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For Jenny Han, Everything — Even Too-Salty Bo Ssam — Is Material

The “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” author on baking, love, and adapting her bestselling novels into Netflix movies

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Gary He

If you’ve read Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy or seen the now-iconic Netflix film adaptation of the first book, you know main character Lara Jean Covey really likes to bake. She makes cookies for the holidays; she makes cupcakes for her sister’s bake sale. The first movie rose quickly to instant-classic status, making popcorn bowls, lunchtime twirls, and yogurt drinks famous. In the second film, PS I Still Love You, which is out on Netflix today, young-and-in-love Lara Jean (winningly played by Lana Condor) finds herself in something of a love triangle. She’s exploring her new relationship with Peter Kavinsky (the swoony Noah Centineo) while parsing what it means to want to reconnect with former love John Ambrose McClaren (Jordan Fisher) — and it’s no surprise that she expresses her feelings through food. She makes cherry turnovers for Valentine’s Day and peanut butter chocolate cupcakes for a boy who is notably not her boyfriend. There’s jealousy over who orders the pizza for a party. And she #pensivebakes snickerdoodle cookies while she’s trying to sort through her emotions. In both the books and the beloved romantic comedy, food plays a huge role in Lara Jean’s life and the way she shows that she cares.

Now, as the second movie in the trilogy comes out on Netflix, Han talks to Eater about food in her her young-adult novels and how her own love of baking shows up in her work.

Eater: It seems like there’s been a shift, and now there’s more food in books — YA and otherwise — in the last few years.

Jenny Han: The things I remember the most in any book are the food details. Like in Hunger Games, the green chicken that Katniss has on the train. Because you just feel like it’s so sustaining, and it’s so exciting, especially when someone hasn’t eaten in a while. You feel so comforted and warm. I don’t remember much from Narnia books except for —

Turkish delight.

Yeah, Turkish delight! Or The Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, the macaroni and cheese they had at the end. And Harry Potter, too. I love reading about food, and with Lara Jean, I think so much of who she is is represented in the way that she bakes, and likes to nurture other people through her food. It’s her way of expressing herself and being creative.

It’s very meta, because for me, my biggest stress reliever is baking. And I was really stressed out when I was writing the third book, so I was baking a lot, and there’s a subplot in the book of her trying to figure out how to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

Do you keep cookie dough in the freezer to bake off at any time like Lara Jean does?

I do, yes. Especially because you should let your cookie dough rest, with chocolate chip cookies — let the flour absorb the butter and sugar and everything. I have a whole methodology of how I do it, which is I make the dough, put it in the fridge for 24 hours, then I get my ice cream scooper out and I flash-freeze the dough balls in the right size.

I’m actually weirdly not a big sweets person. I just really like to bake. And I like to give things to other people. When I’m a guest at someone else’s dinner or something, I will bring my frozen cookie dough, and bake cookies up at the end of a meal. When people are relaxing, if they’re having coffee or drinks, they love having a warm chocolate chip cookie after the meal is over. I bring my own parchment paper too. You don’t want to go and make a problem in someone else’s kitchen. You should bring everything that you need. I don’t think there’s no one who doesn’t like warm chocolate chip cookies, and everything that it signifies, which is you feel taken care of, you feel loved, you feel like you’re at home.

When you’re writing, how much are you thinking about really building scenes around food?

I just like food. I just like to eat, and I like fashion, I like food. I always joke with my friends and say, “I’m the three F’s. Food, fashion, and finery.” I like those things, so I like to write about those things, and that’s what I enjoy reading about. And sometimes it makes its way into the plot too with the chocolate chip cookie, and her stress, and it kind of sublimating all of her anxiety about school and the future, and her relationship.

One of my favorite scenes to write was the cakewalk. In elementary school we always had cakewalks, and I can still so clearly remember really carefully preparing the cake and getting there, and that feeling of, which cake do I want?

And trying to slow down at the right time.

Right, to get that cake. Baking is the manifestation of her feelings, so, for instance, when she’s baking the peanut butter chocolate cake for John Ambrose McClaren — I think in the movie it’s cupcakes — it was very important for me to have that stuff in the movie as well.

Does that happen a lot, that real, salient, food memories in your own life make it into the book?

I would say so. I mean, for a lot of second-generation kids, their food is the biggest connection they have to their parents’ culture in a way. I think language can be hard; food, though, is easy. For many people, it represents that comfort, like your grandmother’s cooking — it tastes like home. And that’s one of the ways in which Lara Jean connects with her mom, who has passed away, and those moments are sprinkled in throughout. It’s the way her dad tries to keep her mom’s memory alive.

In food writing, we see this trope of sad immigrant stories a lot where it’s all kind of like —

Shame about your smelly lunch.

Yeah, exactly. Was that something you thought about — how Lara Jean’s Korean heritage should tie into the food she cooks and eats?

