Why The Grandmas and I Are Taking on Food Journalism
We’ve suffered for the foods before they became mainstream
With her baby on her back, my grandma dodged Soviet bullets and attack dogs on her trek down from North Korea right before the border officially closed in 1948. She brought with her to Busan — the second largest city in South Korea after Seoul — not only her family but also her legendary kimchi-making prowess, whose reputation would span both continents and generations.
Fast forward to the 1990s. While my parents worked late nights and weekends at their gold jewelry store in Harlem, my grandma would be in the kitchen salting each leaf of each of the 10 heads of cabbage.
“Want to pound the garlic?” she would ask me, my sister and brother, and we’d gladly take the mortar and pestle from her hands.
She would dab every surface of the cabbage with a fiery red mix of ground garlic, red pepper flakes, fish sauce, ginger and salted shrimp, and stuff them into jars to ferment. During the summer when business was slow and my parents could afford to take us on weekend trips to Dover, DE or Harrisburg, PA, my budget-conscious mom would scoop out bundles of kimchi into Tupperware to eat alongside all the kimbab (beef- and veggie-stuffed rice rolls) and bulgogi (sauteed beef) she’d pack for the trip. (It was a rare treat to dine out at a Big Boy.)
Around 1pm, we would find ourselves on a picnic table in a state park or by the beach. My mom would unwrap all the foil and plastic, and splay our delicious, homemade, Korean food on the table, for us. Oh my God, I’d be in heaven stuffing all my grandma’s and mom’s cooking in my mouth, but then, oh my God, all these non-Asian people — mostly white, sometimes, black and Hispanic, too — would gawk at our lunch. The anxiety would start warm at my chest, and then the anger would take hold of my mind.
“What the f*** are you staring at? Don’t you know it’s rude to stare? This food’s delicious, and you have no idea! Go back to your dry sandwiches!”
I’d never actually voice that sentiment until 2011 (though in a much more forgiving tone) when Sarah Frank, my friend and former boss at New York magazine, and I got my granny in front of the camera to make her famous kimchi and tell her story of the dish.
In 2014, as the tendrils of food media continued to worm into Koreatown, Chinatown, Jackson Heights and even all the way down the 7 line to Flushing, I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign and a year later, launched my Cooking with Granny web series — but with even more grandmas.
Because the reason we, Americans, have access to pizza, tacos, soup dumplings, curry and sushi is immigration.
2015 saw a record 45 million foreign-born Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, and IBIS World makes the connection between the rising popularity of ethnic cuisine and the growing number of immigrants entering the United States.
Great! Finally, kimchi gets to be mainstream. As does Korean barbecue and the spicy pepper paste known as gochujang. And yet, I check the bylines, see the writers’ profile pictures, and there’s a disappointing majority of white faces and names belonging to people I presume haven’t been suffered the exotic food gape. Nor have they probably researched the immigrant hubs to uncover these senior women and their amazing cooking chops.
In the immigrant hubs such as New York City, there’s Grandma Maria who couldn’t find the right cast-iron pot for the perfect arroz con gandules for years; Grandma Louisa who cooked through pregnancy labor in Trinidad and Tobago; and Grandma Lumen who traveled from the Bronx to New Jersey just for some Filipino adobo.
My grandma is now 90 years old and her diminished sense of taste and smell have crippled her cooking skills. I’ll never make kimchi as bright as hers, but at least I’ll have my Cooking with Granny video of her opening the scene with “hello” and scolding me for cutting the radish too short.