Even as a child growing up in Flushing, Queens, Caroline Shin understood the significance of spending time in the kitchen with her grandmother. As they worked side-by-side each weekend making traditional-style kimchi, spicy blue crabs and dumplings, Shin's grandmother regaled her with stories of her time in North Korea-stories of crying babies, attack dogs, and dead bodies.
“It wasn’t fiction, and it wasn’t a movie” she told Food & Wine in a phone interview. “It was my grandma’s life and my family’s story. And it all came out while we were in the kitchen together.”
And it wasn’t just her own grandma who instilled within her a deep appreciation for immigrant foods and the stories behind them. Growing up in Queens meant that almost every time Shin went over to a friend’s house for dinner, she’d have access to a new and different ethnic cuisine. She intuitively realized that for immigrant women, many of whom found themselves thrust into domestic roles, the relationship between home cooking and storytelling was nearly one and the same.
Naturally, as an adult and video journalist, she set about to document and celebrate that fact.
“You can’t have one without the other,” she commented. “I wanted to honor their contribution to the food world and their contribution to New York City.”
She filmed the very first “Cooking with Granny” video in 2011, highlighting her grandmother’s kimchi recipe. By 2015, word of mouth and a successful Kickstarter led her to launch a series featuring nine grandmothers of nine different cultures. Seven of those episodes have since aired and another two have been filmed but not yet released to the public.
The “Cooking with Granny” team has featured a Trinidadian grandma's hot sauce, an Indian grandma's mattar paneer, a Filipino grandma's ube dessert, and a Greek yiayia's octopus stew. The web series was recently nominated for Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Web Festival, and selected for entrepreneurial development at the Tow-Knight Center at CUNY Journalism School. Now, the series has expanded beyond the realm of YouTube; Shin recently hosted a real-world event at Essex Street Market, with some of the grandmothers teaching people how to make their dishes. There’s even talk of a cookbook on the horizon.
Given immigration’s current status as a hot-button issue, as well as the charged political climate, it’s no surprise Shin plans to film a second season-this time featuring grandmothers of Mexican and Syrian descent. But where does she find these grandmothers, anyway?
“It’s been a mix,” she said. “I know so many people from different cultures, so that’s been helpful in just picking out some people myself. But I’ve actually had people pitching their grandmothers, too.”
The cultural commentary though, is just a byproduct of a really, really fun time. Shin tries to communicate that to the grandmothers during each filming session.
“We’re having fun, you know, and I try to make sure they know that’s what’s at the heart of all of this,” said Shin. “Fun, and also a sense of passing-down. Because the best part of these videos is that they really will become a family heirloom.”