Not My Job: We Quiz Japanese Breakfast On 'The Breakfast Of Champions'
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we ask somebody who is deeply thoughtful to think about something else for once. It's called Not My Job. Michelle Zauner performs as a singer-songwriter under the name Japanese Breakfast. But it was under her own name that she wrote her new memoir, "Crying In the H Mart," a beautiful book about her mother. Michelle Zauner, Welcome to WAIT, WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
MICHELLE ZAUNER: Thank you for having me.
SAGAL: It's great to have you here. We need, first of all, to figure out something that's been bothering us all week. As a performer, you are called Japanese Breakfast.
ZAUNER: That's correct.
SAGAL: You are half Korean.
SAGAL: Can you explain?
ZAUNER: You know, I just never - this was started as the sort of side project. I was in another band called Little Big League. And for fun, I was - I had a Tumblr that I would upload photos of, like, animated food GIFs with these, like, side project demos. And one of them was a photo of Japanese breakfast. And I just called the project that on a whim, not thinking that this would ever take off.
SAGAL: Yeah. You know, the same thing happened with The Beatles...
SAGAL: ...'Cause they didn't expect that to take off. But they were just uploading insect GIFs...
SAGAL: ...To their Tumblr back in 1960 in Hamburg. And it stuck.
SAGAL: What are you going to do?
ZAUNER: Yeah, it happens to the best of us.
SAGAL: I want to talk about your music. First, I have heard - I've been listening to your music all week. I've been enjoying it. I've heard it described as shoegaze music. And I'm told by my younger associates that that is a real term.
ZAUNER: It is a real term, I guess, because shoegazers use a lot of guitar pedals. So they're frequently looking at their shoes to see what they're stepping on and what sound it will create.
SAGAL: I - oh, I just thought it was that you were very shy.
ZAUNER: It could be that, too. I feel like most shoegaze bands are probably a little bit introverted.
SAGAL: Yeah. And part of your act as Japanese Breakfast is a gentleman who is your husband.
ZAUNER: Yes, the guitar player is my husband, who's also mentioned in the book.
JOSH GONDELMAN: I think it's sweet when couples still gaze at each other's shoes.
FAITH SALIE: (Laughter).
GONDELMAN: I think that's cute, even after marriage.
SAGAL: That's very adorable. That's adorable.
SAGAL: Many of your songs are about yourself and your feelings and even about your husband, right?
ZAUNER: That is true.
SAGAL: So you ask your husband to stand there and play guitar while you sing about him.
ZAUNER: That is correct (laughter), yes.
SAGAL: I mean, do you ever have, like, songs like, you know, if you leave your laundry lying around, I don't know what I'll do, I'll do, I'll do - that sort of thing?
ZAUNER: (Laughter) Not really, no.
ZAUNER: It's a little more threatening, I guess.
SAGAL: I want to talk to you about your book, which I've been reading and is remarkable and moving and tragic and resonates and a bunch of levels. But mainly, it made me very hungry. Your book is called "Crying In H Mart." Could you describe it for me?
ZAUNER: The book is about - well, the title comes from this Korean grocery chain called H Mart. And my mom passed away in 2014 from a very aggressive battle with a GI cancer. And I'm mixed race. I'm half Korean. And my mother was Korean. And I found myself oddly gravitating towards cooking Korean food in the wake of her loss. And it was a way for me to sort of, I guess, like, excavate memories that were good. It was also this way that I felt like I was sort of preserving that part of my culture that had always felt like this kind of innate part of me that felt at risk in this new way.
SAGAL: Right. And you do an amazing job in the book of conjuring your early childhood and also of, like, really getting into this food culture of Korea, which people aren't as familiar with in America as they should be. And you also describe - there's a scene early on in the early chapters of it going over to Korea with your mother when you were young. And you prove to the family that you can eat anything by eating live octopus. Is that a true story?
ZAUNER: It is. It tastes really good. It's very briny and fresh (laughter).
SAGAL: I would hope so. But isn't it, like, wriggling around?
ZAUNER: Yeah, I mean, they take a live octopus, and they sever the tentacles, so that's so fresh that it's, like, still pulsing. I feel like Korean - like, food culture - they really appreciate the extremes. Like, they like food to be really vibrant and really spicy. And anything that's supposed to be hot is, like, scalding. Anything that's supposed to be cold is served with ice. And everything that is supposed to be fresh is very fresh. And so, yeah, I mean, that was - I remember that moment very clearly where, you know, there's a line in the book that I really love that's, while I struggled to be good, I excelled at being courageous. And that was something that I really leaned into as a child. And I remember the pulsing tentacles. And, you know, it tastes mostly like the sauce that you dip it into, honestly (laughter).
SAGAL: What do you think of Jewish food?
ZAUNER: I haven't had too much Jewish food, but what I have had I enjoy, I guess.
SAGAL: Oh, well, you clearly haven't had enough.
ZAUNER: (Laughter) That's what I hear, though.
ZAUNER: I will say I made schmaltz fairly recently.
SAGAL: You made schmaltz.
ZAUNER: I made schmaltz because my agent is Jewish, and she was telling me that she related to the book and talked about her grandmother's schmaltz. And I randomly had a bunch of chicken skin one day (laughter) and...