In the first book, the dad makes bo-ssam, which is a pork dish, and my dad read the book, and he was like, “You boil it though, you don’t roast it, you should have asked me first.” I was like, “Dad I know! But this recipe it’s from Momofuku.” It’s actually from David Chang’s cookbook, because, you know, Chang puts a little bit of a spin on things, and so of course the dad in the book would go through a cookbook like Momofuku, and try his hand at it. I said, “Dad, that was intentional, okay?”

I had actually done that. For Christmas five or six years ago, I was like, I’m doing a big meal for everybody, and that dish was going to be the main thing. And I think I used the wrong kind of salt, and it was really salty. Everyone was like, “Oh, this is good!” And I was like, “This tastes like a salt lick.”

Just like in the book.

In the book it’s salty; in the movie, it’s too dry. I think it’s probably a better visual representation in the movie to show that it’s dry.

Were there other instances where visual representation came into the conversation?

For the movies, my main objective is that the scenes were realistic. For the second movie, a scene takes place on New Year’s, so there’s a lot of traditional Korean foods, and I was very fixated on making sure that we got the right person to make the food, so everything looked how it’s supposed to look. We had a food stylist, and I did a lot of research finding someone who could make everything look right — and it had to look good on the screen as well.

I would just keep my eyes on things with the goal of making authenticity a priority. I remember the food stylist placed the chopsticks kind of artfully, and I was like, “Please take those chopsticks out of the bowl,” because it looked like incense sticks that you light for a funeral. Korean people don’t have chopsticks poking out. It looks good, but it’s not done. I wouldn’t know about certain cultural taboos either, if they’re cultures I don’t know about, so I was happy I was there.

Gary He

Because you were more involved in the second movie than the first, will we see a lot more food in it?

There’s definitely more. That was definitely on my wish list with the movie — I wanted really beautiful cooking, but there’s only so much time in a movie and [in the first movie] they were spending that real estate on other stuff, so I was really happy that for the second we get more of it...

To me, getting the spirit of the story is what matters, so it’s not really a one-to-one translation [between the books and the movies]. It’s about the movie hopefully making you feel the same way that the book made you feel.

It’s less about if something is integral to the plot of the book and more about if it serves the story that the movie is telling, which is not necessarily the exact same story as the book. If the story is good, and it’s working, and the characters are being well served, then the rest of it is all gravy.

What are the food scenes that you really love?

Christmas Cookie Bonanza [from the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before book]. For Christmas one year, I started baking in November, and making all this dough in my tiny little apartment, with no Kitchen-Aid, and I made six different varieties of cookies. It took me literally a month and a half to do all of it, and I was calling it Christmas cookie bonanza. I got a huge tin, and then I brought it to my publisher, and other places, with little bags so people could grab the ones that they wanted. The white chocolate cranberry cookies, cowboy cookies —

The fruitcake cookies that Peter Kavinsky loves?

No, I don’t like fruitcake, no one really likes fruitcake. It’s such an odd, old fashioned choice. But I did do the creamsicle cookies. And they all ended up in the book. Everything I do is material.

A lot of my favorite food descriptions of yours do come at moments of yearning. In your first novel, Shug, it’s the scenes when Annemarie is longing for meals at her neighbors’ house — the spaghetti dinners, the Thanksgiving meal. With Lara Jean, it’s the beautiful cherry turnover scene when she’s baking for Peter in the second movie, or the foods she prepares for Kitty’s sleepover after Kitty envies the crepes at her friend’s house. She’s like, “I want Kitty to have something she’s really proud of, I want her to be able to do this.”

Food is culture. Growing up, my grandparents lived with us, my parents worked all the time, so my grandma did all of our cooking. I started cooking at a young age, because I was wanting some of the food that my friends had at their houses, so I would cook for me and my sister all the time. Everyone loved my grandmother’s cooking, don’t get me wrong, but I would come up with my own recipes for things.

I remember, when my sister would have her birthday parties, really wanting to make it nice and having all the right snacks, so she didn’t feel left out at school. I would make cookies and dips and deviled eggs.

So much of teenagehood and adolescence is about feeling lonely and like an outsider. It’s one of the ways that people make you feel like you’re not a part of it: They make fun of your food. It was always important to me to have all those right things, and Lara Jean does that too.

And for her, it’s that her mom isn’t there, so it’s very important to her to create that feeling for Kitty — just because you don’t have a mom, doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a nice party.

Lara Jean shows her love through baking, and there are some really sweet moments when other people recognize it as her love language and show her love through baking too.

Her heart starts to move towards Peter when he does recognize what is meaningful to her and speaks her love language: the doughnuts [that Peter brings her in the novel] — and I was glad in the movie there was the yogurt, which I think also shows that someone put effort into something — and she does it for him as well throughout. She does express her love for people with food, and that’s something that continues as a theme.

Jenny Han will join Eater’s February book club.