My Family Recipe

When I Came Out to My Parents, Kimchi Fried Rice Held Us Together

An essay with food.

August 28, 2018
Photo by Danie Drankwalter

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

I grew up in a house with a peach tree in the front yard, with neighboring streets, highways, and cities named after peaches. I loved picking the fuzzy pink fruits when they were ripe on the branch, the way they’d taste after long, hot days playing in the creek with the other boys.

My favorite color, even at 4, was pink. My parents let me walk around the house wearing my cousin Becky’s Pink Ranger costume after she was done with it on Halloween. This seems like a minor detail, but it’d inform one particular dinner, 20 years later, when I would come out to them at our favorite sushi restaurant in Atlanta.

Naneun geiya (“I’m gay”). When I practiced that in front of the mirror over and over for a month, I cursed the gods for making the words for coming out in Korean so much longer, so much more assonant than in English. After I said it, as casually as I could over salmon skin rolls and hot sake—and the longest breath I’d ever held—they laughed.

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“I don't know how much she has accepted her gay son, but she still talks to him once a month. Not the worst or the best outcome. I think my brother is ok with that.”
— HalfPint

I’ll never forget that laugh, when for one brief moment I thought I was being presumptuous, assuming they didn’t already know. But after they saw that I was serious, their smiles quickly faded. My mom sighed; she looked so tired, the most tired I’d ever seen her. My dad paused, then bawled into his hands in the middle of the crowded restaurant.

To this day, I can’t figure out if that initial laugh was out of nervousness or because they thought I was joking. It’s just one of those details I keep playing back in my head when I think about that night, what must've been one of the worst nights of their lives.

I'd always thought that you're supposed to learn something about yourself when you come out, but I think I learned more about my parents.

I learned that they didn’t know anything about gay people. When we went home that night, we sat around the dining table with a bottle of Cabernet (which turned into two, then three, then four) and talked for hours. They had so many questions for me: How long have you known? Are you still a boy? Does this mean we won’t get grandkids?

Since middle school. Yes, I’m a gay man, not a transgender woman. No, of course not; I love kids.

The initial questions turned into desperate ones of bargaining: Can’t you just become a priest or marry a lesbian? For which I commended their creativity, but declined. There were multiple variations of this: Do you have to get married to a man? Can’t you just be roommates? To which I said: Would you ask that of Kevin? (my older brother, who is straight).

Most coming out stories don’t go this well. Don’t get me wrong—mine wasn’t smooth sailing all the way. But my dad didn’t flip the table over and kick me out of the house. My mom didn’t slap me across the face and call me the F-word. They just cried. A lot.

It was as if I had told them I was terminally ill. In fact, one of the first things my dad said to me that night was, “It feels like my son died.”

What the hell do you say to that?

It was 3 a.m. when my mother stumbled into the kitchen to make us something to eat. Dinner was eight hours ago, and this was time-out. Time-out from all that wine, from their son having just come out, from hours of talking through what it meant that I was gay (that I’d been gay their whole lives), from being a perfect family that had been thrown a curveball.

In times like that, there are few things more comforting than a bowl of Jean's chewy, caramelized kimchi fried rice. Everyone likes to wax nostalgic about how their mom’s this or their mom’s that is the best x, y, and z. Well, my mom’s kimchi fried rice is the best.

Maybe it's the best because I don't know how to make it. I’ve spent the last decade of my adult life trying to recreate it in my own kitchen to no avail. Bland, watery, zero chew. Once, exasperated, I called her to ask, “Why doesn’t mine ever come out like yours?”

“Kimchi fried rice is only as good as the kimchi it’s made from,” she said. “Are you buying bad grocery-store kimchi?” (I was.)

Though I'm able to recreate some version of her spicy-briny cabbage from taste memory, my kimchi will never be her kimchi, and in turn neither will my kimchi fried rice ever be her kimchi fried rice.

That night I came out to my parents, it meant something to me that my mother decided to cook kimchi fried rice for us. Maybe because it sopped up the four bottles of wine the three of us had shared. Or because it was a quick, cheap way to use up leftover gonggi bap (the day-old, cold white rice at the bottom of a rice cooker) with this and that from the pantry. Or because it’s my favorite. Because, every time I come home to Georgia there's a vat of it waiting for me on the stove with a firm note, ERIC, EAT—and so I associate it with comfort, which means I associate it with her.

