My father passed ( GOD I miss him) a few years ago and I have so many beautiful memories of him. He would laugh tirelessly to the three stooges, Gilligan’s Island, and to I love Lucy. I often will replay that boisterous and roaring laugh over and over, in good times and bad. His laugh would shake a room and to this day rivet my heart. He was also a man of great mystery who failed to say many words, but when he did I would often listen intently to the fables and sweet folklores of my Vietnamese heritage.
From him I gained patience. He stood tall beneath that 5’6 frame and I was proud to have him as my jolly father. I wasn’t always proud of his car though. He drove a 1979 Toyota Celica, and then a 1981 Toyota Celica–both hatchbacks. He had a black head full of voluminous hair, ears that protruded from his kind face. His smile could still bring to me such a feeling of pride, that it aches my heart to think he ever left.
He was tanned from the natural melamine that ran through his Cambodian bloodline. He had the cheeks of a wisest elder, and the smile of that Jolly good luck Buddha. There are so many memories of him–
My mother would get mad at him if he slept in the same clothes after work, and it was worst if he didn’t shower. He would marinate the sheets and blankets with the sweet and savory smells of the donut fryer. He was a baker through the later parts of his life. He did so tirelessly and sometimes it seems endlessly. I never knew how hard he worked. We owned a bakery– DONUTLAND. I spent most of my early childhood behind the counter of the shop, still sometimes hearing the ding ding ding of the cash register. Whenever I pass by a donut shop (not just any bakery) I am often reminded of the sweet and melting shortening smell of the deep fryer. The wonderful hints of cinnamon from the donut crumbles, the saccharine sweetness of the frosting that was ladled onto the glaze donuts.
Nowadays I look forward to walking pass a donut shop peering inside to find an Asian American immigrant behind the counter. The sunlit warmth of the smell becomes somewhat aroma-therapeutic and the visual images let me imagine their immigrant story. No no NO! my mom would not allow my father to take a nap in the bed because of the strong odors that would sew themselves through the threads of his clothing and skin crocheting themselves with the delightful smells of the bakery. And of course the sometimes not so delightful smells of the exhaust fumes filling the 1979 Toyota hatchback
“PROOFING” my first lesson from my dad the baker. “That’s when the dough rises–” Yeast water flour and time in the very humid proofer…wait…actually he would usually have to proof the dough overnight on the bakers table. I lovvvvvvvved tippy toeing up to the bakers table peeking at that oversized lump of dough that almost resembles a very yeasty bready smelling blob. It usually formed an outer crust when not kept under a moist towel…that gave me an excuse to pick at the scablike crust. Oh and of course POPPING the dough. Punching it in and releasing its air. I never realized just how much i remembered about the Donut making process.
Imagine this—suburban town that was mainly blue-collar, Latinos and Caucasians. We were one of the very few South East Asian families in the area. A donut shop tucked away on a corner hidden behind a major freeway vein. Hot dry days, and the next town over sprinkled with empty fields once smothered with cows and farmland. There a little donut shop DONUT LAND was sandwiched between Victors Cleaners and Clover Insurance. Before you walk in there is a little girl feeding the birds, a woman who steps out of a 1981 white Buick Skylark with Tupperware bins filled with food, and a smiling husband opening the door to welcome her. So sweet, so cute. This is something that still visually haunts me
Pink interior…bad pink…pink donut boxes (your standard), a 5 column/ 4 tiered display of various donuts—pink ones, blueberry ones, brown ones, croissants, muffins, the works! A standard 6 burning coffee maker, a two sliding door fridge, and an ice-cream fridge that held about 8+ barrels of ice-cream. I was surrounded by sweets! The whole operation was fairly spacious. Spacious enough to let me rollarskate around. My father worked a lot and I fear that it was what lead him to an early goodbye. I can’t even say if I ever heard him complain. Sometimes when I feel like I’ve worked endlessly for hours I usually compare the work time with what my father had to deal with, and it helps me with gaining a different perspective to a career.
When I work in a kitchen it is not only to satisfy my daily desire to hone a craft but to pay homage to a man that has given me so much strength. He was the one that taught me to sauté and what a stir fry was, that if you put cornstarch into beef then it makes for a moist and succulent beef stir-fry. Steak with A-1 was “Ngong wa”….Soooo good. He loved my cooking, he would say “No body makes a turkey like Tina” he loved my pastas he loved my roasted chickens and he loved all the cakes I made. He was able to let me experiment in the bakery with various fillings for the donuts. I could fry, form, and glaze anything I wanted to. He taught me how to unroll a frozen croissant to stretch it out lightly, then roll cheddar and ham into it, he taught me how to scoop a good ice cream cone, how to ring someone up, how to plop a donut into the fryer, and of course how hot a donut gets when you don’t let it cool off.
With this I learned that those simple virtues have also embedded themselves through myself, and as I look back without too much holding on I hope those key moments will enable me to become the woman who my children will someday admire.
The patience and intelligence and nurture that is available in the kitchen can become a meditative process. A process that has been instilled within me since my early days listening and watching my father work. I want to be wonderful and classic just like him. Just like my mother. I want my laughter to ring through a room and shatter darkness.
When I chop garlic, I think of how he would chop garlic. When I was at Zuni the other day chopping garlic I could feel him behind me guiding my knife. The last dream I had of my father, we were being chased by Karl Lagerfield, hopping fences and running through rounds of ammunition, and like superheroes we kicked jumped rolled and ran through the tireless night. I never wanted that night to end. But the night before I had a dream that we were in a small kitchen my hand touching his cheek telling myself that this must be a dream and him just affectionately smiling at me. I woke up.