Spoiler warning: There are minor spoilers for the novel Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi.
My first thought, upon following Mary H.K. Choi through the open door beneath the store awning labeled “Green Ivy Organic Natural,” is that this is the largest bodega I’ve ever seen.
Although “bodega” isn’t really the right word for it; with its cases of ready-made sushi and dumplings, counter-service sandwiches, and hot Korean dishes like kimchi fried rice, Green Ivy is technically a deli, or according to Google Maps, an “organic food store.” The deli in Choi’s new YA novel, Permanent Record, is largely based on Green Ivy, the author — dressed in all black, sporting a denim snapback embroidered with a tiny LaCroix can — tells me as we wander through aisles overflowing with fresh avocados, Tate’s cookies, and more kinds of ketchup than anyone needs. She used to come here a lot when she lived in the area, around the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus (Choi now lives in Park Slope).
The resemblances between the real, live store and its fictional counterpart are obvious: Both are, in the words of the novel, “huge by New York standards,” open 24 hours a day, and sell all kinds of “rich-people fetish food.” In Permanent Record, out September 3, that array of food is the purview of protagonist and narrator Pablo Rind, a 20-year-old snack connoisseur and college dropout who works the graveyard shift at a Korean-owned Brooklyn deli in between running a moderately successful half-snack, half-sneaker Instagram account @Munchies_Paradise (not a real account — I checked) and evading a growing pile of credit card and student debt.
The book, Choi’s sophomore effort after her New York Times bestseller Emergency Contact (2018), is about social media, and clout and fame, and the crushing weight of expectations, and growing up, and what we owe our friends and family, and did I mention it’s also a love story between regular guy Pablo and a mega-huge, world-famous pop star known as Leanna Smart, or Lee? We’re talking astronomical levels of celebrity — think: Ariana Grande or Demi Lovato, both of whom Choi has interviewed in her years as a journalist. “I like the idea of having such a huge pop star… a force of nature, someone who can command attention and almost sway public policy — and then have the story end up being quite small,” Choi tells me after our deli run.
By now, we’re sitting in a coffee shop on the same block as Green Ivy, pairing our drinks with our snack haul. It becomes clear, as Choi picks up each product encased in plastic packaging, that she is just as much of a munchies expert as Pablo. “This is more substantial and toothsome,” she says, palming a Ritter Sport milk chocolate square with cornflakes, before moving on to Darrell Lea mango-flavored soft Australian licorice. “This is really toothsome, too. The Australians do snacks really well.”
To Choi — who was born in South Korea and grew up in Hong Kong when it was still under British rule — that specificity, and the differences between, say, a Portuguese pastel de nata and a Hong Kong dan tat, or a classic New York cheesecake and a jiggly Japanese one, matter. She can still recall the Pretz and Pocky and Yan Yan from her childhood, how old she was when she tasted her first Cool Ranch Dorito (7), what it was like to move to the U.S. at the age of 14 and discover that there are more kinds of dressing than Thousand Island. “Those memories are super vivid to me,” she says.
It’s similar to the way Pablo — otherwise aimless, caught in stasis, wont to treat everything and everyone with a distance that masks the question mark looming over his future — talks about food in Permanent Record. Those are the moments when he sharpens, animated by passion and real know-how: giving Lee snack pairing suggestions when they first meet in the deli (“We also carry gummy frogs if you want that mallowy toothsomeness with a hit of surreptitious peach”), and working his magic with “Hot Snacks,” consisting of leftovers, frozen food, and other miscellany transformed by culinary ingenuity into late-night feasts for his friends.
Food, according to Choi, is “the one place” where Pablo — the son of a Korean mother and a Pakistani father — isn’t self-conscious about his identity, or the fact that he can’t speak either language, or his perpetual awareness of the ambiguity of being mixed race. “I can’t help but wonder how much my people are mine,” he ruminates in a fraught moment. “If they’d claim me in the same way I want to claim them.”
When it comes to Pablo’s cooking, there are no such uncertainties or preconceived limitations. He experiments, mixes, and remixes, creating fusion food in the truest sense of the word: Shin Ramyun Black instant noodles with cut-up hot dogs, kimchi, and other add-ons; bacon, egg, and cheese in a pan-fried glazed honey bun; frozen saag paneer naan-chos layered with yogurt and crushed Takis. “I feel as though I’m joining a pack. A tribe,” Pablo narrates toward the end of the book, when he’s decided to go all in on his Hot Snacks. “The mixed kids are having a field day.”
