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Chuseok

We Americans, not really that circumspect about traditions, do have one tradition that most people I know stick to – Thanksgiving.  There are many ways we find to celebrate it.  Even those who are vegetarians or vegans who don’t eat eggs or dairy products find a way to prepare at least one of the traditional items for their Thanksgiving dinner table – turkey, stuffing, cranberries, potatoes, some vegetable like green beans or Brussels sprouts, and pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, or just plain pumpkin. And maybe a pecan or apple pie.  But I’ve been at Jewish Thanksgiving with gifillte fish, and at an Italian Thanksgiving with antipasto and lasagna added to the menu.  My brother-in-law is African American and one quarter Cherokee.  His family always makes macaroni and cheese, which they serve alongside everything else.

I remember my mother slaving for hours alone in the kitchen, days before Thanksgiving, and also for hours on that day, preparing the stuffing for a gigantic turkey and then stuffing it into the turkey. A couple of hours later, the delicious aroma of turkey roasting wafted from the kitchen.  I was in awe of her, wondering if I could ever master the art of preparing such a gigantic feast. It seemed such a massive task!  If she ever felt overwhelmed or lonely spending all those hours in the kitchen, she never gave me that impression.  The unspoken message I got from her was, this is the way we do Thanksgiving, and you will also have to do it one day.  Somehow, I did learn to do Thanksgiving pretty much the way she did, and I carry on the tradition, year after year, in Germany.  It is so deeply programmed into me, I feel like I must do it!  But my son Jayden, much as he enjoys eating my Thanksgiving dinners, has never been interested in making Thanksgiving a holiday he wants to observe or pass on.  He says it is probably because he hasn’t spent that much time in America, and although he loved celebrating Thanksgiving with me, his American mother, and his German father, it wasn’t part of the German environment he grew up in.  Now he lives in Korea, a culture with holidays of its own, so he has adopted these holidays into his life. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to celebrate one of those holidays with Jayden and his Korean family last September.  Jayden calls it “Korean Thanksgiving”. In Korean, it is called “Chuseok“, which sounds a bit like “CHEWsuck”.  It has something to do with full moon in September, sometimes in October. It is celebrated for three days, and seems to be even more labor-intensive than our American Thanksgiving! However, when I told my young Korean friend Beomsuk about my Chuseok with my son Jayden’s inlaws, he said, “I can see that Jayden’s family is very traditional. I’d say only about 10% of Koreans celebrate Chuseok the way you did it. In my family we buy most everything.”

Chuseok, translated into English, means “the great middle of autumn”.  It would be more accurate to call it an autumn harvest festival than Thanksgiving.  But, when you look at the holiday more closely, it does, in the end, have everything to do with gratitude.  

The origins of the holiday go back to the earliest days of Korea, when it was known as the kingdom of Silla, from around 57 BC until 935 AD.  It was a shamanistic festival held at the time of the harvest full moon, when new harvests were offered to local deities and ancestors.  This tradition has continued among Buddhists, but not in the same way among Christians. I was told that some Christians in Korea don’t celebrate Chuseok at all because of its shamanistic origins. 

The Buddhists, especially the oldest son in the family, get up very early and go to the temple, or else to a special ritual table prepared by the family. There are many, many different kinds of foods prepared to honor, in particular, the ancestors on the male side of the family.  I didn’t see or participate in this, but I saw photos of the ceremonial table, where everything is laid out in a particular order.  At this table, the oldest son in the family participates in a ritual to honor the ancestors on his father’s side of the family.  When I asked what they do for the mother’s side, I got no answer! 

Many Koreans also travel long distances to visit and care for ancestral graves on this day.  I saw people cleaning their sidewalks, driveways and garages in the days before Chuseok, getting ready for family members traveling to visit them.  There were also cartons lined up near the entrances to the home, with gifts of fruit for family and friends.

Christians in Korea have nothing to do with ancestral worship, but I was told that most Christians celebrate Chuseok in their own manner.  Beomsuk told me that in his family and church, they remember and thank God for the lives of Korean Christians who, in years past, shared, or even sacrificed their lives to bring Christianity to Korea.

