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Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Korean Deli an American story

My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe
Published by Henry Holt and Company 
Hardcover $24

As someone who married a man who owned two fast food restaurants, I really related to Ben Howe's story. He perfectly captures the craziness, the back-breaking work, insanely long hours, the horrible bureaucratic obstacles and yes, the occasional rewards of owning your own small business in America.

Howe tries to balance his work as an editor at the Paris Review, and the contrast between that world of the Upper East Side in NYC and the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Korean deli is located perfectly mirrors the patchwork of life in New York. His vivid portrait of his boss, George Plimpton, is so intriguing. What I know of Plimpton has mostly come from his reports of his own adventures (Paper Lion, etc.), so this look at him from Howe's point of view is fascinating.

Then there is Howe's Korean mother-in-law, Kay. Howe's wife  Gab wanted to buy a deli for her mother to thank her for the sacrifices she made to educate Gab, sending her to college and law school. While WASPy Howe doesn't quite get this, he supports his wife, and they extend their living in his in-law's basement to buy the deli for Kay. Kay and Ben clash immediately while trying to find a deli to buy, and when they do buy one, Ben is way too slow to pick up the nuances of working the cash register. He is relegated to stocking shelves.

The deli is a meeting place for various characters in the neighborhood, some who hang around all day and night. Howe usually worked the late shift, so his customers were the creatures of the night. He grew to tolerate, and respect, these people, even while they exasperated him. One employee, an African-American man named Dwayne, came with the store, and while he was a good employee, always showing up for work, he frequently offended customers of the store with his language. In a book filled with colorful, interesting people, Dwayne is perhaps the most interesting. He knows everyone and everything about the neighborhood, and is a single dad trying to raise his daughters.

Immigrants are the backbone of this nation, and Howe tells Kay and her husband's story with honesty and respect. Where they came from, how hard they worked to get to America and make something of themselves, it is a tribute to the people who work long, hard hours, doing work that many people refuse to do, that explain how many cultures come here and make a success of themselves for their families.

Howe nails the difficulties of owning your own small business- the strain it puts on a marriage, the constant money worries- it's a 24/7 responsibility, much like having a child, which Ben and Gab are also struggling to do. His tales of the deli, what it means to the neighborhood, to his family, and eventually to him, give the reader a real appreciation of small business owners. I loved his story of Gab trying to get from Queens to Brooklyn during a horrible snowstorm, and of keeping the store open during the big blackout.

Howe is a gifted writer, and this book is one I would highly recommend. It's a great American story.

Rating 4.5 of 5 stars


  1. This sounds great! A perfect NY story - there is a deli on nearly every corner - it's fascinating to see the inner workings of these establishments. Great review!

  2. A great immigrant story. I reviewed the book as well!
    Book Dilettante