This morning I woke up to a sky blue memory of myself sitting next to a bathtub. In that bathtub there was a large catfish swimming around in its own blue-green pool.
It was a visually intact memory of myself sitting next to the cream-colored linoleum bathtub, and in it was a truly large and grand catfish. Dad had received it from one of the regulars from the family donut shop, an old fisherman that was kind enough to give my beloved dad fresh fish when he had a surplus. It was fresh. In fact it was so fresh that it swam and flickered it’s tail in the water, and I watched it come alive from its frozen slumber. My mother had the darn creature to thaw out in the bathtub, of course I thought it was pretty fascinating. For a few hours I would have a pet… I also recognized that this was going to be a fleeting memory because I knew that we were close to devouring it, I just didn’t know when.
But I knew how…
Braised with loads of cracked black pepper, a dark rum colored molasses, fish sauce and garlic .Or it would be in a soup. A sweet and sour soup concoction with a tamarind and fish stock base, pineapple, various vegetables such as cabbage and this rhubarb like vegetable then topped with Vietnamese herbs, tomatoes and fried garlic.
It brought back so many memories of my once young mother cooking tirelessly for her family of 5. I still savor everything that she once cooks when I am away…salivating when I think of aromas and flavors of her kitchen.
The catfish in the tub was very slimy and large, it reminded me of an early PBS morning cartoon about a about a Chinese folklore. But mine came to life. I had made this fish out to be a wise old man who had a very very long mustache. His whiskers fell to the sides of his mouth, draping alongside him as he swam. The skin was black to dark grey to grey…a white belly…it was such a pretty gradient…eyes wide apart…and a enlightened smile.
When I woke up and had that moment visually impairing myself, I layed in bed a little longer to try to remember as much as I could about that day, not wanting to move staying as still as possible. And, it also lead me into remembering what it was, that I loved so much about food and cooking at our household. Nothing was boring in our house. My mother, I believe was a Vietnamese culinaire. I’ve told you before how hard both my parents had worked, long hours, little pay. An early immigrant family from Vietnam; my mother never really experimented with worldly cuisines but my father on the other hand…he loved to! He definitely brought a rich abundance of odd influences into my cooking.
Early on he had taken up jobs as a cook to provide for his family he taught me that vinegar was a great substitute for salt when sautéing, and that in Chinese restaurants they would tenderize their meats with cornstarch and baking soda before entering the sizzling hot oil. He loved a good steak…he loved A-1 steak sauce and he mainly loved his family.Normally I will wake up thinking about “What will I do today…Uh OH I have to go to work…What will I cook for my Client” but today; I woke up thinking about that catfish…that lead me to think of sweet and sour soup…that got me to thinking about my sweet mother cooking and squatting down picking herbs…that got me to think about my father cooking and his exciting bounty of vegetables and meats whilst he sautes…and well that got me to missing that dark-skinned man and his great smile. I used to say that not a day goes by without me thinking about him, but my daily adult routine has lessened the images of him…but the damn memories just get more haunting…can I say even more beautiful. More and more each year they get more vivid and sudden memories will unexpectedly jump through the everyday and mundane.
It causes me to pause, pulls me away from the task at hand and a large smile from either ends of my mouth begins to pull till… but each time I feel his hug and smell his sweet smell….and see his glorious smile.
About a year ago I taught cooking lessons at the Thrive House. The group ranged from 9 the oldest being 15. The Thrive house is a non-profit space where other non profits would be able to share a clean, bright and safe environment. The place is a well-kept safe haven for many of the kids. Kept by Thuy Nguyen and Shawn Connolly these two have given their time to make sure that the youth in the area have a sound place for their time away..
Now I have a new batch of kids to teach…two non profits that I have volunteered for are serendipitously connecting the Indo-Chinese Housing Development Center of San Francisco and The Thrive House. How exciting! My two friends Thuy Nguyen and Julie Nguyen (not related) both are the wonderful women that have made this happen. Both mind you, didn’t know each other when the two of them thought of me to do this. BOTH making such a difference in the lives of all the youth in the Bay Area.
For the next two weeks I will be reflecting upon my childhood as much as I can to teach a class of wonderful kids cooking and what it means to me, and what it could mean for them. I want to show them that I, a young Vietnamese-Cambodian continually cooks because I just love it. And for the next 2 weeks I will again be called Ms. Tina. The Tenderloin for those who do not know, is this micro-city within San Francisco. A dichotomy of crackheads, drug dealers, and hardworking struggling immigrant families. A large population of South-East Asians; Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laos, and Phillipino immigrants live within a poverty-stricken backlot to a thriving and bustling downtown environment. All the kids in this group will be from the Tenderloin.
The kids will range from 7-13 year olds and I can clearly recall that time of my youth when I would curl up on the couch during those Saturday mornings watching all those PBS cooking series…then later watching Saved By the Bell. I want to expand their current interest in cooking, just like those PBS cooking shows. I want them to explore all the awes and wonders that food has to offer.
It’s such a good feeling, I can try to explain it, but nothing matches the feeling of teaching children the wonderful craft of cooking.
I think my dad would be very very proud of me. And I am going to use his same gusto that he had when he showed me how to cook. I would like to help create lasting memories about food….
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