Long before this blog existed, Simon Bao and I became friends via the Vietworldkitchen.com website. One year, he sent me this provocativestory, which provides satirical insights into the Vietnamese experience in America. Enjoy!
Some VietnAmerican Thanksgivings
by Simon Bao
I thought I'd share a few anecdotes about Thanksgiving in VietnAmerican households. It may turn out to be a long read, so save it for when you've got time.
I'll have to use dates and go through events chronologically, so you have a sense of how things progressed.
The first of these involves the family of Diep, the intimidating big-boned woman who invented the Structurally Reinforced Meatloaf and the WMD Spaghetti. They all involve my godbrother. He uses the American name "Pete" and for many years we destroyed and misprounced that, and called him things like "Anh Peach" and "Anh Bitch." I will use his polite name and call him Anh Phero.
Diep's oldest brother, Uncle Phu, asked my godbrother what Americans do with turkeys at Thanksgiving. Uncle Phu explained that the factory where his brother Du worked gave all the workers free turkeys, but none of the Vietnamese workers had any idea what to do with them. The factory gave out actual turkeys, not the supermarket certificates.
Believing this was just some general question, my godbrother simply told Uncle Phu that Americans roast the turkeys, in the kitchen oven.
This was a miscommunication, because Uncle Phu had actually been asking for directions. Not knowing more, and not receiving any details, Uncle Phu believed there was nothing more complicated to cooking a turkey than to just put it in the oven. He knew that included turning the oven on, obviously – but thought that was the full extent of the task.
So, on Thanksgiving Day, they took Du's free American turkey out of the wrapper, washed it, found all the odds and ends inside and knew to remove those. They put it in a large aluminum roasting pan like the ones they'd seen Americans buying at Thriftway, and shoved it in the oven.
This was the first time that anyone in Diep's family had ever used the oven for anything other than storing pots. First time anyone turned it on. Uncle Phu, conscious of the unusually large size of an American turkey, assumed that a lot of heat was needed to cook something that big. So he turned that heat on all the way.
A few days later, Uncle Phu asked my godbrother if there was something *special* that Americans do with turkeys, something Anh Phero might have failed to mention. A detail that was omitted?
After some questions to Uncle Phu about Thanksgiving, my godbrother established the following:
2) The turkey hadn't been seasoned, filled, or stuffed in any way.
3) Uncle Phu had not pre-heated the oven, but had turned it all the way to at least 500 degrees, and might have accidentally turned on the broiler instead; he didn't even know there was such a thing as a broiler.
4) The house had filled with dark black smoke. Lots of it, just pouring out of the oven.
5) Something inside the oven had burst into flames. Probably a layer of very greasy aluminum foil that a previous tenant had left on the bottom of the oven.
6) Uncle Phu's mother ordered him and his brothers to throw out the turkey and turn off the oven.
7) Uncle Phu's mother was still angry at all of them, days later. And she held my godbrother partly responsible.
I have since learned that turkeys engulfed in smoke, and sometimes flames, are a common "First Thanksgiving – First Time Lighting the Oven" experience among Vietnamese Americans.
My godbrother gave Uncle Phu a detailed recipe for roasting a turkey, and added "fool proof" step by step instructions and a timetable. Uncle Phu invited friends over and told them to expect to eat American roast turkey.
On Thanksgiving Day, Uncle Phu's mother learned of this plan and, in light of the previous year's experience, said what could be translated into English as "OH HELL NO!" She took Du's turkey and made Pho Ga Tay ("Chicken of the West" Pho). Everyone was disappointed.
Still eager to try roast turkey and to have an American Thanksgiving meal, Uncle Phu came up with a plan to ease his mother's misgivings. He invited my godbrother to come to his house for Thanksgiving, and to cook the meal there. Anh Phero found a basic traditional Thanksgiving menu, and Uncle Phu approved of everything.
On arrival at Uncle Phu's house on the morning of Thanksgiving, my godbrother saw that the stakes were high. He knew he was to cook for Uncle Phu, his parents and his 3 brothers and Diep, and a harshly skeptical sister-in-law with a loud mouth and a withering glare – but Uncle Phu had invited several Vietnamese friends and neighbors as well.
That's why Anh Phero was troubled when he opened the oven and found out that 1) it was filthy inside, coated with old splattered grease and the charred remnants of the oven fire two years earlier, and 2) there were no oven racks inside. The timetable for the day was thrown off a little bit by the unanticipated need to do a hardcore cleaning of an oven that hadn't been cleaned in many years. The racks were discovered (just in time), outside behind the house, where Uncle Phu's mother had used them to construct a kind of charcoal-fired grill.