Choi is aware that it’s become something of a trope at this point, rooting ethnic/Asian/child-of-immigrants cultural identity in food. “It’s funny because a lot of young Asian people are like, ‘I’m tired of reading about your stinky lunches through the lens of these white people.’ And I’m like: fair.” But all the same, she says, that was her story. “I don’t know a single Asian person to whom food is not a huge deal.”
Her parents — both restaurateurs whom she describes as “not demonstrative people,” whose “love language” is food — still live in Texas, where Choi’s family moved when she was 14, after Hong Kong. She misses them a lot, and she misses the food that tastes of home. We commiserate over that specific strain of homemade comfort food that tastes so good but is such a pain in the ass to try to make on your own, without your parents’ vague approximations of a recipe delivered while you’re standing next to them in their kitchen. For Choi, it’s her mother’s jjigae, extra “funky,” and a kimchi that’s been in the fridge for what Choi claims has been “multiple human gestation periods.”
“It’s like Pop Rocks, it’s fizzing in my mouth, it’s so alive,” she says. “This kimchi is like my younger sibling, and I love that.”
There are a couple ways to cope if you don’t have ready access to Mom’s painstakingly prepared kimchi. One is what Choi calls “ethnic mom Tupperware,” like the stewed chicken that Pablo’s friend Tice gets from his mom in the novel. It’s a prized cheat, a talisman that makes the taste of home stretch a little farther outside the bounds of your parents’ kitchen. The other workaround is that old proverb “necessity is the mother of invention.” That approximation of some elusive homegrown taste — assimilation food, food writer Soleil Ho calls it — might be found by trading banchan, or using frozen tteokbokki, or subbing in farfalle for rice in a curry dish (as Pablo does in the book), or cobbling together a bastardized bibimbap with sushi rice, vinegar, sesame oil, veggies, protein, smoked paprika, Aromat, Maggi sauce, hot sauce, scallions, garlic, whatever. That last one is actually Choi’s homemade breakfast of choice, which, as she notes, someone would probably charge you $13 for in the Flatiron District.
But food is not just a shortcut to memories of home. In Permanent Record, as in reality, it’s also a bridge to a tentative future. Pablo and Lee’s relationship is judged and mediated through a shared love of snacks and food rituals. In their initial deli encounter, Pablo immediately notices with approval how Lee peers at the store’s ice cream selection through the glass, rather than leaving the door hanging open. During their next encounter, Pablo decides “I love this girl” after Lee (correctly, in Pablo’s view) identifies a mediocre black-and-white cookie as “disappointing.” They let each other in through food, achieving greater intimacy when Pablo welcomes Lee to his bagel spot and Hot Snack circle, and Lee introduces Pablo to her go-to taco truck and a meal at her abuela’s. It’s just food, but that means an awful lot when one of the people eating it is a pop star, in the flesh, her burps and chews a reminder to both Pablo and the reader that she is a human being, not just a glossy, poreless hologram in Times Square.
The relative normalcy of Lee’s eating habits — the fact that she eats at all — is critical. “It was really important to show someone who is famous who doesn’t have a fucked-up relationship with food,” Choi says. “I wanted Lee to be someone with a healthy relationship with their body. It’s something that I didn’t have for myself, and it’s something that a lot of people don’t have … I wanted Lee to be free.”
Choi has been candid about her own struggles with an eating disorder, which she says has modulated so much of her mood and her life for a long time. “The thing that breaks my heart is — as a minority, and as my mother’s child, and as the fucking kid of restaurateurs — what is more hideous than waste?” she says. “Especially of food.” That’s something she’s been coming to terms with. In a way, Choi says, this book was a kind of check-in: Could she still romanticize and enjoy these foods that she genuinely loves, without triggering anything within herself?
The answer turned out to be: Yes, she can.
“Do you want to open your chips? I would love to,” Choi says as our interview winds down, gesturing toward the Calbee honey-butter chips that I had picked up at Green Ivy. We crunch on them alongside the remnants of her Calbee hot-and-spicy chips, before divvying up the remaining snacks (Choi insists I take most of them, arguing that I’ve never had the pleasure of trying the mango-flavored licorice or the milk chocolate with cornflakes).
Before we part, she has one final gesture, asking me directly: “Do you trust me?”
With my assent, she empties my pack of Sahale pomegranate-flavored pistachios into the open bag of Calbee hot-and-spicy chips and gives the bag a shake, then hands the snack mix back to me. A custom parting gift. After we say goodbye, I practically inhale the chips and pistachios, each spicy-salty-sweet mouthful better than the last. As expected, the unexpected combination is preternaturally tasty — or, using Choi’s adjective of choice, toothsome.
Jenny G. Zhang is an Eater staff writer.