KITCHEN CONVERSATIONS WITH NORMAN VAN AKEN©
Monique Truong is a highly decorated writer. I first became familiar with her through her book, “The Book of Salt”. I have become a lifelong fan.
Please visit her website at https://monique-truong.com
What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying deeply? Where were you?
This is going to sound apocryphal, but I assure you that it’s true (because I don’t think I could make it up): turtle eggs. It’s actually even more surreal when I remember how they were prepared and served: a turtle is roasted whole inside of its shell, brought to the table on a platter, and then its shell is dramatically lifted off to reveal the cooked flesh and the white eggs inside. This was Vietnamese banquet fare and a great delicacy, my friend! There were no eggshells per se because they hadn’t harden yet, only tender white orbs the size of quail eggs.
I was probably five or six in Can Tho, South Vietnam, in 1973 or ’74. My parents often entertained on a grand scale because of my father’s job (an executive for Shell Vietnam), and my mother had a kitchen and household staff large enough for this purpose.
Certainly the drama of the dish helped to make it memorable but also the taste. I remember the yolks were like deviled egg yolks, creamy, fluffy, and light on the tongue.
Who was the ‘Chef’ in your Family? (Best cook etc. where, when, why)
My mother is the best home cook I know. She’s cooked in very different worlds and circumstances. As a young girl in Saigon, she remembered baking delicate sponge cakes in a finicky wood-fired oven, and as a young wife, living in a succession of villas in Nha Trang, Da Lat, and Can Tho, she supervised a kitchen staff who did the bulk of the cooking. She concentrated instead on classes on French cooking and cake decorating (she learned to pipe buttercream roses like a pro). Later when we came to Boiling Springs, NC as refugees from the Vietnam War, she found herself in a galley kitchen in a small trailer home, where she valiantly made her own tofu, grew her own bean sprouts, and re-created steamed baos using refrigerated biscuit doughs. Without her, my father and I would have been utterly lost. She taught us a new meaning for the term “home cook.” Through sheer will and skills, she conjured up our lost country with every meal.
When did you start cooking?
I started reading cookbooks when I was seven or eight years old. I was already a voracious reader of fiction, and in many of these books–The Little House on the Prairie series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example–the characters ate American foods that I was very curious about. I yearned for pies. My mother made tarts. I was curious about corn pones. My mother made brioches. So I started to read cookbooks as a way of satisfying my cravings.
When did you realize that food was ‘serious’ to you? Where were you when that moment took place?
I’m going to reframe the focus of your question from “food” to “cooking” because they are not one and the same for me. “Food” to me signifies a passive enjoyment and pleasure, while “cooking” is an empowering action and a skill. I became serious about cooking after the very first time I successfully followed a recipe. I felt as if I had gained access to a magic formula. The end result being something delicious, shareable, and satisfying.
I can’t remember how old I was–eleven or twelve?–the first time I made loaves of yeast bread, then the most complicated recipes that I had ever attempted (what the heck was “kneading”?). I do remember that it was for a school project, an American Colonial Fair. Our assignment was to choose a craft or skill from the American Colonial era, learn some aspect of it, and then sell our wares at a “market” in the school gym, while ideally wearing Colonial period clothing. There were candle makers, knitters, wood workers, quilters, etc.
I chose to be a baker, made loaves of white and whole wheat bread, and wore a bonnet to sell my wares. My loaves sold out pretty immediately. A magic trick, a way to travel back in time, an education, a source of income, and a reason to dress up. If that was not “serious,” I don’t know what is.
What was the first dish you made you felt truly happy making and sharing… or simply having for yourself?
It’s not the first dish, but rather it was the first meal and a significant one at that…Thanksgiving: I was in college, and my boyfriend and I had not gone to our respective homes for the break. I was living in an apartment with a real kitchen, and I decided to roast a turkey (my first). I was fearless. I also made mashed potatoes, dressing, green beans, and probably a pie. We invited a friend over. We ate, laughed, and felt very grown up about celebrating a Thanksgiving without our families. We also, in our own ways, felt a bit sad about it all. When I think about that meal, I think about the mix of emancipation and loneliness, and I suppose it was more bittersweet than “truly happy.”
