In 2001, Ben Ryder Howe’s wife, Gab, a corporate lawyer, had an idea. She wanted to buy a business for her Korean parents, to pay them back for their self-sacrifice. Howe, a Waspy intellectual from Boston, was ill-prepared for the physical and emotional demands that followed, especially compared with the lackadaisical and eccentric world of his then–day job, as an editor at The Paris Review. What follows is an excerpt from the introduction to his new book, My Korean Deli, out this week.
Last summer my wife’s family and I decided to buy a deli. By fall, with loans from three different relatives, two new credit cards, and a sad kiss good-bye to $30,000 my wife and I had saved while living in my mother-in-law’s Staten Island basement, we had rounded up the money. Now it is November, and we are searching New York City for a place to buy.
We have different ideas about what our store should look like. My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless-steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria—the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance—pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay’s reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money, up to a few thousand dollars per hour at lunchtime. She also wants a store that is open 24 hours and stays open on Christmas and Labor Day. She’d like it to be in the thick of Manhattan, on a street jammed with tourists and office workers.
I don’t know what I want, but an all-night deli in midtown with a steam table isn’t it. I’m the sort of person who loses my appetite if I walk past an establishment with a steam table. I get palpitations and the sweats just being around spare-rib tips. Of course, I don’t have to eat the food if we buy a deli with a steam table. I just have to sell it. That’s what Kay says she plans to do. But Kay has an unfair advantage: Years ago, after she came to America, she lost her sense of smell, and now she can’t detect the difference between a bouquet of freesias and a bathroom at the bus station. My nose, on the other hand, is fully functional.
Luckily, I’m in charge of the real-estate search, and so far I have successfully steered us from any delis serving hot food. As a result, Kay’s frustration is starting to become lethal.
“What’s the matter?” she asked me the other day. “You not like money? Why you make us poor?”
These are not unfair questions. I would say that one of my biggest faults as a human being is that I do not love money, which makes me lazy and spoiled. Like finding us a store, for example. Call me a snob, but somehow a deli grocery—a traditional fruit-and-vegetable market—seems more dignified than a deli dishing out slop by the pound in Styrofoam trays. Is that practical? We are, after all, talking about the acquisition of a deli, not a summer home or a car. If dignity is so important, why not buy a bookstore or a bakery? Why not spend it on a business where I have to dress up for work?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not insecure about becoming a deli owner. I even sort of like the idea. Aside from a few “gentleman farmers,” no one can remember the last person in my family who worked with their hands. After blowing off law school and graduate school, after barely getting through college and even more narrowly escaping high school, why would I suddenly get snobbish?
But the truth is, I’m still young (31 is young, right?) and can afford to be blasé. It’s like the job I had as a 17-year-old pumping gas outside Boston, a gig I remember as brainless heaven. I enjoyed coming home smelly. I enjoyed looking inside people’s cars while scraping the crud off their windows. I enjoyed flirting with women drivers twice my age.
Who knows how I would have felt if 17 were just the beginning, and I could look forward to 50 more years of taking orders from strangers.
From My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store (March; Henry Holt). © 2011 by Ben Ryder Howe. All rights reserved.