For me, it is invaluable being able to see how differently some Koreans can live from each other. It is important for me to remember that not everyone celebrates in the same way my son’s in-laws do. However, I consider myself extraordinarily lucky, because I was able to go back to the basics.  I could experience how this holiday is traditionally prepared and celebrated, largely because of the connection in the family to the local Buddhist temple.

There are a number of types of food that are eaten only during Chuseok, or also sometimes also for the lunar new year.  These foods include:

  • pounded rice pastries, similar to moon cakes in China, or mochi in Japan. These are called songpyeon
  • pancakes, called jeon
  • fish, breaded and fried. They call this pancakes too!
  • a soup made from the taro root
  • a stew made with beef ribs, called galbijjim
  • baekju – distilled rice drink, similar to soju, but made only from freshly harvested rice, whereas soju can also be made from potatoes or sweet potatoes
  • fruit, especially nashi pears

The nuns at the temple invited me to come and watch them prepare for Chuseok.   When I arrived, they had already prepared songpyeon – those beautiful rice cakes, having made them from scratch.  They treated me to a glass of water and a plate of delicious chewy, sticky, sweet songpyeon

Songpyeon – rice cakes with filling

Koreans like to make their rice cakes into a half-moon shape, which is mostly what you can see here.  They were filled with various kinds of sweet fillings, such as sweet azuki bean paste, nuts, sweet rice,  or chestnuts, The various colors of purple, yellow and green were made with natural coloring, using azuki beans, pumpkin and green beans, each cooked separately to achieve colored water in shades of light purple, yellow and green.  Imagine going to such lengths to color your Easter eggs!

I watched them prepare bindaetteok,  a crunchy kind of savory pancake made with mung beans.  Unfortunately, I can’t digest these, so declined the offer of a serving.  But they looked beautiful, decorated with slices of  pepper and onion.

Bindaetteok – mung bean pancakes

The nuns, other helpers and I washed and peeled taro roots to go into a soup they eat for Chuseok. Taro is a starchy root, shaped a little like a potato.  Asians and Africans eat a lot of taro, but I had never tasted it. I can say it is really hard to clean and peel, and discolors almost immediately! And it doesn’t taste very good, or of much.  My daughter-in-law never eats it, so I’m thankfully not alone in my opinion!

The nuns also made other things for the seventeen families that would be showing up, one after the other, for their ritual rites.  One was a kind of cake made from rice paste, also known as rice cakes. Rice cake-cake! Very pretty, studded with nuts, and rather bland in flavor.  Then there were little fried crackers  made from seaweed.  The nuns were up half the night and early the next morning cooking and preparing the ceremonial table! 

When the day arrived, I didn’t go to the temple.  My son Jayden is not a Buddhist, and his wife, Dahae, doesn’t practice it, so they didn’t go either.  For us, the day began in the afternoon, when we prepared food with Hanna, Dahae’s mother.  We made completely different, non-vegetarian dishes from those the nuns had made.  Together, all of these make up the food eaten at Chuseok.

We made a kind of pancake on little tooth-pick skewers, called ohsaekjeon.  Ours had strips of five different things skewered together, so they are literally “five color pancakes” – Oh for five, saek for color and jeon for pancakes Hanna made strips, all of the same length, of green pepper, green onion, Spam, imitation crab meat strips (surimi), and also some slices of leek. 

It was really hard to thread these strips onto our toothpick skewers without pieces falling apart!  But that was part of the fun, listening to amused little chortles as they observed me trying to be peaceful as I battled the strips.

Trying to thread those stubborn toothpick skewers!

Mine didn’t look very pretty, but I did get better at it, after about the 100th toothpick!  I’m exaggerating here, but we made a veritable mountain of pancakes!  Then we dusted them all in flour, dipped them afterward into beaten eggs, the same as if you were going to bread something and deep-fry it.  Then Dahae’s parents both fried the pancakes with a bit of oil poured onto a table grill. 

Frying the ohsaekjeon – five-colored pancakes

When all the ohsaekjeon got fried – and eaten – it was time to move on to the next course.  Fried white fish, which Koreans also consider a form of pancake.  Same procedure, different dish.  Dipping the fish in flour, then in the beaten egg, adding a few strips of scallion, and frying. 

