Not long ago my mother remarked, “You do noble work.” I interpreted it as a mixture of maternal pride and understanding about my financial outlook. My career in food writing has at times stunned and miffed my parents. They did not know how things would develop after I wrote Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. It was clear that I was capable of feeding myself, but could I afford to pay for my ingredients?
My four siblings have lucrative, conventional careers in medicine and law. Everyone thought I was destined for international business or banking, but I didn’t exactly end up among the 1%. “That’s okay,” Mom continued. “What’s important is that you are happy.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about her comments because one of the popular topics these days among food writers is how can we maintain viable careers. Amanda Hesser recently offered a reality check to future food writers. Monica Bhide revealed her personal frustrations and discussed tips for crafting a realistic food writing career. Dianne Jacob’s blog is a rich source of sensible advice for aspiring writers.
I didn’t start writing about food expecting to buy a vacation home in the Bahamas. I wanted to write about food traditions and techniques that I felt had not been presented well enough in print. That said, there are late nights when I’m cleaning my kitchen or looking up words in my Vietnamese and Chinese dictionaries that I wonder, “Why am I doing this?”
In the last couple of weeks, a number of interesting people and great things have passed through my life to remind of why I enjoy my work:
Meeting People and Hearing their Stories
The Asian Tofu cookbook is my third publication and frankly, it’s really cool to see all three of your books in one place. The photo below is from a Macy’s department store event that I did in early May.
The event didn’t start till 1pm but a group of five Asian Americans arrived at noon and secured front row seats. They drove 45 minutes to an hour to be there, and said that they skipped an Alice Medrich event for mine. (Alice is among the stars of the baking world so I was flattered that tofu and I won them over.)
The women had my first two books and were interested in what I had to say about tofu. One gentleman recalled a favorite tofu skin soup that his mother made. He peppered me with questions and finally said, “I have to ask my mom about she makes it.”
A father and daughter got the date wrong and came to Macy’s a week early. Determined to meet me, then returned on the right date to buy books and chat. The father was a bit of a jokester who had book idea for me.
With his daughter a foot away, he leaned in and whispered, “Young people like my daughter throw away good food all the time. I grew up in Fresno in the ‘30s with no refrigeration. We bought our tofu once a month when we drove into town. You need to write a book to help them straighten up.” The man then mischievously winked and I didn’t ask how long they kept that tofu around.
“I’m right here dad and can hear you,” his daughter sarcastically said. A nice father-daughter relationship.
Last Saturday, I did a cooking demo at the 8th Annual Asian Heritage Street Celebration in San Francisco’s Little Saigon. I was on a stage smack right in front of Vietnamese joints specializing in pho, banh mi, 7 course beef and crawfish. Martin Yan and Charles Phan were also part of the lineup of chefs. An estimated 90,000 people attended the one-day community event. Here's a YouTube video made by @SabrinaGeeShin to recap the festival:
Among the people I met was Carol Duong, who came with two books for me to sign. My recipes and books help her to teach her children about traditional foodways, she said. Lucky kids. She also shot photos and generously shared them with me. The festival’s giant lotus at the top is by Carol. She also snapped a photo of me with her four-year-old. Cooking for posterity:
I also met Annie and Hung Lam who run a Viet noodle soup pop-up called Soup Junkies. It was hard for the couple to find good Viet noodle soup in San Francisco so they started making their own. Then they started selling their fare. Hung is the chef and they sell out every time. I look forward to sampling their soup soon @SoupJunkieSF. They make a mean bun rieu cua (Vietnamese crab and rice noodle soup). I should have worn my shades to look as cool as them in this photo:
After my demo of a vegetarian tofu rice paper roll (bi cuon chay), a man pedaled up to the stage and asked, “I served in the Vietnam War and the food I loved most came were simple, from the countryside. Do you have those recipes in your book?” Yes, just look for short ingredient lists, I said. You’ll find those homey dishes. One of the payoffs of my career is meeting people from all walks of life.
Book Reviews and Reactions
It would be disingenuous for me to say that reviews don’t matter. They do. I listen to and read what readers and cooks have to say, whether that’s via in-person conversations, email, social media or sites like Amazon. Reactions from my food writing colleagues matter as well. This week, three writers weighed in on Asian Tofu from three differing perspectives:
- Carolyn Phillips wrote a assessment of Asian Tofu for Zester Daily, a food site with content by veteran food writers and journalists. A Chinese food wonk who includes characters in her blog posts, she went through the book with a fine tooth comb, testing certain recipes and evaluating the merits of the whole shebang. “Beautiful, knowledgeable and thorough, this is the best book on tofu to make its way to my bookshelves. Highly Recommended” concluded the review. Gulp. Wow.
- Carolyn Jung, a food journalist and former editor at the San Jose Mercury News, hinted at that a recipe from the book reminded her of her youth. We are friends and I kept guessing which recipe it was. I was wrong every time. On Thursday, Carolyn wrote a story about her childhood curiosity and fear of red fermented tofu. From my recipe for roasted chicken with fermented red tofu (ga nuong chao, page 117) she was able to understand the ingredient and recreate a delectable memory from her past. “Memories of Childhood Chinese Chicken” is on Food Gal, her site.
T. Susan Chang, a persnickety and well-respected cookbook reviewer and author, checks out a lot of cookbooks for NPR (National Public Radio) and her website. This week, she released her picks for the NPR 2012 Best Summer Cookbooks list, which was framed as a “Plant Eater’s Paradise.” [Drum roll please . . .] Asian Tofu made the shortlist! Susan wrote a concise, spot-on review. She picked up on the many facets of the book and its overarching message that there’s a tofu for everyone. For an expanded and funny list of Susan’s summer recommendations, jump over to this post on Cookbooks for Dinner.
- Dick Stein and Nancy Leson gave award-winning author Molly Stevens and me a shout out this week on KPLU (NPR affiliate in Seattle). The "comrades in colanders" commended us for our reliable recipe writing. Read and listen to their broadcasted, titled "When Recipes go Wrong."
So to circle back to what my mom said, I may not be living the super luxe life but I’m darn happy that my work makes other people feel happy about food and cooking. Having a sense of fulfillment is one of life’s greatest riches.