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Finding Home Through Food

Jenny Qi | February 22, 2024

People | The Cooking & Culture Project

A culturally ingrained love of food and service made Feng Walkup a perfect fit for the international department at Hormel Foods.

Growing up in Guangxi Province, China, Feng Walkup had a favorite dish: mei cai kou rou (梅菜扣肉), tender pork belly with preserved mustard greens. Traditionally, thick blocks of pork belly with the skin are cut into chunks, marinated, par-boiled, deep-fried and cooked until the marbled meat melts in the mouth. It’s labor-intensive but yields delicious results.

mei cai kou rou (梅菜扣肉), tender pork belly with preserved mustard greens

Feng is not exaggerating when she says, “I love food. In my family, everyone loves food.” In her hometown, food was a family and community affair. “We lived in a very small town, so everyone knew each other. Everyone helped each other. My dad was a really good cook.” In fact, her late father was such a good and generous chef that he was the go-to volunteer caterer for big events in town, like weddings and funerals. Her mother and sisters, skilled home chefs in their own right, prepared daily meals for the family. Everyone had a role to play. Feng recalls, “My job was to burn the wood for the stove.”

With this strong work ethic and love of food and community, it’s no wonder that her seven siblings have owned six Chinese restaurants since immigrating to the United States. “We just love to cook and make people happy.”

Cultural Understanding Enhances Business

Feng didn’t stay in the family restaurant business, but she continued to work in food, landing at Hormel Foods over 24 years ago. Feng began as a quality control engineer and later transferred to the international sales department, where she now manages international exports of fresh meats, with a focus on the export of pork products to Asian markets. Her enthusiasm for food and customer satisfaction, coupled with her cultural background, make her particularly well-suited for the job.

Feng has been instrumental in identifying and developing new opportunities for products that are not yet popular in the U.S. but are valued in Asian cuisines and elsewhere around the world, such as pork trotters. When she started in this role, Feng and her colleague Jack Shao saw a business opportunity in using byproducts that would otherwise be discarded, because she knew from personal experience that there was demand for this product in China. After all, it was something she used to eat.

It took time to get approval from the USDA for the new product and then more time to develop the right equipment and cuts, but Feng’s persistence paid off. After a couple of years, these products were sold internationally, turning what was once a considerable amount of castoffs into desirable and profitable products and enhancing the Hormel Foods market reach and sustainability.

Over the years, Feng has leveraged her cultural background and understanding of Asian food preferences to help develop fresh pork items for the international market. One of her biggest customers in China now buys pork trotters from Hormel Foods and braises them with aromatic spices to make lu wei (滷味), which is then sold in their dozen carry-out restaurants for their customers to enjoy. “I love seeing the product that I sell in the restaurant, how it makes people happy to eat the food, and tasting the product when I visit,” says Feng. “I love to have that kind of relationship with customers.”

Although Feng has a personal connection to Chinese culture and cuisine, she is sensitive to the needs of her customers in other countries as well, noting that they might prefer their pork cut in different ways. Religious considerations also come into play when analyzing prospective markets. She works with customers in China, Japan, South Korea and other countries in Asia and Latin America. Like her father before her, Feng takes great pride in her work and always goes above and beyond. She visits her customers around the world, always making sure to try the final product and other local foods when she travels. In turn, her customers develop an affinity for the Hormel Foods products and help inform the development of new options. “It is very rewarding to see our customers be successful by using our products, especially those that I have developed with customers from the beginning.”

Feeling at Home in a Cultural Melting Pot

Feng’s openness to new cultures has served her well both personally and professionally. Since she first moved to the Midwest from China in 1991, Feng has grown to really embrace the cultural melding of her new home. She says of her workplace:

I feel here is my home. The Hormel Foods culture is very inclusive. Everyone comes from different ethnic backgrounds and everyone is friendly.

International account manager of fresh meat, Hormel Foods

At the annual holiday potluck, she always brings her own famous recipe of SPAM® fried rice. The recipe is representative of the cultural melting pot that is Hormel Foods and the broader U.S. A skilled chef like everyone else in her family, Feng takes pride in her colleagues enjoying her cooking, and she also enjoys the variety of foods she is able to try at company events. “One of my favorite Hormel Foods products is spiral ham. It is very delicious!”

Feng loves to bring food to share with her colleagues, and one day her Mongolian pork caught their attention. A co-worker from the sales team was fascinated by the recipe and collaborated with Feng to bring it into product development. Out of this collaboration emerged a new pork loin flavor, sweet garlic ginger, set to hit select retail stores nationwide in March 2024. This highlights the crucial role of employee-inspired innovations and leveraging the diverse talent within the company.

Similarly, Feng learned to merge Chinese and American cuisines at home with her family. She and her husband, whose ancestors immigrated here from Ireland several generations ago, took turns cooking for their two children who are now in college. On weekends, her husband prepared meals such as steak, ribs, lasagna or hamburgers and on weekdays, Feng cooked mostly Chinese-inspired dishes including char siu pork or chicken, dumpling or wonton. When making tacos, for instance, she used her own recipe with a twist. Her kids’ favorite foods growing up included her Mongolian beef and pasta with stir-fried shrimp on the side. Feng also makes crispy pork belly, boiled and finished in the air fryer. It’s not quite the pork belly she remembers from childhood, but it’s a lot easier to manage on a busy weekday.

When Feng misses the more labor-intensive traditional dishes of her childhood, her nearby siblings come to the rescue, gathering the family every couple of months for a big party. And of course, in this family, the focal point is a delicious meal. One of her sisters makes mei cai kou rou, just like Feng remembers. When Feng visits, she takes home a big container to store in the freezer. Even on busy days, she can heat up her sister’s cooking and eat a nourishing meal that reminds her of her family and culture.

Feng has passed down her cultural traditions to her children through family gatherings and visits back to China. She has also shared with them her appreciation for new cultures. Both her kids are away for school, but Feng continues to nurture them through her cooking. Just recently, she prepared a trunk full of home-cooked dishes for her son and his friends. Her daughter is starting to prepare her own Chinese food and carry on the family culinary traditions, but for now, Feng still marinates and cuts the meat for her in just the right way. Each time her kids come home, they can take a piece of home with them back to school. Feng says, “You feel good when people enjoy your food, and this is what I do to make people happy.”