM: And what is your question today?
Caller: Well, I've been having a bit of salad dressing problems lately. I've been for the longest time in just doing a basic really good balsamic vinaigrette at and lately it's just not doing it for me. I was wondering if you guys have any recommendations for recipes or little tricks up your sleeve how to improve my salad dressing game
SM: I don't know if you're talking about just a traditional authentic read. But in that department, you're probably not adding enough salt right off the bat. The other thing is if you tried sherry vinegar just as a different base. It's really wonderful with mustard and olive oil and salt and pepper. Now if you want to go through a different route, if you take a very small pear and you simmer it with vinegar and cook it down vinegar, little water and little honey and then puree it and add some walnut oil (ooh fancy) that is really yummy, particularly if you have a dressing with some say bleu cheese in it. And then last but not least would be a garlic cream dressing. This also has sherry vinegar in it. Take Sherry and mustard and cut up a clove of garlic and you know that you sort of run around the bowl you're making it in and salt again and then you add half of olive oil and half heavy cream and it's really beautiful dressing. I mean whisk it in slowly. That coats say butter lettuce and it's just so yummy. But now I know Chris is going to take you around the world
CK: Yeah, I have a lot of things to say. First of all, it depends on the lettuce. Let's say there are two kinds. There's sort of very mild like butter lettuce, right? And then there are the sort of more bitter radicchio, etc. So, let's assume it to mild lettuce. The big problem is most people use a vinegar that's way too high and acid. So, a red wine vinegar can be 7% acid 6% acid. And that causes also some problems because why would you put a sharply acidic vinegar on a very tender, mild green? So, my argument is start with a vinegar that's very low acid. My favorite is called Calamansi vinegar, which is made with sour oranges, which is a little fruity. And yes, you have to go online to buy it, you could use a rice wine vinegar, which is for four and a half percent. So, here's what I do, I don't make an emulsification which will blow Sara's head off. (No) and I just use the following things molten salt, which I sprinkled not in the dressing right on the lettuce, I use a little bit of a very low acid vinegar, I use a good olive oil, although you could use grapeseed oil for example, and don't use much dressing under dress. And finally, I add a little Za’atar which is a herb mix from the Middle East is a tar is a wild herb like marjoram or thyme, oregano. It has some sumac in it, which is a sort of lemony berry, and sesame seeds. You can find that online too, but you don't have to use it and toss it for a minute or two and you're good to go. If you have bitter greens, then you can up the game. And one final dressing for vegetables especially is a classic like Japanese formula, which is four parts soy sauce, two parts mirin, one-part toasted sesame oil, and a little sugar. one part sugar. And that's a great whole purpose dressing for Brussel sprouts or carrots or whatever. It's a great salad dressing for vegetables.
SM: I have to add one more thing too. I'm sorry, I thought of something else
CK: You’re going to say emulsification?
SM: Fresh herbs are fantastic. (Excellent) So leaves of basil and parsley and dill. And you know, the softer herbs are wonderful. Just throw them in like they're another lettuce leaf.
CK: Some places in the world, they use just herbs for their salad
SM: Right and then finally, when you toss the salad, use your hands. That's the best tool. Seriously, just make sure they're impeccably clean.
Caller: I'm rapidly taking notes, but I think I'll start with the salt. get my hands dirty and then think about vinegars. i This is great. Thank you so much. Thanks for calling. I appreciate it.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you need help in the kitchen, Sara and I are ready to take your calls. Give us a ring anytime our number is 855-426-9843. That's 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street. Radio.com. Welcome to milk straight. Who's calling?
Caller: This is Michael ___ from Silver City, New Mexico.
CK: How are you?
Caller I'm fine. How are you?
CK: Pretty good. How can we help you?
Caller: I've seen online numerous times different methods of presoaking beans before you cook them to ensure that they get soft and they're not hard inside and they cook adequately. I've seen baking soda. I've seen add salt. I've seen don't add salt. There's acids and you don't want to use acids. And I'm wondering what does the science culinary aspects of it say and also our vitamin D vitamins produced if you have too much baking soda.
CK: Okay in order you have to soak beans overnight. If you do a quick presoak, you know the old bring it to a boil let it sit off the heat for an hour doesn't really work very well. The reason you want to soak overnight, and you use two quarts of water for one tablespoon of table salt, or two tablespoons of kosher salt, the salt helps soften up the outside of the bean to allow water to get in. And that will allow them to plump up nicely as they will you'll see the next day that they've grown at least twice in size maybe three times. It's like looking at a yeast dough and you will get even cooking and you'll get perfectly cooked beans. It's absolutely essential and the salt is what really does the trick. Some people do use a little baking soda but just one tablespoon of table salt to two quarts of water will do the trick done overnight and will be great. And obviously just draining rinse them and then cook them. It also gets some of the digestive issues out because you're soaking the beans and then you discard that water which is also helpful.
