I remember my youngest uncle holding a big sickle. With his giant curved blade, he pry open the thorny outer shell of a chestnut, peel off the hard brown skin and carefully remove the parchment-thin inner layer. Then he hands me a ripe, fresh chestnut and I eagerly bite into it, marveling at the resemblance to a tiny brain and savoring the sweet taste.
That first chestnut is one of my favorite chestnuts Chuseok memory. A Korean national holiday, Chuseok is a three-day celebration of the harvest moon and falls right in the middle of the harvest season. Families gather together and pay respects to their ancestors with food and drink offerings at home (pictured above), or at ancestral graves in a ceremony called seongmyo. Then that’s where my uncle let me taste freshly fallen chestnuts for the first time. My mother’s extended family gathered around the mountainside burial grounds to weed and mow, another tradition known as beolcho. Not only do we not own a lawn mower, but the undulating hills and twisty roads would make it impossible to use, so my uncles did the job by hand with sickle (this is also very useful if we encounter chestnuts).
I always look forward to our lunch break, when the women in the family bring out a flurry of doshirak happiness (layered lunch boxes). My mother’s husband is five boxes tall, and as she unfolds layer by layer, all of my favorite Chuseok foods will be revealed: our usual suspects. jeon (vegetables or savory egg pancakes) and japchae (sweet potato noodles with beef and vegetables); a layer of colorful namul, spiced vegetable dishes; a mandatory layer of rice; and above all, neobiani (marinated beef). My mom only prepares neobiani for the most important holidays (she didn’t even prepare for my birthday!). Then I learned that this dish is an old form of Korean barbecue which is more known by many people Beef pulkogi and galbi, as well as a regional specialty in my mother’s hometown Gyeonggi-do province. I would start with our doshirak, then sample this and that aunt’s dishes, silently agreeing with my mother that she really is the best cook in the family.
As I delve deeper into the history and traditions of Korean cuisine for my restaurant Miss Kim In Ann Arbor, I know that Chuseok is in many ways a women’s holiday. The first documented mention of Chuseok celebrations dates back to the reign of King Yuri during the Silla dynasty, when he held a friendly contest among women in the capital. Two teams of women weave for a month leading up to Chuseok, after which their work is judged and the winner declared. Everyone celebrates the winning team with food and drink, along with song and dance.
After that, Chuseok became known as one of the only days of the year when married girls could visit their parents. Under the patriarchal system, a married woman is officially considered a member of her husband’s family, not the family into which she was born. It is customary for married women to visit their birth family regularly, but during Chuseok, mother and daughter can see each other. According to this knowledge, my time with my family with my mother in Chuseok feels even more precious, and my best memories of the holiday are of them and our big picnics with jeon. and neobiani.
Even though I live alone in Michigan now, away from my extended family in Korea and even my mother’s and my brother’s immediate family in New Jersey, I still celebrate Chuseok – according to my own way. Using local ingredients, I mix a few different types of jeon, make some japchae and of course bake some neobiani in a real Korean, American and Michigan fusion.