I cannot remember when Simon Bao and I began our email exchange over Vietnamese food and culture. It has been years, perhaps nearly as long as this site has been around. A true hybridzed Vietnamese-American born to a Viet mom and American father, Simon never fails to tickled me with his wit -- which balances traditional Asia and modern America. He is a gifted story teller, a rarity these days. You may have read and responded to his comments in VWK posts.
A few weeks ago, we started emailing about Mardi Gras. Simon displayed a very personal connection to Fat Tuesday whereas my view of the event was tainted by a Catholic upbringing that entailed attending Ash Wednesday mass, getting ash on my forehead, and starting Lent. My parents were not Mardi Gras, let-loose kind of people. Plus, we lived in Southern California and the bayou was as far from us as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Simon was persistent and kept asking about what I was going to do about Mardi Gras. Finally, I said to him, "Tell me what you do." He responded with this wonderful personal essay. In a David Sedaris-esque hilarity, Simon bridges cultural gaps, reminding us that we don't always know what we think we know about ourselves and others.
Sit back, take a read, and share your Mardi Gras experiences. Simon's prose will get you in the mood!
A Vietnamese Waif’s First Mardi Gras
By Simon Bao
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, arrives on March 8 this year. Every year as the holiday approaches, memory takes me back to my first Mardi Gras party, to my introduction to Creole and Cajun foods and Zydeco, and to some profound early misunderstandings about Americans and their foods. (Note: the memories come first here, and the recipes come near the end.)
That first Mardi Gras party was in the early 1990s on a Saturday, back when I was 18 years old and had been living in the US for 5 years already; for most of that time I had lived exclusively with Americans. By 18, however, I had found my way to a Viet community in Philadelphia, and was living there somewhat on my own (with only limited success).
On that Saturday an older godbrother showed up at the house where I was staying, and told me to shower and find some clean clothes, because he was not going to let me spend the day sitting on the floor eating Cheez Doodles, drinking root beer, and watching 24 non-stop hours of Hong Kong Kung Fu videos. Instead, he was taking me to meet some Americans. He and I were going to spend the day helping them prepare for a party that night, a party we would also both attend.
On the drive over there, he spoke at length about the party being a celebration of Mardi Gras, which had something to do with Ash Wednesday and Catholic customs, and he was saying something about New Orleans, something about a kind of people who live there, something about music… and insert some Charlie Brown wah wah wah sounds effects here, because I wasn’t interested in meeting any new Americans, and wasn’t paying attention.
We arrived at a big old house somewhere in the city, in a neighborhood far too nice for me to have ever been there before, and after some very warm introductions I was set down in the kitchen, offered some coffee and beignets, and invited to snap the heads off some shrimp and peel them. And that’s when I noticed some things that weren’t quite what I expected.
The kitchen was noisy and crowded with a lot of people, just like a Vietnamese kitchen when we prepare for a party, but I’d not seen that level of noise and activity in any American kitchens before. Everyone was drinking coffee made from Café du Monde. Those distinctive yellow cans were ever present in all Viet kitchens but I’d never seen them in any American home, and I thought Americans do not biết uống, do not know how to drink Café du Monde – meaning, Americans do not like it, or maybe are not familiar with it.
You Like Rice, You'll Like This
More surprising were the shrimp I was decapitating. In those many (5) long years I had been in America, years which had seemed to go on forever, I’d never seen or been served a shrimp in any American household. Not in the house I’d lived in, nor in any American home I’d ever visited. There were no shrimp in the school cafeteria either. There had not been much television-watching and I don’t think I’d even seen an ad for Red Lobster. I’d just assumed most Americans do not biết ăn shrimp, do not know how to eat shrimp.
Sitting next to me and my pile of shrimp was a garrulous and affectionate American woman named Grace, who kept calling me “Darlin’,” and told me I looked like I was 12. Grace was busy cutting up and breaking down duck carcasses. Just like the shrimp, I’d never eaten duck in America, nor seen it eaten by Americans, and had simply assumed that Americans do not know how to eat duck.
After some questioning, I discovered that the duck was going into a dish that was to be served with rice, and that was worthy of a double-take. I thought only Vietnamese would serve rice to guests at a party. I taxed my memory and recalled no parties with Americans when there was ever any rice. In the US, I’d been given instant “minute” rice, served to me at dinner with an unhelpful bit of margarine on top of it, and I’d been served Rice-a-Roni with the false promise “you like rice, you’ll like this.” In the school cafeteria there was some rice mixed into what they called Porcupine Meatballs which, for some time, I believed were made out of the porcupines I saw in my illustrated dictionary. In my vast experience, however, rice at a party for Americans was unheard of.
While I worked on my shrimp and Grace cut up the ducks, an older American fellow named Bob was cutting up some fish, and telling me I looked like I was 12. I asked what kind of fish it was, and he told me catfish, which meant nothing to me. Someone got an encyclopedia with a photograph of a catfish in it, and I was beginning to ask myself, Who are these people? I knew that fish in Vietnam, that’s a Vietnamese fish, that catfish. I had assumed all along it just didn’t live in America and Americans did not know how to eat it. That’s also when I realized that, except for tuna salad, I had never seen Americans serve fish at any kind of party. And Bob told me that, when it was cooked, I could eat this kind of fish with the rice. He said the only proper way to eat it was with rice. That did not sound at all American to me. A party at which Americans feast on shrimp, duck, and catfish? And rice?