SM: I agree 100% with Chris the beans are so much more evenly cooked so much more tender and so much better seasoned. But also, after you drain them and rinse them then you put them in fresh water you add a little more salt. Now as for the acid that is a complicated question. I've never understood Boston baked beans.
CK: They don't bake if you add vinegar or mustard to them
SM: You add that at the end (the end) and after they're basically baked. And so, acid will slow down the process. I do believe that if you just cooked them forever with the acid, you'd probably get there but it would, you know, be a lot of work.
CK: No, I years ago I did Boston baked beans and I put the acid in at the beginning. Eight hours later. It was still cooking
SM: Okay, never mind so they basically need to be cooked and then you add the molasses and the ketchup and all the other stuff. But the other thing about the baking soda is it does speed up the cooking time. But you've already sped up the cooking time if you soaked them overnight. And if you overdo the baking soda, it's going to taste sort of soapy. So, I tend not to use baking soda. It's already been sped up enough.
CK: There you go. Thank you for calling.
SM: Thanks, Mike. Thank
Caller: Thank you very much. Thank you.
SM: Okay, Bye bye.
CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio up next Grace Cho’s show on food, family and war that's coming up in just a moment. This is Milk Street Radio, I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with Grace Cho, author of Tastes Like War. Grace, welcome to Milk Street
Grace M. Cho: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
CK: Our pleasure. You know, we've read a lot of books where people talk about immigration or going from one place to another, and the importance of course of food. But I think that your book Tastes Like War really takes this to a whole new level. Because the difference between the beginning point and the ending point is really so, so extreme. Let's start with your mother in Korea, during the Korean War, when Japan was was there, just talk about her life, then what you know about it?
GC: Yeah, you know, she didn't really talk much about her life growing up. Because I think it was so traumatic that it took decades for that story to sort of unfold, because whenever I asked her about Korea, she would just sort of go blank. And even as a child, I could tell that something really traumatic had happened to her. So, in my adult life, I started to research the Korean War. And, you know, sort of piece together what I learned from my research and the little crumbs of information that my mom dropped over the decades. And so, the very first thing I ever learned about her experience during the Korean War was that at age nine, she became a refugee with her family. But there was so much chaos during the movement of refugees, that it was really common for people to get separated from their children. So, she told me a story about how she got separated from her family, and then had to make her way back to her family's home and found some kimchi that my grandmother had buried in the backyard, and some rice in the pantry. And the way she described it was that she survived off of that for three seasons. And then eventually her family came back to the house. And so that was my first, you know, one of my first revelations about my mom's experience in the war.
CK: When I read that story, the thing that struck me was three seasons. Yeah,
GC: It does speak to sort of like not being aware of a calendar. But you mark time by the changes in the environment in the weather.
CK: It just struck me as a nine-year-old eating kimchi and rice by herself in the family home for many months. Yeah, just not knowing if she'd ever see your family again. And I think of all the things in the book that that one struck me the most because of the age and also her resourcefulness. I mean, (absolutely) And then as a teenager, she starts working as a bar girl and that was also not a great experience, I guess.
GC: Yeah. And I don't actually know with any certainty that details. I only have guesses based on, you know, again, these crumbs of information that my mom dropped, as well as some things that I've learned from other family members, and then filled in with the research that I did about post war South Korea, and the way in which the South Korean government established all of these entertainment districts around the US bases. And so, all I know is that my mom was, you know, it was some time between her high school years in her early 20s, when she went to work at one of these bases. And, you know, I think that a lot of the women who worked there ended up doing some sort of sex work. And even if they didn't, they were associated with sex work. And so, they were highly stigmatized in Korean society for fraternizing with the American soldiers. And so that stigma sort of followed her and all of these other women throughout their lives.
CK: So, tell us what happens next, the end up in the state of Washington, south of Seattle, Olympia area, how did that happen?
GC: So my father was a white American Merchant Marine. And I guess a couple of years after they married when I was a year and a half, we moved to his hometown of ___ Washington. But it was a very small conservative rural town, almost no people of color. And as far as I know, we were the only Koreans in the town at that time. And so, it was a very isolating experience for my mom, to, you know, not only leave her home country in her family, but then to arrive in this community where there's no one else of her kind. And where a lot of people were pretty xenophobic, and you know, didn't exactly welcome her.
