Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Food and Friends

                                        stir fry I made, this is normal weekly food for us.

This is a reading I wrote at the UU fellowship like the Transcendental Movement one. I was housebound that day, so my husband got to read my words. The topic was on The Spiritual Aspect of Food. One thing, these essays are short, we are given 5 minutes, so I have to pare down a lot of the writing which makes for an interesting outcome. It's interesting I do still think of those times. It reminds me like the good times with my one aunt, these were the memories I held on to. 

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” --ANTHONY BOURDAIN

When I was young, my family was Catholic and I attended a Catholic school, where we were educated by nuns. I lived right across the street from this school in *******.   During the mid 1970s the church decided to sponsor a  refugee family from Vietnam. Their family had 5 kids, one older sister, two brothers and a middle child daughter who I became best friends with.

As a child, I did not come from a happy household and sought refuge in other places. Their family would become a safe haven for me. My life was full of Catholic rituals and rites. This included Mass twice a week, Soup Suppers, Confession past second grade, Confirmation Class and retreats.

However my life beyond  the Catholic religion was very involved with being immersed in another culture from around age 8-13.   I heard my friend's parents converse in Vietnamese on a daily basis--back then I knew a few words and got to hear about life in a foreign county.  They were converting to Catholicism but their house had pictures and Buddhist artifacts as well.

The family was given jobs upon their arrival which basically was cleaning and maintenance of the church and school.  My new friend Loan's family had braved being shot at in a helicopter during the fall of Saigon, and escaped with their lives to America. Loan who was in third grade with me barely knew English when her family first came, but learned it fast.

Many hours were spent playing kickball or 4-square in the huge expansive parking lots between all the buildings and exploring the cemetery with it's tombstones dated back to the 1800s. Other times, I would accompany Loan and her siblings as they were given cleaning jobs to do and her parents cleaned the school's long green hallways or polished the church pews and altar.

I was a very socially awkward girl,and mocked for being fat all the time, but with Loan and her brothers I shared a special friendship. This brought a lot of joy to my young life, and leaving on the very day of my thirteenth birthday when my family moved away was especially painful. I would keep contact with her for many years but we would lost touch.

It's weird but one thing I remember at the time was the food. It stood out. It's strange the things we remember so strongly. I probably ate over at their house at least several times a week.

My memories include before I became allergic to seafood as an adult was eating all these crabs that had been spread out on the table which were freshly caught. Unlike home, where meals were angry affairs, with my friend's family, it was smiles, laughter and happiness as we broke the crab legs apart to get the sweet meat out to dip it in soy sauce and fish sauce. I miss fish sauce.  I spent many over nights where there was always a big pot of rice left on the stove and in my mind's eye I picture these very spicy bowls of red meat but with a taste I was never able to replicate. There was a oily sheen and ground up spices in that dish. My friend and I would even eat this dish cold for breakfast over rice from the pot their Mom left out on the stove.

My family served up "meat and potatoes" fare, meatloaf, spaghetti, and other various dishes most of the time. A lot of it was boring and low in nutrition. I don't remember eating a vegetable that came outside of a can until I started working at my salad prep jobs in high school.  My mother sometimes made fancy foods for adult parties, but for most of us our daily fare was two slices of toast with a bowl of sugary cereal like Life Cereal or Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast and a bologna sandwich with Pringles Potato chips with three Oreo cookies for lunch. Our food was extremely processed. McDonalds was the height of our nutrition. Many Americans were out of touch with food cultures and had become hooked on corporate processed food that had been rolled out as a convenience in the 1950s.
                                        Asian food groceries I bought