The rest of the day went well. Everyone liked the turkey, more or less. Loved the mashed potatoes and even the sweet potatoes. Vegetable dishes were well-received, especially the Three Peas, and also the stuffing. A few really liked the gravy, a few thought it was scary. All agreed that cranberry sauce was the worst thing in the world, and no matter what Americans say, cranberries obviously *must* be poisonous. They thought that Snapper Soup looked really bad and tasted even worse. Pecan pie was praised, pumpkin pie was verbally abused and compared to something unmentionable. Uncle Phu's sister-in-law complained that such food is what makes Americans so fat. But overall, a success.
By this time, Uncle Phu's wife (nicknamed Mona) had escaped Vietnam, been through a refugee camp, and joined him in the USA. She had grown up in a Franco-phile Vietnamese home, and was interested to try cooking Western foods. My godbrother resupplied Phu and his wife with detailed instructions for making a roast turkey, and provided them with the necessary herbs, thermometers, etc. He gave similar instructions for making mashed potatoes and gave them a potato masher. Mona and her sister were to make some vegetable dishes, and Anh Phero was to bring some stuffing she could cook in the oven, some wine, and some cheesecake for dessert. Snapper Soup and Pumpkin Pie were forbidden.
This plan worked *mostly* well. Because everyone enjoyed the previous Thanksgiving so much, my godbrother decided it was a good time to introduce them to other American holiday feast traditions. Liqueurs. So in addition to wine, he brought a bottle of Irish Mist and a bottle of Frangelica.
While Mona and her sister were cooking Thanksgiving dinner in the kitchen, the guys all sat around in the living room, drinking coffee, telling stories, smoking "555" cigarettes, and examining the bottles of Irish Mist and Frangelica. Du wanted to see what Irish Mist tasted like, so he got a few glasses and poured some for the males. Unfamiliar, sweet, but they all liked it. They opened the Frangelica, and tasted some of that. They liked that even more.
Time passed, the guys continued to sit and joke and to wait for dinner to be ready, and to drink, and eventually the bottle of Irish Mist was emptied. Next, the bottle of Frangelica was emptied. Uncle Phu brought out a bottle of Cognac, and they tapped into that.
Finally, Mona brought out the dishes of food and set them on the table, and brought out the turkey also. Photographs were taken. The camcorder captured the gathering. Then Mona asked my godbrother to cut up the turkey.
Somewhere between the sofa and the turkey, Anh Phero realized that he was drunk off his ass. He's not much of a drinker, and hadn't realized that Irish Mist, Frangelica, and Cognac can sneak up on you and hit you like a hammer with a pretty silk ribbon tied around the handle.
But he steadied himself, and with everyone watching him, photographing him and filming him, he started to carve the turkey.
Started to, but quickly ran into trouble. He managed to get a few small slices off the turkey, but that was all. Very quickly, far too quickly, the bird seemed to run out of meat. He repositioned the knife a few times, but kept hitting bone. No meat. He tells me he just stared down in disbelief that a turkey so large could have no meat on it, just be all bones.
Then, in a moment of insight, my godbrother realized that the turkey had been cooked and brought to the table upside down. And he'd been standing there repeatedly trying to carve through the back.
Anh Phero got the turkey breast side up, remembered the correct sequence for carving a turkey, and everything then proceeded smoothly. Everyone was pleased with Thanksgiving, and particularly with Irish Mist and Frangelica.
During these years, my godbrother had a full house of other Vietnamese and Amerasian refugee "godbrothers." Orphans, wayward youth, trouble-making delinquents, a collection of colorful and eccentric Little Brothers. Collectively, we were sometimes referred to as "The Mixed Nuts." He was like Shepherd to the Lost Sheep. I did not live in the house, but spent some of my Thanksgivings, holidays, and weekends there.
The first Thanksgiving Of The Lost Sheep featured turkey and the other traditional American dishes. Probably by the second year, someone in the house asked if they could also have a baked ham along with the turkey. By the third year, someone was asking if they could have turkey, and ham, and also a roast beef. Standing rib roast beef, a *big* one. At some point, I remember asking if we could also have a stuffed pork crown roast. And shrimp cocktail.
With every holiday that came and went, Anh Phero introduced us to more new American "holiday" foods; we, in turn, kept wanting to add the ones we liked to the Thanksgiving menu. Not as substitutes, as additions.
That's one of the things that really distinguishes an American holiday feast or special meal from a Vietnamese holiday feast or special meal. Americans tend to have only One Meat on the table. It might be a beef rib roast, or a pork crown roast, or a baked ham, or a turkey. Lots of wonderful side dishes but, in general, One Meat. To Vietnamese, that's just sad. That's not festive at all. If you are going to celebrate, you need to show that to guests by serving Multiple Meats. Some pork, some duck, some chicken, some beef, and maybe something else you can get. Plus, of course, seafood.
