My father has always been into butter, something that I picked up from him. For Vietnamese people of Bo Gia’s generation, the benchmark brand of butter came in a stout red can with gold lettering. Buerre Bretel (bơ Bretel, “buh Bruh-tell”) was highly prized for its super rich, umami-laden flavor. In a tropical country where water buffaloes far outnumbered dairy cows, the imported French butter was considered an expensive, luxury food.
If you could afford the dense, egg yolk yellow salted spread, you were living large. For villagers who may not have ever tasted the butter, the empty cans were recycled for measuring even portions of rice, according to historian Erica Peters in Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam.
After we resettled in California, my dad tried different kinds of American butter but when he and my mom could get a rare can of Bretel butter at a Vietnamese market, it was an extra treat. We’d smear it on baguette to eat as is or add pate or slices of Vietnamese silky sausage (gio lua) and lots of black pepper. We'd mix a pat into hot rice or egg noodles and let it melt to perfume and flavor everything. (Sometimes I’d sprinkle on some Maggi Seasoning sauce too). The butter expressed high-end, high-class eating.
Or so I thought. When my husband and I first started dating, I let him try a Bretel knockoff called Frentel (it was all I found at a Viet market at the time, and cost roughly $3.50 for a 250g can). He thought it tasted rancid and mistrusted the yellow color.
You’ve got to be kidding, he said. The French fooled you with this dreck. They had no other options for butter that could travel well. Colonialism was not a good thing.
He was right about the colonialism and I didn’t buy another can of French butter until this year. Working on the banh mi book got me thinking about revisiting certain French imported goods. At a book event and online, a couple of Viet-Americans reminded me of their family penchant for the beurre from France. Does canned butter taste as good to me now as it did in the 1970s?