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The Accidental Advocate

Cookbook author Grace Young stepped out of her comfort zone to help a neighborhood

grace young in china town new york city

PAOLA + MURRAY

Young does a little shopping in Manhattan’s Chinatown.​​

At various times, in various publications, cookbook author Grace Young has been called the “Stir Fry Guru,” the “Wok Queen” and the “Wok Evangelist.” But until the pandemic hit, Young, 66, wasn’t known for her activism. After COVID-19 emerged, she became an advocate for New York City’s Chinatown and created a video series to bring attention to the challenges facing Chinese communities. Young has been recognized as the James Beard Foundation’s humanitarian of the year.

Grace Young: My father was a very big part of the Chinatown community in San Francisco. He was a liquor salesman, and he knew every restaurant owner there. We couldn’t walk more than 20 steps on the street without somebody calling out his name. So, San Francisco’s Chinatown always felt like home to me.

The one in New York City was different. Even though I’ve lived in New York for 40 years and would go to Chinatown regularly to shop, I never made an effort to get to know the people who lived and worked there. I’m a little shy. The neighborhood was so busy — the sidewalks were so crowded that I’d have to weave my way through to find ingredients for the recipes I’d develop.

That all changed in January of 2020. Suddenly all the stores were empty. People were afraid to come to Chinatown, just because the COVID-19 virus had originated in China. When I saw the neighborhood as a ghost town, it made me think about what we’d lose if it were gone.

The story of Chinatown, like those of other traditional immigrant neighborhoods, is an American story. So many of these entrepreneurs had come to this country with nothing, and through sheer grit and hard work had realized the American dream. I think the place should be designated as a living national treasure.

With videographer Dan Ahn, I began what became an 11-part video series called Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, to bring attention to the struggles of New York’s Chinatown and other Chinese communities. Then I began to stumble upon other ways to help. When hate-motivated attacks on Asian Americans started to rise, I worked with a group called Asian Americans for Equality to distribute personal-security devices in Chinatown. With the community organization Welcome to Chinatown, I raised money to buy meals from Chinatown’s legacy restaurants and deliver them to older people and those in need. Last October, I partnered with the James Beard Foundation and Poster House museum to launch the social media campaign #LoveAAPI, to support Asian American and Pacific Islander small businesses, which are still the targets of hate crimes.

There have been many days when I’ve felt down. But recently a friend sent me this quote: “Action is the antidote to despair.” And I thought, Yes. The work I’ve done for Chinatown has actually given me focus and purpose over the past two years. Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is that there are no magical heroes waiting in the wings. If we don’t help each other, nothing will happen. But if everyone does what they can, it really does make a difference.

spring stir fry dish by grace young

PAOLA + MURRAY

Grace Young’s Recipe for Stir-Fried Sugar Snap Peas With Shiitake Mushrooms

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 8 medium fresh shiitake, button or cremini mushrooms, stems removed and caps quartered (about 4 ounces)
  • 8 ounces sugar snap peas or snow peas, strings removed (2½ cups)
  • ½ teaspoon salt

1. In a small bowl, combine ¼ cup broth, rice wine and soy sauce.

2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottom wok or 12-inch skillet over high heat until a drop of water vaporizes within 2 seconds. Swirl in 2 tablespoons oil, add ginger, and stir-fry for 10 seconds or until fragrant. Add mushrooms; stir-fry for 30 seconds or until oil is absorbed.

Swirl broth mixture into wok, cover, and cook for 30 seconds or until only about 1 tablespoon broth remains.

3. Swirl in remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add sugar snap peas (or snow peas) and salt; stir-fry for 1 minute or until sugar snaps are bright green. Swirl in remaining 1 tablespoon broth; stir-fry for 1 minute or until sugar snaps are crisp-tender.

Nutrients per serving: 130 calories, 2g protein, 9g carbohydrates, 2g fiber, 10g fat, 0mg cholesterol, 570mg sodium


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Andrea Adleman is a contributing writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, O The Oprah Magazine and other print and electronic media.

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