It meant something to me that in the midst of my mother's grave disappointment, during a time in her life when everything had seemed to change, the rug pulled out from under her, somehow she and I could seek refuge in this one thing that would never change. I was still her son and she was still my mom, and kimchi fried rice—something only she could make—was still my favorite thing to eat in the entire world.

Maybe that's why.

My dad and I drunkenly cheered my mother on as she fried the Spam with the kimchi and rice, and crushed in a packet of roasted seaweed snack with her hands.

She turned to us, casually: “Egg?”

We nodded: “Yes, please."

Photo by Rocky Luten

In a separate nonstick skillet (the kind with the red dot in the middle), she fried three eggs, left the yolks runny, and placed one atop each crimson, red pepper–flecked plate. I dug my spoon into the egg and let it ooze onto the rice, then stirred it in. That first velvety bite is always the best, when the yolk has yet to set and everything else is suspended in time.

“You know your mother never makes this for me?” my dad joked through a mouthful of half-chewed rice. “I only ever get to eat kimchi fried rice when you’re in town. Prodigal f—g son!”

I still call Jean every Sunday. She answers with a loud “Joonho-ya!” (my Korean name), scolds me for waiting an entire week to call her. But the difference now is that when I call her, I don’t have to lie about my weekend or hide from her the most important parts of me. She gets to hear the good and the bad, and be a part of my life. She gets to be my mom.

I was still her son and she was still my mom, and kimchi fried rice was still my favorite thing to eat in the entire world.

They both get it now, my parents. A few days after that first drunken night, I was sharing a smoke with my dad outside when he started talking about weddings. “Will you get married someday?” he asked.

“I’d like to,” I said, waiting for a long dad-speech.

He put out his cigarette, crushed it with his foot, and hugged me. “OK. I’ll be there.”

Months later, when I came home from the airport, my mom sat with me in the kitchen as I dug into the kimchi fried rice she had just cooked for my prodigal-son arrival. “Do you want me to fry you an egg?”

I shook my head no, smiling. She was holding a cup of coffee with both hands. I could tell she wanted to tell me something.

"What?" I asked.

She told me about a woman in her art class whom she suspected was gay: short hair, divorced, stared at her once while they were painting.

I laughed. “Mom! That doesn’t mean she’s a lesbian.”

“She could be!” she said. She talked about how she sees gay people everywhere now, how she wonders why she never noticed before. “Some of them are dressed so well.”

“I know,” I said.

Then, my mother started crying. I dropped my spoon and placed a hand on her arm, asked what was wrong.

"When you came out," she said. "I stopped believing in God."

She told me how angry she was at him for making me gay, asked herself over and over: Why did you give me this? Apparently she and my dad had stopped attending church, one of the only sources of comfort for them in suburban Atlanta since the '80s. They never went to the therapist I had found them, either. They just stayed home and avoided their friends. Until one day, she said, when eventually she realized that I had always been gay, and that she just hadn't noticed, that she just hadn't been paying close enough attention to me and everything I was going through.

"What kind of mother does that?"

The hardest part of coming out was watching my mom feel inadequate like this, like she had done something wrong. I didn't know how to help her. It broke my heart.

I said before that I'd always thought you're supposed to learn something about yourself when you come out, but that I learned more about my parents.

I learned that they view the world solely through the lens of their children, that no matter what happens, my brother and I will always be at the center of it. That for the last 30-some years, they've been chipping away slowly at the most ingrained parts of themselves in order to meet us halfway. And that despite how much my being gay went against their religion, their culture, and their belief systems, for my parents, I still came first.

I'd always thought that you're supposed to learn something about yourself when you come out, but I think I learned more about my parents.

I learned that my dad is a good man who loves his son more than what his country thinks of gay people. That even though he's not one to bend, he bent for me because I'm his son.

I learned that my mom is a quick study, but that she still blames herself for it once in a while—to which I have to keep reminding her that I was gay the second she found out she was having me. For months I reassured her that coming out to her lifted a huge weight off my shoulders, that I suddenly felt happier in my new life, and that telling her was like telling my best friend a secret that had been festering inside me for decades, slowly destroying me.

