It is Thanksgivingukkah week, the coinciding of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah that occurs every 70,000 to 80,000 years due to the insertion of a leap lunar month into the Jewish calendar to align with the solar year. Twice the pressure to eat enough to satisfy your mother….
The labial Me is Vietnamese for mother, formed by lips pressing softly together around a nipple, or just before crying for help. It is the sound of enveloping a morsel and gently sweeping it down to where it will nourish. I watched the endless hours that Benjamin hung on my breast with his pursed sucking creating a second dimple in his cheek, his one exposed eye staring unblinkingly up to keep me in sight and his thighs and knees folded into my belly, shuddering contentedly under my stroking fingertips. When he sat in a high chair and took his first spoonful of butternut squash mush, I marveled at how, up until that moment, every cell but one in his body had come from me.
My mother did not nurse her children, having proudly been able to afford the fancy foreign-made baby formula that my father bought at the commissary on the U.S. Army base where he worked part time. But as soon as we moved to solid food, she ruled everything that fed us. Our housekeeper in Saigon was sous chef, going to market and doing prep, but Me picked the menus, applied the heat, judged when the seasoning was right. Rice and stir fry, clear brothed soups, and pungent meats punctuated each day twice, at lunch and dinner. On holidays symmetrically arranged plates of sticky red xoi gap fragrant with coconut milk, roast chicken, lemongrass pork skewers, and shredded papaya salad covered the long dining table. I learned when to lunge with my chopsticks for the choicest pieces of squid or rare beef in the hotpot, just as they finished blanching. And on Sunday mornings, she measured the sweetened condensed milk into my short cup of dense ca phe, and showed me how to swirl the concoction from black brown to the au lait color of her skin, then twist off a crispy chewy hunk of warm baguette to dunk.
The few months that we spent in the Ross’ house must have been torture for her. The ingredients were unfamiliar, the range of what the American palate could tolerate numbingly narrow. But once in our own row house, she turned the formica’d galley kitchen into a laboratory, skeptically but gamely experimenting with 1970’s staples like Minute-steaks and instant pudding. She gradually incorporated her own interpretations of spaghetti and meatballs, sloppy Joe, and steak frites into the steady dinner rotation, along with her core repertoire of rice meals. To this day, any of her children will exit a highway at ten o’clock in the morning for fried chicken; good or bad — it doesn’t matter – we are forever chasing the memory of weighty drumsticks seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper and fried in light batter just to the point where the moist muscle groups come apart in the mouth on their own.
Me was a fierce hunter gatherer. She brought me grocery shopping to push the cart and pull boxed goods off the shelf as she ordered. She sniffed produce, tsk’d tsk’d and frowned disapproval on under-ripe fruit, and outsmarted anybody that dared to offer a discount. On the streets in South Philly, she didn’t bother being polite to the Italian street vendors, demanding they reach in to trade out individual crabs that she considered lethargic before she would pay for the bushel. For years, she would sit in the car on her way to and from work along Skuykill River Drive, clucking her tongue at the waste of all those Canada geese freely congregating along the banks. Who would miss one? she’d say. We did briefly have a white duck waddling and quacking in the basement one weekend, but it mysteriously disappeared just before my parents hosted some of their friends to dinner. My mother could make a meal from the most barren landscape. On vacation on the Maryland shore, I sat under the umbrella and grew bored watching her wade in ankle deep water, the woven brim of her hat obscuring her face and intentions. But when she emerged an hour or so later, the pail she was carrying was full of inch wide snails that she had dug out of the tidal pool floor with her feet. Back in our rented condo, she steamed them and gave us each a safety pin (from where I don’t know) with which to spike and gently twist the meat out of its shell and douse it with salt and peppered lemon juice.
Food was a weapon and a shield. It crept into her conversation many days before a party and as the time drew near she would start itemizing out loud the bargains she had found, her schedule for implementation, and her reasons for doing it this way or that. She keenly observed and kept a tight memory of her eaters’ likes and dislikes, with which she would choreograph elaborate efficiencies like when to scoop out the vegetables from a broth because of my brother’s aversion to onions or how much of precious steamed oxtails to set aside for me to snack on without skimping on portions in six bowls of pho soup for the rest of the family. When American guests arrived, she arbitrarily interrupted to explain the menu, ask what they thought of an appetizer, not waiting for a response before moving on and leaving it to me to awkwardly steer the conversation back to anything else. She judges her grandchildren by the amount they can eat and what, if anything, she offers that they dare to refuse. When I arrive late to a family gathering, she pounces with a full plate of everything and tense instructions about what to eat first, second, third. Her conversation perseverates on the contents of a meal until she has chewed its fibers to a pulp.
In her kitchen, there were never trials of Mediterranean cuisines or Mexican food, no interest in French technique or the Great Chefs specials I watched on public television before there was a Food Network, and no one else who could be trusted with producing an entire meal. My brothers rarely set foot in it except to raid the refrigerator. I watched her julienne carrots and radishes to pickle, turn cabbage into sheer cobwebs to toss in sweetened and lemoned nuoc mam (fish sauce) for a summer salad. She sent me out to an overrun garden patch behind the basement door to pick sprigs of mint for garnish. On other days, she demonstrated how to snip just the tippy top 2-4 inches on each sprig, where the leaves were most tender and full of flavorful oil.
On weekends while I slept late, she woke at dawn and began checking on marinated meat or yellow peas that soaked overnight, ready to mix and steam with sticky rice. She chopped vegetables and ground pork for gia xio (spring rolls), an evolving recipe that now includes shredded potatoes to soak up moisture and make everything else crispier. When I finally came downstairs, I obediently sat at the dining table in front of giant mixing bowls of meat, reached for a moistened sheet of rice paper resting on towels she had spread, and began rolling, then sealing with beaten egg. Deep frying always revealed which rolls were mine and not hers, when sloppily tucked corners of rice paper unfurled in the bubbling oil to cause minor imperfections. I learned how to execute the second half of many Vietnamese dishes.
Her children are now all adventurous gourmands, driven by the imperative to not waste eating on food that is not at its best. We all live in our kitchens. One went so far as to marry a chef. Once a week, Bo and Me pick up Alexander after school and bring him home to wait for Benjamin. Bo will play with the kids, but in her nervousness, Me will clean my house, do laundry, rearrange my ceramics, and glare at the boys until they bathe. She hands them each a pouch of contraband treats – juice boxes, Pringles, Girl Scout cookies. She is gone by the time I arrive, having just skirted the periphery of my weekly life. On the counter, she leaves Tupperware containers full of fresh fried rice, stewed stuffed tomatoes, eggy noodles with fat shrimp and wilted onions, cut fruit, and broccoli steamed al dente to see us through to the weekend. That is when I cook.