Is ‘the writing life’ ever so solitary that you sometimes wish for chaos and crowding of another line of work?
I’m a Yale-trained bartender. When I was an undergrad there, the highest paying student job was bartending the reunions, galas, and other official university events. When I turned twenty-one, I enrolled in a class that gave me the certification for the job. Back then, Yale alumni tended to drink Scotch, straight. Not really a hard drink to pour. Or an extra-dry martini (said with a wink), which is basically gin, straight. So, I’m that kind of bartender…drinks for old men or anyone who drinks like an old man. Not a mixologist by any means.
What country outside of Vietnam or the U.S. have you been to that has impressed you the most in terms of cuisine? Why?
Finland. I lived in Helsinki for three months as part of a visiting writer fellowship. I had no idea what Finnish food would taste like and had only read that it would be bland and basic…lots of potatoes, cream, dill. Well, whoever wrote that has not traveled to Helsinki lately. There is absolutely nothing wrong, bland, or basic about flavorful new potatoes, farm-fresh cream, a handful of heady dill, and a sprinkle of sea salt, especially when they simmer with gorgeous chunks of fresh salmon. Those are the ingredients for Lohikeitto, a traditional Finnish salmon soup. I used to go to a place for lunch called Soppakeittiö, which literally means Soup Kitchen, and Lohikeitto was usually part of their daily offerings, which often also included a Finnish take on a rustic Bouillabaisse, full of chopped fennel bulbs, the tinniest, sweetest shrimp, plump mussels, and, of course, salmon. For the price of a bowl of soup, you’d also get chewy thick slices of brown rye bread and a little bowl of fresh basil-infused olive oil. The rye bread any Finn would recognize as one of their own, but the herbaceous olive oil is certainly a part of a wider world. Soppakeittiö and other restaurants in Helsinki that truly impressed me were re-interpreting Finnish cuisine in an intelligent, judicious way, introducing new ingredients and techniques or simply insisting on the best, locally-sourced ingredients. Is this unique to Finland? Of course not. But because of the extremely short growing season, the Finnish respect for seasonality has to border on reverence, and that is indeed impressive to witness. While I was there, the first of the Finnish-grown new potatoes appeared in the markets. The prices for them were astronomical. It’s their flavors, though, that I will never forget. Also, the excitement that was palpable in the air. The warmer, longer days came with them. So do the Finnish-grown strawberries. The march from snow and ice to days when the sun is reluctant to set. It all begins with a new potato, the size of large marble, the price of semi-precious jewel.
What kind of cookery are you immersed in now?
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to re-imagine my daily diet. I’ve been a diabetic since the age of 22, but for many of those years I have tried to ignore the disease. When I turned 45, I realized that I needed to make significant dietary changes. For me, the only effective way to control my blood sugar levels is to cut as much bread, pasta, white potatoes (ah, goodbye, Finnish-grown new potatoes!), and rice out of my diet as possible. Rice is a particularly cruel deletion from my diet. I’ve started to prepare cauliflower “rice” instead, which is finely chopped raw cauliflower that is then lightly sauteed. The cauliflower, in fact, has become my favorite life-saving ingredient. I’ve been making cauliflower puree instead of mashed potatoes. I’ve made a gratin of cauliflower florets that’s to me a healthier take on mac and cheese.
Pasta is also a much missed friend. While living in Tokyo this year, I started to cook with shirataki noodles, which are made from the konjac yam. Shirataki noodles are near zero carbs, and has a toothsome texture and a neutral flavor that’s especially good for Asian dishes. For Italian dishes, I mix half pasta and half shirataki. (I’ve just heard from a Japanese friend that there’s also shirataki “rice.”)
I’m in search of a low-carb bread recipe now. This is not the same as gluten-free bread, which can still be high in carbs, depending on the flours that are used instead of wheat flour. I’m frankly surprised that with over 9.3% of Americans diagnosed with diabetes that there’s so little attention paid to it by food magazines and food writers. I’ve just this year been able to find an editor at Yahoo Food who was willing to publish two pieces about being a diabetic and food tips:
What are the major distinctions you feel as being a writer on one hand and a lawyer on the other?