This led to her talking about her pregnancy, and how the doctor thought I was a girl and how she bought all this pink crap but had to return it when I was born. How with Kevin all she wanted were tomatoes, but with me, she craved Spam. So my dad went out and bought an entire box of it, even though he was a broke undergraduate and worked night shifts as a janitor.

Little did they know that years later, their second son's favorite color would be pink, and that they'd be drinking red wine and eating kimchi fried rice with him at three in the morning. And that by the fourth bottle, they'd all be cackling in the kitchen, wondering how, after all those years, they never knew. There were so many signs. "The Pink Ranger was his favorite, for Christ's sake!"

Do you have a coming out story? We'd love to hear it in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Eric Kim was the Table for One columnist at Food52. He is currently working on his first cookbook, KOREAN AMERICAN, to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at The New York Times, where he works now as a writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ericjoonho.


Lisa June 10, 2023
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. The connections between family, home, food and love have rarely been so artfully described.
emjayay May 7, 2021
I hope you have quit smoking. Also not exactly a good thing for a food writer (despite generations of French chefs).
emjayay May 7, 2021
Oh, very nice piece though. Actually, I was wondering, so....
Hawaii October 25, 2022
It's unfortunate that emjayay's comment is at the top of the comment list. This is such a beautiful article about the strength of parents' love and the miraculous ways that food connects us. I cried, I laughed, and now I'm hungry for Kim Chee fried rice.

"That for the last 30-some years, they've been chipping away slowly at the most ingrained parts of themselves in order to meet us halfway." I really felt this sentence. As an adult, I appreciate all of the chipping away that my parents did for us kids, and, as a parent, I try to always meet my child anywhere she needs me to be.
Kamakshi G. December 22, 2020
Such a beautifully written article. I think it’s the best piece of writing I’ve read in a while. I love Kimchi fried rice, will definitely give this recipe a shot :-)
Estee C. July 30, 2020
reading this made me so choked up! I love your writing, I just love it all. I'm so happy your parents put you first, that you told them, and that your mom makes the best kimchi fried rice. I can't wait to try it! thank you for sharing- cant wait for the next story <3
SueBah May 13, 2020
So brave of you to write this piece and thank you for doing so. My cherished husband of 28 years came out 12 years ago and it was so devastating for his older, British parents (and obviously myself and two teenage sons) to comprehend and we all, still, struggle with it. He became a different person in every way, completely abdicating his role as a parent - and acting "more gay than we'll ever be" my gay friends intoned. But your story is different - it has an inherent sweetness about it and I love the courage that you display. Again, thank you for sharing. (And I love kimchi too).
Dennis A. May 4, 2020
I do not know how FOOD52 started arriving in my email and I have mostly dismissed them, but today I read Eric Kim's coming out story and read all 84 comments. I am now a dedicated lifelong fan of FOOD52. I would write a comment on Eric's story, but I could not match all of the beautifully written comments.
Diane April 22, 2020
Eric that is the best thing I've read in a very long time. Your parents are very special people and I love that you came to know them better too. Thank you for being so open to sharing this beautiful story with all of us. Next to food, a person's story is my favourite thing. Thank you for both.
Eric K. April 24, 2020
Diane, thank you so much.
messy K. March 25, 2020
Wow, what a beautiful, tender essay. Your parents are beautiful and you're lucky to have them. Being Korean, I totally get the whole stigma attached to being or doing differently than what's expected of you, and I only wish that my family had reacted in the same way when I chose not to go to law school but study psychology intsead. I'm so happy for you that your parents love you so much.
Eric K. April 24, 2020
Thank you
marilu August 7, 2019
Eric, you have such a gift with words. There is so much tenderness in this story, that I feel almost intrusive reading it. Thank you for being so open to share such a meaningful memory with us. I appreciate how kimchi and spam have a macro-cultural significance for us Koreans/Korean-Americans, but I love how it also holds such a micro-cultural significance for your family in this dish. Thank you for your heart and for your gift.
Eric K. April 24, 2020
I'm nearly a year late here -- but thank you so much, marilu, for this comment.
erzulieloo June 12, 2019
I love this story so much. Thank u for sharing it here - thank u!
Eric K. July 31, 2019
Thank you reading it.
Rani B. January 14, 2019
Eric, you are a wonderful son. In the midst of coming out, your overwhelming feeling was concern for your parents. Your appreciation for how much they have had to adapt and evolve as immigrants and as parents of a gay son in simply beautiful and selfless. I love the way food and humor kept you all close. You are blessed and lucky to have each other.
Eric K. July 31, 2019
There’s great relief in humor! People don’t laugh at themselves enough.
erika Z. January 4, 2019
Hi, Eric! I've had the pleasure of reading many of your essays and this one was especially touching. I came out almost 20 years ago to my mother - also with lots of tears (from her), explanations of what being gay meant (to me), and wine (just me). I came out during her divorce to my father, so it amplified her feelings about change and failure. Of course, I immediately felt great because I had been holding back this part of myself for years but it took her years to process in her own way. Parents are people, too! But I didn't know this until I came out. She now knows what being gay means (to her) but still doesn't drink wine. We should all be so lucky to have parents who honor and nurture who we are, many people don't. That's why your essay is so important, thank you for writing it.
Eric K. July 31, 2019
Thank you, Erika. Well said.
susan October 27, 2018
omigod....i'm korean. i'm not gay but...i teared reading this because i know how korean parents can be...their mentality, their old school ways, their hopes and aspirations for their kids. Why most of them came to america is for us, their children. even though they cried i can tell that they love you. You have awesome parents. Do they still not go to church or have they given that all up permanently?
Eric K. July 31, 2019
They still attend regularly. :) Thanks for reading, Susan.
Claudia T. September 14, 2018
This is so wonderfully written, Eric, thank you. I love that you and your mom are just as close, maybe closer, because you were able to tell her that about yourself and that she still loved you. And that your dad wants you to be married- because he wants you to be happy! How sweet. How strong of them and brave of you. It still doesn't make me want to eat kimchi, but I can dig a spam fried rice with egg day!
Eric K. October 11, 2018
Thank you for reading, Claudia.

