The Grandma institution
Grandma Chung cooks her way from Korea to Durango

Grandma Chung peeks out from behind the deli at Durango Natural Foods. Throughout the years, Grandma has shared good food and good health from locations all over Durango./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Kinsee Morlan

Food means more to Grandma Chung than it does to most. For Chung, selling food became a survival tactic during the Korean War, then it became her piece of the American dream, and now, making and selling food is what keeps her healthy, alert and alive.

“I love it,” says Chung from behind her shiny marble countertop in her home east of town.

Chung’s home is modest, but her kitchen is as nice as they come. An expensive stove and refrigerator, a special room for all her pots and pans, lots of cabinets and a big lazy Susan – when Chung is in her kitchen, she’s at her best.

In her somewhat broken English, Chung continues to explain why she spends most of her time with a pot or pan in hand. “Nothing else to do,” she says straightforwardly, a reference to her empty nest, which was once filled with five kids and a husband who’s since passed away.  “Clean up the kitchen. I stay all day in the kitchen, you know. All the time I cook. I just love to cook. I look at the TV show, at the cooking show, and I say, ‘Oh, that’s junky.’”

Grandma Chung scrunches up her nose in disgust at the very mention of things like butter.

Chung’s food is healthy – that’s one thing most who’ve laid lips on her culinary creations can agree upon – and her cooking technique is both basic and experimental. Necessary ingredients for the feisty old chef include fresh vegetables, tofu, ginger, a tiny bit of olive oil and a whole lot of garlic. Her experimenting can be seen in things like her Southwest-meets-East Green Chili Tofu or her reliance on new-age ingredients like agave nectar and wheat-free soy sauce.

“I know what I need to make healthy people,” says Chung, who, despite her short stature, yields respect due to her confidence and uncanny ability to say exactly what’s on her mind at any given time. “Ginger is good for, you know. Garlic is good for. You look at American people, their food, and they have all this butter and sour cream and all this kind of stuff, you know. I just don’t like that – living that way.”

Over the years, Grandma Chung, whose given name is Hwa ja Chung, has become a well-known figure in the Durango community. Lots of people know her from her days as the owner of Grandma Chung’s restaurant on Main Avenue. More people know her from her time spent in the deli of Nature’s Oasis, and others know Chung from when she briefly owned an Asian market and deli near Fort Lewis College.

These days, Chung can be found behind the small deli case of Durango Natural Foods (DNF) a couple days a week, cooking her specialty stir-fries, putting together her spring rolls with homemade peanut sauce and doling out her kimchi, which she will sternly tell you is the secret to long life and wintertime health.

“She’s a very nice person,” says Ben Trufanow, a former board member at DNF and a lifetime member of the cooperative, “and she’s quirky. She’s always straight, and I wouldn’t want to get on her wrong side. I remember when she had the restaurant on Main she’d be in the back cooking and she’d only come out if something wasn’t right and she’d straighten it out right away … She’s an institution. Durango’s so lucky to have her, and I wish I’d see her more here at DNF.”

Chung is 78, but you’d never know it by looking at her. She says her own health and longevity are tied directly to the food she eats. While touting the benefits of eating natural foods, she shuffles off to another side of her kitchen and brings back two jars, one filled with dried pinto beans and the other filled with dried fruit.

“This, I eat,” she says, offering up a sample. “Very simple.”

Two of Grandma Chung’s secret recipes wait at the ready at DNF./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Grandma Chung says she learned how to cook the hard way – by relying on limited resources in a war-torn country and doing what she had to do to feed herself and her two young children. Chung was born in North Korea to a family with a dozen siblings. Her mother died when she was young, right when things were getting bad in the north, so she was secretly sent to Seoul, South Korea, to live with an aunt. Chung lost touch with her family, and, to this day, has yet to reconnect with any of her brothers and sisters.

Chung got her first job at the age of 14 at a sewing factory making children’s clothes. She quit at 16 and took a job at a suit-making factory, where she says she was treated like a slave. “It was pretty hard,” recalls Chung.

When the Korean War hit, Chung was just a teenager. She was pregnant with her first child and sent to a refugee camp outside of the city. “We had to get out of Seoul city,” says Chung, “so I walked. I don’t know how many miles I walked; I just walked and walked.”

Chung had her first child in that camp and, soon after, in the middle of winter, was told to walk back to Seoul. She returned to a city in a state of total destruction and devastation.

“So many people dead,” Chung says. “So many people I see. Everywhere – just so many.”

Chung eventually got pregnant with another child, and to make ends meet, she started a food stand in the front of the house where she was staying. “I sell the pancake,” says Chung. “Make the pancake and sell for 10 cents or 20 cents.”

It was then that Chung started memorizing recipes, using simple ingredients and relying on hand measurements, which she still does today.

Life changed dramatically when Chung met a young American soldier by the name of Jerry Dickenson. After just a few months of arranging paperwork and working on getting a marriage certificate, Dickenson returned to South Korea to bring back his new bride.

Chung’s experience in the United States, though, wasn’t much easier than it had been in Korea. Dickenson got shipped back overseas, experienced hardships of his own, and Chung was on her own again, only now she had five kids to feed.

“So,” explains Chung, “all by myself, I tried to survive here. (The kids were) doing really good. They go to school all by themselves. I worked 80 hours a week and tried to help them as much as I can. Life is hell, but I don’t want to use food stamps. Five kids, myself raised, and look now – I have a house. I worked so hard.”

To put food on the table, Chung took another factory job at Ampex, an electronics company in Colorado Springs. After 24 years, when the kids were grown, she retired. A shoddy-looking clock – a retirement gift from Ampex – hangs on her living-room wall.

That first retirement didn’t last long. One of Grandma Chung’s sons, Jerry Dickenson Jr., convinced her to move to Durango and open her own restaurant. She did just that, and for three of the eight years she ran it, she lived downstairs.

“I stayed there,” says Chung, “downstairs. I had one mattress. The money (I saved), that’s what built the house, all this.” Grandma Chung motions toward her beautiful kitchen and pounds her fist down on the countertops with genuine pride. She then goes out to the garage and retrieves two bottles of Grandma Chung-labeled garlic sauce and peanut sauce and explains that she is now selling her secret sauces in markets throughout Durango.

“I always good at that stuff,” says Chung, “using my brain.

“Right now I’m pretty happy,” continues Chung, “but I want to win the lotto. Give to poor people. Give to my kids. I don’t want to take the money with me, you know. But for now, (I’m) still cooking. That’s all I know, you know. That’s all I know.” •



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