Cooking as an Heirloom in Memorial

side by side series of the cover of Memorial by Bryan Washington

Early on in Bryan Washington’s Memorial, Benson asks Mitsuko for a story about her son (and Benson’s partner), Mike. Mitsuko says that stories are heirlooms, explaining that they are “a personal thing . . . You don’t ask for heirlooms. They’re just given to you.” Mitsuko tells Benson this while she is cooking. By cooking, she is starting to feel more at home in Benson’s apartment, and with Benson himself. By cooking, unbeknownst to Benson at the time, she is sharing an heirloom, a story, that tells him more about Mike and herself more than any verbal response she could give him to his question would. And by watching her cook, Benson too is feeling more at home with Mitsuko in his space. Through the preparation of food, the two are slowly constructing a home—and an heirloom of their shared home—together. In a world where there is not much one can physically hold on to, one of the few things Benson, Mike, and Mitsuko can grasp is cooking the food they eat and crave.

Cooking, or at the very least eating, is a human necessity and a key part of one’s identity. What we eat, the tastes we prefer, how we cook, and how we learn to cook makes up who we are. Who we pass our food on to, whether it be the home-cooked meals we prepare or the neighborhood spots we share, shows us who and how we love. You can learn a lot about someone’s home based on the meal they make for their guests. Whether they were taught by their mother or father, or while working the line in a corporate restaurant or a mom and pop. Whether the dish was handed to them in a recipe book or recited to them by an abuelita. And you can learn a lot about someone through the spots they take you to when you visit their hometown. What the spot serves, how they treat the staff, how the staff treats them, how at home everyone feels and looks. The practice of cooking constructs our own personal heirloom; the act of sharing and feeding others is the act of giving that heirloom to others, to loved ones. In a world where the stories or presence of home can be burdensome, the food we eat is an heirloom we can carry with us.

This importance of cooking, or of the restaurants you frequent, is a subject that Washington knows well, having authored a column centered on food in The New Yorker; having made running a restaurant a big part of his first collection of short stories, Lot; and having made it one of the main throughlines in Memorial. In Memorial, both Benson and Mike’s parents struggled against the “American Dream,” so they fended and cooked for themselves a lot. As a result, Benson equated home with all the restaurants he went to eat at in Houston, where he was born and raised, the restaurants making a map of his home. Mike, on the other hand, made his living by cooking at bars and restaurants. But cooking and eating out was more than just that for these boys—it was their heirloom. Cooking is how they received stories from their parents. It’s how they passed information on to each other. These are the heirlooms we can hold on to, that are light enough for us to carry. These are the stories that are light enough to pass on to others.

Washington’s book follows Mike, a Japanese American who works in kitchens at restaurants and bars, and Benson, a Black daycare worker from Houston, who are in a relationship that may or may not be ending. Both characters’ families have lost something: Benson’s family splintered after his father lost his job, and Mike’s family went back and forth between Japan and the United States, leaving Mike in the United States once he was a teenager. The story is split up into three sections, switching between the perspective of Benson and Mike. The first section follows Benson as Mike is about to leave the country in order to take care of his sick father—a situation that is further complicated by Mike’s mother, Mitsuko arriving to town the day Mike is leaving. Benson tries to adjust to feeling foreign in his own home while adjusting to Mike’s absence and Mitsuko’s presence. The second section follows Mike as he takes care of his father in Japan, a country Mike hasn’t been to since he was a child—and a father he hasn’t seen since the man left Mike and his mother. The third section follows the couple as they try to come back into a home together, something neither of their parents could do.

Early on in Memorial, Benson talks about how certain tastes feel like home for him. He talks about the versions of himself that have been in his home, each one conjured up by a different restaurant, by a different taste from the past. Benson thinks of “the bakery on the cul-de-sac, with the Korean lady who’d always slipped me donut holes. There’s the chicken sandwich shop by the gas station. The pasta restaurant by the Tex-Mex joint.” This is a map to his home. In reading it, you can see the map forming in your mind of yourself and your home, too, each self tied to a place that’s tied to a taste. We see how food acts as a map of Benson’s relationships as well when he takes his father out to eat, to check up on him, and the conversation results in both men hurting each other and putting up the same walls that have existed between them for too long. Benson deflects—even in his internal monologue—focusing on the food: “There’s no way we’ll finish our food,” he thinks. “The crawfish has overcome us. My father says he’ll eat more later, and I know that he won’t, but we wrap the leftovers in classified ads anyway.” This deflection shows the cyclical nature of their fighting; the Sisyphean crawfish conversation suffocates them. There has been too much left unsaid, too many old things said. They went to a spot to eat, hoping to share a bit of home with each other, but the leftover crawfish is an heirloom to things left unsaid between them. They can’t finish their conversation, their stories. The classifieds cover the things unsaid.

