In my childhood home, the dining table, chairs tucked underneath, nestled up against a wall beneath a large Marimekko wall hanging in bright oranges, browns and reds. The table and chairs came out from the wall only when we entertained. Otherwise, we ate our meals in the kitchen at a counter-height table surrounded by swivelling Naugahyde stools. Stools from which my young legs always dangled and to which my skin stuck on hot days.
I remember many meals in that kitchen. Meals where I long sat refusing to eat, occasionally choking down bites of casserole followed by large gulps of milk. Eating for me was a chore, not a joy. I wasn’t often hungry and didn’t care for many of the standard American dinners my mother made, despite Mom being a good cook with a wide repertoire. I relished breakfast and tolerated lunch. But dinner always hit my gag reflex.
And so the day my mother cooked up a full Korean meal in honor of my adopted sister’s homeland stands out in relief against all those other dinners. A meal that grounded me in what home and feasting could mean.
Preparations began early in the day and not in the kitchen. Mom and Dad cleared as much furniture as they could from the dining room, including the table and chairs. They set up a large piece of plywood atop cinder blocks in the middle of the floor and draped it with a tablecloth. Around this low “table” they scattered cushions of various sizes.
In the kitchen my mother sliced beef, which she marinated to make Bulgogi. Earlier in the week the clay pot of Kimchi she kept in our refrigerator was filled to the rim so the cabbage could ferment to its greatest potency. Mom chopped vegetables and cooked up sticky white rice, some for Bibimbap, a mixed rice hot dish, and some to roll into dried seaweed for Korean sushi rolls. Potato noodles simmered on the stove for Japchae. And I helped stuff wonton wrappers with cooked ground beef and bean sprouts to make Mandu, a fried egg roll.
The smells, sweet and savory, foreign and familiar, wafted through the house. We ate a sparse lunch to save our appetites, and our time, to focus on the meal to come.
As the dinner hour approached our guests arrived. My aunt and uncle. Good friends of my parents. And us. My father put on a recording of Korean music and we gathered in the dining room, the makeshift table laden with steaming bowls and plates piled with Korean food.
That evening I ate without gagging. I laughed. I chatted. And I tried every one of those unusual dishes. At that table of celebration I discovered I could enjoy dinner foods. I could be adventurous and treat my taste buds to new sensations. I relished my cushioned seat on the floor among people I loved. I admired my younger sister for causing my introduction to the wonders of Korean food. The meal we shared that night became one of my favorite memories in that home.
My ideas of home and identity shifted that night, even more than they had shifted in the previous months since we adopted my sister. Around the table, at a feast of celebration, I found freedom. Freedom to eat and explore. Freedom to invite what was different and unknown further into my life. While mealtime would still sometimes be a struggle for me, it never tormented me again the way it had previously.
Now that I am older, I can see it is no wonder it took a feast to bring freedom. After all, it is a feast to which we are invited and given freedom in and through Christ. We remember His sacrifice on the Cross at a table – the table of Communion. And we look forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb in heaven, where we will know the fullness of our freedom in Christ. When we will be at last truly Home.
Lara Krupicka is a parenting journalist, mom of three, and author of Family Bucket Lists: Bring More Fun, Adventure and Camaraderie Into Every Day. She is currently working on an essay collection about her childhood growing up along Chicago’s Burlington Northern Railroad line. Lara also serves on the board of the Redbud Writers Guild.