Interviews

Molly Yeh


August 1, 2018

Molly is a former picky eater, now food blogger and cookbook author; onetime rock band member, longtime classical music percussionist; and forever Juicy Couture and Chicago deep dish pizza fan who is exploring her rich, carb-loving Jewish and Chinese roots.

Describe your background.

I grew up outside of Chicago in the suburbs. My mom is Jewish and of Hungarian descent, but she grew up in New York. She’s a social worker. My dad’s parents came over from China and he’s a musician. I should also mention that my mom is an amazing cook and baker, so I grew up in a house that was filled with food and music.

I was always a very picky eater.

Throughout middle school and high school, I focused on music. That’s what I thought my career would be. I moved to New York to go to Juilliard, and I discovered how much I loved the food scene. Then, I pursued both food and music.

I met my husband in New York, then we moved back to the farm where we live now. Since then, it’s been a higher ratio of food stuff to music stuff, but I still play a little bit. I play all classical percussion. Anything from playing in orchestras to playing ensembles. I did play in a rock band for one second, until they downsized. It was fun.

What advice would you give to yourself as a teenager?

Don’t spend so much money on Juicy Couture.

I just got rid of the last pair of early 2000 Juicy pants I owned and ordered a new pair. They now make them high-waisted. They were always way too low.

How did Judaism play a role in your upbringing?

One of my favorite life memories is of going to Camp Chi, a Jewish summer camp outside of Wisconsin Dells. That was a huge part of my life: looking forward to camp all year, being at camp, then keeping in touch with my friends and going to all of their bar and bat mitzvahs.

We celebrated the High Holidays. We celebrated Passover. I loved it.

How have the places you’ve lived had an impact on your Jewish connection?

It’s really something I didn’t think about that much until I moved to Grand Forksf, where there are pretty much no other Jews.

In Chicago and New York, it was always very easy to connect with Jewish culture. There were always delis around. There were always good bagels around. I was always friends with other Jews. Our public school had Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off. There would always be menorahs next to the Christmas trees around the holidays.

When I moved to Grand Forks, suddenly, there was not a deli down the street.

If I wanted brisket, I had to make it.

I had to plan my own holiday celebrations. People say Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays, and I’m thinking, “What about me?”

But, people were so open to trying Jewish food. People were asking me questions about holidays and the cuisine and the traditions, a lot of which I didn’t know the answers to. That, in turn, made me want to go and learn more about my own culture and heritage and religion and be able to talk about it with other people.

I have a deeper connection to Judaism now, because I have had to work harder to bring Jewishness into my life.

How did your Chinese heritage play a role in your upbringing?

Chinese culture and Jewish culture have so much overlap. Valuing music and math and doing well in school was expected in my house growing up.

Carbs and dumplings are big in both cultures, too. There were a lot of carbs.

There’s so much more to learn about both cultures that I’m starting to explore.

What advice would you give to someone who is in a relationship with a person from a different background?

It’s important to be extremely respectful of the other person’s culture and enthusiastic about it. I love learning about Norwegian culture and food and Upper Midwest food and going to my husband’s family’s holiday celebrations.

My husband eats matzah every day.

We made matzah together one year with the wheat that he grew from his farm.

There are so many things that we are on the same page about, like emphasizing hard work and always wanting to debate about things. Our core values are so similar. That is what really bonds us together. Both of us are easily excitable and love learning about different backgrounds and different cultures.

It is also important to have connections with people of your background.

I have Arq as a resource, I have Unorthodox, and I have my Jewish friends to connect with. It’s amazing that I can share so much of my Jewishness with my husband, and I’m okay with the fact that I am getting this element of my fulfillment outside of my relationship.

I can come to our relationship with my differences and be confident in them, as opposed to feeling like I am losing a part of myself by being in a relationship with somebody with a different background. If you do date somebody else outside of your religion or culture, you want to feel like your differences are being honored and that they’re making a positive impact on your relationship, not that you’re making a sacrifice and suppressing something by being in this relationship.

