When the seasons change and the air gets a little chillier outside, I like to have myself a big fragrant bowl of piping hot phở at any one of my local noodle houses in Garden Grove, CA (where the Vietnamese population is one of the largest anywhere outside of Vietnam itself). Its soothing warmth reminds me of the comforts of home and the people I love.
For some, food is simply a means of survival.
For many, food is an instrument used to pass down generations of culture and stories.
Gentrification upsets me. Every time I go back home to Portland, there’s a new hipster “ethnic food” spot…that’s often not owned or ran by a person of color. Instead of investing in the already rich existing Mom & Pop shops in these diverse communities, we choose to push them out of them way for another strip mall of overly-priced “fusion foods” that we don’t need. It’s not always done with the intention of appropriating and erasing people’s culture, but the consequences always seem to scream otherwise.
And this usually starts with the way we perceive food.
I have been seeing way too many articles and blogs from various mass media outlets (ranging from The New York Times to Starbucks) going on and on, recklessly, about how phở can now be remixed with quinoa and how cà phê sữa đá should now be spiced up with a little mint leaf garnish. Those who do not understand Vietnamese culture, and quite frankly, Vietnamese people, will never understand why this is offensive until they attempt to try to at least understand the basic humanity behind Vietnamese cuisine beyond the attractive aesthetic.
Many Vietnamese American families have faced traumatic dehumanization and displacement due to war. Losing their homes and businesses. Losing friends and family. So something as simple as a bánh mì (made with tender love and care) is enough to remind them of a more peaceful time. Maybe they see a thriving city within the flaky crust. Maybe they see a quiet countryside within the milky coffee.
Vietnamese cuisine is deeply rooted in family and healing. This is why phở cannot be made with broccoli and bánh mì cannot be made on a bagel, because it's thoughtless. It’s a rearrangement for no other reason than to rearrange. Each ingredient has a purpose and adds worth to its respective dishes. Asides from the overall cultural meaning and value, the former literally means "rice noodle" and the latter literally means "baguette"!
As a Vietnamese-American who craves not only for a good traditional home cooked meal, but I also hunger for my family’s missing history and the stories that make up my identity, and the identity of so many others like me. I didn’t grow up knowing a whole lot about how my family came to America. For my family, these times are often too painful to talk about, so they express it through other various means like their cooking.
My Grandma illustrates her vibrant childhood through the careful craft and techniques she uses to preserve and pickle vegetables, the precision she deploys when she debones a chicken or fillets a fish, and the eternity’s worth of patience she exudes when she steams (her favorite) salted eggs and braised pork in a clay pot. It reminds her of simpler times living in a rural small town with her friends and family. It represents happiness. To this day, she still cooks the same way as her mother did and her mother’s mother. I peel back another layer of her story every time I eat her food. It's an experience.
For some, food is sexy, food is trendy, and food is a way to make money.
For many, food is home.