Chuseok began on Saturday, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, and the final day of this holiday, which is sometimes analogized to a Korean Thanksgiving, is today. I'm no expert on this, mind you. My memories of the three years I spent in Korea as a child are rich and intense, but I don't remember celebrating Chuseok at all. After having recently read up on it some, my impression is that this is a holiday for extended families to get together, pay homage to ancestors by visiting their gravesites, enjoy special foods, and exchange gifts. Highways are said to be jammed with traffic as travelers go home for the holidays, leaving the capital city of Seoul a virtual ghost town. I'm curious about this tradition and whether it grew as a cultural phenomenon only after I left Korea in the early seventies...or maybe it was always celebrated with this importance by others, but not observed in the same way by our own family (for good reasons: the ancestral gravesites for the generations preceding my grandparents would have been north of the 38th parallel; we had three generations under one roof with the rest of the family mostly within the same city, so there would have been no need to travel to get together; and back then, most folks traveled by foot, bus, train or, occasionally, taxicab, and private autos were unusual for even the middle class).
I grew up on Korean food (so much so that it is a problem when I don't get my Recommended Daily Allowance of garlic), but don't seek it out in restaurants too much. It's a problem having had a grandmother, mother and aunts with extraordinary cooking skills. (Imagine making your own soy sauce for the year from scratch.) And although the entire Korean peninsula is only about the size of the state of Minnesota, there are noticeable differences in dialects from region to region, with similarly striking differences in cooking methods and seasonings as you move south down the Korean peninsula. Of course, all this has intimidated me from cooking Korean at home, which I need to change if I don't want to wake up with a big bowl of regret when I'm the last generation standing.
When I want to evoke Korea, I take a leaf of perilla (dul-ggae in Korean and shiso in Japanese) and, now that the perilla has flowered, a stem of the flowering stalk as it is forming seeds, and rub them to release the scent. It's an indescribable mix of mint, musk and basil...sort of. The leaves (which I used to think were grape leaves, that is, before I became a gardener), slaked in vegetable oil, are often served a condiment on the Korean dinner table. Maybe for dinner tonight, bul go gi (which I rarely order when I do go to Korean restaurants: it's tourist food, not home cooking!...but when seasoned properly, it's killer as carpaccio), which everyone will enjoy, and kaji namul (eggplant "side dish"), which I'm sure I'll have all to myself. And I'll telephone my mom, and wish her a happy Chuseok, for the first time ever.