Rooted in Food

By Juan Torres-Falcon and Angie Wang

Cultural cookbooks open our eyes to other cuisines — but they also helped food writers Grace Young and Michele Scicolone to discover themselves. Award-winning authors Young and Scicolone use cookbooks to celebrate their heritage and honor traditional recipes.

Grace Young flips through her latest cookbook “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.” (Photo by Angie Wang)
(Video by Juan Torres-Falcon)

Michele Scicolone loves Italian cuisine for the warm feeling it evokes. The meals of her childhood, once made with love in her family’s busy Brooklyn kitchen, are now embedded in the pages of her 20 cookbooks.

“Food is always there,” Scicolone said. “We can always turn to it remind ourselves who we are.”

Michele Scicolone poses with her most recent cookbook on the patio of her Kips Bay apartment. (Photo by Angie Wang)

Scicolone has since branched out in her food writing. When the economy tanked in 2008, she took on a collection of slow-cooker recipes aimed to help everyday Americans put healthy and affordable — yet still delicious — meals on their dinner tables.

Unlike Scicolone, Grace Young didn’t start out cooking her ancestral cuisine. Instead, she began with a focus on French cooking and only later came to document traditional Chinese recipes.

Grace Young displays her three cookbooks in her Soho apartment. (Photo by Angie Wang)

At 13, Young showed up to her first French cooking class feeling out of place.

“All the students were very, very wealthy women in Chanel suits and gold jewelry. They had fur coats on in San Francisco, and the moment (the chef) took their coats, he was handing them a glass of champagne.”
— Grace Young

But she was undeterred. Young continued to take classes in French cooking, a cuisine she called exotic, given her almost exclusive exposure to Cantonese dishes. In high school, she interned with Dole Pineapple in their test kitchens, and went on to assist a recipe developer and food stylist throughout college.

When Young graduated from UC Berkeley, she moved to New York to run test kitchens for several Time Life cookbook series. But after several years, she began to miss the traditional Cantonese meals she grew up eating.

In the 1990s, Young travelled back to her hometown of San Francisco to document those dishes. She published the first of three cookbooks on Chinese cooking in 1999.

A few woks in Grace Young’s collection. (Photo by Angie Wang)
Michele Scicolone prepares garlic and parsley for her spaghetti aglio e olio, a traditional Italian dish. (Photo by Angie Wang)

When Scicolone was a child, her mom would prepare spaghetti aglio e olio almost every week. It was a quick, simple dish she could whip up in minutes on a busy Friday evening. Even today, Scicolone maintains simplicity is the key to great Italian cooking.

Scicolone travelled to Italy for the first time with her husband on their honeymoon in 1970. As they began their life together, Italian culture and cuisine became an integral part of their relationship. On their frequent trips back, they have since discovered how Italian cooking varies by region.

“When you go to northern Italy, there is a Germanic bend to their food. They eat dumplings and not as much pasta. They eat more meat, which they don’t in southern Italy. No room for cows in the south.”
— Michele Scicolone

Young didn’t travel abroad to archive her family recipes. Instead, she explored her Chinese culture here, in America.

Her first cookbook, titled “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” aims to preserve recipes for future generations. But the process of cooking with her parents, aunties and uncles also served as an education in her own heritage.

Correction: Wok hay describes the life force one can taste in a proper stir fry, not the life force of the curved metal pan.(Audio by Angie Wang)
The best cast-iron woks produce a clear, bell-like tone when you strike them. (Photo by Angie Wang)
Grace Young prepares to stir fry baby bok choy. (Photo by Angie Wang)
Michele Scicolone combines olive oil, parsley, garlic and anchovies into a simple sauce for her pasta. (Photo by Angie Wang)

Scicolone tested all her cookbook recipes in her own kitchen, using only ingredients and tools the average person would have access to.

“Don’t watch TV as far as cooking is concerned. Some of them make food terrifying, they make it over-complicated. Start with something simple.”
— Michele Scicolone

Her recipe for spaghetti with garlic and olive oil uses only a few other ingredients: parsley, anchovies, salt and pepper.

Scicolone said the most common mistake people make while cooking pasta is letting it sit and dry out. Instead, don’t drain all the pasta water, or even better — put it right into the prepared sauce and enjoy.

Grace Young uses soy sauce in her stir-fried bok choy — enough to taste, but not overpower. (Photo by Angie Wang)

Young also emphasizes the importance of eating food right away, rather than letting it sit.

She remembers her father would regularly ask to be seated right outside the restaurant’s kitchen, so they could devour the food as soon as it was ready.

Even when Young cooks at home, she hurries to serve her guests right away.

And she did exactly that with her simple recipe for stir-fried bok choy. After drizzling peanut oil onto a pre-heated wok, she tossed the greens with soy sauce, rice wine, salt and sugar on high heat for a few minutes.

When the vegetables turn bright green, she lifts the wok from the flames and rushes to serve the dish — so it goes from wok to plate to mouth, without interruption.

The finished product: stir-fried bok choy. (Photo by Angie Wang)
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