At my friend's house, there was rice, egg rolls full of chopped vegetables, slowly cooked meat, rice noodles, various cooked vegetables including a cucumber salad, Ramen with hard boiled eggs, and pieces of pork, and egg rolls full of various pieces of meat, and vegetables and rice vermicelli or cellophane noodles inside fried in wrappings of rice paper. These kind of egg rolls are so hard to find away from the East Coast and outside of Chicago, I found myself during a trip in 2001 telling my husband, we had to go to a Vietnamese restaurant just for egg rolls fried in rice paper and did just that. Before pho became a sensation among foodies, I am sure I had a few working class variations of it. The cooked down red beef "curry" over rice, I ate all the time at their house probably was a version of Vietnamese beef stew called "Bo Kho". Every meal was eaten with some vegetables, herbs, cucumber and cilantro. My palette was well expanded beyond a typical 10 year olds. The flavor profiles had far more depth.

As a fat kid, I was constantly put on diets by my parents. The rare fat disorder Lipedema and other medical disorders would come to knock on my door later on giving me severe weight problems and judgement, but back then I was often a hungry kid.  The diets were severe too. Many times celery sticks and watery gross cabbage soup out of the Pritikin Diet book would replace the pot roast and potatoes.  I hated all the tasteless food, and would go running to my friend's house to eat instead.

My friend's parents were very generous and had no problem with providing meals to a kid like me, there was plenty to go around and no skimping. One week, her father wanted to have a party and many friends were invited. Two large white ducks in cages appeared in their foyer. I was around 10 years old, and was excited that the family had acquired "new pets". I remember crying when my friend told me what they were there for and trying to talk the father out of killing them to eat.

 I remember being so upset about the ducks, I can't remember if they talked me into eating them after their demise. That was something new too. An early example I guess of locally sourced food. I was a suburban kid, I had no idea of farms or where food really came from.

My memories of food, walk hand in hand with friendship with this family and also exploring a culture that was not my own. I often feel a loss that is hard to explain, like I was born into the wrong culture. I envy people who own a culture and who have a food history.

There was something real there, to connect over. Where food is real and can bring joy and is nutritious. This family at least when I knew them kept to their food rituals and recipes and it gave them some foundation as they sought their way in a new country. It was food made with love and history.
                                         chicken and rice noodles with curry

I would keep an affinity for Vietnamese cooking and then would embrace Asian cooking as a whole. I cook Asian food all the time now, and have my husband drive me to ******* ,where I buy the "real stuff" as often as possible within our budget.  I buy bok choy, chili sauce, soba noodles, imported rice noodles, better soy sauces, and sometimes frozen pot stickers and dried nori seaweed.

I do believe I have stayed alive longer trying to incorporate vegetables into the diet, and know the difference in how I feel when something is cooked from scratch then made from a box. The classic American diet, that has been so corporatized, it isn't doing most of us any favor.  We need real food back. Real food makes for more real conversation and friendship too.

That is definitely something lost in American society, the cooking with love and a long history. I think of those old days with my Vietnamese friends and sometimes an old smell or dish will remind me of the friendship we shared. I think in the food I choose to eat and enjoy, these always bring me happiness.


  1. I agree about happy family meals, there wernt any in our house as a child , the five chip routine haunts me to this day . Being the only fat member of the family i was only allowed five chips on a tiny tea plate by my mother , if i was caught eating anything else i was in for full blown public humiliation . Im in my 50s now, but still when im low i find myself only eating off a tea plate with 5 chips , hasnt helped the size of my backside in the slightest. My mother in her 80s still serves me food on a tiny tea plate , while everyone else gets her cakes and largesse . Main reason I dont visit

    1. Wow the tiny tea plate meant to single you out, that's awful, I am glad you don't visit the mother who insults you. I used to grow angry watching my mother eat everything in sight, the richest food possible, with the refrigerator bursting at the sames while maintaining a low weight [probably not my real mother as blog readers know] and then the constant harrassment over weight, "You don't need that!" and I do believe my weight was worsened from the control over the food as a kid, and not having enough to eat which worsened when I was in my teens. I can just imagine the constant humiliation, it happened to me if I dared to eat anything "extra".