"Can we bridge socioeconomic, cultural, and class gaps by sharing food experiences rooted in love?"
That is just one of the many high-minded questions that the Congee Queens, a newly formed mission-based pop-up, hopes to answer. In addition to changing the American diet and showing eaters that "love and food can change the world," the collective wants America to stop and think before it eats.
As you probably already guessed, Congee Queens wants to do so by feeding you some truly killer congee (it's Chinese bubur).
Founded by chefs Tara Norvell, Pam Yung, Katy Peetz, and Danny Newberg, Congee Queens just held its first pop-up event last weekend at Fitzcarraldo, a bistro on the outskirts of East Williamsburg in Brooklyn. There, I learned that the endeavor was born out of the uncertainty many Americans are feeling following the recent presidential election; Yung, until recently the pastry chef at Semilla in Brooklyn, told me, "post-election, amongst myself and many of those in our community, the impetus to act became almost an insatiable itch. We can talk and talk, but actions speak louder."
When Tara Norvell, co-founder and former head chef of Okonomi, came to Yung with the idea for Congee Queens, Yung quickly jumped on board, especially when Norvell pitched the idea "as a retaliation against the American concept of fast food, specifically when it comes to educating our youth about eating in a world that may be vastly different from the one in which we grew up in."
Norvell told me the idea germinated when "I learned that fast food chains were spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year advertising to children. I learned that fast food chains were even offered at lunch in public schools. The fast food industry is incredibly resourceful and dangerous. I wanted to create something that was in essence the opposite of everything Burger King stands for."
The two joined up with Katy Peetz, formerly of Blanca and Roberta's, and Danny Newberg of Joint Venture, a roving pop-up project. Together, the four chefs "put our words and sentiments into real action," determining that the best way to effect social change would be to do so outside of a typical restaurant environment.
When I arrived at the pop-up early Sunday, the place was buzzing with activity and Yung said she was "super thrilled" that so many people came out to show their support and eat congee. In her words, "the vibe was magical."
In addition to offering "Tutti Frutti", an incredible persimmon and apple dessert that brilliantly plays on the orange slices commonly served at the end of a meal at a Chinese restaurant, Congee Queens offered two variations on congee: Bone Thugs—with bone broth, mushrooms, and bitter greens—and Harmony—which featured sweet potatoes, collards, and a whole bunch of herbs. Both of the savory congees offered were made with Carolina Gold Rice middlins, or broken rice, from Anson Mills; it created a superb texture that was simultaneously al dente and velvety in every bite.
Norvell told me she landed on the concept because "congee has not really been interpreted in America and I want to make it American." Yung agreed and explained that congee is "comfort food that we all enjoy immensely," but also a porridge that "exists in so many parts of the world in slightly different forms—so it's a universal food that historically was made from very humble ingredients, and often as a way to avoid waste."
Yung said she grew up with congee as her daily breakfast food and has a deep affinity for it.
When I asked Norvell if serving $8 congee to a bunch of hipsters and like-minded chefs in an area already filled with plenty of food options can really change the way the rest of America—or the world—eats, she said, "I don't think an eight-dollar bowl of congee will replace a two-dollar cheeseburger. I think we have a lot of work to do to raise awareness about how dangerous fast food, animal agriculture, and illegal and unregulated commercial fishing is for our future and the future of our planet. I think we can also work towards making the price more competitive."
The group hopes to open a second pop-up this winter and "a few more early next year," Norvell explained. "I would love to have Congee Queens pop up in schools, at highway service stations during busy travel days, in airports, festivals, anywhere people are eating fast food."
"Our intention is just that—to provide something that is soul-satisfying and brings people together in a time of uncertainty and turmoil," Yung said. "Sometimes the uncertainty of the future is the brightest thing."