We ate terrible sushi in a popular Chicago restaurant that made us shudder every time we passed it afterward. We gnawed chicken wings in loud bars, and speared spicy ceviche on a tourist beach in Mexico. In Venice, we twirled squid ink pasta next to the gondola-clogged canals. There was watery queso from a grad school hangout, a Low Country boil during a salty windstorm. Our love language has always been food.
My husband Dan is Midwestern to the core — sandy-haired and blue-eyed, with a reverence for common sense. I’m Vietnamese and Florida-raised, with a yen for the unconventional. We are an unlikely match. While he is meticulous with recipes and life, setting timers and making careful shopping lists, I’m haphazard at best. I have a relentless faith that the ingredients will form a harmonious dish, one way or the other. They frequently do.
The first time Dan met my grandparents, the strict and self-sacrificing duo that raised me, was at our engagement celebration. We agreed to have it in Georgia, where my grandparents lived, as a concession of sorts. They didn’t know about Dan until we were engaged, which seems rather atypical now, but at the time, I couldn’t have imagined introducing anyone to my exacting grandparents until there was a formal commitment on the table. Maybe I was scared to admit how much their approval meant.
They fed us to our gills that trip, with fried eggrolls that shattered open when we bit into them, spicy beef stew swimming with tendon, desserts laced with sweetened condensed milk. Dan got the stamp of approval. “A good eater!” my grandmother commented. I was relieved. Back in Chicago, we’d had Vietnamese food together, but it was the ubiquitous sort — pho, banh mi sandwiches, broken rice. I hadn’t considered that he might not like the homestyle meals my family cooked.
After we married, I didn’t cook a single Vietnamese thing for years. My grandparents pressed me to cook more of my childhood favorites for Dan — “He really likes it!” they said. I told them he could make it himself if he enjoyed it so much. My mom brought recipes and ingredients with her every time she visited, but they went stale in our pantry after she left.
Maybe I wanted to prove that Dan and I were going to have a different kind of marriage. I wasn’t going be tied to a kitchen the way the women in my family were. I grew up with sprawling Sunday meals where the women sweated in the kitchen, while men talked in front of the TV.
After almost a decade of being together, we had our beautiful, colicky baby, christened “spicy” at birth by the NICU nurses. During that sleep-deprived yet memorable time, our meals mostly came from drive-through windows. The thought of returning to the kitchen filled me with dread.
My grandmother and my mother told me they wished they could be there to cook for me, as their mothers did after their children were born. They narrated recipes over the phone — bone soup that would help my milk production, cold noodles for the Texas heat — but I was in no place to think about cooking. I tuned them out. A few months in, they prodded me to feed the baby watered-down rice. “She should know who she is,” my grandmother said. As much as I loved cooking and food, I was dubious at the thought of her cultural identity boiled down to a bowl of rice.
When my daughter was two years old, my grandparents unexpectedly moved back to Vietnam. The family gatherings that were a given in my life disappeared. None of us were terribly close and without the glue my grandparents provided, we went our separate ways, and cooked separate meals. The hot afternoons filling spring rolls and chopping onions became a fragrant memory. They eventually moved back to the States, but for a handful of years, we were separated by an ocean.
While I video chatted with them, many time zones away, they told me about what they got from the market and how they planned to cook it. They always said they wished I were there. In those calls, I could see the origami overlap of wonton wrappers and smell the garlic on a hot pan. I was back in a kitchen I never knew I missed.
After my grandparents left the States, I found myself studying my daughter more closely: how her dark eyes shone when she got excited, the eager way she reached for a new dessert. She resembled my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, and I could see their strength of will in her. She wouldn’t remember the first time she tasted her great-grandmother’s cooking, back on her first birthday. I couldn’t help but worry that part of her heritage — my heritage — was disappearing before my eyes.
So I went to the grocery store to stock up on the essentials. I found ingredients in a local store that would have been impossible to locate so easily a decade ago. I cooked for two days, stewing, frying, saucing, sensing the shadow of my mother and grandmother behind me, telling me to add more sugar, to cut the beef even thinner. My imaginary sous-chefs poked and cajoled, advised and critiqued, all with the easy assurance of our well-seasoned love.
This act of cooking the dishes of my youth wasn’t truly a reclamation of my culture because I had never really lost it. Rather, I felt as if I were reentering the conversation, stepping into a pause that had been held just for me all these years. Cooking has always been my family’s primary gesture of love. Now, in my own kitchen, it felt as if I skipped backward through time, back to the most vital core of me.
I took a picture of the final product for my mother: Vietnamese-style chicken wings sticky with a garlic marinade, beef stew dipped with chunks of baguette, egg yolk-stained puff pastry filled with ground chicken. I admired the unbeautiful array in front of me; not fit for a food magazine, certainly, but more than fitting for my family table.
My daughter refused the wings but took a bite, then two, of the puff pastry. A flake of crust hung on her lip and she grabbed it with her tongue. In that gesture, I saw a flicker of my own childhood, like a still from a movie. “More,” she demanded. Dan smiled across the table at me. My grandmother would call her a good eater too.
Though I hope my daughter will learn to enjoy all the tastes I grew up with, I’m satisfied knowing that she’ll at least grow up in the proximity of the food I hold so close to my heart. I keep my favorite Vietnamese recipes—the success stories that keep us coming back for more—in a grey binder that we call The Family Cookbook. Sometimes she rifles through it. She wants to add her own recipes too. I tell her that she can someday. There are years and years of eating and cooking ahead of us both.
When I’m surrounded by the smells of my childhood home — garlic, sugar, fish sauce — I consider the culinary diaspora of our lives. I remember how Dan and I found each other in a strange city, then created a life of flavor together. The sweet, the bitter, the umami of it all. And, always, we find our homecoming at the dinner table.
If I could wish anything for my family, it would be more eating, please, and still more loving.