After taking a long blogging break due to work projects I wanted to share why I love food, what it taught me, what it means to me, and how it makes me happy. For my long time friends they will all know me as a cook, a cyclist, photographer, dog lover, and in the past four years, a father. Cycling and photography are equally important to me as cooking. In a sense, they all work together and have opened up my mind for adventure in life and with food. I am going to do this post in several installments to keep it readable and to focus on a specific memory. Welcome to the history and memories of Gourmetdad. An understanding that food is about history, the present, and the future. Written quickly and intuitively, please forgive if it sounds like a ramble.
I am half-Vietnamese and very proud of my heritage, but if you would have seen my neighborhood or a picture of me as a kid; you would never know I was Asian. I grew up in a nice suburban neighborhood, of primarily white working class people. Although it was much better that I had two friends, one was Filipino and the other was Hawaiian. It was a safe neighborhood, and a good place to grow up playing touch football in the street without being hit by a car. I say safe, but it took a resilient mother to make sure we knew that we were Vietnamese, and to maintain her identity as well.
My mom met my dad while he served in the military during the Vietnam War and she left the country through marriage. We moved to our first real neighborhood in Livermore, CA in the early 70’s after a myriad of apartments and time with my grandmother. Looking back, it wasn’t the best time for Asians in the country. The Vietnam War, Honda and Toyota coming to the market with more fuel-efficient cars, and the oil crisis and gasoline rations cut to the core of the country. As a child, I still remember a lot of hatred toward Asians. Nobody ever thought twice of what they were saying because they thought I was white, so hateful words ran unfiltered around me. My only specific memory was when my sister and I got lost at a soccer game in the local park. We were found by some people, and they went to locate our parents. My mom showed up, and they wouldn’t give us to her, flat-out denied us our mom. They wouldn’t believe my mom, nor my sister and I. “How could she your parent?”, “She is!” we exclaimed. From that moment on I always knew I was different.
Commentary: My Latina wife and daughter to this very day hear their fair share of derogatory Latino comments. They may be fair skin but they are proud to be Mexican and El Salvadorian.
I eventually knew I was Vietnamese because my mom cooked Vietnamese food at home. It wasn’t every day, but it was integral. We also had to travel a long way to San Jose or Oakland to get the proper ingredients. I remember standing forever in a store that sold strange-looking stuff and only knowing the trip was over when we got a box of rice candy with a dissolving wrapper and tiny toy. I always wanted to go with her even though it meant being bored silly and couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying. I never declined to eat the food because of the hard work to make it. My mom is a very good cook and we love her cooking so much, fried rolls (chả giò), pho (Phở), and especially the fish sauce (Nước mắm), and so much more. It seems that having a bowl of pho is the rage today, but every time I have a bowl, it reminds me of the past. I was just a tall skinny white kid eating noodles from a huge bowl and pair of chop sticks. We didn’t go to Moon Festivals, or celebrate the lunar new year, or do any Vietnamese cultural road trips. Without the cooking effort from my mom, we could have easily grownup eating food lacking a cultural identity. More importantly, I also think it was my mom’s way of remembering a good part of her past, while she fully embraced American values.
In addition to Vietnamese cooking, she did us a huge favor on nutrition. To be honest, my dad was more comfortable serving food out of can than cooking something. It could have been a toasted Pop-Tart for breakfast or the infamous can of Van Camps Pork and Beans. Sorry if you like it, but it took me years to think about beans again. (Note: Thank God for Cassoulet) Spare the occasional roast or steak dinner that my dad cooked, he is not a big part of my cooking memories. It did teach me that fresh food was WAY better than canned food. I am not preaching since I have a weakness for chips and dip, but fresh food remains a core value for us and we share those values with our daughter.
My mom is one of the proudest American people I know. She came to this country for success and she didn’t speak Vietnamese full-time for almost 7 years. We were never taught Vietnamese, and I defend the criticism that I receive for it. She had never been to a formal school for an extended amount of time but she is extremely smart and wanted to work and be American. She needed to learn English and that’s what she concentrated on. Her second job, she left her first one after a month, was for a small computer chip company called Intel and making the 8088 and 8086 microprocessors was her first responsibility. We all know that Intel is now the leader in microprocessors and my mom capitalized on that success until she retired at 42. Just imagine a Vietnamese lady, barely 5’2”, was part of the women’s equal rights revolution in the 70’s. She was a career driven woman who still cared enough about quality food to share it with us.
Next: My Sweet Old Grandmother