Forty years ago on April 23, 1975, my parents were quietly saying goodbye to their Saigon home. Mom finished ripping apart the life jackets that she’d sewn for our family’s boat escape from South Vietnam, which would eventually fall to the northern communists a week later. Between the Styrofoam pieces in each of the seven life jackets were thin taels of gold. We were no longer able to leave by boat because the government forbade all non-official boats from departing. She and my father’s hope was to flee by plane the next day. The gold was among our currency. The Vietnamese currency, the dong (VDN), was worthless.
To appear as if we were going on an overnight family trip, my parents packed the absolute minimum. A set of pajamas and underwear for each person fit into two attache-style briefcases (think a large computer bag). A few pieces of valuable jewelry, family photos and the gold went into a clutch-style purse that my mother made by removing a flap from a leather purse that her sister in Paris gifted her. The clutch fit inside a tote bag, in which she had a couple small bottles of water, a few packages instant noodles, and a thin orange notebook of handwritten recipes.
“Gia Chánh Của Mẹ” roughly means “Mom’s Book of Domesticity”. Gia chánh is the Viet term for housekeeping, home economics, housewifery – that is, how to manage a home. My mom kept house well, having managed employees for decades. Plus, she knew plenty about cooking herself.
Her handwritten book contained recipes that she or my sisters gathered from Saigon newspapers, friends and elsewhere. My mother brought the book with her to America because she envisioned her new life involving owning a Vietnamese restaurant. Naturally, she needed her personal recipe collection. The notebook -- a flimsy version of today's composition books, was one of her prized possessions. Like the gold, it was part of our family's survival kit.
Mom started keeping the notebook in the early 1970s with an entry for pomelo (grapefruit) salad taken from a newspaper. When a friend shared a recipe with her, she often noted the contribution in parenthesis that it came from Mrs. So-and-So. Sometimes there was a good stories attached to a recipe. Yesterday, my mom easily slipped into a couple of orange notebook stories.