My Korean Deli is the sometimes-humorous story of the author, Ben Ryder Howe, and his part in his family’s decision to purchase and operate a deli in Brooklyn. Howe, an editor at the Paris Review at the time, lives, with his wife, in his in-laws’ basement. The deli is meant to be a gift to his mother-in-law as well as a way to earn money to move out of the Paks’ home and to earn some independence again. Instead, the deli draws them closer together by forcing them to both live and work together, making it difficult for Ben and Gab, his wife, to say goodbye.
Before I get into what I liked about My Korean Deli, let me say that I was confused by way the word “deli” is used here. The Paks’ store is more like a convenience store at which you can also get a sandwich. I suppose this is an example of how words can vary in meaning — a deli here in Michigan indicates that you’re going someplace that deals only in sliced meat, cheese, chilled non-alcoholic beverages, and salads. They aren’t a place I would think to go to if I wanted beer, cigarettes, or canned cat food.
Yet sell these things the Paks did. Kay, Howe’s mother-in-law, is a strong woman who has always worked, whether in was in Korea while her husband George was away in the Navy, or in New York sewing sweatshops to help supplement their income. Gab and Ben help Kay find the deli in order to provide her with a workplace she could control and is more similar to the bakery she ran in Seoul.
Unexpected events greet them at every turn. The former owner hadn’t paid some taxes, so they become responsible for those. They also try to make changes to the products they carry, with much complaint from the regular customers. Renovations on a grand scale are made impossible by the reality that the store needs to be open and making money more than the hole in the roof needs fixing.
Meanwhile, Howe is still working at the Paris Review, struggling to reconcile working in the deli with his commitment to one of the best-known literary magazines. His boss, George Plimpton, is both a bit of a sounding board and a larger-than-life, frightening source of worry for Howe. He discusses the decline of both Plimpton and the Review during this time, when his deli is getting off the ground, which makes for an interesting comparison.
Howe writes about all of this with a gentle good humor. There’s a sense of frustration, fun, and futility all mixed together in his prose, and it’s quite fun to read. The only thing I could do with a little less of is his continual explanation of his WASP roots in Boston and how they differ from how Kay and Gab operate. The reader can gather the cultural differences without having to have them pointed out.
My Korean Deli makes for a nice, light memoir about a man thrust into all sorts of unfamiliar situations — store owner, member of a Korean family, a delinquent employee from his day job — and shows him slowly growing into the idea of change.