illustration by Michael Hoeweler
My family immigrated from Korea to Apple Valley in the late ’70s, when I was 4. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, so we would take advantage of the many state parks and go camping at least once a summer—to Mille Lacs, the Bemidji-Brainerd area, the North Shore, and White Water State Park near Rochester. For me, camping was always about the food.
We went with families from our Korean church, and each brought a rice cooker and food to share. We had Korean short ribs to grill, assorted banchan (Korean pickled, sautéed, or fermented vegetable side dishes), and lots of kimchi. American campers, eating burgers, brats, and potato chips nearby, would see our giant feasts. At first, it was embarrassing, because as a young child, all I wanted to do was assimilate and eat a hot dog. Intrigued by the sights, smells, and sounds, many stopped by to ask what we were eating. We made lots of new friends this way.
I also have memories of smelting along the north shore of Lake Superior. Smelt are 6- to 8-inch fish that swim upstream through nearby creeks and tributaries. They’re most active at night, so we took flashlights to catch them using nets and buckets. It was always a boisterous and festive atmosphere, with families coming back to camp with buckets of fish. We’d dip them in beer batter and have a big smelt fry. And, yes, there was always rice, and lots of kimchi. Classic Minnesota with a Korean twist.