Before Sunday, I hadn’t expected to be clocking time for the second post in a week, but when on Saturday morning I read on p. 49 of Julia Skinner’s Our Fermented Lives about the Korean phrase, son-mat, or “hand taste,” it sent a few associations sweetly-breezily chiming. Skinner translates son-mat as “the taste of one’s hands,” which extends to flavorly style, or how it is that food we make expresses unique orchestrations of techniques and timings, of spice profiles and even microfloral zest, especially microfloral zest. It’s this last detail, the links connecting son-mat to the transmission of bacteria and yeast, that is most important and most fascinating, for me, about this phenomenon, such a quiet inheritance as it is. With a bit of searching, I was quickly learning that son-mat also translates to “mother’s hand taste,” the title of artist and researcher Jiwon Woo’s remarkable microbiological installation, and even “mother’s care.” Thus, favorable son-mat figures as inheritable across multiple generations one’s culinary capabilities, and these pass-it-on-sendings are inseparable from food expressed as nourishment, and as love1When writing about such things, while it always seems necessary and important to note that not all mothers convey son-mat, within my frame of reference this resonates. And so, in exploring it, I am not as interested in universalizing good-mother idealisms as I am in noting formidable, constitutive relations that are, for me, continuous, haloed paradoxically in wonder and grief, and beholden these now 27 years since my mom died to an ever-puzzling absent-presence, which must also at the same time be written as present-absence. Bad son-mat, on the other hand, is placeheld by early childhood lore about a friend whose mom was, albeit with the justification of “hard times,” serving expired raviolis with greenishly tinted meat filling from time to time and other unforgettable negligences and horrors. Chef Boyardee rot, while bacteriologically a lot, son-mat is not.. Woo’s project is more than worthy of a slow and careful look, for it sets out from son-mat to inquire into familial-digital (or hand-cultured) microflora, collecting samples, magnifying the microorganisms, tracing their communicability, and creating, in one case, a mechanical process for making son-mat booster-balm, and, in another case, a set of blown glass figures resembling the microscopic morphology.
I haven’t plumbed deeply enough into son-mat to learn whether the microflora travel in all directions and across mixed kinships, but I am curious and will get there eventually, check into this even more than I have thus far. Today as it happens would have been my mom’s 75th birthday, and damn sure that would have meant a massive semi-sesquicentennial cake, but death stunts that kind of celebration and instead you get memories of melted candle wax from the birthday before she died, which I guess would’ve been to celebrate her 48th. Twelve twelve 1996. Then was the time I was living-working in Saginaw and then Bingham Farms, 750 miles away from Kansas City, where she and my dad had moved during my undergraduate years. Actually, while I worked in Bingham Farms, it wasn’t possible to live in Bingham Farms because it was, and is, one of those non-residential enigmapalities meant only for businesses, not for residents. So I lived in Keego Harbor near Walled Lake, where I walked my dog Tony2Best ever Cairn terrier mix, rescued from the Isabella County Animal Shelter shortly after my parents’ divorce in 1989. on the rails to trails trail most afternoons, and was, as I remember it, somewhat adrift, second-guessing why I was there of all places and adjusting multi-line insurance claims of all things. I talked with my mom pretty regularly that year by phone; she consoled well my early insurance career second-guessing and assured me life would be long and I could, if I wanted to change, change.
When I think back to her death, as each year passes those recollections are marked with greater uncertainty. I know-know some things vividly well: that Ph. as a kindergartner was there, finding her that Wednesday morning, that premature deaths of otherwise healthy-seeming people spawn an abundance of causal questions, that she had just a made a pot of spaghetti on the evening of June 10 and that it lingered there in the refrigerator for a few days, the oddest (or strikingest) of lifeline-seeming artifacts. Can’t recall who-with, but I remember a conversation about whether I would be having any of it, or whether it should be frozen. Nah. Nope. She was a good and giving cook, prepped many a full-hearted and nourishing meal for me, but her spaghetti sauce had been corrupted along the way by I don’t know what, exactly, except that it was hauntingly chunky with large pieces of onion and green pepper. Blech to the dish, not to the chef!, as the saying goes. I just could not abide mouthful-sized cooked green pepper, not texturally, not for the bitterness, not for the posthumous son-mat. I guess the sauce was concocted to my parents’ mutual-ish liking, though they were not married any longer by then; I’m fairly certain Ph. wouldn’t have touched a plate heaped with that version of spaghetti sauce, either, although I suppose the separability of elements is one justification for the crude knifework on the veg matter. Pick it out, if you don’t like it.
The autopsy was inconclusive, but not for lack of comprehensiveness, and that comprehensiveness led to low-key disfigurement and bruising, the sort that leaves me now wondering whether we eventually opted for a closed casket service. Quiet day; I haven’t asked around to any of the few who would remember. It did seem like a question we considered at length, to subject this grandly confusing, unexpected, and life-redefining event to such display, and to what end, for whatwhom, so that casual friends and coworkers could claim something like “closure.” Some of these faith rituals and their rationale are brazen, bizarre. So although I cannot quite reassemble with clarity a hingework memory about open or closed casket, I do remember dwelling in a timeless moment, casket-side, exhausted but keen, and in that moment, her hands were still as they had been. They were unfazed. The image holding blinkless in that instant has a unique durability; I remember it so well. What explains its endurance best, I guess, is that those hands are now more or less my hands. At 49, I recognize them in the place where my hands are, replicas matching in shape and proportion, structure and skin elasticity, starkly defined lunulas.
So although I cannot neatly trace son-mat, there are long-lasting inheritances with hand-taste and I suppose hand-shape, too. I imagine son-mat to have conveyed through my own hands; it is a friendly and traceable linkage one can, without too much leaping, see across years and distances the sort of microfloral transference that would lend flavorlets to food-making, such as when I make that kale and sweet potato soup Is. likes so much, or when I fry an egg for T., like the last time I was in Michigan just before Thanksgiving. But it’s here, too, that son-mat, or hand-taste, ties in with something discursive, more viral than microbial, if we can still entertain the theoretical plausibility of Burroughs, that language, too, transmits and is heritable, with it flavorings, castings of memory, the stuff like this entry that frosts alphabetically what should have been a birthday cake.
- 1When writing about such things, while it always seems necessary and important to note that not all mothers convey son-mat, within my frame of reference this resonates. And so, in exploring it, I am not as interested in universalizing good-mother idealisms as I am in noting formidable, constitutive relations that are, for me, continuous, haloed paradoxically in wonder and grief, and beholden these now 27 years since my mom died to an ever-puzzling absent-presence, which must also at the same time be written as present-absence. Bad son-mat, on the other hand, is placeheld by early childhood lore about a friend whose mom was, albeit with the justification of “hard times,” serving expired raviolis with greenishly tinted meat filling from time to time and other unforgettable negligences and horrors. Chef Boyardee rot, while bacteriologically a lot, son-mat is not.
- 2Best ever Cairn terrier mix, rescued from the Isabella County Animal Shelter shortly after my parents’ divorce in 1989.