How a Simple Notebook Has Helped My Family Keep Our Food Traditions Alive
If you had to suddenly leave your home, knowing that you'd never ever return, what would you take with you?
In April 1975, our family of seven fled Vietnam to escape communism. My father instructed us to each bring a change of clothing. That was it. My mother carried a tote bag containing precious items—family photos, some jewelry, packages of instant noodles, a couple of water bottles and a thin orange notebook of recipes. That was all she needed, she figured, to start a new life who knows where.
Luckily, we resettled in America, where that notebook came in handy for recreating the flavors that we sorely missed. The notebook is titled Gia Chanh Cua Me, literally "Housewifery of Mom," which denotes her handbook of domesticity, her handbook for putting good food on the table for her family.
We were among the first wave of Vietnamese refugees and mostly cooked from regular supermarkets in those early days. Nevertheless, my mom looked to her notebook for notes and memories. Her initial handwritten entries are for popular Vietnamese dishes such as cha gio, fried rice paper rolls.
The script became rounded and tidy when she had one of my sisters write recipes for her so she could record interesting or valuable ideas gathered from newspapers or friends. "Cach Lam Creme" is "How to Make Frosting" from Mrs. Phung, a recipe that included Crisco!
When asked why she didn't write all the entries herself, she said, "I wanted your sisters to practice their penmanship." Mom was always marshaling us into kitchen duties.
On page 39 there are notes for 1975 Tet sticky rice cakes made months before we left the country. At that time, tensions were high as people knew that South Vietnam would collapse, but Mom remained steadfast in preparing for Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in the Vietnamese calendar. She wrote in Vietnamese but sometimes, like on this page, there was a bit of French sprinkled in—"Fev" was her shorthand for février, which is February in French.
Soon thereafter, the stateside entries included new favorites like Seven Layer Cookies, which Mom swooned over. My sister Linh made that recipe from a ladies' magazine that someone had gifted us.
In the final pages, there's a Sweet and Sour Sauce entry in my dad's striking penmanship. He didn't cook much when we lived in Vietnam, but in America he began helping out in the kitchen. We fried a lot of wontons to dip in that tasty sauce, and he proudly noted my mom's recipe in English with his personal precision.
Such a subtle and organic mixing of language on the yellowed notebook pages speak volumes about the Vietnamese experience. Thousands of years of negotiating foreign intruders and domination yielded a family recipe book of East Asian, Southeast Asian and Western notions. The book is modest but it traces my family's journey across the Pacific.
After my first cookbook was published in 2006, my mother gifted me the notebook, saying that she no longer needed it because she took to organizing her recipes in a big recipe box. I now keep the orange notebook in a very safe place, just in case I have to get up and go.
Andrea Nguyen is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author. Her latest book is Vietnamese Food Any Day. To learn more about her recipe booklet and family history, watch "The Families That Fed America" on History.com.