Introduction: Meet the FamilyStuck with Each Other
Some say that between your previous life and the next life, you choose your family. Others say that you stay with the same people from lifetime to lifetime—in the same boat, but perhaps in slightly different seats.
In our family, it certainly feels like this isn’t our first rodeo. Bill and Judy meet, marry, and have daughters Sarah and Kaitlin—each personality seemingly carved in stone and each more strong willed than the last.
While most people find it easier to forge their own path in the world at least an arm’s length from their family, we’ve found ourselves doing just the opposite. Despite our aforementioned strong-willed personalities, we’re together a lot
, spending inordinate amounts of time deliberating shrimp placement and the correct temperature for chili oil. It’s all in the name of The Woks of Life
, a food blog we started in 2013 to document our family’s history through recipes—some from old-world Shanghai, others from a Chinese restaurant kitchen in the Catskills. Many were inspired by the streets of Flushing, Queens, and countless more were dreamt up in our home kitchen in a New Jersey suburb. Through food, we’ve preserved collective decades of experience, spanning parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins, and friends.
When someone asks us how we manage to pull it off, you can see in their eyes the mental flash of their own family dynamic, usually followed by a slow head shake of utter disbelief that anyone could take on such an endeavor with their parents, siblings, or kids. Recording your family’s heritage and history can be daunting. A few rough edges are inevitable—and trust us, we’ve had our fair share. But we also choose to work together in the same way that we might have chosen our family in the cosmic “before.”
Growing up, Judy would ask Sarah and Kaitlin: “Are you glad you chose us as your parents?” The answer is here, in this book, and also on The Woks of Life.
We’re all here. For our personal histories, for the web of memories and pathways that we share with so many around the world, and, yes . . . we’re here for the food. How did we end up here?
Our family cares a lot about food. Like, a weird amount. It’s hard to say exactly when and why it’s gotten to the level that it has, but we’ll try to explain. JUDY
Bill and I both come from immigrant families. He lived with his two sisters and their parents, Cantonese immigrants who came to the US in the 1940s and ’50s, in Liberty, New York. Liberty was one of many little upstate towns collectively known as the “Borscht Belt,” a popular summer destination for Jewish families from New York City that had its heyday from the 1920s to the 1960s. I lived just a stone’s throw away in Monticello, after leaving Shanghai with my family when I was sixteen.
For both Bill and me, food was a life raft that connected our families to where they came from. In Bill’s small town, penny pinching was just a way of life for a working family. As for me, back in China, we were downright poor, and money was still tight after we moved to America. Food became an everyday treasure that anchored our days, and we worked to maximize enjoyment and ensure that little went to waste. Nothing felt more like home than an afternoon spent making dozens of dumplings to stash away for future busy weekdays or preparing a special poached chicken for a night of mahjong with friends.
Bill learned to cook from his father and stepfather—both chefs—and his mother, an excellent home cook. Cooking was one of the most common jobs for immigrant Chinese men in those days, so learning how to prepare and enjoy food was a valuable skill. When Bill and I first started dating, we both helped run Sun Hing, his parents’ restaurant. Fast-forward through our early days as newlyweds in the late ’80s, and along came Sarah and Kaitlin, both before I turned twenty-six. With two American babies and me still improving my English, ready or not, parenthood was in full gear. SARAH AND KAITLIN
With two parents who take food seriously and know how to enjoy it, dinner at our house has always been an all-hands-on-deck event. Building familiarity in the kitchen began with little tasks here and there—trimming vegetables, taste testing (rather, snagging bits of roast duck before it got to the table), and remembering to make the rice.
Then there were the little lessons we learned along the way, like how to reveal the tender chunks of fillet from a whole steamed fish, the finer points of sandwich construction (i.e., how to not end up with a giant wad of roast beef hanging from your teeth), and how to mix up a bowl of cold noodles with just spaghetti, soy sauce, and sesame oil. “What’s for dinner?” was the omnipresent question, and the dinner table was where we always came together.
Paging through cookbooks became our favorite hobby, and on weekends we played chef and sous chef and devoured old Iron Chef
reruns (the original Japanese version). Soon, we were trying out new recipes for family parties and juggling mixing bowls and roasting pans on Thanksgiving.
Aside from being our favorite hobby, cooking became the medium that moderated the full spectrum of our family’s life. When we visited our grandparents, preparing an elaborate dinner was the activity that facilitated the exchange of gossip and questions about how school was going. For every family argument, there was the plate of dumplings to ruminate over. And to break through an icy cold shoulder between sisters, there was the begrudging snack break of instant noodles that made it hard to remember what we were mad about in the first place.
Those years were the build-up to the food fanatics that we now are. Little did we know that the eternal question, “What’s for dinner?” would become the only constant after our parents moved halfway across the globe. BILL
Call it a shock when, in 2011, we suddenly found ourselves at different corners of the world. When a new work assignment came knocking at my company, Judy and I relocated to Beijing. We put our New Jersey house into hibernation, loaded our suitcases with bulk-size jars of peanut butter and two-pound bags of coffee beans (priorities!), and headed east. Kaitlin found herself navigating her freshman year of college solo in Philadelphia, and Sarah was starting her senior year of college in the Hudson Valley.
In China, Judy quickly became our translator, interpreter, and guide. She organized weekend trips to check out Xi’an night markets, old water villages just outside of Shanghai, the Harbin ice festival, and other destinations where we could discover new flavors outside our Shanghainese and Cantonese roots. It wasn’t long before we realized how little we had really explored the vast universe of Chinese cuisine.
Copyright © 2022 by Judy, Bill, Sarah, and Kaitlin Leung. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.