CK: Yeah, it's interesting to think about, on one hand, we think about her childhood and teenage years and how difficult and horrible it was losing your brother in the war, you know, living alone for months at a time. But then she goes somewhere where the privation and the harshness of war, etcetera, is removed. But it's sort of another kind of hell, right?
GC: Right. Absolutely. You know, because the other thing to remember is that, unlike a lot of immigrant families, my mom was cut off from other adults of her ethnicity, race, and language, right. And so, it was an experience of extreme culture shock of not having that connection, and also not having access to Korean food. You know, which was another thing that really dawned on me when I was an adult's that I would think back to these memories of how, how long, and hard she searched for sources for Korean food. And our, during our first few years in the United States, we would make these summer long trips back to Korea to visit my grandmother. And my mom would come back with a suitcase full of supplies to cook Korean food at home.
CK: So, before we get to food, and you cooking for her, which is really interesting, let's just talk about her mental state. You think she had schizophrenia. You write, she watches Wheel of Fortune and thinks that the puzzles are sending her secret messages? Is this something that happened early on in your childhood was something that sort of manifested itself later?
GC: Yeah, I noticed the signs of it when I was 15. You know, and I think one of the first things I noticed was that she had stopped foraging, suddenly, she had less of an interest in food, which was very unusual for her. But then more and more, I started to notice things like, you know, it seemed like she was talking to herself or arguing with someone who wasn't there. She started talking about government conspiracies and how she was involved or how other members of my family were involved. And I was so scared that I didn't want to talk to anybody until I had done my own research. And I went to the high school library, to read this, the 12th grade psychology textbook. And I matched up her behaviors with paranoid schizophrenia. I told my dad and my brother about it, but neither of them believed me. And so then my next step was to go to the Community Mental Health Care Center, just to speak with a counselor, who then told me that it did sound a lot like paranoid schizophrenia, but there was nothing that they could do for my mom, which sort of then led me on this path to want justice because I experienced it at that young age as a huge injustice that she had been turned away and that I had been told that, you know, she was basically disposable.
CK: I know, people who have Bipolar conditions and other things, and my experience is that they do not understand this at all. They throw some drugs at it, but I think it's poorly understood.
GC: Right. And you know, I think what you're saying is that the the medical model of thinking about these experiences of the mind is so limited, especially in the 1980s the thinking then was that it was purely biological. There were no social factors that wasn't connected to trauma. And the way that you treat it is that you look at these voices as symptoms that you can make disappear with medication.
CK: So, you ended up, I don't know, is it a response to her condition, but you ended up cooking for her. And that tell that story because I think that's so interesting.
GC: Well, I didn't start cooking for her until 1998, which was when she moved from Washington State to New Jersey, and I was living in Brooklyn at the time. And so, I would go down on weekends to cook for her because her interest in cooking had been consistently waning over the years. So as part of this effort to try to get her to eat more eat things that were nutritious. It was very difficult for me at first, because she rejected the food that I was offering. But eventually, she started to eat like little by little, she started to eat the food that I was cooking. And at some point, she started to ask for Korean food. And that's when I think there was a turning point that something sort of woke up in her. And so, she, you know, there were all of these experiences when she would say, you know, I want you to make me some kung fu kung fu or I want you to make me think that you get these were dishes that I had never tasted. Like she never cooked them. For me as a child. They were dishes that my grandmother used to cook for her. And so, the more we did this, the more I came to understand that she was not only teaching me how to cook Korean food, but she was teaching me how to care for her. Because these were her comfort foods that she hadn't eaten since she was a child.
CK: You want to explain what those dishes are?
GC: Oh, yes, sorry. So, kung fu is a cold noodle dish in a fresh soy milk, a fresh savory soy milk. And it's a summer dish because you eat it cold with ice cubes. There are very few ingredients, but the just the freshness, and the depth of flavor of those ingredients makes the dish really delicious. And Sancta chicken is like a white fish stew with radishes and a lot of garlic and red pepper. So, it's very spicy, garlicky just packs a punch of flavor. And so, the first time I made that for her, she sighed and said, I haven't tasted this for 40 years. And you know, that's when I knew that there was something really powerful about cooking these meals for her. Because growing up, she wanted to keep me out of the kitchen. She didn't want me to cook. Because she saw cooking as something that was at odds with becoming a scholar. She wanted me to study and get an education.
