A few days ago, I found myself in the desert of the city suddenly filled with an incredible thirst that can only come of walking: I was parched. I wandered into one of those mega-Ralph’s—bigger and better than your average supermarket—and looked at the long bank of overpriced drinks. And there it was, next to the Almond Milk and the Kombucha: “Soda Chanh”—a Vietnamese drink made of all-natural lime flavors.
For me, a big sign that you’ve made it in mainstream American culture is when your food becomes turned into a convenience product for the busy-bee worker. The Italians did it way back in the 80’s when their humble mom-and-pop eateries ushered in an era of carbs. Now, we have frozen pizza, bottled spaghetti sauce, garlic bread—you name it. Now, Italians are as American as apple pie.
Growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant among mostly white kids (or Jewish kids who didn’t make a big deal of the religion thing), I was pretty self-conscious of the kind of weirdo items that I brought to school: their smells, their colors. And I always made sure to fit in with a nice, absolutely tasteless bologna sandwich on white bread.
So, when all the Asian foods started showing up in the frozen food section, I began wondering: Will there ever come a moment when Vietnamese food takes center stage?
Well, that day is coming. We have that Sriracha sauce that has taken the world by storm (so much so that I see people wearing tee shirts with the rooster logo emblazoned on it). And we have begun to see the slow creep of the banh mi sandwich (there is an entire cookbook dedicated to it, and an incredibly successful fast food chain “Lee’s Sandwiches” expanding from its base on the West Coast).
Even the pretty sucky attempts at using Vietnamese flavors by Western chefs is a positive sign–a sign of integration. So what if Rachel Ray’s “Phunky Pho” is an atrocity that uses canned soup as its base. At least we’re on television and someone in Peoria knows that we exist.
For me, though, the acceptance of foods also signals an acceptance of the Vietnamese presence in other sectors, namely art. Will our film and literature take us out of the ghetto of doctoring and computer science? Will we produce truly great art or compromise our art to pander to a Western palette?
We’ve had some astounding successes, too, in the past few years in terms of art–successes that have mounted and snowballed. Just this year, the prize-winning writer Vu Tran debuted with a literary detective novel–Dragonfish. And my good friend Viet Nguyen came out with a book–The Sympathizer–that has garnered critical acclaim. In fact, he’s won several awards, including the Center For Fiction’s First Novel Award, and he’s an honest-to-goodness nominee for the esteemed EDGAR AWARD.
I feel humbled to be in their orbit in my small space dust way. Both are luminaries shining bright and professors of English at top-rate institutions like USC and University of Chicago. Of The Sympathizer, T.C. Boyle writes: “The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.” And apparently, both of these novels–and novelists–are teaching the general public more about winning then losing.
I highly recommend these two novels. The writing is amazing–crisp, clean, delicious. But thinking through this problem of creativity under the rubric of food also brings up some really important questions. Have we watered down our distinctive flavor to pander to the masses? Are we substituting flavor profiles for actual flavors?
This is not a question that can be resolved in the moment. The moment is like that sandwich you bite into and enjoy for all its sensations. The moment is not really that intellectual. That only comes later when you can intellectualize the delight of the taste buds and talk about the talk of the mind.
I have no readymade answers. And I probably won’t have much to say on the topic until a few decades have passed. All I can say is that I’m glad that there is more stuff out there to enjoy–more stuff that the American public can delight from.
As for that soda. I bought it. It wasn’t that great. It was a watered down version of a drink I’ve known forever. But it was all natural. It came in a pretty package. And it came with a big guarantee up-front that it was “authentic.”