My mother, Huong, was born in Vietnam and met my father Dennis during the war. She had been hired by the U.S. Army to teach Vietnamese to American soldiers, and my father was one of the handsome young soldiers in her class, an idealistic, corn-fed Midwesterner who offered to drive her home on base after class.
After a short courtship, they married in the chapel at the military base in Okinawa, Japan, and he brought her back to America. That was in the late 1960s, long before that war ended with the fall of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, in April 1975. That was the formal end of the war, at least. War has a way of lingering in the minds of the people who manage to survive it. My mother was not a refugee, and yet she, too, was driven by war from one life into another, a bright red line dividing the before and after, her former home and her new adopted one. Even when she was here, she was there. Even when she was there, she longed to be here, or at least someplace far from where she was.
Our small family settled first in Ithaca, New York, so my father could earn a law degree from Cornell. I was born there in November 1969 and have no memory of it whatsoever. When I think about it, I can only picture a faded family photo: I’m a baby with a thick patch of dark, wavy brown hair lying on a faded old beach towel in some grass, my chubby hand reaching for the long leaf of a nearby daffodil. I can sense my parents together, just off camera, watching me carefully, happily married as they supposedly were back then.
We later moved to the Washington, D.C., suburb of College Park, Maryland, where I grew up, and the house my brother was born into in 1975. It was in that fittingly suburban, split-level house that the hard work began for our family to become what my mother always called “Americanized.” We ate American food and listened to American music. My mother spoke only English at home. My brother and I were American from the get-go, of course, which was the source of many of our family’s later problems. But at first, and for a while, our American family was stable, even ordinary.
And yet traces of my mother’s old life remained, in the sextet of gilded Asian fans she displayed on the wall, some golden etched vases, and of course the carved wooden elephants with upraised trunks, a symbol of good luck in Asian cultures. These items brought me pleasure when I saw them, because they made my family feel exotic and not ordinary. They were beautiful, delicate, and exquisite, just like my mother was.
My favorite emblem of my mother’s specialness, however, was her spring rolls.
Called chả giò in Vietnamese, spring rolls are similar to Chinese egg rolls, but with a lighter wrapper traditionally made of rice paper and a denser, more fragrant and savory filling. Considered mostly an appetizer or street food in Vietnam, in my mother’s kitchen they were the main event--an entrée that we planned for ahead of time and ate with relish, sometimes six or seven rolls at a sitting.
My mother takes great pride in her spring rolls, choosing her ingredients carefully, cutting them up with precision, and carefully tending to the sizzling pan. She has been making them since long before I was born, and it is the dish I remember enjoying more than any other from my childhood. My mother’s spring rolls are, to this day, my favorite thing to eat.
You’d think she would be satisfied with her recipe at this point, but she’s not. Every time we sample a good spring roll from some restaurant or deli, she compares hers to theirs. She turns the roll over in her hand, rips it in half, examines the contents with a scientific eye. “How do you think they get them so crispy?” she might ask. “What is that crunchy vegetable in there?” Or, more often than not, she would criticize. “Too greasy” or “cheap meat.” When I meet my friend Q.L. for lunch, talk often turns to our Asian mothers’ demanding natures, and how hard it is to remember that their criticism is simply evidence of their high standards. When you’re young, it just feels like you’re not measuring up.
When I was a girl, making my mother’s spring rolls was a weekend-long affair that involved traveling a long distance to the closest Asian market (not as common then as they are now), filling our basket with ground pork and shrimp and chicken, and carrots and bean sprouts and mushrooms—a treasure trove of ingredients that made me salivate with anticipation. At home we would chop and mix and season it all with salt, pepper, and garlic powder until it was just right. Then we would separate a stack of softened rice papers and scoop a hearty spoonful of the filling into the center of each paper, before rolling them up and dunking them into sizzling oil until they were crispy and brown. I was never happier then when a mountain of hot spring rolls took center stage on our dining room table.
To me, spring rolls are more than just a delicious treat; they are a symbol of determination, heritage, and healing. Food is the fuel that drives culture and connection. Food shapes our bodies and our families. It is a pathway into the past, and a road map into the future. Spring rolls have helped my mother feel connected to the place of her birth, a place she has long since left behind, and they have helped me feel connected to her, and by extension my own history. Our relationship—by turns tenuous and tenacious—has raised questions for me: Is home the place you come from or where you end up? Is your connection to your family by default or by choice? Is identity based on what you look like or how you feel inside?
And, maybe most importantly, how do you make a perfect spring roll?