Meet Isabel, my new-ish neighbor and old-ish best friend.
We met as wee little freshman at NYU, where we had the misfortune of being placed in what was largely considered to be the shittiest dorm on campus. Truly. Despite the fact that the carpets were dusty, the walls were peeling and (according to myth) the elevator shaft was haunted…we did have the good fortune of being randomly assigned as roommates. The rest, as they say, is history.
Even though we’ve been friends all these years, we actually haven’t lived in the same vicinity since we were twenty. After a year or two of light pestering, I finally convinced her to move into the neighborhood when she was in the market for an new place a few months ago. The other week, she invited Ryan and I over to celebrate her new kitchen by helping her (well, Ryan helped…I just took photos :D) prepare a full, proper southern supper.
Isabel is half Chinese, her mom hailing from Hong Kong. Her father, on the other hand, is a southern boy with deep roots in small-town Georgia, where she spent idyllic summers as a kid feeding hummingbirds in her grandparent’s backyard and learning how to cook with her grandma. To celebrate her southern heritage, she made us deviled eggs, crispy fried chicken, smokey collard greens (my favorite) and a southern-styled mac n cheese that you slice into like cake. It was truly a feast. We chatted about how her magical childhood summers in the south, growing up biracial and how her grandma inspires her today.
More after the break!
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
HM: Can you describe who you are and what you do? Give us your little spiel 🙂
IE: Well…My name is Isabel and I’m a labor and delivery nurse. I’m currently at NYU part time for a masters in family nursing practice. I live in a studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights with my cat, Duck… I’ve only had him for a couple weeks, and I’m trying to get him to love me… but I’m not sure if it’s working [laughs]
HM: Hah, just give it a little time. I know we were talking about your grandma earlier before, and how much of a boss she is. Can you tell us about her life, and why she inspires you?
IE: I feel like whenever I’m troubled, I always think about how she would respond to things because she was such a strong woman. She grew up during a time when you had to settle down and get married pretty early…my grandparents lived in small town Georgia, this town called Lincolnton. It’s smallest town I’ve ever been in.
HM: Define “small-town”
IE: Like…One time my mom and I were at the grocery store down there. People in town knew that my dad had married an asian woman and had kids. Random people we had never met would come up to us in the grocery store and ask us “…are you Charlie’s wife and daughter?” and give us a hug and stuff like that.
So yea, she grew up and lived in a very small town. She was a high school English teacher and she also ran a clothing store. She married my grandpa who was the town postman…He was definitely someone who had mastered the art of conversation – being a mailman was the perfect job for him because he could just like go around town and shoot the shit with people.
Since my grandpa didn’t make very much money, she supported all four of her children. She used her own money to pay for all of their college educations.
HM: How close were you growing up with her? Because I know you grew up outside of Boston.
IE: We would go to Georgia every summer, and I always thought those experiences were really magical. We would always be there in the height of peach season, so there would be really great desserts. My grandma grew figs and tomatoes, so there was always really delicious, fresh food around. It’s also hummingbird time, so we would feed hummingbirds. As a kid…that’s was the coolest thing ever.
We would spend a couple weeks at a time whenever we go. In that time, it was a different way of life that I wasn’t really used to. I grew up in Massachusetts, I went to prep school. It was just a very different environment and I feel like I always attribute that southern warmth with my grandparents.
HM: Can you talk about what you’re cooking today, and why it feels so special to you?
IE: My grandma is actually the person who taught me how to cook… whenever I would go visit, she would take special time with me to teach me how to make things.
Today, I’m making deviled eggs as an appetizer. She was always very serious about her deviled eggs. She had a special tray for them! It was a crystal tray and there were little cups that you would put the egg halves into… It was very fancy.
HM: Sound like southerners take their deviled eggs really seriously.
IE: They do. They really do. I’m also making fried chicken, which is another staple…mac n cheese and collard greens. I feel like in the south, you can’t have a complete meal without all the elements. You can’t just be like “I’m making Mac and Cheese for Dinner and that’s it”. It has to be a full spread.
The fried chicken was also a very serious matter. There was always a running conversation around town about who would make the best fried chicken. It was a big sharing community, so whenever we were at my grandparents’ it wasn’t uncommon for “so-and-so” neighbor to make fried chicken and drop off a batch for us. That was a very common thing.
It was very communal. Whenever we would visit, people around town knew we were coming so they would come and bring a cake or fried chicken or a side dish. It was very different [from the town I grew up in], everybody knew everything that was going on.
My grandma was also a part of this organization called “Friends of the Library” [laughs], it was this group of old ladies who just liked going to libraries…but they would also organize events and stuff like that. After she died, when I would be in Georgia to visit my grandpa, the ladies from the Friends of the Library would always come on her behalf just to visit and talk.
HM: So you’re half asian, and I know that we’ve had conversations about how you’ve felt different. Can you speak a little bit about that?
IE: Yea, I feel like that’s a very complicated topic. Growing up in New England, where it was a predominantly white community I definitely felt “different” growing up. I don’t think it was out of malice from any other kids, it’s just when you’re different… you know. And other people know too, and you can tell that they’re sensing it as well.
