Review: Umma’s Table by Yeon-sik Hong

Hong’s latest graphic novel explores the joy of cooking and the challenge of parenting aging parents.

Literature Review


Umma's Table_cover
Umma's Table cover image via Drawn and Quarterly.


Cooking (to me, at least) is synonymous with my grandmother. Watching her cook sparks an unrivaled contentment. As I write this, I can smell her pork chops and fried apples, and almost behold the paper plate turning translucent with grease. Eating meals at her dining room table can make you come to life again! Magic imbues the food; maybe it’s love. Either way, I want to impart this gift to others in my life.


From the moment I cook to when I sit down to eat, I mimic my grandmother. I want to take my favorite cooking memories of her, all the pleasure I derive from her meals, and put them in my own. In that way, the past blends into the present — and as my daughters stand on their tiptoes to peer over the counter as I chop and sauté — it seeps into the future.


But the essence I’m trying to recreate loses its charm to my own modern techniques and interests and to the memories I want to make with my own family. I also have to confront the truth that, with time, this will happen to me as well.


It often becomes a laborious process to navigate the complex coalescence of food, aging, and family, which is precisely why I was excited to devour how Yeon-sik Hong explores this topic in his graphic novel Umma’s Table (Drawn & Quarterly, May 2020), translated into English by Janet Hong.


At the forefront of Umma’s Table is the feline Madang, a hardworking artist and new father. Soon as the graphic novel opens, Madang, his wife, and their six-month-old son are moving to the outskirts of South Korea, where factories and livestock farms dominate the scene and housing costs are quite cheap. Here, Hong illustrates a picturesque countryside that radiates serenity from the snow-packed hillsides to their house’s ramshackle state. Even Madang’s thoughts about his future springtime garden exude a palpable lust for peace. 


When mice skittering around the floorboards threaten to upend their excitement, Madang is determined to eradicate them in time to prepare their first dinner in their new home. The chapter ends with Madang and his family gobbling steaming bowls of fish soup while mice watch them from the walls.


Each chapter in Umma’s Table is an artfully rendered slice of Madang’s world. Landscapes are incredibly detailed, sprawling, and with the black-and-white color scheme the interpretation becomes all the more engrossing. While adding colors could have livened up the storytelling, it’s the two-tone nature that hones the reader’s attention.


Umma's Table_interior
Umma's Table interior image via Drawn and Quarterly.


Alongside the controlled, realistic terrains and bustling city centers are light comical moments where Hong’s previous experience with manga shine the most. It’s where characters become shapeless and less defined in their exuberance that augment the book’s lighthearted undertones.


The storyline revolves around Madang’s two competing identities: Madang as a husband and father, and Madang as an adult-son and caretaker of his parents. Hong depicts this tension in an ongoing powerful illustration of two planetary worlds drifting away from each other as Madang divides his time between them.


On his adult-son planet, surrounded by a ring of prescription pills, Madang’s mother waves forlornly at him while his alcoholic father guzzles beer in the background. On the family planet, where Madang is happiest, his wife plants heart-shaped vegetables and his son laughs in the garden that spans their entire world.


Madang resents his parents' inability to take care of themselves. It is justified at times until it becomes somewhat grossly irrational. This simmering bitterness comes up often enough, as if to compel the readers to ask, "Why not just combine these two worlds?" 


It’s a sensible response — even Madang’s wife suggests that his parents move in with them. Yet, it is never that easy as Madang laments, "[T]he world I’ve worked so hard to leave behind…and the world I’ve worked so hard to build…colliding! It would be the collision of these two worlds!...It would mean the destruction of both our worlds!"


This is a realistic fear for adult children. The eagerness to shed the restraints of childhood will eventually conflict with the burgeoning responsibilities of parenting aging parents. Finally achieving a better life only to return to a strange inversion of the old one feels like a regression.


Madang does not merge these two worlds. Instead, he reminiscences about the food his mother once prepared at her table when he was a kid and the way her meals were all encompassing. One of his fondest memories is affiliated with kimchi, a cultural staple she made annually that they paired with each meal throughout the year.


Kimchi (and the act of making it) is entangled with Madang’s love for his mother, the nostalgia he feels when he steps into a kitchen, and the similar happiness he wants to bestow on his own son. It is this triple-braided cultural tie that Madang is most afraid of losing as his mother wanes from being the vigorous young woman of his memory. Madang chooses to honor his mother’s influence by continuing her tradition of making kimchi and letting his umma’s table become his table.


Madang’s cooking scenes are a particular delight. In the aptly named chapter "Making Kimchi," each panel details how to put the dish together, but as a matter of fact, it’s a masterclass in the joy of cooking. This scene, remarkably, transforms into a cheerful song that carries throughout the story.


Food is the core heartstring of Umma’s Table. Meals settle at the end of every tense scene. Madang processes complex emotions and works out his fears while cooking. Readers will taste merriment in the meal scenes and even when absent — like a sullen Madang eating at his parents’ dank basement apartment — there are still some faint echoes of satisfaction. The dinner table is where Madang experiences a livelier, heartier love between himself and others.


This is not far from our own truths. Gathering together for a meal is more than just about the food. It’s about creating new memories and replicating old ones; and about cherishing moments of comfort and grasping onto the immutable past in the midst of an uncertain, fragile future.



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Literature, Books, Review, Graphic novels, Art, Translation, Korea, South Korea