In author Andrea Nguyen’s May 2009 story “Coming Home” about her return to her native Saigon after 33 years, I found a connection to my own past. I am a black American, a child of the 1960s, and a food historian. I also feel a powerful tie to Vietnam. Every American of my generation does; we were all marked by the war that showed up nightly on our television sets. I was a French major and later a French teacher and therefore knew something of the history that Vietnam shared with the French West African colonies that were the subject of my doctoral work. It was in Dakar, Senegal, and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, while doing my fieldwork that I ate my first Vietnamese food, long before it became popular in the U.S. Nguyen’s article resonated deeply. It spoke of past, present, homecomings, exile, and most important, family. The recipes were intriguing. I was especially struck by one for do chua, carrot and daikon pickle. Would it replicate the crunchy, slightly sweet slaw that I remembered? The ingredients were simple enough, and soon I was peeling, paring, and whisking. When it was ready, it was exactly as my taste buds recalled from the small restaurant in Abidjan where I’d first eaten it with my late mother more than three decades earlier. I made a big batch and ate it with everything for the next several days: stir-fries, potatoes, roast pork, on sandwiches. Each time I added it to my plate, I marveled at how food captures memory and how one very simple recipe had the ability to join two seemingly very different families across time and space: Andrea Nguyen’s and my own.
Jessica Harris is a_SAVEUR _contributing editor.