WHY I bake


More often than not, the following question is asked when I bring baked goods to someone:

"How did you learn to bake?"

"Did you go to school for it?" (no)
"Did your mom teach you?" (short answer: no)

(longer answer:)
From the ages of six - twelve I lived in a tiny town called Lindenhurst, Illinois. So small that at the time we shared a zip code with the adjoining town, Lake Villa. Growing up Korean American in the northeastern corner of Illinois with mostly German and Polish families, all I wanted to do was assimilate. I wanted to be Caucasian. I wanted to be tall. I wanted blonde wavy hair. I wanted pale skin and I wanted big eyes and long eye lashes. Every night I prayed for this and every morning I would wake up, look in the mirror (dark straight hair, dark small eyes, darker skin than my friends - you get the idea) and sigh heavily. I WAS STILL ASIAN. 

And when it came to food, I wanted pizza, spaghetti and hot dogs like all my friends. I didn't want to eat rice every day. I didn't want to eat kimchi every day. And at Christmas, I wanted to bake cookies like all my friends. But we didn't have a lot of money growing up and my mother didn't bake cookies because she never learned to make cookies. 

When I was around eight years old, our little midwest neighborhood decided to have a Christmas party. Every family would bake a cookie recipe that was part of our heritage or family tradition and we would eat/swap cookies and sing Christmas carols. I was so excited! Maybe something with sprinkles? Or a cutout cookie? What kind of cookie would we bake? I couldn't wait to see!

When the day came to make the cookies, I was watching my mother assemble ingredients: ground beef, cabbage, onions, ginger, garlic - HOLD ON. What are we making?? Cookies are sweet! Where is the sugar? Flour? Eggs? Sprinkles? 

"Mommy - what kind of cookie are we making?"
"We aren't making cookies. We're making mandu (만두)( aka won tons)."
"A lump started in my throat... "What? The instructions are to bring COOKIES. Mandu are not sweet.

"We are bringing dumplings - end of story. Now you must help me make these."

So, with major attitude and probably some eye rolling, I helped my mother make mandu. My jobs was to brush the edges of the dumpling wrapper with beaten egg, and drop in filling and seal them up. My mother sat over a pan of bubbling oil and fried them My job of sealing the dumplings was important. If you didn't seal correctly, the wet filling spilled out, hit the hot oil, sizzled and made a mess. The sign of a successful dumpling was when it floated in the oil and puffed up. Silently and angrily, I sealed up those dumplings and my mother fried them. When we were done, she arranged them on a plate, wrapped it up and gave them to me to bring to the party. I DID NOT WANT TO BRING THESE WONTONS!

All I could think was Here we go again, something to stick out again and show that we are different. I was mortified. But I had no choice. I walked with my mother a few doors down and when Mrs. Smith opened the door, I put my head down and thrust the plate up to her in embarrassment. And in my head I am saying:

I know we are not following instructions and this is not sweet and I am sorry!

 I don't remember what her reaction was because I was so mortified and didn't hear anything and was just trying to disappear and blend into the sea of kids at the party that were singing carols. 

After we finished singing carols, everyone went to eat cookies. I was sure no one was going to eat wontons! Why would you eat a salty and meaty wonton when you could have a buttery cookie that looked like a snowman with white sugary sprinkles? Or a perfect chocolate chip cookie?  Or a rice krispie treat?? JUST WHY? I just remember eating cookies and thinking I was eating the extra wontons for dinner because no one was going to eat them at the party and we had extra at home. 

But, I was wrong. 



Because what I didn't realize at the time (I mean, I was eight!) was that after eating numerous sweet cookies and even sweeter candies, your palate gets tired and you want something different. Something savory. Something salty. 

Like a wonton. 

I learned a lesson that day that I had nothing to be ashamed about bringing wontons to a cookie party. It was different and that was okay, in fact more than okay. 

But I never forgot that I wished I could bake and I knew someday I would learn to bake cookies like I tasted at that Christmas party so many years ago. 

And in learning to bake, I have learned that baking is very personal. You can express yourself just like you can with music, or drawing. It's an art form. 

Just like making wontons.