I remember my younger uncle holding a big scythe. With his huge curved blade, he split open the spiky outer shell of a chestnut, peeled back the hard, brown husk and carefully removed the thin, parchment-like inner layer. Then he handed me the fresh, ripe chestnut and I eagerly bit into it, marveling at its resemblance to a tiny brain and savoring its sweet flavor.
That first chestnut is one of my favorite Chuseok memories. A Korean national holiday, Chuseok is a three-day celebration of the harvest moon and falls right in the middle of the autumn harvest. Families gather and honor their ancestors with offerings of food and drink at home (pictured above) or at ancestral graves in a ceremony called seongmyo. The latter is where my uncle gave me my first taste of freshly fallen chestnuts. The entire extended family on my mother’s side had gathered around the mountain cemetery to pull weeds and cut grass, another tradition known as beolcho. Not only did we not have a lawnmower, but the rolling hills and winding roads would have made it impossible to use, so my uncles did the work by hand with scythes (which also came in handy if we ran into chestnuts) .
I always looked forward to our lunch break, when the women in the family would bring out an array of doshirak happan (multi-layered stacked lunch boxes). My mom’s stack was five boxes high, and as I opened each layer, all my favorite Chuseok foods were revealed: the usual suspects of jeon (vegetables battered with salted eggs or pancakes) and japchae (noodles of sweet potato with beef and vegetables in julienne). ); a colorful layer of namul, the seasoned vegetable dishes; a mandatory layer of rice; and best of all, neobiani (marinated beef steak). My mother only prepared neobiani for the most important holidays (she didn’t even make it for my birthday!). I later learned that the dish is an older form of the more well-known Korean barbecue meats bulgogi and galbi, as well as a regional specialty in my mother’s home province of Gyeonggi-do. I would start with our doshirak, then taste this aunt and that aunt’s food, secretly agreeing with my mother that she was the best cook in the family.
As I delved into the history and traditions of Korean cuisine for my restaurant Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, I learned that Chuseok is in many ways a holiday for women. The first documented mention of Chuseok celebrations dates back to the reign of King Yuri during the Silla Dynasty, when he hosted a friendly competition between women in the capital. Two teams of women knitted for a month before Chuseok, then their work was judged and a winner was declared. Everyone celebrated the winning team with food and drink, and singing and dancing.
Later, Chuseok was known to be one of the only days of the year that married daughters could visit their fathers. Under the patriarchal family system, a married woman was officially considered a member of her husband’s family, not the family into which she was born. It was not customary for married women to visit their birth families very often, but on Chuseok, mothers and daughters could meet. With this knowledge in mind, the time I’ve spent with my mom’s family during Chuseok feels even more precious, and my fondest memories of the holiday are of them and our big picnics with jeon and neobiani.
Even though I now live alone in Michigan, far from my extended family in Korea and even my immediate family from my mother and my brother’s family in New Jersey, I still celebrate Chuseok, in my own way. Using local ingredients, I prepare a few different types of jeon, make some japchae, and of course grill neobiani in a true fusion of Korea, America, and Michigan.