Storytelling Cookbooks: The Queens Night Market and Miracles After Grief

The Queens Night Market has become a beloved summertime institution since its founding by Texas native John Wang, who modeled it on the night markets he discovered as a child while visiting family in Taiwan during the summers.

Up to 100 vendors (historically from over 90 countries) gather from 5 pm to midnight at the park surrounding the Queens Hall of Science in Corona, many of them first- or second-generation immigrants, selling a wide variety of international foods with a $5-6 price cap per dish. It’s an affordable way to experience different cultures and celebrate the diversity of Queens, a borough long celebrated for its population mix and identified as the most diverse county in the US and the “most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.”

In The World Eats Here: Amazing Food and the Inspiring People Who Make It at New York’s Queens Night Market, Wang and his wife Storm Garner, a writer and oral historian, took oral histories from the chefs and vendors participating in 2018/2019 and compiled parts of them alongside key recipes.

The countries represented truly span the globe, and present a wide range of cuisines beyond what you might associate with street food or food trucks. I already knew this was the case from visiting the market, but it was such a delight to get an idea of this diversity, especially as the vendors explained what their homelands and foods meant to them and the importance of recreating these for a new audience or for others in their diaspora.

There are a lot of stories here of immigration — some of it reluctant — and subsequently of what the US and New York in particular came to mean to them. In addition to the strength, adaptability, and resilience they show, there’s a recurring theme of wanting to introduce Americans to unfamiliar cuisines that hold great meaning and sentiment for immigrants, and to sharing that ever-present connection to the homeland through foods that evoke heady memories. I can’t get enough of these kind of stories, so this definitely hits a sweet spot. It’s also a little cultural education in and of itself.

The recipes weren’t as accessible as I’d hoped, despite how delicious many of them sounded – most are a bit beyond my skill level or time commitment willingness, including seeking out some fairly obscure ingredients – but it doesn’t matter, the stories that accompany them are so worthwhile. The Queens Night Market is a really special place, and the oral history structure captures that magic: such a unique celebration of personalities, families, and cultures.

I did bookmark a few to try: Italian onion calzone, Polish kopytka, Ukrainian blintzes, Sudanese tomato salad and eggplant salad, and an easy-sounding Filipino chicken adobo. I think a few others, especially some noodle dishes and curries, might be easily adaptable or simplified too. Regardless, I loved learning these stories, the foods’ significance, and the chefs’ family histories and journeys, including how they came to cooking in the first place. So sweet and surprisingly powerful. I hope they eventually do something bigger with the archived oral histories!

It’s also brightly, beautifully illustrated — the end papers alone are delightful.

published May 12, 2020 by The Experiment. Used or new @SecondSale.com

British cook and author Ella Risbridger has written a second volume of recipes with essays, The Year of Miracles: Recipes About Love + Grief + Growing Things. Her first, Midnight Chicken, addressed her experience of learning to love life again after a mental health breakdown, only to be faced with her partner’s terminal illness and death. Still, it showed her relentlessly sunny, laugh-through-tears mentality. In this chronicle of a year — 2020, so you can imagine the fresh trauma that entails — she’s rebuilding her life with a beloved roommate and the friends who help pull her through lingering grief.

Risbridger’s general life as well as kitchen philosophies reminded me of the Mary Oliver (a poet Risbridger would love, if she doesn’t already) line that “Joy is not made to be a crumb.”

So much of this I loved, and I care about anyone’s story of grief and trying to live or cope with it and if cooking is involved, all the better. But the tweeness of this out-twees even Midnight Chicken, which was already pushing my twee tolerance levels. I believe she’s also a children’s author and this has a distinctly children’s/young adult feel to it.

Sometimes it’s just lists of her friends’ names who were there in the story she’s telling, or that she’s just thinking of. I get that this was a very meaningful chronicle to her to write, but things like this make it almost too personally relevant and diary-like to feel invested in much of it.

The recipes are so-so. I made a coconut rice with soy, lime, and tahini vegetables while reading it which wasn’t anything revolutionary and is already pretty much in my repertoire as is, but reminded me how much I love coconut rice and I liked her mixing of dishes in this section. I think more than anything I liked being inspired by her relaxed way about the kitchen, the “it’ll be fine” attitude (although it gets repetitive, especially being the second book of it).

The “iron soup”, Turkish eggs, savory scones, miso egg mayo, quadruple carb soup, and a simple twist on savoy cabbage sound good too. That’s all I had marked up though, the rest either didn’t appeal or were too involved. The recipes are written oddly, they’re very long due to a lot of extra chatty text in each (4 paragraphs over 2 pages to make scrambled eggs with butter – those are the only two ingredients besides toast). I think this is intended more as a memoir / chronicle of appreciating life and falling in love again after grief, with the twist of doing it during a global pandemic, than as a cookbook.

But at the same time, as much as I criticize, I still looked forward to reading this. I had a PDF galley that I read on my work computer while taking breaks and I looked forward to doing that each day, so there’s a lot to be delighted about and heartwarmed by here. Or really, to commiserate with. I loved when she really delved into the dark places. More of this, please! She has a great way of tying those things into the reality of life and the balance of it all. The relentless cutesiness otherwise was too much.

Also the watercolor illustrations of foods, kitchen scenes, and London city scenes as the year progresses by Elisa Cunningham, who also illustrated Midnight Chicken, are stunning. I marked several that I’d love to have prints of, they’re that gorgeous.

So if you need something reassuring and heartwarming it works, it’s just also sickly sweet and treacly and the writing feels completely unedited, just plucked from a journal. I have a feeling others won’t be as bothered by this though, especially if you’re well under 30 + the type to hold hands with your adult friends. I love my friends too but I don’t want to hold hands with any of them while at a picnic so if this seems less than idyllic to you too, you may not get much out of this.

Published July 26, 2022 by Bloomsbury. Used or new @SecondSale.com

I received copies courtesy of their respective publishers for unbiased review.

Advertisement

13 thoughts on “Storytelling Cookbooks: The Queens Night Market and Miracles After Grief

Add yours

  1. “ I love my friends too but I don’t want to hold hands with any of them while at a picnic “ well yes exactly, what a horrifying idea. Is she really British?😲

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was so bizarre 😂 I feel awful criticizing this one so strongly when she’d been through so much but it seems geared towards a very different type of person! Very manic pixie dream girl.

      Like

    1. Glad I could make you laugh! that was a defining “this really isn’t for me” moment that I thought would sum it up well enough for others 😂 The World Eats Here is really lovely, there’s so much to learn from it.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: