On The Menu

Chapter 1


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No one has asked for it, but here it is anyways: JP’s mini memoirs. Before I hit the ripe old age of 30, I will attempt to write 3 chapters that will define my life up to this point. (Or maybe this is just me self-promoting my food blog, hoping to gather enough of an audience to become the next Steve Plotnicki.) What will you, casual reader, gain from this rather open and exhibitionist-esque writeup? Probably not much. Most of you already know who I am and I’m a fairly honest person, so you already know everything I’m about to write. Or maybe you don’t know a lick about me have been dying to know what the hell is behind this incredible mind. Or maybe you are just bored and wanted to kill time at work/school/masturbating and needed something to read. This is for all of you.

Chapter 1

Food. Most of my earliest memories come from remembering various dinners. Oh, I was not a gourmand nor was I ever a budding foodie. (I didn’t even know what that term was until my senior year at Washington.) And this story isn’t about how I became a world famous chef or food critic because of my love for food when I was younger. Because, obviously, I am neither of those things…I’m just a plain old boring electrical engineer, one that specializes in FPGA designs. (Not going to explain what that is/or means…I hate talking about work and don’t really ever want to get into it and when I do, I rant on forever…feel sorry for my wife who has to listen to me.) No, food didn’t really affect me in some profound manner, but what I remember the most was that food was one of the factors that made me different and ultimately help make me, me.

Growing up my mom made bowls of chao (rice porridge) or soy (sticky rice) with Chinese sausage for breakfast. We might have had the occasional bowl of Coco Pebbles or Pops (actually they were the Malt-O-Meal brands because when you had to feed a family of 6, you had to go for the cheaper brands…though sometimes my parents did splurge and we got the name brand stuff, which I always thought I could tell the difference), but for the most part breakfast meant something savory not sweet. This will always be one of the first things I recall about growing up as a son of Vietnamese refugees in Oklahoma. One morning in 6th grade, Shelly Hall, the hottest blonde in our class, was sitting next to me as we waited for the bell to ring. I had just started going to public school because my parents couldn’t afford Sacred Heart Elementary anymore, forcing me to leave behind everyone I knew including my best friend Tyrone, and I was the smallest and youngest kid in my class as well as the only Asian. So basically I had no friends. (There was also an incident where I was ratted out by a fellow student for “witchcraft and Satanism” because I brought a Dungeons and Dragon novel to school that I was casually reading…this didn’t help me gain any friends.) But Shelly was always nice to me. I knew her before I started going to that school, seeing her at the neighborhood pool in the summers, and even though she was already part of the “cool” kids, she would say hi and chat with me from time to time. Well on this morning she was telling me about how bad her cereal was and then she asked me what I had for breakfast. I immediately told her how my mom left a big hot pot full of chao for all of us kids to eat. My parents were always already gone to work by the time it was for us kids to go to school. Of course she didn’t know what that was so she asked me to describe it. I told her it was like oatmeal (guessing because I’ve never had oatmeal before in my life, outside of the cookies) but with rice with strips of chicken and you add some fish sauce and stir it all up. She of course made a strange face and said that it sounded gross. Even though chao, and especially my mom’s chao, is one of my most favorite meals ever, I agreed with the cute blonde that it was gross and that I wish my parents would let me eat something normal. (One of my childhood Peter moments, denying I knew Jesus of Galilee.)

Ah “normal” food. How I dreamt of it all the time. The neighborhood kids would have their pizzas and tacos and spaghetti…and I got soupy noodles and rice. Every freaking day it was rice, rice and more rice. The sad part now is that it was all lovely food, all perfectly cooked by a woman working 18 hour days at a god-forsaken Laundromat (yes, we are the cliché through and through) who was able to take some rice, some chicken or pork and some veggies and feed 6 kids and one hungry hard working husband. But did her youngest, bed-wetting cry baby of a child care? No…I just always wanted to eat what the other kids were eating. And what did she do? She learned to make those dishes. Sure the spaghetti was nothing more than Ragu or Prego over sticky noodles, but boy did I love it. I’m not sure if my parents actually enjoyed eating these dinners like I did, but my dad seemed not to care too much and my mom…well my mom seldom ate the same things we ate growing up. She would always have a little bit of rice or some bread and she sat there watching us and telling us to eat every last bit. And even when she couldn’t cook something, she would get my oldest sister Tina to do it for us. Yes, my sister Tina, who was like the 2nd mom to all of us kids, was my gateway into Mexican food. She would make tacos for us and god-damn if they weren’t the best tasting tacos an 8 year old ever had. Sure it was just El Paso or some other brand out of a seasoning packet, but to me it was magical. It wasn’t rice, it wasn’t weird Asian noodles with weird Asian meat…this was straight up Mexican food just like how the rest of the people ate in Oklahoma. (My older brother Tino was my gateway into how messy Italian food can be…one day during dinner he shoved my face into a big bowl of hot slice of pizza for no good reason at all. Well, I’m sure I was annoying the hell out of him, me being the most annoying person in the world ever growing up. But Tina was there to clean me up and yelled at Tino about it. Suzy and Jerry…well they just sat there laughing. Not to say I wouldn’t have done the same thing if the roles were reversed…Tino is the funniest person in our family so anything he does makes us laugh, no matter how hot the meat sauce was.) I remember how we would not only have diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce to add to the tacos, but also sliced cucumbers. I was never sure where the idea to add cucumbers to tacos came from, but it is something I still add to this day whenever I make tacos at home. The crispness and freshness of the cucumber adds to the spiciness and saltiness of the taco meat. And since shredded cheese wasn’t available at the time at grocery stores like it is today or because we just didn’t buy it because it was too expensive, we would take slices of Kraft (or some no-name brand) cheese and rip them into thirds and just place it in the warm, toasted taco shells before adding the meat to help melt the cheese.

It didn’t just stop at regular dinners either where I would crave non-Vietnamese food.. Thanksgiving always meant tons of relatives in someone’s house, normally stretching into the garage since there were always tons of relatives. Three or four of portable, foldable tables were laid out and paper plates and napkins were placed on top. And lots and lots of Vietnamese food. But, to appease the kids, and some of the uncles, we always ordered up a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner from Safeway or Pratts and that was the part I loved best of these gatherings. My siblings and I and some of our cousins would always devour the “American” dinner, me always trying to grab a drumstick. My aunt Di Loan would always try to cook something that was non-Vietnamese for us kids too and it was normally her green bean casserole. I be damned if I can recall anyone else eating it, but I loved it. The fried onions on top were like icing on the cake to me. And how can you have Thanksgiving without the canned cranberry sauce? Even to this day, as much as I enjoy homemade cranberry sauce, nothing beats the fifty cents can of Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce. The gurgled “pop” sound as it slides out of the can. The way that it retains it’s can shape hours after it was placed in the bowl or plate, so much so you can see the ridges from the can indented into the purplish, redish jelly. Yum, yum, yum. Of course, that’s not all I remember about Thanksgiving (or X-mas for that matter). Yeah the food was good, but after the food was done, the kids just sat in the living rooms and waited until the grownups were done drinking and yelling at each other. The times it was at my cousins’ house and they had a computer and a Nintendo were the best because we could pass the time away playing games. Other times we’d sit in some cramped living room that smelled of moth balls on unfamiliar smelly couches watching football on TV. (Luckily I was raised in Oklahoma so I already knew everything there is to know about football by the age of 4.) Uncles would try to sneak beers to us kids, my oldest brothers Kim and Tino sometimes sneaking one or two in before my mom caught them and yelled at my Uncles. Someone would start arguing big time and then we’d get driven home and my dad would puke in the drive way or front yard…I’d always wondered where I got that trait.

However, I was able to get a nice steady stream of “normal” food everyday from lunch at school. At Sacred Heart we would be served in the cafeteria adjacent to the gym by nuns who would rarely smile at us. And what glorious lunches they were! Meat loaf, mac and cheese, and hot dogs. But the greatest meal ever for a grade school child in Oklahoma is what surely should be the State’s Official Meal: Frito Chili Pie. (Now I know that the official state dish is actually the Chicken Fried Steak, which is in my top 3 all time favorite meals, but whenever it was Frito Chili Pie day at school I was never happier to be in my ugly blue uniforms getting yelled at by nuns.) Frito Chili Pie, if you do not know, is Frito Lays covered in chili and cheese. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this was served to the youth of Oklahoma on a weekly or bi-weekly rate (I can’t quite seem to remember how often it was served.) Insert fat, obese middle America jokes here. Forget about the calories, the sodium, and the saturated fat for just a few minutes and just imagine that beautiful brown bowl of ungodly perfection. This is a dish that I introduced to my wife while we were dating and while she at first scoffed at the idea of such a combination, I believe she is now a true believer and lover of this example of gourmet greatness.

All the while I was denying the wonderful food of my parent’s homeland, I was also learning which dishes were my favorites. (It never occurred to me that the food my mom was trying to get me to eat would one day become the basis of haute cuisine in some restaurants all across the country.) I’ve already mentioned my mom’s chao, but there were a few other dishes too good for me to deny enjoying. Pho Bo Vien became the clubhouse leader for me and was what I always ordered whenever we went to a pho restaurant after mass on Sunday. Banh Mi: Vietnamese sandwiches are all the rage now, but back in the 80’s I doubt if you could find any non-Vietnamese person eating them. Before any road trip or on random weekend mornings, I’d wake up to the smell of baguettes being toasted in the small toaster oven. Think to the best freshly baked bread you’ve ever had a whiff of. This was better. No way, no how can you top how amazing the bread smelled. How it filled the entire kitchen area with not only smoke (our toaster oven caught on fire from time to time) but also with an aroma that could make you feel like you were in Paris. And remember the scene in Ratatouille where Colette was describing to Linguini how you can tell if the bread is fresh and perfect not by the smell but by the sound? The crunchiness of these baguettes was nothing short of music from the angels. My mom would slice the bread and add in some butter and Miracle Whip and toss in a few slices of Vietnamese spam and there you have the perfect sandwich. Back then my dad would add into his sandwich some pickled carrots and some cilantro, but I liked it without any of these veggie additions. And I think I even surprised my parents once when, while on a family vacation in California, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant and I ordered the “Summer Rolls”. Goi Cuon, the Vietnamese name, are pork and shrimp and rice vermicelli rolled up in a rice wrapper. I recognized them by their picture in the menu as something my mom would make from time to time and when my mom and dad tried to order for me, I quickly told the waiter what I wanted along with a Café Sua Da. (It might sound strange, but even at a very young age my mom and dad were ok with letting me drink the very strong Vietnamese Ice Coffee. To this day my family and I believe this was the reason for my late development in height, being under 5 feet tall until the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school when I grew 7 inches in 2 months.) When my meal came, three of these lovely and fresh rolls, filled with pork, shrimp, mint and bun (rice vermicelli) were placed in front of me with a small bowl that held a peanut dipping sauce. For the rest of that trip, whenever we went out to eat my mom and dad let me order for myself. Though, that wasn’t that often because we would eat a lot of meals at relatives who I can barely recall now and I’d whine about how much I wanted McDonalds.

There were other times in my youth where I didn’t fully bash my parent’s food and that was when I’d help my mom cook. My mom, if you couldn’t tell by now or have never had the luxury and good favor to try any of her cooking, was and still is the greatest cook whose food I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. (Sorry Thomas Keller, April Bloomfield, Ming Tsai and all the other great chefs I like to rave about…Mommy knows best.) And the Nguyenkim clan (“ain’t nothing to eff with”) weren’t the only ones that knew of her greatness. My mom would get called upon to do catering for random Vietnamese weddings and gatherings. I’d wake up early (and to this day I’m still an early riser, even on the weekends) to the smell of whatever my mom happened to be cooking. I’d walk into the kitchen and there was my mom singing aloud some Vietnamese song (which I’m ashamed to have never asked what the song was about) or yelling on the phone to one of her sisters. (We yell a lot in our family, and most of the time it’s not out of anger…we are just loud.) I’d sit down at the table and watch her as she did her thing. Then I’d start mimicking her movements and helping out wherever she needed help, whether that be pulling apart egg roll wrappers or brushing egg over the Pate Choux dough before they get put into the oven. Sometimes my mom would even let me handle the deep fryer to cook battered shrimp or egg rolls. These early frying lessons were my favorite, as I got to work with hot oil in the Fry Jr. My mom would always do the frying in the garage and the Fry Jr would be placed over old brown paper bags from the grocery store to collect the splashing from the hot oil. I’d man the food while my mom stayed in the kitchen to finish whatever else she needed to finish. I’d like to think that this is the reason why I make such great buffalo wings now, with the chicken always perfectly cooked: tender on the outside with crispy skin on the outside. Who knew my mom was training a wanna be fry cook?

But while I was able to enjoy eating and cooking some family dishes, I was still hiding this fact from anyone that asked. I’d go into brat mode and complain about how poorly I was being treated and how unfair it was that I had to eat such horrible food. Whenever I was at school or around other kids, I’d lie and tell people that we ate “normal” food at home just like them. It wasn’t until later in my life when I met other people who didn’t always eat “normal” food either that I fully understood that I was already eating the normal food I craved so much.