How a Celebrity Chef Helped Me Connect with My Mixed Heritage

(L) Molly Yeh baking challah on Girl Meets Farm. Credit: Melissa Libertelli; (R) Marissa Wojcik making chocolate peppermint churros in her kitchen. Photo courtesy of the author. 

It was 2016 and I was fresh out of college, living at home (the suburbs just outside of Chicago) while interning at a local museum. Often, on my way home, I would go to the bookstore to peruse the cookbook section. One evening, a group of four people about my age rushed in and headed straight to the “New and Exciting” section. One of them picked up a thick cookbook and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! Molly’s cookbook is here!” I gave them a slightly dirty look (don’t you hate when people are loud in bookstores?) and went right back to poring over the Jewish cookbooks, forgetting all about the interruption.

 A couple of years later, I was sitting in my apartment in Chicago, the usual sounds of the Food Network filling the small space as I worked on my graduate school thesis. Suddenly, I heard a commercial with a voice that made me look away from my work and up at the screen. It belonged to Molly Yeh, host of the cooking show Girl Meets Farm. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. I felt like I knew her, but obviously we’d never met. Then it clicked: She was the Molly from the cookbook at the bookstore!

The snippet I heard in the commercial intrigued me and I made a point of tuning in to the next episode. I was shocked by what I heard and saw. In the introduction voiceover, Molly states proudly that her food “is a mix of her Chinese and Jewish heritage.” I’d never heard  anything like that before on the Food Network, a channel usually filled with Christmas and Easter specials. I was enthralled. I sat and watched as Molly detailed how to make shakshuka and everything bagel grilled cheese. This was a new experience.

Watching Molly on national television proudly proclaim and connect with her identity as a Jewish woman—and one from a mixed background, no less— sparked something in me. Seeing her make pastrami egg rolls, scallion pancake challah, and black-and-pink cookies made me want me to share my own Jewish fusion recipes with the world. And knowing that she’d amassed a huge following made me confident that I, too, had something to offer with my recipes.

Maybe it’s not surprising that I immediately identified with Molly. She grew up in the Chicago suburbs, just a few towns over from me, went to the same Jewish summer camp that a lot of my friends went to (shoutout to Camp Chi!), went to college in New York City (my favorite place to visit) and then moved to… North Dakota, a place even more Midwestern than the Chicago suburbs.

We also both come from mixed backgrounds. As she writes on her blog, “My pops is Chinese and my mum is New York (but before that, Hungarian)! I'm Chinese and Jewish. I celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and three New Years, and I like pastrami in my egg rolls!”

I’ve always struggled to connect with my own mixed background. My mother’s side is Jewish and came from Russia in the late 1800’s, narrowly escaping the pogroms and avoiding the horrors of the Holocaust. My paternal grandmother’s family hails from Berlin, although she was born in France while her family was on the run from the Nazis. She grew up in Ecuador before finally immigrating to the United States and eventually marrying my Polish Catholic grandfather, a union that caused a terrible familial divide.

Over the years, Molly’s interpretation of her multicultural world has continued to deepen. A couple of years ago, she welcomed a baby daughter, whom she now teaches about Jewish holidays, Chinese New Year, and all of the Scandinavian holidays that her non-Jewish husband’s family celebrates. There is something beautiful about the continuation of Jewish culture through this exchange between Molly and her daughter. Two Jewish women (okay, one Jewish woman and one future Jewish woman) having fun in the kitchen while making Jewish recipes. Who could ask for more?

Molly offers the representation I craved as a child, when it was much less common to see Jewish women in the media. She also inspires me to explore my mixed background in my baking blog. Like Molly, I use my family’s mixed heritage as inspiration for new recipes like my “Challarogi,” challah-shaped pierogi that I created as an homage to my Holocaust survivor grandmother who, every Christmas, sits in the kitchen and makes dozens of pierogies—just as my Polish Catholic great-grandmother did.

Watching Molly’s show evokes strong memories of being in the kitchen with my grandmother, learning how to cook traditional Jewish foods like brisket or matzo ball soup. May we all be a little more like Molly, unabashedly Jewish and strongly rooted in all of our identities, whatever they may be.

And Molly, if you’re reading this, thank you for being an inspiration to so many Jewish cooks!

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments
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Jewish here too married to a catholic Irish wife. My family are of Russian polish descent. In my home We make challah and soda bread, doughnuts and Christmas cake, light chss Chanukah candles and have a Christmas tree. I love our crazy mixed up multi cultural celebrations b

I have tears in my eyes reading this beautiful post on your blog! I love everything you said! More and more these days our lives are becoming so interesting with the combinations of cultures and ethnicities in our families. My family was always Jewish with family also coming from Russia in the late 1800’s. My brother and sister married non-Jews. My brother’s wife is Hawaiian. Two of my daughters married non-Jews, also. We are a very blended family and I’m proud that my daughters love to cook Jewish foods that we’ve always loved. I hope the traditions continue after I’m no longer here. Than you for sharing this inspiring story. 💗💗💗

Lovely article. I too have been so inspired by Molly. As a Cuban - American just seeing someone in tv so unabashedly embracing all her cultures is so refreshing.

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How to cite this page

Wojcik, Marissa. "How a Celebrity Chef Helped Me Connect with My Mixed Heritage." 11 November 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 15, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/how-celebrity-chef-helped-me-connect-my-mixed-heritage>.