My Korean Deli is a memoir by Ben Ryder Howe about his family’s decision – well, technically his wife and her mother’s decision – to buy and operate a deli in Brooklyn, New York.
The book opens with Ben and his wife, Gab, living in the basement of Gab’s mother Kay’s house – along with a host of other relatives. Gab’s family are Korean immigrants, you see, and family is extremely important to them. So important that Gab decides she wants to repay her mother for all of her hard work and the sacrifice involved in the family’s emigration to America by restoring her to her former career – small business owner. And so it begins.
My Korean Deli describes Ben and Gab’s decision to finance the purchase of a deli in Brooklyn that will serve as the family’s business. The plan: the couple will use the money they have saved while living in Gab’s parent’s house to make the initial purchase, they will work with Kay to operate the deli until their initial investment can be repaid, and then they will turn all ownership and operations over to her. But of course, as is the case all too often, all of their careful planning goes more than somewhat awry.
Identifying the right neighborhood, selecting the right store, determining what type of stock to feature, and ultimately deciding when to walk away – from start to finish, the decisions facing the family as they move into (and eventually out of) the world of small business ownership prove more than anyone had anticipated. Gab, an attorney, frequently finds herself trapped between her mother’s old-world work ethic (“sacrifice everything for the family, work your fingers to the bone, you cannot want it too much”) and the old-money Puritan mentality drilled into her husband since childhood (“it is unseemly to want too much, a hard-sell is gauche, confrontation is inappropriate”). Ben, a writer and editor at the Paris Review, struggles to blend his two careers – one that is incredibly laid-back and unstructured and one that is unbelievably stressful and requires constant attention to detail – all while reconciling himself to the fact that he is still living in his in-laws’ basement.
As things at the deli heat up, so does the tension between family members. As the deli’s fate becomes increasingly uncertain, Ben and Gab find it increasingly difficult to dance the extremely fine line between work and home life. Things come to a head in a variety of ways: Gab returns to working at a law firm because of financial concerns, Ben’s position at the Review is threatened by an unexpected turn of events, and Kay’s health is threatened by the very work ethic she espouses. The family’s responses to the various stressors they face are entertaining, endearing, and ultimately enlightening.
My Korean Deli is well-written, with an easy and engaging writing style. There are some very funny and light-hearted moments, to be sure, but an even greater number of catastrophes, heartaches, and tragedies face Ben and his family – both the “real” one and the one he acquires with and through the deli.
A former corporate attorney and government relations/health policy executive, Jill-Elizabeth walked away from that world (well, skipped actually) and toward a more literary life (equally challenging, but infinitely more enjoyable). If you enjoyed this review, please visit her at Jill-Elizabeth.com, the official home of All Things Jill-Elizabeth – that is, all of the teehees, musings, rants, book reviews, writing exercises, and witticisms of her burgeoning writing career.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Henry Holt and Co. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.