Beloved Durango cook, restaurateur and sauce-crafter “Grandma” Chung is known for her directness and honesty, so it comes as no surprise that her new memoir, Rose the Fierce, doesn’t pull any punches.
The power of food peeks out from the folds of every chapter, from childhood memories of annual harvest festivals held in the family graveyard, to the hardscrabble “Bean Pancake House” she ran in wartime Seoul, South Korea, to the box lunch orders she filled for co-workers while employed manufacturing circuit boards in Colorado Springs.
On the book’s back cover is a quote from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream: “… and though she be but little, she is fierce,” Shakespeare writes of the rebellious Hermia, a description equally suited to Chung.
Hwaja (Korean for “Rose”) Chung was born into a prominent family living on their ancestral estate between Kaesong and Haeju in present-day North Korea.
Like Hermia, Chung rejected her father’s choice for her husband, and while still a budding adolescent, fled in the night. She struck out on her own, finding love, betrayal, danger and culinary success along the way.
In the book, suspense-filled chapters with titles such as “War Comes to Korea,” “My Brother Saves Me,” “Betrayal Beyond My Control” and “Jerry Jr. is Kidnapped” describe a life fraught with danger and adversity.
Readers quickly come to understand how Chung earned her stripes as a rebel and a “saengjonja” or “survivor.”
Now well into her 80s, she longs to reconnect with that family of origin, especially a dear brother, Chung Yong, who helped her finally escape communist Korea at the tender age of 15.
She hasn’t been in touch with any of her relatives since, a sad situation she says motivated her to write the book.
“It is one of the greatest sorrows in my life that I have never seen my brother or heard of him again. If not for his love and bravery, I would have been trapped in North Korea forever. I know that I owe him my life,” she writes on page 22.
In a life marked by upheaval and loss, feeding those close to her has been a comfortable constant for Chung.
Perhaps that’s why it just felt right when, in spring 1980, Chung’s third son, Jerry Dickenson Jr., persuaded her to open Grandma Chung’s Home-style Asian restaurant at 937 Main Ave. in downtown Durango.
During the restaurant’s eight-year run, Chung recalls that her Kung Pao Chicken and Green Chili Tofu were the most popular dishes.
Around 2000, she began cooking deli foods for Nature’s Oasis and later operated her own Asian Deli on Jenkins Ranch Road for several years. She found her final culinary roost at Durango Natural Foods, where she graced the deli on and off for eight years.
Until recently, Chung also bottled her own retail line of peanut and garlic sauces, pickled beets and kimchee sold at City Market, Albertsons, Nature’s Oasis and O’Hara’s Jams and Jellies.
Dickenson also encouraged his mother to write down her memories. He knew that she was eager for her five children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren to know their family history and someday to reconnect with relatives in North Korea.
“Before, I’m so busy every minute I had to work, get the money to support the kids, but now I quit work – retirement – and I have time to do that,” Chung said.
With the help of historian Susan Terrill-Flint, vice president of the Association of Personal Historians, Chung developed her memoir with the intention of leaving some sort of a trail that her family still in Korea might follow to find their relatives in the United States.
She says now that publishing her memoir has brought her a measure of peace. “I grew up in a very special family – many, many years old, very special traditions. When I’m gone, no one knows where they came from. They don’t know anything,” she said.
Chung currently is working to locate her relatives through a Red Cross program that facilitates reunification visits between North and South Koreans.
In the meantime, Chung keeps busy tending her backyard greenhouse and rows of sweet corn. When asked if she would consider writing a cookbook of her own recipes, Chung’s face brightened and her mental wheels were visibly turning. “Well, a lot of people wanted that Kung Pao recipe!”