A chicken in Vietnam is a high-value asset. Keep it laying eggs for you as long as possible. When guests come over or when you want a special meal, serve a whole chicken. That was my mom’s attitude toward keeping and serving poultry to our family. We tried to raise a little flock in our Saigon home long ago. Mom brought home a bunch of baby chicks but unfortunately, our housekeeper stepped on one and all us kids freaked out. Vietnam in the 1970s were already stressful. My parents didn’t need a bunch of squealing, squeamish kids, let alone a flock of squawking chickens in the house. The chicks disappeared.
Soon after we fled the turmoil that hit Saigon in April 1975, we arrived in California at Camp Pendleton Marine Base. My dad decided to resettle in San Clemente, CA, where President Richard Nixon retired. It was a low-key, lovely Southern California beach town near the Marine base.
One of the first things our family did was check out a supermarket. My mom was astounded by all the chicken available -- whole ones, cut up parts, tubs of liver, trays of backs. The chicken backs were the cheapest, around 25 cents a pound, perhaps. Being a resourceful cook, Mom saw countless opportunities in chicken backs. They were part of her American food gold mine.