Preserving culture with grandma’s cooking
Written by Khatia Mikadze
I always thought that my grandmother was the best cook in the world; everything she cooked or baked tasted like heaven. She knew she was good and always said, “It tastes good because I cook with love.” I’m not the only one with this experience, which is why video journalist, second generation immigrant and entrepreneur Caroline Shin decided to explore this in the most authentic way.
On Mother’s Day last year, Shin shot a short video, cooking with her 89-year-old grandma and her 96-year-old best friend in their assisted living home in Queens, NY. After posting the video on social media, it instantly became viral — so Shin decided to start a web series called “Cooking with Granny.” In each 10-minute episode, Shin films grandmas from various cultures in New York City and brings old recipes back to life. Having her own channel on Youtube, Shin’s videos have gained more than 25,000 fans. Moreover, her Kickstarter campaign to fund her project has been backed by close to 200 supporters and raised almost $12,000.
As an ardent follower of Shin’s Youtube channel, I was curious to find out what inspired her to start this amazing project.
Khatia Mikadze: Tell me a little bit about your immigrant background.
Caroline Shin: I was born in the United States to a South Korean immigrant family who came to the US to seek better educational opportunities. My mother was one of the few students who won a nursing scholarship to come to the US in the 1970s to study in Illinois. My father, who fought in the Vietnam war on the South Korean side (South Korea participated as an ally of the US), also came to the US to study as he was not able to attend school during the war. My parents met each other in Illinois and, after I was born, we moved to NYC.
KM: Why did your parents move to NYC?
CS: I was very little. My mother was working as a nurse but my father had a general goods store in Illinois. He thought New York would be a great destination to expand his business. We moved here and he opened up a jewelry store in East Harlem. The transition was not easy, because in the 1980s East Harlem was pretty dangerous, especially for someone who owned a jewelry store.
KM: Tell me about your relationship with your grandmother.
CS: Since both of my parents were very busy working, they did not have the time and resources to pick me up from school. My sister was also born at that time, so my grandmother came to the US at the age of 60 to help my parents take care of us. Growing up, my sister and I got really close to her and she taught us the Korean language. With our parents, we speak a mix of English and Korean, but with my grandmother we only speak Korean. Second generation immigrants usually speak English only, so people are surprised that we speak Korean — it is credited to our grandma. She is really funny and strong. She loves watching wrestling shows and I remember always fighting over the remote control with her. Because of her, I know the names of all popular wrestlers!
KM: What inspired you to start “Cooking With Granny?”
CS: It all started with my grandma. She is simply the best cook. Although her mobility and sense of taste is limited now, she is known as the best cook in the family. She was making old-school, traditional Korean kimchi (pickled and spicy vegetables) with rice. So as a child, it was such a treat to watch her clean and salt each leaf of the cabbage. Between each chop, she would tell me fragments of her personal story; how she escaped the Soviet bullets and wild dogs in the woods at night, how she held onto her child (my aunt) all the way from North to South Korea, how she lost another child to wartime starvation. Feeding me and my siblings was her number one priority. She instilled in me a deep appreciation of good food. Her stories and my love for cooking inspired me to start reviving old recipes from grandmothers across various cultures in NYC — and to tell their stories. I want to capture the faces and voices of people who bring these new and exotic dishes to our kitchens.
KM: Is anyone helping you with “Cooking with Granny?”
CS: I am mostly doing everything myself. I honed my storytelling and video editing skills at New York Magazine, CNN, and the Columbia School of Journalism, so I am trying to utilize everything in this project. And I’m building a team at the moment.
KM: You’ve raised a significant amount of funds through Kickstarter — can you tell me what your plans are for the project?
CS: I actually did not expect that I would raise so much! I launched it in 2014 and it was very surprising that total strangers believed in me and wanted to support the project. As a matter of fact, someone who found out about my Kickstarter wanted her Russian-Jewish grandmother to be a part of the project.
I am excited, but at the same time I feel responsible to put more effort into “Cooking with Granny” and expand it as much as I can. There is so much to do and there are so many details. Producing one 10-minute video takes a lot of time, skills, and coordination. When I launched the first episode, I had a freelance job but I could not keep up with both of them, so I chose my show. I did this because it’s what I’ve wanted since my childhood. So far, I have aired five episodes out of nine in total. I am doing a lot of networking, participating in conferences, meeting new people — like you and Arielle from New Women New Yorkers.
KM: What is the importance of “Cooking with Granny” for the immigrant community in NYC?
CS: My project not only aims to revive the old recipes and represent diverse cultures, but also tries to tell the stories of women who come to the United States and try to adapt. I admire stories of hardship and survival. On the other hand, I would also like to raise awareness about the representation of women in the modern cooking field. We rarely see women chefs in restaurants. I am determined to shed light on the female lineage of celebrity chefs — most of them are inspired by their mothers and grandmothers. There should be more balance in female representation in food media, as well.
KM: What advice would you give to young women immigrants who have innovative ideas, but not enough funds or resources?
CS: I would tell them to take advantage of every possible opportunity and not to be afraid. Education is very important and they should always look out for things like scholarships and leadership programs. If they want to start a project that no one has done before, they should do a lot of networking with like-minded people and find good mentors. Platforms like Kickstarter are also great opportunities to look for funds. However, commitment is very important and I think it depends on how much you want it to happen.
If you have a recipe from your grandmother that you’d like to share, submit it to Cooking with Granny, along with a short anecdote about the dish — something funny, something sad, something culturally significant. The winning submissions will be featured on the show and/or Shin’s blog. Visit Shin’s Youtube channel to see new and old episodes of Cooking with Granny.