Fried fish “pancakes” – saeongseonjeon

We ate that too as soon as each piece was fried, standing around Dahae’s parents busy frying, eating as quickly as they were finished frying.

We’d been eating for hours, but hadn’t sat down to a meal yet!  Dahae joked to me, “Chuseok is a holiday where we stand around and eat all day!”  I laughed.  It was true, bringing back happy memories of my dad frying Hungarian pancakes on Sunday evenings, while we hungry kids devoured each pancake as soon as it left the pan.  We could hardly wait till one of us finished spreading the pancakes with cottage cheese and cinnamon sugar, rolling it up and cutting it into pieces three or four hungry mouths would devour in ten seconds or less.   

The sit-down meal, a couple of hours later, after the kitchen had been cleaned up from all the frying, consisted of LA galbi jjim, a delicious dish of beef ribs that had been marinating for days, rice and kimchi

LA galbi – beef ribs, cut on the lateral part of the rib, eaten this time with rice and kimchi, but often as part of a barbecue, encased in a lettuce leaf with a variety of other things like garlic cloves, a tangy sauce, greens, and kimchi

For this meal we also drank Jeju gosorisul, a particularly high-quality soju (a distilled grain beverage somewhat similar to Japanese sake) from Jeju Island, located in the southernmost part of Korea. This soju, rather than being distilled from rice, potatoes or sweet potatoes, is made from millet and natural yeast. It was so smooth and delicious, I could have drunk it all evening and not had a hangover the next day! Not that I drank that much of it, but it’s supposed to be that good.

We continued to sit around the table, chatting, until dessert.  Dessert was a relief to eat after all this food – simple slices of perfectly ripened, luscious red watermelon. 

The next day we walked to the temple and greeted the nuns.

The temple with its rooftop garden
My little grandson, wearing traditional Korean clothing. He’s not too happy about wearing that hat! Koreans often wear traditional clothing for special holidays, weddings, and when they go to traditional museums.
And here he is at the temple, dressed just like a kid from the Joseon Dynasty!

We were warmly greeted and served the foods I had watched being prepared, some of which I had even helped to prepare, and more.  I sampled the taro soup, ate seaweed crackers the nuns had made themselves, and had a bit of teokk (rice cake) cake, which they had been preparing in the middle of the previous night.

toranguk – taro root soup
Seaweed crackers made by the nuns

teokkaekeu – rice cake cake!

Experiencing the rich gastronomical heritage of Chuseok  was marvelous.  These were magical, extraordinary moments I will never forget.  But, fascinating as cooking and eating the food was, observing the people involved in the preparation, something went deeper inside me.  Here there was something to hold onto forever.  We can learn life lessons from watching people interact, and this, to me, was the richest part of Chuseok .  It is because of the life lessons I seek to learn while traveling that I call myself a mileage plus pilgrim.

This was the second time I have spent time in the kitchen with a community of women.  The first time was in a convent for Coptic nuns in Cairo, Egypt.  In the convent in Cairo, as also in the temple in Seoul, there were lay persons who worked alongside the nuns.  In addition, in Seoul there were lay volunteers helping the nuns.  In both cases, it was the easy-going camaraderie, the comfortable companionship, that struck me. 

I basked in being a part of this group of cheerful, normally kind women.  Sometimes in the afternoon, after we had all cleaned the kitchen together, we would sit in the dining room and chat or do some personal task or other.  I remember sitting at the dining table a couple of times with my laptop, writing in my blog, sharing Coptic worship music that I had discovered on a previous trip to Cairo.  The nuns were familiar with the music, and we could all contribute to the atmosphere in the room. 

In Seoul the women chatted and chuckled sometimes as they sat there peeling taro roots, frying mung bean pancakes, and stuffing cucumbers with kimchi filling. They enjoyed one another.  There was a sense of ease, relaxed companionship as they sat together.  When we greeted one another, we would observe all the corona restrictions, everyone wearing her mask.   But we had all been vaccinated,  and nobody felt sick, so we removed our masks as we sat down to work.  Both our K95 masks and our social masks which only serve to hide our true selves were set aside as we sat down to spend a few hours with each other.  At one point while sitting there with these women, I thought to myself, I don’t know what these women are talking about, but I really enjoy being with them!   I have always considered myself more of an introvert than an extravert.  I really do enjoy being alone, and got through a nearly six-month lockdown feeling pretty good.  But sitting with these women, I knew how much I need to be in a group of others sitting around, doing routine things that leave the mind free to chat or be silent. 