SAGAL: In the way that you do.
ZAUNER: ...And I made schmaltz for the first time.
SAGAL: Michelle, your book is called "Crying In H Mart." There happens to be an H Mart or two in Chicago. I love going there. Our intern Emma is Korean and wanted me to ask you what are, in fact, your favorite places to cry in the H Mart because she has hers.
ZAUNER: (Laughter) Oh, it's different every time. I mean, like a big part of it is, like, when I see an ingredient that kind of sparks a memory. That's a big thing for me. So if I'm in the snack aisle, and there's a snack that I remember my mom introducing me to. Or if I'm in the banchan, like, side dish area, and I remember my mom making a certain thing. It's different every time.
SAGAL: I understand that. So you have a song called "Jimmy Fallon Big," which is about, like...
SAGAL: ...Hitting it so big that you get to be on "Jimmy Fallon." And you actually sang that on "Jimmy Fallon." What was that like?
ZAUNER: It was wild. Yeah, I wrote it about my old bass player in the band Little Big League who left our band to go play in another band to be Jimmy Fallon big. And they actually never played "Jimmy Fallon." They only played Seth Meyers. And then three years later, he rejoined our band, and we became Jimmy Fallon big together.
SAGAL: Oh, really?
SAGAL: So you were sort of singing it. You were doing a song making fun of him.
ZAUNER: Yes (laughter).
SAGAL: I'm going to be Jimmy Fallon big. Now, because he had been wise enough to rejoin you, you actually got to be on "Jimmy Fallon."
GONDELMAN: And probably just rough on poor Seth Meyers' feelings when he saw that.
SAGAL: Wanted to be Jimmy Fallon big. He only played Seth Meyers. God.
SAGAL: Well, Michelle Zauner, we are delighted to talk to you. We have invited you here to play a game we are calling...
BILL KURTIS: The Breakfast of Champions.
SAGAL: You perform as Japanese Breakfast. We thought we'd ask you about the breakfast of champions. Answer two out of three questions about Wheaties breakfast cereal - you'll win our prize - one of our listeners - the voice of their choice on their voicemail.
Bill, who is Michelle Zauner playing for?
KURTIS: Ruth Benson (ph) of New York, N.Y.
SAGAL: All right, so here we go. Now, one reason that Wheaties is considered the breakfast of champions is that it is fortified with vitamins and minerals that can sometimes have weird side effects, though, like which of these? A, Wheaties has so much iron in it you can lift up the flakes with a magnet; B, you cannot feed it to hamsters or other small mammals because it might induce cardiac arrest in animals that size; or C, some Wheaties eaters report becoming so strong they crush their spoons in their hands.
SAGAL: You're going to go for B, that you cannot feed Wheaties to hamsters, gerbils, other small mammals of that kind because it will pop their little hearts like grapes.
SAGAL: No, actually, it was A.
SAGAL: It has so much iron in it - this is apparently true of other fortified cereals - that you can actually pick it up with a strong magnet.
ZAUNER: Oh, how horrifying.
SAGAL: But don't worry. You still have two more chances here, Michelle. This is not a concern. Now, Wheaties has made a claim to be responsible for one of these historical events? And they might be right. Which is it? Is Wheaties responsible for, A, man landing on the moon; B, the presidency of Ronald Reagan; or C, the invasion of Kosovo by Serbia?
ZAUNER: Oh, my God. B.
SAGAL: B. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: The presidency of Ronald Reagan. All right, you have one more chance. If you get this right, you win.
ZAUNER: Oh, God.
GONDELMAN: (Laughter). You got this.
SAGAL: Wheaties is nowhere near as popular as it once was, which is sad because it created so many innovations in the breakfast cereal space, such as which of these? A, they were the first cereal to suggest that people pour milk on it rather than the usual beer; B, Frosted Flakes stole Tony the Tiger from Wheaties Champy the lion, which was even voiced by the same person; or C, they invented the term erectile dysfunction, which they then suggested Wheaties could cure.
SAGAL: You're going to go for, B, that Frosted Flakes stole Tony the Tiger. You're right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
ZAUNER: What? OK, good. I mean, I don't know why I'm surprised because C and A are pretty out there.
ZAUNER: I can't imagine it was either of those so...
SAGAL: So I am pretty sure that, over the years, people have in fact, poured beer on their breakfast cereal, but they're never supposed to.
Bill, how did Michelle Zauner do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Michelle won, two out of three. Michelle, you ought to be on a box of Wheaties.
SALIE: Yay, Michelle.
ZAUNER: I'm Wheaties big.
SAGAL: You are. You are. Michelle Zauner is the singer-songwriter behind Japanese Breakfast. Her new album, "Jubilee," is out June 4. And her new memoir, "Crying In H Mart" will be available on April 20. It's remarkable and moving and will make you hungry.
Michelle Zauner, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
ZAUNER: Thank you so much for having me. Nice to meet you all.
SAGAL: Thank you. Take care, Michelle.
SALIE: Bye, Michelle.
ZAUNER: Bye, guys.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYISH")
JAPENESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) I can't get you off my mind. I can't get you off...
SAGAL: In just a minute, we throw away our Just For Men gel in the Listener Limerick Challenge game. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.
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