A Mexi-Jewish, Trini-Filipino birthday feast in Queens

Grace Andrews and Sara Markel-Gonzalez, with their family at daughters’ joint birthday party. Photos by Lily Chin, lilychin.info

Grace Andrews and Sara Markel-Gonzalez, with their families at daughters’ joint birthday party. Photos by Lily Chin, lilychin.info

By Anne Noyes Saini

Ruby Gonzalez and Lanna Andrews are celebrating their first birthdays together, with all the usual trappings: balloons, streamers, party favors, and cupcakes. But the real excitement isn’t opening the gifts—it’s the carving of the whole, spit-roasted pig.

‘Lechon’—slowly roasted over indirect heat until the pig’s outer skin is crisp and brown—is often the centerpiece of festive gatherings in the Philippines. At this Sunday afternoon party in Flushing Meadows, Queens, it’s just one part of a huge, multi-cultural birthday feast.

Lanna’s mother, Grace Andrews, 31, and Ruby’s mother, Sara Markel-Gonzalez, 36, spend a lot of time exploring international foods in Queens — New York City’s most diverse borough — where they met at a group for mothers and babies. The food at their daughters’ joint birthday party is an elaborate testament to their passion.

There’s Filipino pancit (glass noodles with pork and vegetables) and lumpia (pork-stuffed fried spring rolls) prepared by Lanna’s uncle, as well as Trinidadian pumpkin curry with buss-up-shut (flatbread) from a West Indian roti shop in Queens. There’s also hummus with pita, freshly shredded cantaloupe juice, and Mexican tinga de pollo (shredded chicken in chipotle sauce) served on tostadas with garlicky salsa verde prepared by Ruby’s mother and great-grandmother.

The sweets run the gamut from Filipino fruit salad (with condensed milk and coconut jelly) to Mexican tres leches cake from a bakery in nearby Corona, Queens.

“Our first play date was getting thalis at a Nepali restaurant in Jackson Heights,” Markel-Gonzalez says. “We go together on food adventures as play dates. It’s mostly for us, but then the girls get exposed to (different international cuisines).”

Food is more than just a hobby for Markel-Gonzalez, who trained as a pastry chef at the French Culinary Institute, and her husband, Jose Gonzalez, 35, also a professional chef. The couple met a decade ago when they were working together at a catering company and now they support their young family with freelance catering jobs.

“Food is very important in our life,” Markel-Gonzalez says. “It’s how we met, but it’s also what I based my professional life around.”

The array of Filipino, West Indian, Mexican, and Israeli dishes at the birthday party also reflects the two families’ rich blend of cultural traditions. Andrews was born in the Philippines but raised in Queens, and her husband Toni Andrews, 35, grew up in Trinidad; Markel-Gonzalez was raised in a Jewish family in the Hudson Valley, and her husband Jose grew up in Mexico City.

For both couples, food is a way to share their different cultural traditions with each other and with their children. By exposing them to many different food cultures, Andrews and Markel-Gonzalez also hope to nurture a spirit of culinary and cultural exploration in their young daughters.

“I always wanted (my daughters) to be adventurous when it comes to eating…because I like food so much,” Markel-Gonzalez says. “We definitely trained our girls. They don’t know any different—they probably think that’s how every kid eats.”

Anne Noyes Saini is a food editor. This article is being republished with permission from Feet in 2 Worlds, a website that has brought the work of immigrant and ethnic media journalists to public radio and the web.

Filipino ‘lechon’ or roasted pig with Mang Tomas pork liver sauce.

Filipino ‘lechon’ or roasted pig with Mang Tomas pork liver sauce.

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