I know that there are also times when people who live and work together disagree.  I witnessed two women disagreeing one day about the best way to fry the pancakes. At least, that’s what I think they were discussing.  I didn’t understand what they were saying, but watching their body language, I think I understood that there was some difference of opinion about the right way to go about doing this.  I smiled and made some comment about how we old ladies are no different from our grandchildren.  They laughed, stopped arguing, and resumed the method they had been using before.  By then we were all laughing, and one of them said to me, “She is like my big sister, so of course I give in to her.”  Aha!  So that is how they resolve disputes here, I thought.  The cook, who is in charge here, has seniority, so they follow her lead. But first after speaking their mind.  This works!  The cook was a shy, seemingly self-effacing, petite woman.  But obviously she was in charge, and because the structure of their group life was worked out, the atmosphere was relaxed and peaceful.  In Cairo the head nun was in charge, and I assume the nuns followed some rule, as many Roman Catholic nuns do, following the order of St. Benedict.  In Seoul there is a head nun who has the say in what goes on. 

I think the feeling of easy comfort while being with a group of women has shown me how much I miss this, that it is an important need of mine, and that I need to find a way to be involved in activities with a group of women.  I am a member of a women’s writing group.  Here there is that same wonderful feeling of community as we sit together over drinks and discuss our work. 

In this age when we have to endure a pandemic and live with lockdowns, the fear of lockdowns, the fear of congregating, quarantines and imminent quarantines, we need to remember how much we need each other.  We need to find ways of building community, even if it is in tiny groups of two or three people.  This is what I have resolved to practice this year, even if I have to organize it myself.   

Watching Jayden’s mother-in-law cooking pancakes and fish with the entire family milling around, helping to cook and eating, I could see that it was here that she felt in her element.  She had her own version of community – her family, with me, whom she added on.  The dining room table, where we were working and eating, was like a human beehive, with human bees milling around, coming, going, and returning for more, and Hanna was the queen bee.  Her pleasure at being surrounded by family was palpable, but she expressed it in words, too. After we had finished eating our sit-down dinner she sighed, closed her eyes and said, “This is what I love – when my entire family is together and we cook and eat together!” 

I look back to the years when my mother cooked Thanksgiving dinner for our large family plus friends, all alone in the kitchen, for hours on end.  Was it perhaps a lonely, overwhelming task?  Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so overwhelmed about cooking my own Thanksgiving dinners if my siblings and I had worked together with her in the kitchen.  Instead, I carried on the tradition of tackling this feast alone, cooking Thanksgiving and many other dinners by myself, year after year.  I have enjoyed the work, and enjoyed anticipating the pleasure we would all have eating it, but now I think shared time in the kitchen is a better way to live.  I think the time spent with my father as we crowded around him, helping to roll up and eat the pancakes he cooked was at least as valuable as an hour or so at the Thanksgiving table with our exhausted mom, too tired to talk.

I have been told the Korean culture is a “we culture,” whereas our Western culture is an “I culture”.  This past Thanksgiving, keeping Corona guidelines in mind, I invited only two guests.  I cooked the main part of the dinner with one of them and the other, who had less time, came later with a delicious dessert to share.  Then she shared the recipe with us.  What better way to honor those who have gone before us, paving the way for our own journeys, than to honor those on our present journey by doing it together.  No more just metaphorically walking our solitary journeys, as they say you’re supposed to do a pilgrimage.  Yes, time alone is important.  But with these traditional Korean women I discovered how rewarding it is to the soul, as well as to the body, to sit or stand with others while talking, scrubbing, laughing, chopping, listening, stirring, dreaming, mixing, sharing, cooking, and at the end, eating.  The loneliness of Covid and the camaraderie of Koreans, at least those who still do things the traditional way, have shown me the value of doing it together.