This sweet and funny tale of a preppy editor buying a Brooklyn deli with his Korean in-laws is about family, culture clash, and the quest for authentic experiences.
It starts with a gift. When Ben Ryder Howe’s wife, the daughter of Korean immigrants, decides to repay her parents’ self-sacrifice by buying them a store, Howe, an editor at the rarefied Paris Review, agrees to go along. Things soon become a lot more complicated.
After the business struggles, Howe finds himself living in the basement of his in-laws’ Staten Island home, commuting to the Paris Review offices in George Plimpton’s Upper East Side townhouse by day, and heading to Brooklyn to slice cold cuts and peddle lottery tickets by night.
My Korean Deli follows the store’s tumultuous life span, and along the way paints the portrait of an extremely unlikely partnership between characters with shoots across society, from the Brooklyn streets to Seoul to Puritan New England. Owning the deli becomes a transformative experience for everyone involved as they struggle to salvage the original gift—and the family—while sorting out issues of values, work, and identity.
Bronson Pinchot's narration of Ben Ryder Howe's snarky story of the pitfalls of small business ownership truly makes this offbeat memoir come alive. Not only does Pinchot do an incredible job with Howe's own sarcastic, funny voice, he also manages to provide ample spice to characters as diverse as Kay, Howe's sassy Korean mother-in-law; Dwayne, a quirky deli clerk with a penchant for strange weaponry; and George Plimpton, the famed eccentric literary personality.
When Howe's wife, Gab, sets out to buy a deli for her first-generation immigrant mother as a token of appreciation for her personal determination and sacrifice, things get a bit madcap. Because of this, My Korean Deli ends up being a light-hearted look at leading a peculiar kind of double life. After all, there's something delightful about a story that interweaves the purchase and operation of a family-run bodega in Brooklyn with a part-time editorship at The Paris Review, Howe's day job. After his boss, George Plimpton, warns him of the dangers of duel identity specifically that one side of his existence will always be threatening to swallow up the other, Howe begins to delve deeper into his own personal values. The book gets meta when he starts to examine different modes of achievement in American culture, pitting the puritanical over-thinking of the author's New England upbringing against the aggressive, DIY ethos of his wife's family. Ultimately, he mostly opts for the latter in life, dedicating himself to the immigrant-run deli and, in a more haute way, the slapdash but impressive Paris Review.
Howe finds a way to balance the big ideas with clever, laugh-out-loud anecdotes. Some of the more hilarious moments come as dispatches from the deli itself, as he is forced to get right with the rowdy regulars, navigate a massive corner-store supply outlet with his cheeky mother-in-law, or come to legal blows with various state regulatory agencies.
There are also more than a few poignant moments, including Plimpton's death, Kay's health issues, and the downward spiral of treasured employee and revered neighborhood character Dwayne. These serve to temper the mood and illustrate that, even in the deli, there are life lessons to be learned. Gina Pensiero
“My Korean Deli is…about love, culture clashes, family, money, and literature. Plus, it happens to be very funny and poignant.” (A. J. Jacobs, New York Times best-selling author)
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Dangers of Reading 'My Korean Deli'
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