Lawyers know their economic worth. Writers are conditioned to not know our worth. We’re often made to feel grateful for being published; we’re often asked to do work for free or for an “honorarium,” which as any writer will tell you often means a token and a mere gesture as opposed to actual compensation. When a lawyer does work for free, she is doing “pro bono no publico” work. In other word, she’s working “for the public good.” When a writer does work for free, she’s being given “an opportunity to find a new, wider audience.” Because I’m both a lawyer and a writer, I never forget that what I do is labor that needs to be compensated.
Who is your favorite author when it comes to works that are rich in the memories or evocations of foods?
I adore MFK Fisher. She’s often described as the grand dame of American food writing, but to me she’s the grand dame of American essayists. Her writing is sensual, food-centric, witty, and often harboring something potentially dangerous, like a pit in an olive or a stone in a ripe cherry. In either of those cases, you have to slow down or you’ll break a tooth. I do detect an element of danger in her writing, a beware or be wary message lurking within it. This is, perhaps, why I’m so drawn to her writing. Her intelligence is also always fiercely present in her writing.
If you could go out for drinks and dinner with an ‘food person’ (can be living, a character from fiction, or from the historical past in this hypothetical question!) who would it be and why?
I’m writing a novel based on the life of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He’s a journalist, writer, translator, and scholar, who later in life became an expert on Japanese folklore and ghost stories. While he was living in New Orleans (1877-1887), he wrote La Cuisine Creole, one of the first if not the very first cookbook devoted to Creole recipes. For a short time, he also owned The 5-cent Restaurant, where every dish was offered for the eponymous price. I have some theories about his palate that I would like to confirm. I have also read that he liked a good tumbler of whiskey and so do I.
In one of your columns in the New York Times Magazine, “Ravenous” (which I collect and enjoy like candy), you recount a wonderfully rich episode of your mother waiting out a potentially ravaging storm while in Houston in a luxe hotel she chose … by her account, for the ‘high elevation location’ rather than say … the amenities. She, like you, was a person who had to escape your collective homeland. She seemed to be saying … if there was going to be calamity she would face it with good food and cooking with and for family. She cooked a dish you told us called, ‘thit heo kho’ . You wrote,’We are Vietnamese Americans, after all. Pork is as necessary to us as water’. How do you make your thit heo kho?
Well, to be honest, my Mother chose the hotel for the amenities as well as the elevation. I laughed out loud when my mother and sister told me the story of how they waited out Hurricane Ike. It really did involve a lot of pork and also a large sack of jasmine rice. As for the “thit heo kho,” I included a recipe with my “Ravenous” post, which called for pork cheeks and pork confit because that was what was in fridge during Hurricane Irene. Traditionally, the dish is made with pork belly. For a recipe, take a look at Andrea Nguyen’s “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors” (Ten Speed Press).
What was the best live concert that you have ever been to?
The best was my first. I was fourteen and I went to see Joe Jackson at the University of Houston in 1982. Joe Jackson was touring in support of his album “Night and Day.” The single, “Steppin’ Out,” was on heavy rotation on MTV. I had never seen so many “New Wavers” in one place. I’m talking about the audience, of course. They wore vintage clothes, black motorcycle jackets, pegged jeans. The guys had pierced ears. The gals didn’t have the requisite big Texas hair, though there were a couple of ironic bouffants and beehives. I had found my tribe. That, of course, was part of the pleasure.
What band do you regret never having seen?
The young Nina Simone. I saw her final headlining performance at Carnegie Hall in June of 2001. She was magnificent. Her voice was a river full of pebbles, rocks, tree branches, dried leaves, and whatever else life had thrown in there, which was a lot. I would have liked to have heard her when it was clear and pristine too, a fast moving river, a force headed toward the big sea.
What food or ingredient do you adore?
Lemons. Like a very sharp knife, a lemon is indispensable in the kitchen. The juice is a miracle ingredient, but the peel is even more so. Adding the fresh grated peel to a cooked dish, like osso buco or anchovy-roasted cauliflower, right before serving is the equivalent of letting sunlight into a room. Everything in it comes into focus.
What is your favorite “Food/Wine/Drinks Holiday”?
