originally written and sent as an email almost a year ago. title borrowed from poet aimee nezhukumatathil.
when my family moved to the bay from orange county, my mom started working for my uncle’s catering truck business in santa rosa, while my dad took esl classes at contra costa community college. eventually, they got their own lunch truck in hayward, with a route in milpitas serving a predominately latino clientele, service workers of the silicon valley. as such, my mom learned how to make menu staples like tacos and burritos from the previous cook. she did all of her prep work at home, which meant there was a lot beef being chopped on the kitchen table all the time.
and i remember she would make huge amounts of barbacoa in this fatty stock pot, and then sit on the floor pulling at the meat that fell apart on itself, it was so tender. she would feed it straight to me and my sister’s mouths like we were little babies. (she would do this with homemade meatballs too; who knows how much meat i ate as a child.) i didn’t actually learn that the meat was called barbacoa until i went to a chipotle for the first time in college and saw it on the menu. my mom picked up bits of spanish on the job, and spoke it quickly, pronouncing the ending syllable quà, like a gift.
a few summers ago, i was at my aunt’s house in orange county with my parents, and there was kind of a food gathering going on, with my other aunt and uncle and grandmother over. they were making spring rolls, the usual kind with pork and shrimp, and i mentioned that bò bía was my favorite, which always comes with the special peanut sauce. so i asked one of my aunts what hers was, and she was sassy in her response and said to ask my grandmother–she only ever made boiled vegetables and rice for dinner.
i was confused at first, mostly shocked at her audacity, but also the truth of situation. my parents were farmers in rural viet nam, and they grew the same vegetables they ate, which has now become a novel concept in my life: “gardening.” my mom said she learned how to cook “traditional” (in my re-imagination) vietnamese dishes by eying them at the grocery store, just like how she watches the food network channel and can recreate meals from there without ever paying attention the recipe. and i sat there, the only person from my generation, reeling from my idea of culture and its connection to food and history–how diaspora doesn’t always work the way you imagine it to.
last weekend i visited my sister l. in madison on a fifty cent megabus ticket. we hit up the farmers market where we passed on the cheese curds and tried our best to purchase from farmers of color, most ostensibly hmong. l. was super hyped on the butternut squash and bok choy offerings (her boyfriend j. says she has an addiction,) but we bought a few other things, including cải làn, which i never enjoyed because it was one of those boring boiled vegetables we had at every other dinner growing up.
but now, after college and separation from home, i have come to crave these foods. so l. and i called our mom that night to ask her for directions on how to cook the greens, and she was totally nonchalant about the affair, as always, saying to parboil them for a bit and then stir-fry it up with some sauce or whatever, and we’d have to interject and ask her to specify how long, and how much. she asked what else we were having for dinner, and after i rambled off some things, she remarked, what? veggies only? i had to reassure her, no mom, we have fish too. and it was then she said, good. you’ve done well. now you can come home and cook for me.