As Bugs (and Biscuits) in Sauces Drown
In Williamsburg, two immigrants follow the gravy train to effect greater edible changes.
By Randy Gener
If a hip neighborhood follows the same life cycle as a fashion trend, then Williamsburg is like camouflage. So beyond over, it’s verging on timeless.
With giant skyscrapers coming to the north waterfront by the 2010s, the area is squarely on the path to fully gentrified respectability — like it or not — in record time. The factories and warehouses that dominated this area for more than a century have often been creatively repurposed, but an industrial flavor remains.
If North Williamsburg is Brooklyn’s East Village, the Southside below Grand Street — just out of range of the waterfront-redevelopment plan, with a firmly entrenched population of Hispanics and Hasids — is still the Lower East Side of a few years back.
Not for long: There are so many new condos, and Southside looks like a giant construction zone. But they won’t be filled for at least a year, which means you’ve still got time to discover the neighborhood.
In fact, it’s no wonder that Williamsburg has become a safe sanctuary for two immigrant New Yorkers who seek to make a good impression on foodies and diners everywhere. One of them is a 42-year-old Korean American chef/caterer who expects to lead the way to an edible insect renaissance in cities across the U.S.
The other one, a Dominican woman from the Bronx, comes from humbler means. What’s curious is that although she comes from a Latino stock, she is now one the Williamsburg area’s beloved experts on Southern-style cooking.
A RENAISSANCE OF EDIBLE INSECTS
Is Williamsburg ready to chow down on meals with bugs?
On Labor Day Weekend, a three-day event in Williamsburg — called the Brooklyn Bugs Festival — aims to kill the stigma against eating insects.
Worms, crickets and black ants will be plated and served in this insect-eating food festival in Brooklyn.
Joseph Yoon, the festival’s 42-year-old organizer, bills it as “New York’s first festival dedicated to edible insects.” For three days in the beginning of autumn (September 1 to 3, 2017), insect chefs and enthusiasts of creepy crawlies are cooking up an opportunity to change the negative perceptions about the practice of entomophagy.
Says Yoon: “Especially in an urban environment, we think of insects as things that are crawling around in our apartments. We don’t really see them as a plated food. Part of my mission is to change that perception by not serving insects in their full state, Fear Factor-version, like, ‘Here, I dare you to eat this.’”
Are Brooklynites ready to bug out with no regrets?
“I’m not trying to force insects on people right now,” Yoon said. “I’m very happy to share insects. Are you familiar with angry vegans who want to force their lifestyle onto you and are judgmental? That is by far not my approach. I have a very welcoming approach.”
Despite the icky squeals and the sensational aspects, this festival is a straight-up affair on the future of food, according to Yoon, a 42-year-old Korean American chef and caterer who lives and works in Williamsburg.
“I was born in New York,” he says, helpfully. “My mother was born there in North Korea in 1950, and then fled to South Korea when she was an infant because of the war.”
“I take time to prepare a dish when I introduce insects to the food,” Yoon said in an interview in his Brooklyn home.
This weird festival, as a result, will feature a VIP bug banquet. Tickets per person are $199. For that price, New Yorkers will be served, among other buggy dishes and quite possibly cricket guacamoles (pictured below).
The Museum of Food and Drink, an education nonprofit that seeks to change the way people eat and drink, signed up as a cultural partner. Plus there are chefs, speakers, “an insect experience station” — and a special children’s program.
Vendors in an outdoor market will demonstrate to shoppers the the buggy product’s unexpected versatility.
The insect experience station is called Entomophatron.
Yoon says the Brooklyn Bugs festival is part of a holistic approach to familiarize Americans with insects. Eating bugs is something that’s been done all over the globe for centuries, but it has a stigma in the Western world that only a few — including Angelina Jolie — have overcome. A video of Jolie went viral when she and her kids ate creepy-crawlies in Cambodia.
“You can even bring your kids for free to the Brooklyn Bugs food festival on Saturday with an online reservation. There’s a fly in your soup? It’s meant to be there.” — Joseph Yoon
Think of it as cockroach food networking
Not everything is for everyone at Brooklyn Bugs.
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie eats scorpions and tarantulas with her kids in Cambodia.
“Crickets, you start with crickets. Crickets and a beer and then you kind of move up to tarantulas. When people in Cambodia were being starved, they were able to survive on things like this, and they did.” — Angelina Jolie, actress
Which edible insects do newbies eat first?
LATINOS RISE LIKE BISCUITS FROM THE OVEN
New blood takes over the city years after a record storm destruction
A Beehive for Post-Sandy Biscuits
Superstorm Sandy was a raging beast of a storm. On October 29, 2012, it took direct aim at the East Coast and caused unprecedented destruction in metropolitan New York.
Five years later, as New Yorkers look back at what was once a state of emergency, a fresh picture emerges of Latinos in Williamsburg. The changes are rather like morning biscuits coming out of a hot oven.