I have very mixed emotions about the big holidays that are often weighed down by food obligations. It’s not only the required dishes, but the scale of the effort and the worry. I think most people would characterize these things as traditions, but to me they are more obligatory than celebratory. I honestly prefer any day that you can make more joyful because you shared a meal with someone whom you enjoy seeing across the table from you.
Is Thanksgiving overrated? (In terms of food and drink)?
Growing up, all I wanted was to have as traditional a Thanksgiving as possible, which meant a turkey with all the fixings. I remember one year my Mother made Cornish hens instead of a turkey. I cried. Their little bodies made a mockery of the occasion. So un-American, I thought.
As an adult with diabetes, the traditional Thanksgiving feast is a near-death sentence for me: the bread stuffing/dressing (I prefer to have both), mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce, breads/rolls, and pies. I held onto it all for many years, cooking the meal of my childhood dreams. It’s only recently that I’ve started to release myself from the fantasy of Thanksgiving, preparing different dishes, fewer dishes, and there have been years when I won’t even roast a turkey. It’s the gathering together that matters.
What food, drink or ingredient will never enter your body again?
Artificial sweeteners and anything that they “sweeten.” In other words, any food product that is labelled “diet.” The aftertaste is to me the flavor equivalent of polyester.
Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?
Portugal because I’ve never been, and nothing is more exciting to me than the prospect of seeing and tasting something new. Also, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonize what is now Vietnam. They called it sending over missionaries. I’m curious to see whether there are vestiges of Portuguese food and cooking techniques in Vietnamese cuisine. The culinary connection with the French, who arrived after the Portuguese, has been well explored, but perhaps there are flavor histories to be found in Portuguese cuisine as well.
I found it astonishing that after the huge success of “The Book of Salt” you faced a very hostile marketing plan for your next book. They signed you… but then they felt that your ‘authenticity as a Southern writer’ was … dubious? Was this like a Twilight Zone episode to you?
Funny that you should say Twilight Zone. I’ve jokingly explained the situation to myself as aliens abducted my acquiring editor and replaced her with someone new. The full history of Bitter in the Mouth, my reimagining of a Southern gothic novel that you’re referring to, is long and complicated but not unusual in today’s publishing world. It was acquired by one publishing house, moved with my editor to another because of a merger and a staff change, and then was summarily rejected at the new house by another editor, when my own editor departed. It was then acquired by yet another house. Maybe, by that time, no one in that final house was paying much attention to what my novel was really about? Perhaps, the acquisition of it was based entirely upon my success with The Book of Salt? I cannot even begin to answer these questions. What I do know is the following: what I’m writing about, how I’m writing about it, and why it’s important, necessary, and vital to me. I focus on these things and protect them fiercely throughout the publishing process. I can’t control the mergers, the staff changes nor the lack of faith and imagination around me.
I have felt also kind of pushed aside by a noisy few for my food not ‘being Southern’ due to the Latin and Caribbean aspects of it. What vindication have you found over time in terms of your life?
I reject the idea of “authenticity” in all realms of American life, but especially in food and writing, because it’s a concept that is fundamentally static, rigid, and unwelcoming. It’s frankly Un-American to me. Southern food is from its beginning a hybrid cuisine. As you’ve claimed the region as one of your own, then you also have the opportunity to define it anew.
As for vindication, I think that’s a difficult concept. I could point to outside indicators: reviews, number of books sold, course adoptions, etc., but I think it’s better to look inward. For me the most important question to answer yes to is “Am I being true to my creativity?”
What is your habit for writing? Do you have a certain place or time of day for it? Do you write longhand or type? Music playing or silence?
For the past few years, I have a desk in a shared writing space in downtown Brooklyn. It’s on the third floor, and it’s a large loft space in a former bank building. I try to make it there every day by noon, but I often fail to make it there at all. My desk is right by a wall of large windows, and I hear the traffic below and the sounds of new construction all around. Is it ideal? No. Is it necessary? Yes. I walk there when I can, and it’s a 40-45 minute walk from my home. I consider this time the most important of the day. The walk is a transitional and meditative period between everyday life and creative life. I could take the subway and get there quicker, but why? Fiction, at least for me as a reader and a writer, is about slowing down time, lingering, noticing, and considering. I also like the space because it’s filled with old furniture, architectural detritus, “art,” and one very red, very large bucking donkey sculpture. It makes no sense the things in this space. It’s disorderly. It’s dusty. There’s often a hole in the wall or in the ceiling. I can afford the rent though. Pretty much a metaphor of my life!