CK: So, did this help her mental state in her later years that she reconnected through the food or not?
GC: Well, it did. And you know, I don't know how much of it was the food. I think some of it was the food. But I think it was also that we shared these meals together in a really intimate way. You know, because I took this as an act of her giving me a gift, which was the gift of being able to connect my family history, because for so much of my life, all of that had been foreclosed to me. But here she was teaching me how to cook the foods that my grandmother used to make. And in doing that, and in sharing these meals together, she would also sometimes tell stories about those meals and about the people who used to cook them for her. And after a while she even started to talk a little bit about the war. You know, so I felt like there was this healing going on. That wasn't just between her and the food, but about what the you know, the collective act of doing this provided for us. So, it sort of healed the wounds between us, but also the wounds of our traumatic family history and the collective history. Because we think about food as medicine sometimes, medicine for the body or medicine for the soul. But I haven't really seen much on food as medicine for the collective wounds. Right, because this was addressing like this Korean diasporic history that was so full of trauma and still is.
CK: Let's go back to this issue of culture shock and mental illness. Where do you come out on that? We talked briefly about schizophrenia, and I assume you believe that the shock she went through while in Korea and then coming here had a lot to do with her mental state later on.
GC: Oh, absolutely. You know, like the the things that happen in one's mind are often manifestations of the way we interact with the social world. And so, in the the social scientific research on schizophrenia, now, they've identified certain social risk factors and you know, for my mom, a lot of them originated in the wartime experience in the post war experience. But then immigration itself is a social risk factor for schizophrenia. And so is being a person of color in a white neighborhood. And so, once I started to do that research, I really look back on our immigration experience as one of the triggers for my mom's, you know, mental health decline.
CK: And then you tell a story about when she died and and bringing something that you wanted with her when she was cremated, right.
GC: Yeah, she died really suddenly. So, I didn't expect it to happen. And the last time I saw her, she asked me to get her Saengseon jeon, which is a fish pancake. And so, when I went to the funeral home, I took the Saengseon jeon with me. And I asked the funeral director if he could send it with her for the cremation. And then he gave me a moment to be alone with her. And so, I said to her that I hadn't forgotten about the Saengseon jeon.
CK: Your book is entitled Tastes Like War. What does that mean? What tastes like work?
GC: So, I took the title from a moment in which I went to visit my mom in her apartment in New Jersey. And I asked if she was getting enough to eat. And she said that she had some powdered milk, but that she couldn't stand the taste of it. And I asked why. And she said, it tastes like war. Because during the American occupation, and then during the Korean War, there was an experience that a lot of Koreans had of receiving American food aid. And that often in that food aid came powdered milk, which is not part of a Korean diet. So, you will not find dairy anywhere in traditional Korean cuisine. Most Koreans are lactose intolerant. And so, it, you know, it it reminded me of something from my research, in which one woman spoke about how her village was so excited to get these barrels of food from the Americans, and that they thought it might be rice or barley, and they drooled at the thought of so much food. And when they opened it, it was powdered milk. And they were disappointed, but they still drank it. And then they all suffered for days with diarrhea. And so that title just it just really spoke to me in thinking about how so much of my mom's longings around food and her rejection of food was tied up in this trauma of the Korean War, and the effects of US imperialism. And so, when thinking about the book as a food memoir, I didn't really want it to be a typical food memoir, I wanted it to really explore some of these really difficult moments and the dark side of the foods that we eat and how, how the, you know, the food that we eat doesn't just represent our warm, fuzzy moments, it can also represent our traumas.
CK: Grace, it's been it's just really been a privilege to speak with you. Thank you so much.
GC: Thank you so much for having me.
CK: That was Grace Cho, author of Tastes Like War. You know there's a lot of science about food and memory. The key takeaway is that food is emotional. Scientists claim that the area of the brain that stores food memories is also responsible for emotion as well as location, hence the power of McDonald's Happy Meals. But for me, a taste of beaten biscuits reminds me of a wake in Baltimore. A molasses cookie brings me back to a Vermont farmhouse. A sip of cold cream soda puts me in a 1960 green Ford pickup after a long hot day of haying. You know, the sooner we realize that we are emotional beings, the quicker we'll come to terms with our essential nature's creatures desperately seeking our own version of Happy Meals.
This is Milk Street Radio. Coming up Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette share the secret code words families use around the dinner table. That's right up after the break.
I'm Christopher Kimball, you're listening to Milk Street Radio right now it's time to chat with JM Hirsch about this week's recipe spaghetti with ricotta, tomatoes, and herbs. JM, how are you?
