My Family Recipe

A Nourishing Soup To Heal the Cracks

A mother-daughter relationship finds new meaning in the face of a public health crisis—viral and racial.

May  8, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Sam Seneviratne.

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.


Back in April of last year—when ambulance sirens screamed hourly of yet another coronavirus casualty in a climate fraught with PPE shortages and simmering with racism against Asian Americans—my Korean immigrant mom headed to work the COVID-19 shift every day at Manhattan’s VA hospital.

Soon, she, too, began having trouble breathing.

Slammed with the terror of ventilator scarcity, I reached for what always brought me comfort on sick days: my mom's gomtang (beef bone soup). It had gotten me through body aches so deep even my skin hurt, throats so inflamed only the hot, unctuous broth could soothe it. But this time—for the first time—I was making it for her.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I’ll be cooking your gomtang soon to share with my family and will be thinking of you and your mom while my little hapa baby tries it for the first time. From San Diego, sending you thoughts of connection, comfort, and a better tomorrow for all of us full of healing and happiness!”
— marilu
Comment

As parents and children age, the caregiver and care-beneficiary roles eventually reverse. That inflection point, precipitated by a pandemic made even scarier by the growing number of attacks against Asian Americans, happened that April in my family. And one chilly night, I found myself wrist-deep in blood and water, asking myself: How do I care for my mom? Am I ready for this new path? Do I forgive old sins?

I filled two ceramic bowls with water, jostled the beef marrow bones out of their plastic bag into one, and planted the three-pound hunk of chuck roast into the other. The bones were hard.

“Soak your bones. Soak your beef.”

My mom always began her soups that way. Bowls of bones and meat, swirling red, were common fixtures in our kitchen. It ensures a cleaner taste, she’d advise, guiding me to cook healthy, delicious Korean food for myself once I eagerly left my parents’ house.

Dipping back into her cooking wisdom, I Tetris’ed all the pieces—smooth, oblong segments of femur bone, cut crosswise every inch or two—so they’d stay immersed in the water. They revealed gelatinous, beige bone marrow at the center, a richness of collagen, omega-3s, and vitamin A.

Am I doing this right?

My mom learned to make gomtang from her mother, who was, in turn, taught by her mother. It is a recipe that embodies generations of love and decades of nurture. My mom would snap to make it every time I shivered with the flu or the family sniffled and sneezed during cold winter months. Now, here was my 67-year-old mother with a cough, chest pain, and sore limbs after having been exposed to a deadly virus so new at the time that even medical experts struggled to understand how to treat or contain it. What I did know: 80 percent of deaths occurred among those 60 years of age and older, and the COVID-19 case count in NYC was exploding.

Another ambulance blared outside.

As parents and children age, the caregiver and care-beneficiary roles eventually reverse. That inflection point, precipitated by a pandemic made even scarier by the growing number of attacks against Asian Americans, happened that April in my family. And one chilly night, I found myself wrist-deep in blood and water, asking myself: How do I care for my mom? Am I ready for this new path? Do I forgive old sins?

So am I cooking this right? No matter. Nutrition overrides perfection.

Onto the next step. I chopped the onion, scallion, and radish, their incense unfolding into a kitchen already teeming with ruminations. How do I care for the rock of the family? A mother who worked two, no, three jobs around the clock my whole life to raise a growing family; survived a robbery on her way to the hospital in the dark of dawn to earn money for the family in late-’80s Flushing; took care of a husband who’d been stabbed by robbers at their gold jewelry store in early-’80s Chicago and bore the unresolved anger of a Vietnam War veteran fighting for a foothold in America. My less-than-perfect grades and his struggles to support a family at the store, which later relocated to East Harlem, provoked red-hot anger, and she often stood by him, fearfully caressing the craggy edges of their shared American dream, difficult and violent. Her caregiving, while backbreaking, was flawed. But the perfect parts spooled through every hot, savory meal she would cook for us on days of laughter and nights of tears.

I shattered a clove of garlic. My eyes teared up.

In March, a photo of nurses improvising PPE out of Hefty bags made its rounds on social media, and our then-president tweeted the term “Chinese virus,” giving license to racists across the country to attack Asian Americans. It was the latest chapter in our country’s history of anti-Asian discrimination, which, politically, instigated the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese internment camps of World War II, and culturally, has kept us virtually invisible in films, TV shows, and commercials.

I took stock of the ingredients on my chopping board. I’d smashed through a whole head of garlic. The smell pierced the air.

Until her first symptoms, my mom, not even trained on the proper disinfection for the reuse of her N95 mask, was going to work every day. She was risking her life to save U.S. veterans in the epicenter of the pandemic, even as bigoted idiots full of disrespect blamed her for the virus. At that time, the CDC was flip-flopping on mask use; media companies stopped short of reporting on anti-Asian attacks; and the president continued to spread a hateful narrative, unwilling to protect our borders from a virus.

The ground fell out from under us, but no matter our layered past, I was going to catch my mom. It was my turn to care for her.

I returned to the bones. They were still hard. But I was even harder, fortified by my singular resolve to beat the virus that had invaded my mom’s body. I rinsed the bones and beef, and pressure-cooked all the ingredients in my Instant Pot for two hours. The beef had to be so tender that my soup ladle would cut through it and my mom could delight in the softness of the meat, the tastiness of the broth—even though it wouldn’t match up to her perfection—and the immune-system-boosting powers of a soup she had cooked for me for decades. That night, my husband dropped off the gomtang at her doorstep.