What is your favorite ‘Food Movie’ of all time?
Not sure this is my favorite, but it’s certainly my favorite in recent years: “The Lunchbox” (2013). It’s an Indian film, and the original title there was “Dabba.” The premise is simple: there’s been a rare mistake in Mumbai’s efficient system of tiffin deliveries, and the wrong tiffin is delivered, inadvertently connecting the lonely cook and the lonely recipient, and a love affair ensues. My God, it’s wonderful! He falls in love with her first via her flavors and dishes.
In your novel, “Bitter in the Mouth” your central character has a neurological condition known as synesthesia. For those reading this at home who may not be familiar this is a condition where the person having it whereby spoken and written language (as well as some colors and emotions) causes them to experience an automatic and highly consistent taste/smell. The taste is often experienced as a complex mixture of both temperature and texture. For example, one person who had it would read or hear the word “jail” and then they would taste of cold, hard bacon. Tell us about the word choices you made for your fictional character Linda and what they made her taste.
The narrator of Bitter in the Mouth, Linda Hammerick, has a neurological condition that causes her to experience a flavor whenever she hears or speaks certain words. The coupling of a flavor with a word is randomly assigned by her synesthetic brain, and you’re absolutely right that the coupling is then consistent. The flavors that she can experience have to be flavors that she has experienced during the course of her daily life. In other words, if she has never tasted foie gras then her brain doesn’t have access to it, and no words can trigger the flavor of foie gras for her. Linda is growing up in a small town in North Carolina in the mid-70s. The flavors that she has experienced are defined by her region and her context. Conveniently, I also grew up in a small town in North Carolina in the mid-70s. The flavors I remembered from there I gave to Linda. I also very wickedly gave Linda a mother who couldn’t cook and who relied on the crutches of instant, processed, and convenience food and dishes. Many of Linda’s words brought back the horrors (for me) of canned vegetables and artificially flavored and colored foods. I wanted to give her some treats too. For instance, her childhood crush is named Wade, and “Wade” triggers the taste of orange sherbet. Sure, orange sherbet in the 70s came in plastic tub, was made with little or no oranges, and was neon bright. It was still a treat and a sincere and pleasant memory of childhood.
You’ve created a meal so you can sit and join your 3 chosen guests from all of history. Whom are your 3 guests? What did you cook?
Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and Federico Garcia Lorca. For Virginia, I’d make a Vietnamese dessert, perhaps a corn or mung bean chilled “soup,” scented with pomelo flowers. It’s a scent that’s delicate and assertive all at once, distinctive, and unforgettable once encountered. It’s very much like her writing. For Oscar, something tart, bracing, and addictive in its complexities, which would increase with every bite. I’m thinking of thin wedges of crisp, green mangos dipped in salt that’s pale pink in color because it’s been pounded with red chili peppers. For Federico, I would offer him a bouquet of fresh lotus pods, their heavy heads drooping from their stalks, as they are of this world but also otherworldly. Then, I would show him how to break open the tender pods and free the pale green seeds one by one. We would share the seeds with Virginia and Oscar and remark on how the aftertaste hints at sweetness and milk.
If you had not made it as an Author…and money were not an issue…what profession would you choose?
If money was not an issue, then I would give it away as my profession. Philanthropy would be my dream profession. According to a recent Oxfam study, the richest 62 people in the world have more than half of the world’s total wealth. What a shameful, damning fact.
Would you want your child (or a niece or nephew) to become a writer?
Absolutely. I firmly believe that a writer does not want to be one. You are compelled to be one. If a young member of my family feels such passion toward the written word, I would encourage, support, and offer guidance. I would also write them a check, if I could. After the success of To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee wrote an essay about how two friends of hers had gifted her enough money so that she could focus on her writing for an entire year. It was a year that would gift to the rest of us her remarkable first novel.
If you wrote a book on ‘advice for aspiring authors (etc.) what would you choose for it’s title?
Travel Safely, Write Dangerously
(From Monique): Norman. Please include these links; this one for “being a diabetic”
and this one for “food tips”]