FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR NONFICTION
This evocative memoir of food and family history is "somehow both mouthwatering and heartbreaking... [and] a potent personal history" (Shelf Awareness).
Grace M. Cho grew up as the daughter of a white American merchant marine and the Korean bar hostess he met abroad. They were one of few immigrants in a xenophobic small town during the Cold War, where identity was politicized by everyday details—language, cultural references, memories, and food. When Grace was fifteen, her dynamic mother experienced the onset of schizophrenia, a condition that would continue and evolve for the rest of her life.
Part food memoir, part sociological investigation, Tastes Like War is a hybrid text about a daughter’s search through intimate and global history for the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia. In her mother’s final years, Grace learned to cook dishes from her parent’s childhood in order to invite the past into the present, and to hold space for her mother’s multiple voices at the table. And through careful listening over these shared meals, Grace discovered not only the things that broke the brilliant, complicated woman who raised her—but also the things that kept her alive.
“An exquisite commemoration and a potent reclamation.” —Booklist (starred review)
“A wrenching, powerful account of the long-term effects of the immigrant experience.” —Kirkus Reviews
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
The punishing effects of war can be felt for generations—something that Grace M. Cho’s stirring memoir demonstrates powerfully. Cho’s father was an American merchant marine when he met Cho’s mother in South Korea: a nation then traumatized by decades of colonialism, occupation, and war. Growing up as a mixed-race child in her dad’s small hometown of Chehalis, Washington, Cho faced racism and xenophobia in her everyday life. But her incredible story of hardship and triumph becomes even more intense when, as an adolescent, her mother, Koonja, is diagnosed with schizophrenia. The journey that follows is both poignant and fascinating, as Cho comes to understand how Koonja’s delusions are informed by her many painful—and often secret—past experiences. We loved seeing Cho connect with her mother across the gulf of her mental illness by cooking her the delicious Korean foods of her youth (in one bittersweet scene, Koonja suddenly starts talking about her long-dead sister between bites of lettuce-wrapped rice). Tastes Like War is an unforgettable examination of the circumstances, people, and flavors that shape us.
In this searing memoir, Cho (Haunting the Korean Diaspora) charts her Korean mother's descent into schizophrenia while unpacking the ramifications of racism in America. In grappling with the disease that "erased her personhood," but somehow always felt avoidable to Cho, she voraciously researched schizophrenia and found that her "mother's case tick off five out of six boxes," associated with its development: "social adversity... low socioeconomic status, physical or sexual trauma.... immigration and being a person of color in a white neighborhood." Through meditative prose, Cho attempts to write her mother "back into existence," illustrating how her mother's circumstances growing up amid the horrors of the Korean War, marrying Cho's American father in 1971, and landing in a small, overwhelmingly white (and prejudiced) town in Washington State all but created the perfect storm for her unraveling. By chronicling the stories of her "three mothers" the "charismatic" mother of her 1970s childhood, who foraged for food in the woods; the one of her adolescence, who developed "florid psychosis," and delusions about Ronald Reagan; and the mother who slowly let her adult daughter in, with food and cooking as the conduit Cho hauntingly captures the fragility of life in its most painful and beautiful moments. This heartfelt and nuanced tribute is remarkable.