Jin Min Lee’s novel, Free Food for Millionaires, is a story like the sea with moments of calm confidence, to raging and unsettling waves that push you undertow and you drown in sadness. Although, a fictional tale, Lee, eloquently captures the true nature of people discovering who they really are in the world on many levels, through each of her characters. There is a strong examination of a woman’s role as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and mistress woven throughout the story with an immigrant lens. Lee uses this Korean American filter to share with readers not only the experience of immigrant families, and their immigrant communities, but also that of first generations lost within their identities. From a foodie’s perspective reading through this novel, I was inspired to learn more about the Korean culture. Like many immigrant families from other countries, the children are the one’s that mostly struggle with this balancing act of where they belong. They never really fit in with the people of their parent’s home country nor do they exactly fit in with other Americans. What I did learn about this concept of balance, referenced as Obangsaek, is found in Korean art, and traditional dishes. There is much forethought in balancing a plate with their five symbolic colors (blue/green, yellow, white, red and black). Plating with these colors in mind, promotes a healthy, prosperous and long life. I feel that Lee also aimed on some level to attain this balancing act with her characters.
Maybe not quiet as selective as Obangsaek, I still found this novel to be well with contrasting characters. We have our heroine, who is controlled, but free spirited polar to her sister and close friend, who are well mannered rule followers. Then the quiet, meek, selfless mother, who ironically has an amazing voice of an angel contrasting the darken role of the mistress that uses her beauty to get what she wants. Although, Lee, spends more time developing the female characters of this novel, we do see the transformation that occurs with some of the male characters. There is also a equilibrium found among the male figures. We read about our heroine, Casey’s father along with her friend Ella’s father. Both Korean with their own hardships, one a single father of means and the other with more economic hardship. Then there are various men that go in and out the women’s lives. Men of kindness and respect countered with egotistical, self-centered takers. By the end of the story, we experience each character’s self-discovery and resolve.
What I struggled with and was surprised by in my reading was some of the graphic sexual context. Although, it was not distasteful, and came across more like the curious experience of being a sexual woman, I think the novel did not need such detail in these parts. Where I much rather, Lee, spent time in detail, would have been in her description of the many Korean dishes, which were sprinkled here and there throughout the book. Even so, I would still consider this novel for my bookish foodies out there.
It would be a great read for any book club wanting to experience an immigrant story. I would highly recommend pairing this novel with Eric Kim’s cookbook, Korean American: food that tastes like home. Kim’s cookbook not only has delicious recipes that encapsulate both continents, but his story sharing of his personal experience growing up Korean American is found through the entire book. A true master of recipe development, Kim, succeeds in creating wonderfully balanced dishes.
We also see similarities Eric Kim, in Lee’s novel reflected in Ella’s cookery talents. Not having a mother to teach her how to make traditional Korean food, Ella learns from American magazines and cookbooks. Just like Kim shares about his own introduction to the culinary world, watching the cooking channel and devouring tips on how to cook, both Ella and Kim learn the art of cooking with an American style. Below is a recommend menu for your next book club meeting (recipes found in Korean American).
Yellow: Drink-Soju Cocktail: Clementine 50/50
Red: Appetizer-Crispy Yangnyeom Chickpeas
Green, White, Red, black: Main-Jalapeno-Marinated Chicken Tacos with Watermelon Muchim
White/green: Dessert-Honeydew Semifreddo