Greg Pak is the writer of some fantastic comic books, such as Planet Hulk, World War Hulk, Darth Vader, Mech Cadet Yu and The Princess Who Saved Herself. Now Jimmy Gaspero lights the fires in the Yeti Cave to heat up a pot of his favorite broth to sip with Greg Pak as they discuss Greg's current Kickstarter project, Cooking Will Break Your Heart.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Greg, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave to discuss your current Kickstarter campaign for Cooking Will Break Your Heart. The Kickstarter describes it as a “Korean American Midwestern Texan Cookbook and memoir about food, family, memory, love, joy, and grief.”
To start, how have you been doing, generally speaking?
GREG PAK: “Hanging in there” is my standard response in 2021. I won’t lie – these last couple of years have been terrible! Both globally and personally! For a lot of us! But with the support of family and friends and community – and therapy! – I’m hanging in there. Thanks for asking – and I hope you’re hanging in there, too.
CBY: I'm doing pretty good, thanks. I want to express my condolences about the loss of your mother, Jane Pak, a few months ago. You wrote a very beautiful and moving essay about her, and two parts in particular really stood out to me. You wrote, “She was so interested in things.” And you said you have dozens of photos of her getting on the same level as little kids to interact with them. I thought they were just two lovely things to say about someone. Thank you for sharing that.
Did Cooking Will Break Your Heart grow out of dealing with the loss of your mother?
GP: That’s very kind of you – thanks so much, and I’m glad that piece meant something to you.
My mom was the best, and it means so much to be able to share her memory with folks.
I’ve been posting photos of my cooking process on Twitter for years now, and people would ask me pretty frequently when I was going to write a cookbook. So I’d been thinking about this for at least a year or two before my mother’s death. But when it came time to actually wrap my head around what it would look like, I kept coming up against the reality that cooking is history and memory and family and love and grief. So the book’s going to be full of essays and poems and comics and photos that grapple with all of that on a specific, personal level, and yes, it’ll be dedicated to my beloved mother Jane Pak, and my grandmothers Wechun Pak and Grace Riechers.
CBY: The sense of smell is tied so strongly to memory. For me, there are certain food smells that instantly transport me to another location. What are the food scents/smells that transport you to another place?
GP: Yeah, it’s powerful, isn’t it? Every time I drink guava juice, I’m transported back forty years to my Korean grandma’s kitchen in Hawaii.
CBY: Prior to putting this digital cookbook together, had you been asked by friends or fans to do something like this where you gathered your favorite recipes or the things you loved to cook and posted about on social media?
GP: Yeah, people would get excited about seeing the food photos and ask about a cookbook in a half-joking way. And now I’m calling everyone’s bluff! It’s happening, y’all!
CBY: What are your favorite meals to cook? What is in the Greg Pak go-to, sure-to-please meals?
GP: Super easy: mushroom sauce over rice, poached eggs, chazuke, baked chicken thighs.
Harder but totally worth it: dduk guk (Korean rice cake soup), kalbi (Korean barbecued short ribs), kalguksu (Korean knife-cut noodle soup).
Okay, now I’m hungry.
CBY: Me too! Reading through the Kickstarter page, there were some sentences that just knocked me down, and I backed it right away and wanted to talk to you about it. For example, “Every meal I cook is a love letter to and from people in my family, living and dead.”
Where does that strong connection to family and food come from? Was there a driving force in your family growing up that instilled that in you?
GP: The more I cook for the people I love, the more I think about the meals that the people who loved me cooked for me throughout my life. Cooking is just such a powerful message. It’s literally care. If a person cooks for you, they’re seeing you, thinking about you, feeding you, nurturing you. It’s such a mundane act but such a tremendously powerful and moving thing.
CBY: My maternal grandmother, Eunice, she passed away this past March, was an excellent cook and you knew that when she made you something to eat, it was another way of her saying she loved you. Her rice pudding with raisins and nutmeg sprinkled on top was my favorite. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost taste it.
What was your favorite meal from childhood and who made it?
GP: My deepest condolences to you. And YES, I’ve got a tentative chapter title for the book that reads, “When I Cook For You I’m Saying I Love You.” What a gift for you to have those memories of her and that rice pudding!
I loved the chicken thighs in mushroom sauce that my mom cooked. It’s a super simple thing – the mushroom sauce is Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup! But it’s so good, and such an intense, comforting nostalgia food for me.
CBY: Culinarily speaking, I’m not overly familiar with Korean food. I’ve had bulgogi, kimchi, bibimbap. As someone writing a Korean American Midwestern Texan Cookbook, what are the Korean foods that you most recommend?
