My mom became a widow when she was only 28, an age when many of us are still trying to figure out how to navigate life. My parents had only just begun to plant the seeds to the life and future that they were hoping to cultivate for our young family. But before those seeds could even begin to take root and sprout, those hopes and dreams were violently crushed to a pulp within an instant. Our lives were derailed without forewarning, and my mom was abruptly propelled into single motherhood when my younger brother and I were 6 and 4 years old. We suddently became three and New Olreans no longer had anything left for us.
Only in recent years have vegetarianism and its derivative regimens started to gain greater recognition here in France, a country whose culinary identity is inextricably bound to dishes that prominently feature meats and offal of all varieties. When I initially arrived here, most of the French people I met could not fathom the idea of omitting meat or dairy from their diet, and they considered meals served without animal protein as unsatiatingly incomplete. Friends visiting from the US who had dietary restrictions would have difficulty finding restaurants catering to their needs. But over the last few years, I‘ve noticed that meat-free as well as gluten-free dining options have become increasingly more common in Paris. I even met a French vegan in the master’s program that I just recently completed. I was astonished to learn that he had been vegan for the last few years, because I didn’t think that that eating lifestyle would ever be a thing in a country where cheese reigns supreme.
Finding work in France has never been difficult. The challenge has always been finding a position that was well aligned with my interests and skill set. Needless to say, the job market here in France does not mirror that in the US. The labor market here lacks the diversity seen the US is and is woefully resistant to change. France’s inadequate investment in scientific research has consequently stunted the evolution and growth of many fields, including my own. So, I’ve always settled for positions within the realm of my field of work, but the work was never quite what I wanted to be doing.
I recently read in the latest edition of the newly revived French Master Chef magazine that Vietnamese cuisine includes at least 500 dishes. 500 dishes – that is astronomical! I feel like a neophyte of my own cuisine, even though I grew up in a Vietnamese household subsisting mostly on foods from my parents’ native country. I haven’t even come close to eating through the cuisine, and I’m constantly discovering dishes through my MIL’s kitchen, exploring restaurants and the internet, which gives me the chance to uncover the cuisines from around the world without having to set foot on an airplane.
Given the speed at which we pass from one thing to the next, it’s no wonder that few things hold timeless value anymore. The digital age has transformed how we chronicle our lives and interact with one another. Our compulsion to document just about everything, including our most mundane routine activities and banal thoughts, has become second nature. Reaching for our mobile devices to digitally capture everything, however, diminishes the significance of any given moment, because we’ve become so fixated on the images and videos themselves, rather than savoring the instant.
During the summer months, Paris dials down the city’s tempo to a languid pace. The city becomes a near ghost town, especially in August, when city dwellers leave en masse for their summer vacations. Many businesses also close up shop for the month, while work projects come to a halt, only to resume à la rentrée (back to school/work in September). While the Parisians flee the city in search of respite elsewhere, I prefer to stay behind, enjoying the quiet and revelling in the vacancy of the streets.
When Albert Camus wrote that “real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present,” I doubt that he imagined a world that is perpetually plugged-in like ours. Being fully present in any given moment has become a near impossible feat with the constant inundation of information and content enticing us to mindlessly swipe and stare at our screens. We’ve become a society that is increasingly tethered to our mobile devices, so much so that our attention span has diminished to less than that of a goldfish.
Growing up in California, we didn’t have to think twice about where our food came from. We lived in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley where the land is among the most fertile in the world. The state grows a staggering amount of fruits and vegetables, representing a considerable proportion of the produce consumed and exported by the US. California’s abundant sunshine coupled with its fertile land make growing almost anything possible.
Garnishes are indispensable ingredients that complement the symphony of flavors found in Vietnamese dishes. Fresh herbs, such as red perilla or basil, infuse our noodle soups, spring rolls and salads with a bouquet of flavors that scintillate our taste buds. More savory toppings like fried pork fat impart a crunchy succulence to dishes such as bánh bèo (steamed rice cakes) and cơm tấm bì (broken rice with shredded pork skin). Among the assortment of garnishes that dress our plates, I use fried shallots the most frequently in my kitchen.