Now, a year later, my mom has received her vaccine, having survived the virus after weeks of illness. And in January, our new president signed an executive order denouncing anti-Asian discrimination. But then, on March 16th—after a year that sustained 3,800 hate incidents, according to reporting forum AAPI Hate (compared to roughy 100 incidents annually in previous years)—the entire nation was forced to reckon with the wave of racist violence, primarily perpetrated against women and the elderly, that the Asian American community had been painfully following over the course of the year. On that tragic day, a gunman in Atlanta murdered eight people, including six Asian American women, four of whom were Korean like my mom, my grandma, my aunt, my sister, myself.

On a recent visit from my mom, I handed her a batch of miyeokguk (a superfood seaweed soup) with a side of safety tips. “Be wary.” “Stay away from weird people.” “Carry hair spray.” “Scream loudly.”

This is the world we inhabit now, where daughters must protect their mothers.

On a recent visit from my mom, I handed her a batch of miyeokguk (a superfood seaweed soup) with a side of safety tips. “Be wary.” “Stay away from weird people.” “Carry hair spray.” “Scream loudly.” This is the world we inhabit now, where daughters must protect their mothers.

I look back on that brisk April night a year ago. Disquieted by the strangeness of a break from our complicated past and riddled with worries that I hadn’t yet perfected her gomtang recipe, I still made good on my promise to take care of her. Calamities like the ones we confront today can rattle family dynamics, prematurely turning the roles of the protector and the vulnerable upside down. As I soak beef to make another batch of bone soup for my mom, I’m reminded in more ways than one that blood is thicker than water.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.


Listen Now

On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Herbert Galang
    Herbert Galang
  • marilu
    marilu
  • Luise Erdmann
    Luise Erdmann
  • Tina Gonsalves
    Tina Gonsalves
  • Lpappas
    Lpappas
Caroline Shin

Written by: Caroline Shin

My food obsession started with kimchi-making lessons with my sassy, adorable, North Korean-refugee granny in Flushing, Queens, and flourished with a monstrous appetite that got appeased in the most diverse area of the planet: Queens, NYC. Follow my work on CookingWithGranny.tv and @CookingWGranny on Instagram.

12 Comments

Herbert G. May 24, 2021
Completely taken aback. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing this lovely story
 
marilu May 16, 2021
Caroline, thank you so much for your thoughtful essay and experience. Gomtang is also a comfort food of mine, especially when sick :). It’s such a scary feeling when dynamics change, and we find ourselves needing to take care of our parents. Despite that fear, I just want to give you such a big hug in comforting and caring for your mom. You’re such a good daughter. Food is definitely a love language for us Korean-Americans, and I’m sure the soup brought healing to her soul and body when she most needed it. I’ll be cooking your gomtang soon to share with my family and will be thinking of you and your mom while my little hapa baby tries it for the first time. From San Diego, sending you thoughts of connection, comfort, and a better tomorrow for all of us full of healing and happiness!
 
Luise E. May 16, 2021
Caroline,

I probably won't have the patience to make your recipe, but I will take from it the immense heart behind it, which will nurture my soul if not my body. You and your fellow Koreans, not to mention other Asians, have enormous support -- as we have all needed in becoming American -- even as the ugliness depresses us all. You and your family have a lot to be proud of. Never forget it.
 
Tina G. May 16, 2021
The first blog story where I didn't want a "jump to recipe" button. A compelling story that I read twice. Thank you for sharing.

An aside, did I miss somewhere the instant pot instructions? I would like to try the recipe, but cannot spare the hours of simmering time.
 
Author Comment
Caroline S. May 16, 2021
Hi Tina, I'm so glad you enjoyed my writing. I put a lot of heart into this essay, and it means a lot when the message resonates. I submitted my mom's original recipe, per the guidelines of the "My Family Recipe" section, but I'm planning to share Instant Pot instructions on my Instagram @CookingWGranny soon. I was in a rush to get this soup to my mom that night, which is another reason I pressure-cooked the bones. I totally get it re: shorter cooking time.
 
Tina G. May 17, 2021
Off to find you on Instagram! Thank you again.
 
Lpappas May 15, 2021
Thank you for putting on to paper the experiences that so many of us read about but have not shared. I have always been in awe of the work ethic, intelligence and spirit of the Asian Americans that I have had the privilege to know. They are a true benefit to the America we cherish. I am going to try this recipe in honor of your mother.
 
Author Comment
Caroline S. May 16, 2021
Thank you for this note. The anti-AAPI hate has kept Asian Americans on edge throughout the pandemic. Once the Atlanta shootings happened, I felt compelled to share my story. And yes, please try my mom's recipe, and let me know how it comes out!
 
Molly B. May 14, 2021
Thank you for allowing me a window in to what it’s like to be Korean-American, especially now, and for the incredible beautifully written essay and recipe!
 
Author Comment
Caroline S. May 16, 2021
Thank you, Molly. There's a lot of heart in the essay and soul in the soup. I'm so glad you appreciate both!
 
Veggie A. May 9, 2021
Thank you for this compelling essay. Much respect to you and to your family.
 
Author Comment
Caroline S. May 12, 2021
Thank you, Annie. I'm so glad my essay resonated with you.