JM Hirsch: I'm great.
CK: You know, both of us has spent a little time in Rome over many years, and you can find very good food. And you can find I hate to say it mediocre food. And that especially is true of pasta, right? Absolutely. However, the good news is you were in Rome recently. And you found a place that served the world's simplest pasta dish. That was also extraordinary and also had a lot of teachings about the secrets of Italian pasta, right?
JM: Yeah, you know, I was really impressed by this recipe. I was at a restaurant called for Felice a Testaccio and Testaccio is a neighborhood in Rome, and its frankly kind of a rough and tumble neighborhood. And the restaurant was founded in 1936 by Felice Trivelloni he was famous for two things his cacio e pepe, and his foul temper. Apparently, even regulars were thrown out of the restaurant on his whim. Even if they had reservations. He didn't care. I love this guy. Apparently, he did this though, because there were so many kind of rough and tumble folks in his neighborhood who might need a meal. He always saved places for them in the restaurant. At least that's how the mythology tells him along the way, you know, in addition to his c and other pastas, you know, the classic Roman pastas. He created a dish of his own, which was pasta e Felice. And it was just a really surprisingly good and wonderfully simple pasta.
CK: So, is there anything special about how to make this the secret to the recipe or is it pretty much business as usual?
JM: Well, you know what, that's the best part of it. It's so simple, you don't need any secrets. You just need really fresh ingredients and to use the power of pasta because that's really what's going on here. You're using al dente pasta, and its starchy cooking water to create a sauce in an instant using chopped up grape tomatoes, tons of herbs like mint, basil, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and ricotta cheese. And as we have learned, you know, the Italians love to toss their pasta because when you toss it, you're working all those starches that then mix with the water mixed with the cheese, and it creates a sauce. And so, you toss this fresh pasta with the cheese with the tomatoes which are now releasing their juices because you've salted them and you let them like ooze into the pasta, and you've got all those herbs and you toss it and you toss it and you toss it. And the result is this just delicious fresh sauce that has so much flavor from very few ingredients actually.
CK: Well, there are two things about this recipe distract me one is you said lots of verbs a cup and a half. You didn't say gargantuan amount of herbs. The other thing is this idea of using less water. You said starchy pasta water. But we're cooking this in a little under two quarts of water seven cups, which is a classic Italian technique, then the water has higher starch content and some of that water is put back in to help finish the pasta and the sauce. Right.
JM: Exactly. You want those starters. That's why we create this super starched cooking water because that's really what's going to bring everything together and it's going to give it that creaminess that you want in a pasta sauce and that cling ability
CK: So, I spent 35 years boiling pasta in four quarts of water like everybody else in America and now sorry. My mistake, use less water get more starch have a better sauce. Well for once an incredibly simple recipe that's also delicious pasta with ricotta tomatoes and herbs. JM thank you.
JM: Thank you. You can get the recipe for pasta with ricotta tomatoes and herbs at Milk Street radio.com.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Now let's hear from Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette hosts of A Way with Words. Grant and Martha how are you guys?
Grant Barrett: Hi, Chris.
Martha Barnette: Hi. We're doing great. And we have a lot on our minds this week.
GB: But it's all in secret code.
CK: Okay. I'm ready.
MB: All right. Well, the aspect of language that we want to talk about this time is secret codes around the dinner table. Now of course you know that there are those signals that couples develop to indicate to each other that you know it's been a great dinner party but now it's time to leave honey, you know that that raised I or hour, or maybe you're the person hosting the dinner party, but it's time to wine things down. And so, you do that kind of meaningful shift in your chair when there's a lull in the conversation, you know what I'm talking about, right?
CK: Well, I'll tell you how I do it in my heyday of dinner parties, when it got to be like 11:30 12. I just stood up and said, I'm going to bed now. And I would just leave the room. And I found that extremely effective. Assuming one has manners, can you give me some pointers here?
MB: Well, I can tell you about the fact that starting in the mid 19th century, and the early part of the 20th century, there was another kind of spoken code that families sometimes used, particularly if they had kids around the table. And these were initialisms. They were usually sets of three letters that a parent might murmur to remind kids to leave enough food for the guests
CK: like FHB.
CK: Oh, no, I used that as a kid that was around our dinner table. But the thing that was so stupid is that the guests obviously knew exactly what it meant. So, I never, I was always confused by the secret language that was no secret right?
GB: Well, there was a time when FHB wasn't a secret when it was just kind of mysterious, or everyone pretended that they didn't know, but let's explain it.