Benson is also uncomfortable in his home while he tries to get used to Mitsuko’s presence. Mitsuko struggles with being back in the United States, especially without her son around. The first time Benson watches her cook, he notices how she deconstructs the carcass of a chicken, how “Her seasonings are lined up. She douses the meat in what looks like a pool of salt. But she doesn’t say shit about it, and eventually she pirouettes to the side, flinging the chicken into a pan. It sizzles like a sheet of rain. If I were at home, I would’ve marinated this, says Mitsuko. But I’m not at home.” The fact that she is not at home is never more apparent than when she is cooking. The food can’t taste the same when she is away. But she must cook it anyway if she wants to eat. She must cook it anyway if she ever wants to feel any semblance of home in this place, with this person her son lives and loves with.

As time passes, Mitsuko becomes more comfortable in the house, and she shows more of herself to Benson through her cooking. Benson watches as Mitsuko cooks “a seafood curry swimming with scallops and shrimp and carrots, just waiting for rice. Her hair is down. She’s not wearing makeup. For the first time since she’s lived in this apartment, Mitsuko’s starting to look comfortable.” It is through the act of cooking that their apartment, where Mitsuko had felt so foreign, becomes more of a home. And as she starts to feel more at home, so does Benson. The act of cooking then not only represents the heirloom of a home they’re sharing with each other, but also the act that constructs the heirloom of their shared home.

In the second section, Mike is in Osaka, tending to his father, Eiju, who is fighting terminal cancer. Mike has made his way through life by cooking in restaurants and bars. That is how he has paid for his home, and how he has been happy. Mike learned how to cook for others in order to feed himself. As Mike tries to take care of Eiju, he thinks fondly of moments in the past, when his family was together, when his father would cook meals that he learned while working at restaurants in the United States. He “made the dishes he’d learned at the Chinese restaurant, and the dishes he made at the Mexican restaurant, and the dishes he made at the Jamaican spot . . . . even in the worst fucking times, when he drank away all the cash, he always found enough to sit us down for a decent dinner. A good one, even.” They weren’t meals from his “home,” or where he grew up, but were, instead, from his experience working in restaurants that could provide food and meals Eiju couldn’t always provide himself. Those meals and techniques were stories for those who were wordless, who couldn’t tell the story of their absence with mere words. And they were an heirloom from Eiju’s absence from home.

Mike juxtaposes this thought with the sense of home he felt back when it was just him and his mother living in the United States. “She sat up for me after work,” he says, “and we ate at the table together, not saying much of anything, kicking our feet underneath it, with our heels hardly grazing, but still. Afterward, I’d wash the dishes. We’d start over the next day. Our constellation was, however briefly, restored.” It was the ability for Mike to sit and eat with Mitsuko that kept her as family to him while Eiju was away. Sitting and eating restored their lives into a tellable story.

While in Osaka, Mike helps at the bar Eiju owns there. As the story progresses, Eiju tells Mike that he wants to pass ownership of the bar over to Mike after he dies. This would mean building a physical heirloom to the trade that Eiju made a living from. It would mean having a physical heirloom of Eiju’s legacy. Mike comments on the importance of cooking for his father and lists the food he has cooked for Eiju, who didn’t like eating anywhere that wasn’t his own bar. Eiju never noticeably enjoyed any of Mike’s cooking, but Mike could never ask for any sign of satisfaction over the food he prepared, for it would poison the pleasure of the authentic happiness. Being offered to run the bar, then, is the greatest respect Mike can be offered by his father. Eiju offers the home he has constructed for himself, his heirloom, to Mike, and what Mike makes of that heirloom, and who he shares it with, will have a taste of the love and home that Mike and Eiju have made for themselves in this life.

In the third section of Memorial, Mike returns to the United States. He and Benson struggle to reconnect, but when we see them cook together, we start to see some synchronicity. “At first, Mike watches me move around the kitchen, grabbing and shifting and slicing. Eventually, he joins me, taking care with his body, negotiating it around mine. We’ve never cooked together, but we move through the room like we’ve been doing it for years.” When Mike and Benson cook together, we see them moving in conjunction for the first time, instead of hearing of stories about the other through one’s perspective. We see the movement, the cracked eggs, the dance. By cooking together, they are giving each other their heirlooms—of who they are and what they’ve learned since they’ve been apart. Mike shows how similar he is in how he cooks to his mother, and Benson shows the things he’s learned from Mitsuko as well. They can keep sharing their heirlooms with each other, and we can keep sharing the heirlooms afforded to us: the constellation of spots we eat at, the choreography of how we cook in our kitchen. Cooking, and what we eat, is an heirloom light enough for us to carry when the rest of home is too much of a burden.