What do Vietnamese-Americans eat for Christmas? I don't know as I only have my personal experience to share. As I mentioned in the past, we gave up on turkeys at Thanksgiving and hams for Easter. Christmas is a tossup and we've had roasted chickens, goose, beef and venison tenderloin over the years.
This past week's was somewhat of a doozy. My mom's menu (above) was basically a list of family favorites. There were originally 20 people expected and she made sure to load up the menu with Nguyen all-time hits. From the top of her hand-written list to the bottom:
Fried cha gio rice paper rolls, a surf-and-turf rice soup (chao boi), wontons in broth, roast riblets (xuon nuong), goose from my brother , sticky rice dressing with roasted chestnuts (nhan go nhoi), stuffed periwinkle (oc nhoi), sticky rice with hominy and mung bean (xoi bap), plain sticky rice with sweet Chinese sausage (xoi trang, lap xuong), head cheese (gio thu), cinnamon sausage and beef silky sausage (cha que, cha bo), shrimp toasts (banh mi tom quet), banana cake (banh chuoi), banh “fruit cake.”
My mom began the preparations weeks ago, my dad revealed with a light sigh. He is her kitchen assistant when none of us kids are around (most of the time). I think she'd put him through the wringer. When I saw the menu, I didn't know how we'd serve it all, let alone eat it up.
My parents, 79 and 83, had rearranged the furniture to fit a second dining table in. “This may be the last year mom and I can do this," my father said. “It is hard to be old.”
“I am still strong,” my mom valiantly exclaimed, never mind the plantar fasciitis that has slowed her down a bit. Both of them can still bend and squat -- it's years of practice that started in Vietnam.
When we were young, my mom was a stickler for formality and adhered to her gameplan no mattered what surprises life threw her. This year she demonstrated a great amount of resilience. For example, when my brother arrived with the wild game, my mom decided not to serve it. The crossed-out goose and turkey (above) were potentially problematic, given all the other things going on the kitchen. (My brother also brought Indian and Taiwanese whiskers which we go had no problem drinking; the wild game was a horse of a different color.)
She’d already made the stuffing and pivoted, asking me how to bake it in a casserole (she referred back to a baked dressing post I’d done on VWK) and serve it along with the other two sticky rice dishes on the menu. We’re a carb-loving family. Then, realizing that there was indeed too much food on the menu, on Christmas Eve morning, my mom decided to pull back on the shrimp toasts. That’s why her final menu looks the way it does.
The biggest bomb that dropped was my oldest sister and her family deciding not to come. At the last minute. They let us know just a few hours before dinner was going to be served. My brother-in-law was sick. We called to make sure he was okay; he sounded awful.
That was a major drag because this is the only time of the year when we all meet up. My mom turned to my father and said, "Well, we'll reset the table for fourteen instead of twenty." She was very disappointed to say the least but what the heck could she do?
I silently counted my blessings because then we'd have less food to put out. My parents went to church while I prepped and put the final touches on the meal. I decided to serve half of the food that my mom had made and tell her that she could always freeze the stuff and treat it like her personal food bank – drawing from it perhaps at Tet, which is just around the corner. There is a silver lining to overproducing food.
When they returned, it was to a party. My three siblings and I, along with their kids were already drinking and snacking. Mr. Cruz, an longtime friend of my father's dropped off a casserole full of warm tamales; he'd skipped the last two years and boy, were we happy he resumed the tradition. A tamale to us is like another kind of dumpling.
Dinner started at six o'clock and finished around ten thirty. My mom hand washed the dishes while my sisters and I dried them. Then my parents sat back for a few photos to commemorate the occasion.
There have been many Christmas pasts where we had midnight mass, complicated meals, and Yule logs and the like. We've dropped those traditions and instead embraced just being together. It was really nice.