MB: Well, yes. FHB stands for family hold back. And, Chris, as you suggested, the problem with a secret code like that is that pretty soon everybody knows what you're talking about. But there were several other codes that people used. Instead of this Grant, there was company first CF,
GB: Yeah, CF. And maybe these were because of HP became too well known, or FHO. Family hold off or family hands off of. Family stop eating FSE
CK: I like that one
GB: and this one is strange, FSL families strike light means take small portions.
CK: Why wouldn't before the dinner party, the parents say, just be careful how much you take. I mean, in other words, this is something that transpired during the course of the meal, when the amount of remaining food became dangerously low. So, one had to send out a coded alert to the family
GB: Chris, Martha said the important word earlier and its children. You have children, Chris, (many) Yes. How many times do you have to tell them to do something?
CK: Grant, once again, you've gotten right to the point.
GB: Reminders are needed with children. But you know, once everyone's had their fill, and the guests have pushed back, or maybe they've gone to the other room, and the children are still there, hopefully looking for seconds and thirds and fourths, there's a whole set of other ones that you can say that mean that it's time to dig in and they're pretty great. PMK plenty more in kitchen,
MB: or FPI. Family pitch in
CK: I have to say my family nobody ever used the second half of terms. We we never heard the family pitch. And it was always the don't pitch it.
GB: So, if you're at the table, Chris, and you see a friend of yours has food on their face. How do you signal that they've got something on their face?
CK: I would probably make eye contact, lift my napkin, and wipe my face in the same place where they have food
GB: You wouldn't just shout it got some schmutz
CK: Well, I did say I'd stand up and say I'm going to bed so maybe I would do that too
MB: Yeah, well, there's a very interesting expression that we've gotten calls a couple of times about on our show. And that's the expression there's a gazelle on the line. Or there's a gazelle in the park.
CK: I love that.
MB: And as Grant was suggesting that something that you say to alert someone that they have a little bit of something or other in your beard,
CK: Okay, but this is like FHB, you're sitting here, there's a paper on the table. It's very elegant, and everyone's all dressed up. And then you just out of the blue go, there's a gazelle in the park, like nobody's going to notice.
GB: Well, but why do we use euphemisms at all? Everyone knows what you say, if you say I'm going into the bathroom, the powder room, the powder room, right? We have all these euphemisms in order to take off a little bit of the unpleasantness out of it.
CK: Well, I think there's another aspect of this, which is it shows you care enough about your guests and your friends, to go out of the way to put it in a way that's not obvious, right? Everyone knows what you just said. It's just you. You took the time and effort to say it in a way that was a little more sophisticated
GB: Yeah. Do you remember the movie Gorky Park with Lee Marvin and William Hurt? There's a scene between the two of them where one of them says to the other one when some food escapes the mouth, man overboard, I guess that's another way to do it.
CK: Slightly less sophisticated
MB: and less picturesque then the gazelle in the
CK: Okay, guys, so let's assume you're tired of this conversation you want to go on to something else, so Grant or Martha, what would you say to the other person to sort of indicate you're ready to move on?
GB: Well, if Martha and I were here, and we'd come together in the same car, I would do what my father always did when he was impatient to leave, kind of stand not far from the doorway and rattle my keys. And everyone eventually learned what he meant by that all of the family knew all branches, but he never stopped doing it.
CK: So Martha, do you have a code word you use or something?
MB: Well, I do and, and my spouse and I change them quite often, you know, like passwords to make sure that nobody ever learns to read our code word, but yes, or code phrase. But I can tell you the most recent one is we add, you see, to the end of a sentence.
CK: Oh, now that's very subtle.
MB: Do you like that?
CK: Yeah. You say things like I'm really tired. Let's leave you see. Something like that.
MB: Yeah, Chris putting on his slippers you see.
CK: I really love that. Grant. Martha. Thank you so much, and I hope we didn't keep you up.
MB: No, not at all.
GB: Thank you, Chris. A pleasure as always.
CK: That was Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette hosts of A Way with Words. That's it for this week's show. We have 200 More episodes you can always find on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Milk Street radio.com, or wherever you find your podcasts. To learn more about Milk Street please go to 177 Milk Street.com. There you can download our recipes, watch our television show. Or learn about our magazine and latest cookbook The World in a Skillet. We're on Facebook at Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week and every week with more food stories and thanks as always for listening.
Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH, co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sinsabaugh. Senior Editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Assistant Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music Toubab Krewe additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.