GP: If you’re going to a restaurant, I’d lean into whatever the restaurant’s specialties are. If it’s a barbecue joint, kalbi is usually the top-line experience and highly recommended. But some restaurants specialize in different things, like kom tang (a beef bone soup). If it’s a general, full-service Korean restaurant, I’d say just skim the menu and pick something that looks good – it’s all great! But some things are going to be safer bets if you have limits with how much spice you can take. Classic dishes that are pretty good for neophytes are bibimbab, kalbi tang, kalbi, and bulgogi. Classic supporting dishes include pajun and chap chae (these are not things you’d want as a solo meal – they’re things you order for the table and share alongside your main meal). Spicier but incredibly delicious soups include soondubu and kimchi jjigae.
CBY: You say "Cooking Will Break Your Heart chapters may include…," and then you have a decent list of potential chapter names, but I really do hope one chapter is “Treatise on Broth.” Why is broth so wonderful?
GP: Broth is a big, big deal to me on every level. I cooked so much broth for my mom when she was sick, and she loved it so much, so it’s a hugely emotional subject. I think this is where the “Break Your Heart” part of the title comes in.
CBY: It seems the response to the Kickstarter has been pretty great. Did that surprise you at all?
GP: It’s been tremendous and I’m so grateful. I was a little surprised, in a wonderful way! But in retrospect, it makes sense. I’d been kind of thinking the book might do similar numbers to my previous how-to book, KICKSTARTER SECRETS. And that book did great, because there’s a great niche audience of people interested in learning about running crowdfunding campaigns. But there’s just a much bigger chunk of the population interested in cooking. Huge thanks to everyone who’s come on board or spread the word!
CBY: My favorite food is sandwiches. My second is fried chicken.
Big existential question time: what are your thoughts on sandwiches and fried chicken?
GP: Good choices. I love both of those. I will absolutely have a fried chicken recipe in the book, and I’ve been thinking about sandwiches! My big tip – napa cabbage or arugula instead of romaine lettuce!
CBY: If you will indulge me, a few comics-related questions.
You have created or co-created several Asian characters such as Amadeus Cho, Wave, Stanford Yu, Kingsway Law (big Kingsway West fan here). How would you characterize the current state of Asian representation in Western comics, and what would you still like to see more of in the future?
GP: I’ve been putting stories out into the world with Asian and Asian-American characters for literally thirty years now. It’s always been deeply important to me. So I’m thrilled that even as so many aspects of the world feel like they’re falling apart right now, there’s never been a better time to be telling stories with Asian and Asian-American characters. The big media companies have finally realized they can make money from it, which has thrown doors wide open that have been barely cracked open for decades. What I’d like to see in the future is just more, and more diversity within diversity. There’s no one Asian-American story, no quintessential Asian-American character. There’s as many incredible stories and characters out there as there are individual people walking the planet. So I’m excited to see an ongoing flow of all kinds of different projects from all kinds of different perspectives.
CBY: I think of Planet Hulk as the comic equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s a tremendous comic work. Are you a fan of Shakespeare and, if so, what’s your favorite play? If your version of the Hulk were to be cast as any character in any Shakespeare comedy, who would he play?
GP: I love Shakespeare – actually acted as Macbeth in our high school production! If we’re talking tragedies, I’d take Old Hulk and cast him as Lear. But I’m kinda stumped with the comedies – honestly hard to place the Hulk in any of the casts I can think of. You got me on this one!
CBY: I was thinking Caliban from The Tempest might be a little on the nose, but I'd like to see him play Oberon from A Midsummer Night's Dream. What else are you working on that CBY readers can check out?
GP: I’m writing the DARTH VADER book for Marvel, the FIREFLY book for BOOM!, and a STRANGER THINGS miniseries called TOMB OF YBWEN for Dark Horse. Just wanna give a special plug for the TOMB OF YBWEN book – it’s gorgeously drawn by Diego Galindo with colors by Francesco Segala and letters by Nate Piekos, and I think it’s quietly one of the very best things I’ve written this year.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 comics would you want to make absolutely sure are included?
GP: Lynda Barry’s entire oeuvre, Charles Schulz’s entire oeuvre, and Miyazaki’s NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND.
CBY: If you could relive any food experience, whether that is a home-cooked meal made by a particular person or a night out with friends at a favorite restaurant, or just a snack food that’s no longer made anymore, what would it be?
GP: I once had a piece of tuna in Tokyo that literally made me tear up. Wouldn’t mind trying that again. And do they still make Corn Bran? Haven’t seen it in years, for some reason. Loved that stuff.
CBY: Lastly, this isn’t a question so much as to say I have had the pleasure of meeting you a few times, very briefly, when you have come to The Comic Book Shop in Wilmington, DE, where I shop, and you are always so kind and gracious with your time. So, thank you for that and thank you for agreeing to this interview. I very much appreciate it and I wish you the best of luck with the rest of the Kickstarter campaign.
GP: Aw, thanks so much for the kind words. I love that shop! And I hugely appreciate your support. Means a lot when folks are willing to talk about 100% independent, personal projects like this.
Thank you so much!