Stroll by the Southside of Williamsburg, and there Brooklyn residents will find a Texan-owned restaurant hangout that opened in 2014. The rustic place — named the BeeHive Oven Biscuit Café — offers comfort food, friendly service and nine-to-five respite for local residents.
Years after the events of Hurricane Sandy, the BeeHive’s husband-and-wife owners, Treva and John Caldwell, had put down roots below the dividing line of Grand Street in Williamsburg. Life has been good and sustaining. From 9 am to 5pm, the BeeHive serves shrimp, grits and “chicken-fried” steak — plus the homemade biscuits that drove this business endeavor.
Upon returning to their home in San Antonio, Texas, the Caldwells left the daily management of the BeeHive Oven to Miguela Garcia, a sweet-natured Dominican woman who hails from the Bronx. Let’s call her by her preferred nickname — Maggie.
The BeeHive’s general manager, Maggie leads a staff of Dominican cooks, dishwashers and waiters who serve Southern-style biscuits with just about everything on the menu.
“The biscuit recipe has never changed,” said Maggie in answer to a question about the key to the BeeHive’s success. “It’s always been the same. I was not a baker when I came here. Treva taught me her recipe. She was a great teacher.”
BeeHive Oven opened in 2014. Its launch took place two years after Hurricane Sandy had slammed New York. Two years before, Beehive’s owners joined many do-gooders who went out of their way to bring relief and comfort food to the flood victims and the volunteers helping with the Hurricane Sandy recovery. The Caldwells prepared chicken, frito pie and the aforementioned gravy biscuits which Maggie starts to mix for two hours every morning.
A Latina Busy Bee
One early August morning, I stopped by the Williamsburg cafe to join Maggie in her kitchen. And to taste those storied Southern-style biscuits.
Inside a scratch kitchen, Maggie looks like a busy bee as she rolled five vats of dough and two buckets of mushroom gravy. How exactly does she bring off a specific taste of the South?
“We don’t want to roll the dough a lot,” Garcia replied. “It’s not like making pizza. You know how the more you roll pizza dough the better it is? For biscuits, it’s the opposite.”
And the specific way she puts in cold butter matters a lot, Maggie said. “Take the butter and shred it. When mixing the dough, we do not melt the matter, because we want to mix it while it is solid. It’s better if the butter melts later inside the oven. It makes the biscuits crispier and fluffier.“
Don’t forget the buttermilk.
“You want to add it as fast as possible so that it doesn’t get thick too much while you let the mixer run,” said Maggie — who, by the way, also prepares and bottles fruit jams during her spare time.
No doubt, all this talk about the recipe for Texan-style biscuits runs counter to the great flow of personal tragedies and economic friction that came forth after Hurricane Sandy. Five years after Sandy, however, Maggie’s soft-spoken delight in baking biscuits seems to exemplify a restorative hope.
You see, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn — often pointed to as the prime example of gentrification — previously had a much larger Latino population. For decades, it was a magnet for Latinos, but that changed when it began to attract young people who could no longer afford Manhattan rents. What Hurricane Sandy did, according to New York Times news reports, was to reveal Williamsburg as a trendy piece of real estate that itself was fractured by class, race, ethnicity, geography and culture.
In response to this dark side of gentrification, a heartening news remains. This story is about the renewed presence and welcome return of Latino Americans, much like Maggie and her small kitchen staff of Dominicans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans. A dishwasher in her kitchen named Guillermo has now graduated to becoming a cook. Maggie supervises high school interns who come to the BeeHive to learn how to impress us with their Texan cooking.
The Resurgence of Latinos
The Southside of Williamsburg, Maggie argues, has maintained its bohemian D.I.Y. roots, with its indie boutiques, bearded mixologists, artists’ lofts and working-class families. But the “real” Williamsburg are the Latinos on the block who have visibly made a difference.
“We have changed tremendously, but it’s for the better,” Maggie says. “Being Dominican matters, because I am Dominican.”
Maggie likes to say that the BeeHive makes “everything but the honey and the hot sauce.” After the moment she reels off the names of popular biscuit sandwiches on the menu, Maggie relishes the varied roles she has assumed as general manager ever since the BeeHive’s owners had gone away to take on other pursuits. She is proud to know by heart the Southern heritage recipes that Chef Treva Caldwell had imparted to her.
Biscuits are simple and comforting, which is the goal of her oven baking. Not so long ago, Latinos were being displaced in Williamsburg when once-affordable rents rose drastically.
Miguela Garcia today — along with the rest of BeeHive’s staff —are helping turn the ride of displacement. In conversation, she embodies the spirit of hard work and perseverance of ordinary Latinos who are newly coming into their own in Williamsburg and other Brooklyn parts.
In Maggie’s humble case, the working relationships that matter the most among in her communities are those networks that link residents, patrons and co-workers who share professional and culinary interests — but not those of people who happen to live next door to one another.
“I think everybody has their own way of doing things,” Maggie says. “It’s like baking these biscuits. I mean I really don’t know what makes other biscuit recipes better than others. Ours here are made with buttermilk — and with a lot of love.”