Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow; her most recent collection of poems, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE, and will be published in 2019. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review blog. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, among others; her poem “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, and published by The Kenyon Review Online. She teaches creative writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program and The Speakeasy Project. Find her at 7TrainLove.org
Here, she talks about favorite meals shared with family, celebrating Queens’ food offerings, and a love of…durian.
On her all-time favorite meal:
There’s a few, actually. One is the last time we went out with my Uncle Balani, who passed away in 2015. My mother’s family comes from the border, from the Rio Grande Valley; everyone’s pretty scattered out now— from Los Fresnos, Texas to Chula Vista, California to Queens, New York, where I live now— but my Uncle Balani and Aunt Nena lived in a small town called Harlingen. My Uncle Balani was sick for many years, but every time I’d visit, we’d go to his favorite restaurant, Los Nortenos. I’m pretty sure I’ve tried just about everything on that menu. But as his condition grew worse, it became harder for him to leave the house.
When my mother was younger, she and her family and friends would often go to South Padre Island. Back in her childhood, there was nothing on the island but sand— as in my abuelo could drive his truck right onto the sand, and they’d spend the night there, right out in the open, on cots. SPI has changed a lot since that time. I too have many happy memories of going to Padre with my family; my husband and I got married there in 2014. Everyone kept saying that our wedding was more like a family reunion for my mother, with my Gomez side returning to our roots. After our wedding we came back as often as we could to visit my uncle, and mainly stayed in Harlingen, so he didn’t have to leave the house. But during that summer, he suggested we all have breakfast on Padre, right on the beach. He wasn’t eating very much then, but I remember how he ate very slowly and carefully a bowl of fruit— strawberries, grapes and blueberries— and some toast, which we shared together. My Aunt Nena was there, and some of my cousins. I remember looking out at the ocean, and thinking, if he’s eating again, he must be getting better. I remember the oceans crashing really hard at the moment, and a woman not far from us saying to her children the water was too rough to swim that day. But the children ran into the waves anyway. My uncle did not get better, and yet at that moment, I wouldn’t have believed it. We shared a simple meal under the sun of Padre, the island where I learned to swim. It hurts to go back now that he’s gone. When he passed, he took a part of us all with him. But I’m grateful for that day, just as I am that he was still here with us for the wedding.
My other favorite meals are shared with my husband Brian’s family when we visit Hong Kong, especially dim sum: shumai, har gow, turnip cake, tripe, just to name a few. Brian’s dad and I are the only ones who really love chicken feet, so we order that.
The other thing we love to do in Hong Kong is eat on the rooftop of his parent’s building. Brian and I actually stay in a little room—it’s super tiny—above his parent’s apartment, and there’s a nice size space for a table outside the room on the roof to have hot pot. We usually anything from fish balls, beef, tripe, shrimp, fish paste to liver, lamb, squid, oysters, and on special occasions, abalone. So we sit outside (there’s a tarp if it’s raining), and drink beer and sake and eat and talk. One cloudy night last year—it was super late, like close to midnight or so—Brian and I came home from a date night, and found his parents all wide-awake and hungry, and we were also hungry, so we had decided to have hot pot. Below the building someone was filming a movie— Brian and I had run into the crew and set earlier on our way home, and production assistants (I’m guessing) tried to get us to take another street and Brian kept arguing with them that we lived in the building they were filming in front of— and B’s dad and I kept looking over the side of the roof, watching them film, from twenty-two stories above. Suddenly it started pouring— it was raining really hard— and I’ve never seen people move so fast. I don’t know why, but we couldn’t stop laughing. We were drinking beer and laughing, and Brian and his mother were like, what’s wrong with you two? I don’t remember exactly what we ate, but it was a great night.
On her favorite neighborhood haunts:
I feel like Queens does not get enough love for its amazing food. I’ve lived in Woodside and now Sunnyside, and the restaurants here are amazing. TJ Asian Bistro on Skillman Avenue hands-down has some of the best sushi I’ve ever eaten. I like sashimi rather than rolls—I just want really good raw fish with a bit of soy sauce, and I’m happy. TJ’s has great salmon, fluke, toro, tuna, mackerel, surf clam, uni (sea urchin) when it’s available. I’d also recommend De Mole for Mexican, Pelicana Chicken for Korean Fried Chicken (and ice cream beer in the summer!), Sik Gaek for Korean BBQ, Souk El Shater for Lebanese, and SoleLuna for Italian (get the gnocchi). One place in particular that holds a special place in my heart is Quaint. The menu is very small, but everything is prepared beautifully, and they have daily specials and a great cocktail list. Brian and I go there most regularly, and I’ve talked through some difficult rewriting and revising of poems sitting in those booths.
On unwinding at the end of the day:
If we’re home, I like a glass of wine in the evening. I used to be a beer person, but I’ve found that I really like red wine. The problem is that if I drink more than a glass, it puts me to sleep. I don’t have a very high tolerance for alcohol. Two drinks and I’m passing out. But I do like the ritual of winding down and being in my husband’s arms before we go to sleep. I have insomnia, and he thinks if we talk out whatever’s keeping my mind racing— it’s usually related to something I’m writing— than I’ll sleep. It never works. He falls asleep while I’m writing on my phone in bed, trying to block the light from his sight. But I like that he thinks it will work one day. He’s very determined about these kind of things, my Brian.
On her food quirks:
Yeah, so… I like really pungent-smelling food. I’m serious. Durian is one of my favorite fruits, and only Brian’s mother will eat it with me, out on the rooftop. There’s a nice cheese shop in Grand Central Market called Murray’s. It’s pricey, so I don’t go there often, but when I do, I always get the stinkiest cheese. Usually I bring a tote bag with a zipper to put the bag holding the cheese in, but the last time I did. So I just had the bag with the cheese wrapped up, and you should have seen the looks this one woman was giving me on the 7 Train. No one else seemed to care though. And when we visited Iceland, I tried Kæstur hákarl, which is fermented shark. Usually I won’t eat shark because my mother’s father was a fisherman and he said never to eat whales, dolphins or sharks because the ocean really belonged to them alone. And I’ve kept that promise, for the most part. But my friends were like, you have to try it since you like that kind of thing. It was served with a side of a drink called brennivín, and I was told to hold my breath while eating it. My husband couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get over the smell. I don’t know what this says about me, but I really liked it, especially served with alcohol. I would have it again, but perhaps just one more time, since I did promise my abuelo not to mess with sharks. Just one more time.