But if you invite guests to come and celebrate, and offer them only One Meat, you're either poor or a you're a Cheap Bastard.
So everyone drove Anh Phero crazy by presenting him with menu requests that would have required double stoves, ovens, kitchens. When my godbrother resisted cooking and serving so many meats, we speculated that maybe he could not *afford* more meat. So we would offer to buy these foods ourselves – all he had to do was cook them. He would open the oven and show us that, as a *practical* matter, it just couldn't handle all the roasting and baking we were asking for. So it was my idea to go to K-Mart and buy him a countertop rotisserie roaster. And a rib roast. A *big* one. Expecting him to be so grateful.
And, because Thanksgiving is a holiday and Viets like to celebrate in numbers, they (and I mean *we*) would invite over many more friends than the house could handle. And someone always brought a Karaoke machine. Thankfully, there was Irish Mist, Frangelica, and other liqueurs, which do make Karaoke more bearable.
Vinh is one of the Lost Sheep who lived with my godbrother, one of the first who came to stay *temporarily*. He did move out, dramatically, at least 3 times I know of, but also kept moving right back in till he finally settled down and just stayed permanently.
After living with Anh Phero for a few years, Vinh got things in order and became a bit more respectable and presentable, and then acquired a set of "godparents." An elderly married couple who have one daughter, but who had never had a son. To many Vietnamese, that's a great tragedy, have no son. If you have no son, your family/household will not continue after your death. You will have no descendants to venerate you and offer prayers on your behalf, to supply you with food and goods at Tet, to clean and maintain your grave, etc. You've let down your own ancestors, since there will be no one to venerate *them* once you're gone. So, the couple just informally adopted Vinh as a son.
Vinh, however, didn't want to actually live *with* those crazy old people so he stayed with Anh Phero, and the godparents became a constant presence at Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, Easter, July 4, etc. Vinh's godmother, Mrs. Nhu, was always interested in any American foods and asked how to prepare them. Or at least *talked* about wanting to prepare them. My godbrother translated some recipes from cookbooks and gave them to her to try. But he never saw any of the American or "French" foods Mrs. Nhu claimed to be making at her house, and he suspected it was all "show".
In 2003, Mrs. Nhu announced that she was having an American Thanksgiving dinner at *her* house that year. Vinh and his fiance, Anh Phero, and lots of other people were invited. Anh Phero suggested that Vinh make sure Mrs. Nhu actually had racks in her oven and that it was clean.
Vinh, his fiance, and Anh Phero arrived at the house, filled mostly with stern and silent old people, plus a few men who'd been drinking a while and were already singing Karaoke. The tables were set end to end, and covered with disposable Christmas table cloths. Christmas paper plates and cups were on the table. (Mrs. Nhu isn't completely clear on which decorations go with which holiday, but she loves Christmas decorations. She leaves them up in the house year round. Including the Christmas tree.)
Everyone was invited to sit at the table and the foods were brought out. Most of the dishes were Vietnamese, but there were three American foods. Mashed potatoes with herbs. A strange looking roast beef, and perfectly symmetric roast turkey breast that looked like it had been pre-formed. The potatoes were warm, but the turkey breast and roast beef were room temperature. Vietnamese men complimented Mrs. Nhu on the meats, so moist and tender. Vietnamese women asked her how she prepared the meats, and she told them in vague terms as if it was a secret. Or something too complicated to explain to Viet women who were less familiar than she was with American cooking.
At some point during dinner, Anh Phero found an excuse to go to the kitchen, and confirmed his suspicions. In the trash were several boxes of instant mashed potatoes (Butter & Herb). Nearby were the plastic wrappers that had enclosed a "Deli Roast Turkey Breast" and a "Deli Roast Beef."
Rather than trying to cook, Mrs. Nhu had simply walked up to the deli counter at a SuperFresh and purchased a whole cooked turkey breast and a whole roast beef. The precooked packaged meats the supermarkets slice for lunch meat. She had simply taken them out of the wrappers and dropped them onto platters. Everyone was pleased.
This year, for the first time ever, I am convening an American Thanksgiving on my own. There will be some help in the kitchen, but it's still mostly me. Viet friends have asked if, in addition to a turkey, I can also make a ham, a rib roast, some lamb. Pineapple bread pudding. Sour cream mashed potatoes with crispy shallots on top. A whole salmon. Banana/walnut bread, and cranberry bread. In addition to what I'm already cooking. Now I appreciate what it was like. To be honest, I'm surprised my godbrother did *not* drink more.