I grew up in Flushing, Queens. You take the 7 train all the way to the last stop, and then the Q44 bus to 26th Avenue, and then you walk 1.5 blocks down 26th Avenue.
I lived in a little red brick row house with almost identical little red brick houses connected on either side. Ours was the one with the grey middle fence around it and a huge pine tree hulking over our front yard. To our left lived an Italian immigrant family. Two doors further was a Greek family. Across 26th Avenue, was a Puerto Rican woman who acted so loopy some days we thought she might be certifiably insane...
My elementary school P.S. 21 reflected this diversity in the neighborhood. In the first grade we had culture days. Now there was this boy in my class named Billy and I hated him. He was a bully. Billy the bully. One culture day, Billy brought a jar of his Mom’s Italian tomato sauce and I’m just like, “Ugh, whatever.” But then, Billy pulls out a long loaf of bread from a crinkly white bag and 6-year old Caroline is now getting very curious.
Billy tells us about his mom’s homemade tomato sauce and then he cuts a slice off the long loaf of bread and dips it in the tomato sauce. He tells us that’s what he snacks on when he gets home. Then the teacher distributes the bread and sauce to everyone in the class and just like Billy, I took a slice of bread and dipped it into the tomato sauce.
It was garlicky, oniony, and the way you got to load so much sauce onto that soft, soft bread - when you bit into it, everything just melded together. I was like, “What the heck?!” I had never experienced this taste before.
Up until that point, all I'd eaten was my Mom and Grandma’s food. I didn’t think of it as Korean food; it was just food. My parents worked long days and nights and they made sure their dollar stretched. The dollar stretch was far more with groceries and home cooking than at restaurants, so we never ate out.
That’s why Billy’s mom’s bread and tomato sauce had such an impact on me. After I tried it, I hated Billy less. He became relatable as I got to know his story a little more and more importantly, he introduced me to something mouthwateringly good.
So now here I am decades later, telling you about how Billy the Bully changed my life. He turned me on to the delicious diversity of home cooking among the many immigrant cultures throughout my native Queens. He wasn’t the only one.
There was my best friend Marisa's mom's fresh matzah ball soup, just-fried poori from my Indian friend’s home, and just-picked zucchini flowers from my Italian neighbors’ garden. And through all those years, my own grandma would be at home in the kitchen, roasting seaweed, scooping bright red paste between layers of cabbage, or hacking away at crabs who would bite her fingers bloody...
It was these immigrant women within this multicultural hub that is New York City who fed me these delicious things - sometimes such simple things like bread and tomato sauce - that made me want to celebrate them.
And that’s why I started Cooking with Granny. It’s my video web series, now expanded into live food events, where immigrant grandmothers cook and tell stories.
Because it was in the kitchen that my grandmother felt comfortable enough to tell me her story about escaping North Korea amidst Soviet attack dogs and bullets while walking over dead bodies and trying to keep her own baby (my aunt) quiet. But it was also Billy the Bully’s story about his mom’s food that made me see the humanity in him and hate him less.
Cooking with Granny is about bringing people together through food and stories and celebrating the women who have done this for their families for so long. It’s my way of saying thank you to the immigrant mothers and grandmothers who in my mind hold together this uniquely multicultural city in this great country.
Caroline Shin writes and produces video about food and culture. As the founder of Cooking with Granny, she spotlights immigrant women in food through her web series and pop-up events including her Grandma Dinner Parties. Her work appears in New York Magazine, InStyle, and BuzzFeed, among others. Caroline has always been inspired by the rich multiculturalism of New York City, where she grew up.