Dictators in the Vietnamese-American Kitchen

BY DIANE CU
Apr 27, 2011

Gutting squid at age 11? Check. One writer speaks about the kitchen of her Vietnamese-American childhood.

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Growing up in America since the age of 2.5 was always big a challenge, especially during the 2nd-12th grade years. Why? Mẹ (mom) and Ba (dad) were always in the way. Everything us kids (six to be exact) wanted to do had to be interfered by a parent, especially when it came to issues of maintaining our “Vietnamese-ness”.

My parent’s major obstacle of raising six kids in America was to ensure that we wouldn’t completely forget our cultural identity. They had no qualms about our quick ascent to Americanization, but would they be able to stall the inevitable diffusion of our language skills and palette for nưởc mắm (fish sauce)? As part of their battle plan, they relied on ammunition they knew best: the strict Vietnamese way of discipline, Vietnamese language/culture and Vietnamese food.

Back then, there was very little democratic input for meal selections. The political party heading our household was definitely very extremist. They said that they were looking out for us kids, but only when they felt like it. If they craved soup, we slurped it. If they wanted spring rolls, we rolled it. Our knowledge of food was almost strictly limited to those lessons learned in the home kitchen. Dad and Mom were picky about their food (I now appreciate their finickiness). They appreciated GOOD Vietnamese food. No matter how much time or steps it took to achieving the right texture, flavor and balance, they made sure it was followed. BUT they couldn’t do it all by themselves! No sur-ee-bob! It took more than two people to prepare their feasts. That’s where six kids came in handy.

One child slave was anointed the “pain in the ass” Lemongrass Masher Station. Pick the lemongrass from the garden, wash, slice and dice very small then mash it in the mortar and pestle till you’ve pulverized the shit out of it. Dad wanted that to be really, really, really dead so that he could still enjoy the flavor of the lemongrass on his beef without the grassy texture.

Second in line to the cooks throne had the honor of the Garlic Masher. Easy and fast right? Not when mom is making her stock 4 gallons of fish dipping sauce and gives you 15 heads of garlic to de-clove, peel and mash. Heads, not cloves, but heads of garlic. The mortar only held a max of about three heads at one time. So you had to do it in increments. The time wasn’t so much of the painful part, but rather, it was the smell of garlic fingers for the next two days. It wasn’t till I was stationed at the Shrimp Peeling Station that I realized I was allergic to the shrimp shells. After peeling a few pounds of shrimp, my fingers puffed up like those pink Chinese sausages. I loved eating the caramelized shrimp, but it was a painful and itchy childhood to satisfy my parents shrimp cravings.

 

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The bulkiest station was Greens Washer, which had to wash pounds and pounds of greens. We always had to have a dish with greens: lettuce, Việt spinach, bok choy, greens soup, mint, basil…. you name it, if it was green we ate it. It just never made sense to a kid have to go through so much trouble for fresh, homemade dishes that had to be made up of a starch, protein, and greens. “Eating a Micky D hamburger was fast, no dishes to wash, and had all the complete four food groups,” I told my Dad. But he never listened.

The one last and least prized station was one that violated all child labor laws. It was so gross and hideous that our Masters finally allowed us to occasionally use gloves. The Squid Cleaning Station. Oh you gawd awful sea creatures with big eye-balls, tentacles, ink and mushy guts!! What does Dad see in you? Why o why the squid and cabbage dish? I could have turned him over to authorities when we had to pull out the tentacles heads out of their bodies (and be gentle with the tentacles cuz dad loved those).

You have your ready-made six staff positions: dishwasher, waiter, waitress, sous chef and bus-boy for the back of the house.

As more kids were assigned stations, it became very evident why my parents had so many kids. I swear the reason why they had so many kids was to have more prep cooks. They even played with their “brilliant” idea of opening a restaurant. This Việt family restaurant concept came oh soooooo close to reality. They thought it was so great, why not? You have your ready-made six staff positions: dishwasher, waiter, waitress, sous chef and bus-boy for the back of the house.

 

Living the American (culinary) dream

During those kid years, I sometimes felt that my childhood was robbed of the American food experience. I never knew what a real apple pie tasted like, you know, those round ones that came out of the oven. The only apple pie we ever knew were the calzone shaped ones that were five for $1. Having a “Happy Meal” was for the lucky kids, so there was not even a chicken nugget to my name. We didn’t even know pizza delivery existed because we were brainwashed in thinking pizza came from the frozen food section by Mr. Totino (again, if it was on sale 10 for $10). But again, lucky for those O so delicious daily school cafeteria lunches or else I really would have lived in a culinary bubble.

One good thing came out of going to school: no rice, noodles, greens nor fish. I always ate everything on my lunch plate and licked it clean of all crumbs. At home Vietnamese food was good for me and I enjoyed it, but as a kid I would have been happier with just one Việt meal a day.

Everything changed when I started working at 14 and was able to keep part of my paycheck. With that extra cash, I bought my own meals at Burger King, McDonalds, Wienerschnitzel, Tastee Freeze. Whatever was within walking distance from home or on the way home from school, I consumed. I loved every minute of it. As my eyes grew wide with greasy delight, so did my gut. But I was so satisfied. I was living the American Dream by myself, on my own terms, with my own selection of food and deciding for myself if I wanted to add fries to that. The culinary independence was thrilling.