What do you most value in your friends?

Honor and respect differences and encourage one another to work hard and be successful. You want friends to bring out the best in you. I am motivated to work hard and I’m inspired by the people that I’m spending time with. Friends encourage each other to be their best selves and in following their dreams.

What is is something you have figured out?

My favorite part of the week is Pizza Friday. I know that every Friday, I’m going to feel like pizza, and I’m never going to get sick of it, and it’s going to be a highlight of my week.

I love Chicago-style, deep dish pizza.

I only allow myself to have it, tops, once every other month, because it’s so heavy. I’ve been loving whatever’s good from the garden. We have zucchini now that’s amazing on pizza, especially with basil and mint.

One pizza that I want to try is Detroit-style pizza. It has crispy, caramelized edges, and I think it’s cut into squares. It’s really cheesy and gooey.

Do you have a favorite Chicago pizza place to recommend?

Lou Malnati’s forever.

What’s something that you have not figured out yet?

I have not figured out my traditions for the holidays yet. I alternate between going home to Chicago or trying to have a seder with just me and Nick. Last year, we went to Pesach on the Mountain. It’s in Whistler.

I want to start my own holiday traditions, but I haven’t figured out what those are going to be yet.

The other thing that’s difficult is that Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur fall right around the busiest farm seasons.

Those holidays are all harvest holidays!

It’s crazy. It’s like, when did these people have time to celebrate the holidays if they were actually harvesting? Actual harvest around here is like 30 hours a day on a tractor.

What is your favorite Jewish holiday and why?

I love Rosh Hashanah, because the fall is the best. It’s cozy. You can have challah and brisket and all of my favorite fall foods. You can have pumpkin challah. You can make squash challah.

I made apple and honey pizza! The first one that I tested was apples and brie and onions on whole wheat crust. When it came out of the oven, I topped it with arugula and drizzled it with honey and balsamic. That was awesome! I want to try it with sharp cheddar, because apples and cheddar are amazing.

What is a cause that you care about?

LGBT rights. The area where I live is very conservative, so I do find myself riled up in that regard.

We have a large Somali refugee community in Grand Forks, and I’m on the board of New Flavors, a food truck that helps refugees bring their food business dreams to life.

I’m always thinking about peace in the Middle East.

I’m always trying to figure out what is going on, how I feel about it, and what can be done from so far away.

Last year, when Taïm Falafel did a guest chef series, I created a falafel and a dollar from each one sold went to a charity of our choice. I chose Hands of Peace, which is a Chicago-based organization that has a summer camp for Israeli, Palestinian, and American kids to get to know each other. It helps foster understanding. They lead trips to Israel and Palestine, as well.

I was also just reading about this amazing kitchen in Brooklyn that helps refugees. It teaches them ESL classes. It teaches them how to cook. Emma’s Torch.

What or who inspires you and why?

My husband and my parents. Seeing my husband work on the farm and how much care he puts into his family business inspires me so much with my own blog and business.

My mom learns new things every day about cooking and baking and is always texting me about them and teaching me. My dad’s personality really inspires me, because he’s probably the most positive person that I know. He’s always excited about everything. I think that’s where I get that from.

Who are some of your favorite writers and musicians?

I love Marian Bull, who is a food writer. Helen Rosner is amazing. I love Mark Oppenheimer, too. I love when he decided to reclaim “Jew.”

Right now, I’m listening to the new Punch Brothers. Lucius is great. I love listening to a lot of classical music. We just saw the Chicago Symphony do Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. That’s always a good one. I love Sufjan Stevens. Oh, I love him so much! And that’s another reason why I like Rosh Hashanah.

Fall is Sufjan Stevens season.

Philip Glass wrote one of my all-time favorite pieces of art, ever: his opera, Satyagraha. I saw it at The Met, and it was amazing. The music is amazing and just brings you to another state of consciousness.

Photos by Chantell Quernemoen

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