Transcript: Familiar strangers: A talk with co-author of “Mango and Peppercorns” about growing up Vietnamese-American, mothers, and food
Early memories at Hy Vong:
So Kathy loves to tell this story. I would help serve like salads or some of the appetizers. And one night we were really, really packed and the customers were maybe starting to get a little antsy. So I would go up to the table and I was probably about six or seven at that time. I would tell them, “The kitchen is really slow tonight because my mother’s in a bad mood.” So she always called me her ambassador who kept the front of the house calm. My fondest memory is that the customers would actually help me with homework. So because it was after school and I’d have whatever homework you have, and I had a little place underneath the silverware where I would do it. But every so often there would be some customers that, you know, there was an extra chair at their table. And so I would sit with them and they would help me figure out the math or do some of the spelling or the reading. And a lot of those customers I keep in touch with today even, and they are my attorneys and my doctors. So it’s really become a community that’s helped us as a family.
Love through food:
Food was really the way that she communicated. It wasn’t just how she communicated and showed love to me, but it was also, I think, how she communicated with the community at Hy Vong, the customers. And because she wasn’t really able to speak English, or she wasn’t confident enough to speak English. And so by cooking, she was able to showcase her talent and give them something that they appreciated. It created a dialogue without words, so to speak. And when I came home from college, she would always send food home. So even though I wouldn’t see her too much, because when I came home for the summer, I would have summer jobs so I would leave in the morning. And by the time I got home, she had already left. So we saw each other very little. But like you said, she would leave food in the fridge and she’d bring something home for me. There wasn’t a whole lot of talking in my family. You know, we would do stuff together, but it wasn’t like you would sit around for hours and discuss politics or anything.
She loves cooking. You know, even I would try and say, “Oh, we should go out for dinner,” because I would try and give her a day off from cooking. But she would be like, “No, no, no, I want to cook.” Even though she was cooking at the restaurant, she still wanted to come home. Kathy and I joke because sitting with her at dinner is so painful because Kathy and I are finished with eating in, like, five minutes or 10 minutes. And my mom, it takes an hour because she savors every single bite and she’s like trying to explore the flavors and she likes to taste it. And what’s the texture and how was it cooked? So it’s really such an ingrained passion.
Evolution of Vietnamese food:
Oh, yeah, we talk about it all the time. When they first opened, Kathy had to give away food because people didn’t understand what it was. Mom wouldn’t Americanize her food. So she makes this dish. She makes a couple of dishes but they’re all spicy, spicy chicken and lemongrass, spicy kingfish, she makes spicy ribs. And she would not make it less spicy because the American palate wasn’t used to spiciness yet. So she was like, “This is my food, this is how it tastes good.” Lemongrass they couldn’t find in the grocery store, so she had to grow it. So it was a real education for customers to try different flavors. And today I laugh and I tell Kathy, “You know, they’re selling pho at Costco.” I mean, you can’t get any more mainstream and big bucks: “There’s pho!”
And so and now when you tell anybody, oh, Vietnamese food, everybody knows pho. Before,it was like, “What is that?” and “How do you eat it?” So there’s been such a shift in terms of just acceptance and interest and appreciation. And my mom laughs now because she’s like, “Well, now the customers are telling me my food is not spicy enough.” They’re so used to spicy food and, you know, so now her customers are coming back and they want her to be even more authentic.