In a burst of filial devotion, or perhaps just a burning desire to get out of her parent’s basement, Ben’s wife Gab decided she needed to buy her Korean mother a store, specifically a Korean deli in Brooklyn, so her mother could support herself and Gab could repay her mother for all her sacrifices. Ben, a product of boarding schools and Puritanism where children don’t buy stores for their parents but rather write tell-all memoirs of parental flaws, finds this plan to be a little lacking in commonsense. But love and family duty prevail (not to mention his burning desire to get out of the basement), and that’s how the ultra-WASPy Ben, a senior editor of The Paris Review, found himself as the co-owner of a hole-in-the-wall deli in Brooklyn selling lottery tickets, stocking snack food, and fighting with his mother-in-law, Kay.
What’s to fight about? Well Kay, a tank-wearing, chain-smoking dynamo with certain beliefs about suffering (“American people, you cut off they finger, they gonna cry,” – “Me, you can cut off my whole hand and I not even care”) and the value of hard work (“I do anything not to be the lazy person”) had definite ideas on what goods to stock, how to price things, and how to remodel; Ben had other ideas. In the highly-competitive Korean deli market, though, success will only be theirs through lots of compromise and tremendous hard work.
Like the deli itself, My Korean Deli: Risking it all for a Convenience Store by Ben Ryder Howe, has a little bit of everything: cameo appearances by the legendary “professional amateur” George Plimpton (Howe’s boss at The Paris Review), musings on Korean immigrant culture, the challenges of owning a family business, and New York’s byzantine rules for running delis. A thoroughly engaging memoir with lots of fascinating details, My Korean Deli is a sure bet for readers who enjoy slice of life books.