But I also felt it when I would visit my grandparents, just because it’s not really a place that has an asian community whatsoever. I feel like people were a little perplexed by our family, and by the fact that my dad chose to marry an asian woman. Especially since his high school girlfriend still lived in town [laughs], so that was brought up constantly…by my grandma but also other people. His ex-girlfriend’s name was Kathy, and there was a lot of talk about what Kathy was up to these days whenever we would be over [laughs]…But again, I think it was just because it was a big thing to be all up on each other’s business cause it’s such a small town. People don’t forget about anything.
HM: So growing up, what did you eat at home on a day to day basis when you weren’t at your grandma’s?
IE: It was a really weird mish-mash of east meets west type stuff. I always thought that my mom’s cooking was really weird growing up, but when I went to Hong Kong for the first time last year [where my mom is from] I realized that everybody eats like that. Having spam and macaroni soup is a normal thing there, but I always thought it was just a random thing that my mom liked. I didn’t know that.
It was also a lot of American dishes that were made more “Chinese”. She would bake chicken, and then put soy sauce on it. Everything had soy sauce on it. Like she would put it on cheese tortellini.
My dad would try to replicate a lot of my grandma’s cooking. But he was a computer nerd, he wasn’t really a cook. He tried to make chicken fried steak a lot…which was horrible [laughs] Chicken-fried is when you batter and fry something, and cover it in a cream gravy. He would do that with a really cheap cut of steak. I feel like it’s something that takes a lot of nuance to make tender and good…and he never quite got it right.
HM: Did your grandma teach him any of her recipes? Or how to cook?
IE: I feel like my grandma never had the time to be the traditional southern housewife and mother because she was running a business and also working as a teacher. So I think a lot of those things fell by the wayside – like teaching her kids how to cook.
HM: Such a boss lady
IE: She is. And I think I’m very opinionated about things, but she had a very strong sense of right and wrong and was VERY vocal about it. Always. Which is a good thing and a bad thing.
HM: Do you think that trait, or any of her other traits she had, rubbed off on you?
IE: It’s something that I aspire to cause I’m generally not a very outspoken person. I work as a nurse, and there are definitely situations where I need to be more outspoken.
Just because as a nurse, you’re an advocate for the patient…the basic job description is to carry out the orders of the doctor, but it’s more important to view the big picture. There are a lot of times where you have to be confrontational with other nurses or doctors to make sure you protect the best interest of your patient. So in that sense I try to channel her.
A “Proper” Southern Meal by Isabel Estes
Traditional Southern Devilled Eggs
12 large eggs – hard boiled and peeled
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 tbs sweet relish
1 tsp dried mustard powder
salt and pepper to taste
paprika for garnish
gallon sized ziplock bag
Slice boiled eggs lengthwise. Remove yolks and place in small bowl – add mayo, relish and mustard powder and mash all together with a fork. Season with salt and pepper. To neatly fill egg whites, spoon mixture into ziplock bag and make small cut on one corner…Voila! – you have a piping bag. Pipe into egg whites and garnish with paprika.
1 lb fresh collard greens – rinsed, stems trimmed and roughly chopped
1 package of bacon – diced
6 cloves garlic
2 smoked ham hocks
2 medium onions – finely chopped
12 cups chicken broth
⅓ cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbs sugar
1 tsp salt
¾ tsp pepper
In a large stock pot, sautee diced bacon until almost crisp. Add onion and cook until translucent. Stir in garlic and cook for 1 min. Add broth and remaining ingredients. Cook for at 2 hours, until leaves are tender
6 chicken thighs – drumsticks separated from thighs
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
Sprinkle salt and pepper on chicken thighs. Soak in buttermilk in shallow dish for at least 2 hours. Pour oil into cast iron pot or deep skillet, at least 1 ½ inches deep at heat to 360 degrees. Season flour with salt and pepper. Remove chicken from buttermilk, and dredge pieces in flour. Place chicken in oil and cook for 5 min with lid covered. Don’t crowd the pot. Remove lid and fry for 10 minutes. Turn chicken and repeat with lid covered/uncovered for same time. In the last three minutes, make sure you’re consistently turning the chicken so it browns on each side. Drain on paper towels before serving.
Southern Mac n Cheese
1 large box macaroni (16 oz)
6 tbs salted butter
⅓ cup yellow onion – grated
2 tsp dried mustard powder
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
⅛ tsp nutmeg – preferably freshly grated
⅛ tsp cayenne pepper
6 tbs all-purpose flour
3 ½ cup milk
1 ¾ cup heavy cream
2 tsp worcestershire sauce
4 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Preheat oven to 350F. Cook pasta until al dente. In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add grated onion, mustard powder, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne until onions are translucent. Whisk in milk and cream and bring to a gentle boil – stirring until mixture has thickened. Stir in worcestershire sauce and remove from heat. Stir in 3 cups of cheese until melted. Put cooked pasta into a buttered casserole dish, and then pour on cheese mixture. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and turn heat up to broil. Sprinkle remaining 1 cup of cheese and broil for 5 minutes or until cheese is golden brown. Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.