During all this prep work, these boisterous and friendly Americans told me things that didn’t really make much sense. This Mardi Gras holiday they were making a party for, it wasn’t part of their own customs or traditions; they were only celebrating it because it was a great reason to have a party. That sounded a little sketchy to me.
And the foods they were preparing for this party were not their own, but were foods of Creole people and Cajun people, both of whom I was told are a kind of American people. (In answer to my skepticism and repeated questions, inspired largely by the shrimp, duck, catfish, and rice, I was repeatedly told no, Creoles and Cajuns are not some kind of Asian.) No one preparing foods for the party was Creole or Cajun, and there weren’t going to be any Creole or Cajun people attending either. Creole and Cajun people all lived somewhere very far away, or so I was told. Think about that for a minute, and it will start to sound pretty sketchy to you too.
I had moved on to splitting and deveining my pile of shrimp when other improbable foods arrived. Based on my years among Americans, I had come to believe that Americans do not know how to eat crab, as I’d never seen it happen. Americans also do not know how to eat oysters, I was very sure of that. Yet oysters and crabmeat were both laid before us on that kitchen table, and were on the menu for the party.
One woman at the table, Bethany, was peeling and shredding some trái su, or in English, mirlitons or chayotes. Even other Vietnamese had told me quite definitively that Americans do not know how to eat trái su, and did not know what they are. Bethany assured me that was absolutely not the case, and she began listing all the ways that Americans know how to eat them. And then she told me I looked like I was 12. Someone came into the kitchen with baguettes for me to slice and until then I didn’t know any Americans ate baguettes.
I spent the rest of the day picking cartilage out of the crabmeat, climbing a ladder and hanging purple, green, and yellow streamers from ceilings, blowing up purple, green, and yellow balloons, carrying ice and beer, setting up tables, and wondering to myself: crabs, oysters, baguettes, mirlitons… Who are these people?
Bountiful Buffet, Bourbon & Beads
Once the party started, I was not overcome with any shyness, as may have been reported – I stayed by the buffet tables simply because that’s where all the food was. And I feasted, on everything. Shrimp Remoulade and Crabmeat Ravigote. Natchitoches meat pies. Mirliton salad. Oysters Rockefeller.
And there were dishes with crawfish; while I didn’t recognize crawfish, I felt sure they might be at least half-Vietnamese. And the people I met, especially those making frequent trips to the food tables, were all very friendly even if they did all tell me I looked like I was 12.
I tried Bob’s fish with the rice (a Catfish Courtbouillon) and loved it. I tried Grace’s duck with the rice (Duck & Andouille Etouffee) and loved it. Some of my shrimp had gone into a Jambalaya along with more rice and chicken, tasso ham, and pork sausages. It looked familiar, and vaguely resembled a Vietnamese fried rice dish. As I gazed down, contemplating my bowl of Jambalaya, I realized these Creole or Cajun people had done something which Vietnamese also do, but which I’d never seen other Americans do. They’d combined different animals in a single dish, just as Vietnamese do. A bird, a pig, some shrimp, all in one dish with some rice.
I headed into one of the larger rooms with my bowl of Jamabalaya, Nerdlinger-style, intending to find my godbrother and ask him why Vietnamese and Mardi Gras people combine foods that way but other Americans do not. I stopped short when I saw that he was wearing a mask with feathers, a funny hat, strings of beads, and was dancing in a way I’d never seen him or any other human dance. Dancing to music that was unlike anything I’d ever heard (Zydeco). He noticed me, pointed at me, loudly yelled “Woo who, he’s got no beads,” and at once I was surrounded by Mardi Gras revelers putting strings of beads around my neck and trying to get me to dance.
I swiftly retreated to the relative safety of the buffet tables, and one of the party hosts offered me a Bourbon Milk Punch, which she thought I might like. I guessed it might be a drink suitable for a young person like me, as it had milk in it and tasted a bit like ice cream. I moved on to sampling some King Cake, and a slice of Doberge Cake, some Bread Pudding, washing it all down with one Bourbon Milk Punch and then another, and then another. I felt a growing conviction that Bourbon Milk Punch was very suitable indeed for a person like me, and soon I was wearing a funny hat, strings of beads, and doing some hot Zydeco dancing with people who kept telling me I looked like I was 12.
I have not missed one of these Mardi Gras parties since that first one, and now am cook and co-host for them. Like my godbrother before me, I enjoy inviting unsuspecting Vietnamese and Americans who know nothing of Mardi Gras, so I can watch them as they stand back and stare, and wonder “Who are these people?” Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler, everybody!
Text and external links provided by Simon Bao. Photos are public domain.
- Badass History of Vietnamese Coffee
- Vietnamese-Cajun Connection through Crawfish
- Food Slideshow of 2010 Mardi Gras in NOLA (by food writer Kerri Conan for NYT)
Do you celebrate Mardi Gras? How?