Our whole lives, my mother spoke non-stop. And she could change the subject and tone in a heartbeat. She’d follow sharp admonitions with lessons about life and stories from her childhood in Saigon. While cooking over steaming pots of food, she’d explain the need to exercise and in the same breath, chat up the values of a college education. The sound of her voice is still the soundtrack of my life: “Remember, attitude is everything. When you wake each morning, smile — because what do you have to frown about?” Or, “Don’t let people pick on you — or you’ll begin picking on yourself when they’re not around.”
Somehow, as we got older, she spoke less of these things. I suppose she grew tired. And we grew up. Then in the last several years, something happened. She began speaking in “recipese.” Let me explain. Whether we just arrived for dinner and it’s in a greeting; when we’re helping in the kitchen and making small talk; when we’re seated in the living room following a meal — she reports on what ingredients and methods went into certain Vietnamese dishes.
“Ok, pork stew,” she’ll say interrupting our chatter about the latest Boeing news. We quiet down. “This is Vietnamese stew now.” She sits down next to me at the dinner table. We haven’t spoken in more than two months. “Salt, sugar, pork belly, fish sauce – just a little though! Too much make it salty. But you have to use this brand – hold on.” She rushes into the kitchen to come back holding a glass bottle with a dusty, stained label. She points at it: “This brand – best. Don’t use other kind. No good.” We haven’t touched the food yet; we’re politely waiting for her to finish her presentation.
We eat. My brothers and father ease into conversation about the financial market, sports and politics. I feed my 4 year-old niece; cutting up the meat and spooning her rice.
My mother and I don’t say much. I start with, “The food’s good, ma.” That’s the opening. “Oh!” she exclaims. “To make this sour soup is easy: Two whole tomatoes, cut up, bean sprouts, a pound of catfish, and fish sauce. And this soup base.” She rushes into the kitchen again, returning with a small plastic bag. “Here. This! Tamarind soup base – make it sour. Good. Best brand.”
I listen as intently as I can. I already forgot the recipe. But it makes her feel good. It was a normal part of the family conversation.
Only recently did I start wondering why she spoke in recipese.
I know Asian moms – most moms for that matter — show love by feeding the family, urging us to eat more. We rub our bellies and wave our hands in protest. But what does it mean not only to feed us, but to share every detail of what went into the food? One night, I ask my husband. He said it’s because she doesn’t know what to say to us. We’re adults now, no longer depending on her advice the same way we did as children. Being a mother was her primary identity. She wants to leave us some kind of legacy. Sharing what she’s good at – cooking and preparing food for loved ones – means something of herself is left in us.
In my own kitchen, I tried making the sour soup and pork stew for my husband and I. After a few attempts, they came out tasting as close to my mom’s as it can be. One day, my husband said, “Mm! This is good! What’s in it?” Without losing a beat, I say, “As a matter of fact, there’s this brand — the best kind, hold on …” and rush into the kitchen.