For breakfast the other day, I chopped up some leftover Spam, fried it in my cast-iron skillet with rice, garlic, eggs, and butter. No soy sauce, even. Heaven on earth.
Christine C. September 10, 2018
This is so beautiful. I will not forget your story. I'm looking forward to trying this recipe. After reading this i did fried rice inspired by you. I used your egg recipe here and mixed with fried rice and I put crunched up.seaweed on top. It was so good!
Eric K. October 11, 2018
Thanks, Christine. Are you talking about the soft-scrambled tamago?
Christine C. October 11, 2018
Yes! I love them and eat them all the time usually with white rice. I just read the rice article about your mom yesterday and now I think I need a rice cooker.

Mike September 8, 2018
Wow. Thank you. As a gay child of immigrants (albeit from a different part of the world), it's heartening to see parents exhibit an effort to understand, rather than condemn, a family situation that they did not anticipate.
Eric K. October 11, 2018
Thank you so much, Mike.
Kier September 7, 2018
Omg I cried reading this. Your feelings on coming out was so relatable. Having your parents come around the way they did, with your dad saying he will be at your wedding in the future makes me hopeful. Thank you for sharing
Eric K. October 11, 2018
Ty, Kier.
Kathy U. September 5, 2018
Eric, you are an amazing writer! What an incredible piece. Thank you for sharing your life and of course a world class recipe. I can't wait to try it!
Eric K. September 6, 2018
Thank you, Kathy. Great to hear from you after all these years.
sandriaw September 4, 2018
This was so beautifully written and so touching.
Eric K. September 6, 2018
Thank you!
Bradley C. September 4, 2018
Hey Eric! Thank you so much for sharing this. A lot of what you mentioned hits so close to home, and it's always nice to know that there are other people out there who have your back. Something similar happened to me a couple weeks ago and going through a lot of what you described. It's people like you and your parents that our community can really learn from. Thank you and cheers to being able to be who you are!
Eric K. September 6, 2018
Bradley, thanks for this comment. Hope you and your family are dealing, and that you're able to be who you are as well.