“Eat up, stay warm”

sam_3951You first put the water to boil, then you take your monkfish, shrimp, and handful of sea squirts. Throw them all in together. Mix in thick red chili paste and some garlic; a spoon of Korean soy sauce to taste. It doesn’t take much, just fresh fish from the market…and maybe a bit of MSG powder.
Lifting a spoonful to her mouth she likes the taste, and taking one hot sea quirt, she skillfully chews on it feeling the burst of aromatic soup in her mouth.
When dinner time comes around, Yoo Jung-ok is a woman on a mission. She will lift her weak knees to the kitchen and immediately take out the pots she’ll use. There’s no need to think about the menu, she knows exactly what to make.
At 92 years of age and with five children—two boys and three girls—all with their own families, she doesn’t need to cook. But as soon as family shows up at her door, she gets up from her spot on the sofa ordering granddaughters to “tie your hair!” and “set the chopsticks on the table; the silver ones are for your uncle.”
Girls these days, they wear ripped jeans and bright red lip stick; almost as bright as her homemade chili paste. Back when she was young, before she was married, it was good to be sensible and hardworking. Women were valued for their strength in household labor and childbirth.
“I was prettiest when I was eighteen. Eighteen and nineteen, which was when I got married.” Her father had been the one to approve of the match after seeing the determined young man who was to be his son-in-law. In marriage, wedding bliss was short as it was soon back to the field with ramie cloth to weave and crying babies to feed.
Her first was a healthy girl, but so was the second: another girl in the family. She would have two more daughters but the two soon died of illness. Four births and still no son. Jung-ok had thought perhaps her husband should find a mistress to carry on the family line.
She would remain the cho kang ji cheo, the first wife (literally, the wife who has shared the husband’s difficulties), but a younger bride would provide a son. The younger cheob (Korean for concubine) would probably be cheeky as a fox and snatch away the husband’s attention.
Still, she would try until her body could no longer handle any more pregnancies. And so her fifth was a boy. The entire village came in celebration, congratulating her as she breastfed the little son. Now, with all of them grown and married, she lives with her eldest son, but she secretly tells her grandchildren, “I cried more when my girls left for their husband’s homes. You see, girls take care of their mother better.”
“Eat up, stay warm” she says, passing another bowl of soup.

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