In this CNN “Start Small, Think Big” feature, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur, Natalie Keng and her mother, public schools Teacher of the Year, Margaret Keng, are infusing flavors of the Far East with the Deep South and in their custom interactive events and award-winning, family-recipe cooking sauces “opening minds, one mouth at a time” and shattering stereotypes.
Ni Hao, Y’All!
I’m Natalie and a native of Smyrna, Georgia. As the third daughter (considered unlucky in a Chinese family), I was very lucky to be born closer to Canton, GA rather than Canton, China. My parents immigrated early to Atlanta on graduate school scholarships, before we hosted the Olympics and before the Braves started winning as America’s Team (!) In the first house before I was born, there were old pro-segregation campaign posters for the governor’s race. As the only Asian family in the neighborhood, my sisters and I learned quickly about “being different.”
We attended football pep rallies and played PacMan, but were fined a dime for every English word spoken at home. Dad listened to Johnny Cash tunes and preferred hamburgers to Chinese food when eating out. Mom whipped up amazing stir-fries and country Asian creations like Hot Hunan Catfish, Pepper Steak Rice-a-Roni, and Five-Spice Rutabaga in a blazing hot, cast iron skillet. Between the worlds of egg rolls and fried chicken, we felt right at home.
The family stories and recipes of how one Asian American family thrived and adapted to the ways of the Deep South are shared in the spirit of food as a cultural gateway and a political olive branch. Fun, memorable eating and cooking experiences break down barriers and stereotypes around the unfamiliar, and instead, reminds us of values we all hold dear – good food, good health, and community. From urban food deserts to state dinners, I believe with all my heart (and tummy) that the experience of breaking bread, challah, injeera, or bahn mi—together– is the starting point, and best hope for achieving healthy, livable and sustainable communities, and yes, world peace. Join my foodie revolution!
In my vision for Chinese Southern Belle, food parallels life, and the connections are everywhere: in the arts, economy, politics—in ourselves. Our imperfect relationship with food is loving, capricious and riddled with contradictions. We talk about eating holistically but reduce food and labeling to what the product doesn’t contain: gluten-free, fat-free, salt-free, oil-free, calorie-free and so on. We volunteer at soup kitchens and donate to charities to reduce hunger, but every year, consumers in industrialized countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.
The dynamic includes global implications, too. As citizens, we spend billions on fast food, prepared foods and diet programs. As cultures, we lament losing local farms but subsidize agribusiness. As nations, we hunger for power, resources and peace. If we can cook and eat together, there’s a good chance we won’t drop bombs on each other. And if Congress hosted more potlucks, we might have less gridlock.
Fusion, Not Confusion
New arrivals to our shores have always played a pivotal (and mouth-watering) role in shaping our culinary landscape, especially in the South. Enterprising entrepreneurs like my father, aunt, uncle and countless other immigrant families form the backbone of our economy–and are culinary trendsetters. American food like “hot dogs and pizza” or Americanized anything, like Chicken Chow Mein is often ridiculed as having no culture or sophistication. In reality, the catalyst behind crazy fusions and new twists on old classics, such as Asian-inspired barbeque is because of our diverse population who by choice or force, came to America. Are there contradictions? Definitely. I know neighbors who adore burritos and tacos, but complain about Mexicans moving in next door. I’ve been scolded, “This is America, speak English!” dozens of times when I’m speaking Chinese to my mother. Food critics and chefs decry fusion dishes as inauthentic. If only Sweet & Sour Pork and Chicken Lo Mein weren’t so damn good.
The Joy in Being Authentic
“Authenticity” is a recurring theme in my events and writings. I find insight in the parallels and intersections of race, class and gender on Chinese and Southern food and traditions, respectively, and the multi-cultural view from the dinner table, as a Chinese Southern Belle. I also enjoy exploring and challenging what it means to be Asian, American and Southern. The stories are about my personal journey in discovering and re-defining the space in between—the gaps, overlaps, rejections, inclusions, clashes, fusions, confusion — through the prism of food and family and what it means to be an American.
Cultural habits and sensibilities are deeply rooted. Finding the right balance between my Asian, American, and Southern upbringing was and continues to be an evolving struggle and not as simple or sweet as saying, “Ni Hao, Y’All!” Asians are generally taught (and expected) to be reticent; Americans, assertive and open; Southern hostesses, gracious and demure. Like a recipe thrown together in a bamboo steamer composed of Egg Foo Yung, a slice of red velvet cake, a squirt of Sriracha and a Dixie cup of sweet iced tea, there is always more to being a Chinese Southern Belle than “stir and mix well.”
Beyond Foodie: Demystifying and Shattering Stereotypes, Building Community
We are a small, but growing minority and woman-owned business that connects food, health, diversity and sustainability through hands-on cooking classes, international market tours, writings, and a line of premium, award-winning, Georgia-Grown cooking sauces based on authentic family recipes. We serve as a “bridge and cultural translator” between home cooks and Asian markets; modern diets and age-old Chinese culinary traditions; authentic recipes and questionable fusion; imported and local. In over 300 classes or demonstrations, we have de-mystified strange or new ingredients and taught how to incorporate local or seasonal ingredients into recipes without becoming “inauthentic” or spending all day in the kitchen. By supporting Farm to School programs, we’re helping to transform school cafeterias into global kitchens that serve healthy and locally-grown offerings. Our all-natural line of family-recipe sauce help farmers, home cooks and chefs serve up the best of East, West and the Deep South with fresh ingredients like Vidalia Sweet Onion and peaches!
Diversity is Our Strength
As the popularity in ethnic cuisine has sky-rocketed, so too have questions (and conflicts) around race, privilege, gender, immigrants and diversity. Chinese Southern Belle always represented more than a clever, marketing name. Three simple words invoke the sentimentality and nostalgia of stately plantation mansions and mint juleps on the veranda, and, at the same time, one of the most shameful, unforgettable chapters in American history. The debate over whether to keep or remove Confederate symbols and memorials is intense and ongoing, and goes to the heart of who we are as Southerners…and Americans. Against a backdrop of changing demographics, growing income inequality and agricultural and economic globalization, where does that leave us at the dinner table?
Hungry for more? Inquire about our popular, custom events (we travel), Buford Highway group and corporate tours and Annual Chinese Lunar New Year Dinner. Recipes, Buddha-to-Bubba family stories, web store and Amazon for our award-winning sauces, events calendar, and cooking videos can all be found here.
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