“In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” Such an understated opening sentence and the centerpiece of our Memorial Day. How to remember? What food fits our remembrance? My father served in the National Guard in the early sixties and narrowly missed going to Vietnam. Living in Houston means a rich heritage of Vietnamese immigrants fleeing the war and its aftermath to find new lives shrimping along the Gulf Coast. Roy Vu’s excellent article in Sugar and Rice entitled “Turbulent Seas: The Early Years of the Vietnamese in the Gulf Coast Shipping Industry” set me thinking. Vu writes, “The fall of Sài Gòn on April 30, 1975, ushered in the birth of a new diaspora. Fearing Communist reprisals, an estimated 130,000 Vietnamese fled the Republic of Viêt Nam (RVN) also known as South Viêt Nam, after the Communist takeover of the capital city.” Many of these exiles would find a home in Houston and along the Gulf Coast. My father loved to tell the story how after he put in his tour with the Guard, an officer wanted him to sign up and go over to Vietnam. My mother would hear none of it, and personally called up the recruiting officer to give him a piece of her mind. What if he had gone? My father had no illusions about war, he wanted no part of it. So, deciding to make a Vietnamese dish on Memorial Day appeared as a way of attending to a conflict that cost many lives, divided at least two countries, and figures in my family history and the history of my adopted city. This was before discovering our local asian market was closed and the full range of ingredients necessary for Canh Bún unavailable to us. Ah, but there’s the adventure! How to honor a recipe when I did not have all the ingredients? As for The Hobbit, well we decided that Demian was finally old enough to watch it, we’d been reading to him The Fellowship of the Ring over the last month, and yesterday featured a downpour . . . away we go! And anyway, empires and cannibals and fish bones oh my, are definitely part of Bilbo’s unexpected journey. And saké? We love it.
I end up with a creamy, rich stock, to which I add shrimp shells, bonito flakes and oyster sauce.
By this time, all the meat has fallen off the pig’s shin and it’s time to mix it up with some Gulf Coast Shrimp.
I now add this to my stock.
We’re in the home-stretch now. I have bean sprouts, spring onion, and Egyptian Spinach which I’ve blanched.
I put vermicelli in boiling-hot water, off the stove, let it sit for five minutes . . .
And now it’s time to assemble.
I serve Gabriela and Demian out on the back-porch.
Gabriela will now take over the narrative.
The original recipe had pork blood and shrimp paste in it, which I imagine would dominate the dish with flavor and thickness. Without these, John achieved something more subtle, shades of ocean and earth, definitely on the comfort food spectrum. Soft noodles which are al dente but distinctly so; the crunch of spring onion and flavorful strips of pork, juicy bits of shrimp and bright green spinach. Perfect for this rainy evening.
The Hobbit, it turns out, is also very much about how people eat differently and have to adapt to each other’s food customs. Pushed from their homes by various Imperialistic interests (Smaug, Orcs, Goblins), the dwarves eat from the cuisines that they find along the way, hobbit cuisine being their favorite, much to Bilbo’s dismay. They can’t quite appreciate the delicacy of Elfin dishes, and the eating of raw, live flesh practiced by Orcs, Wargs and Gollum remains a separator between good and evil, civilized and savage.
Empire, war and emigration remain big factors in how cuisines travel around the world, are appropriated, fused, adapted. Vietnamese cuisine is now part of Houston cuisine, and as part of a family that has formed here from Brazil, Sweden and Michigan, I think it very appropriate that we are inspired in our cooking by those who have also gathered here from the homes they left.
Our son now wants to keep Gollum as a pet. Demian writes,”I’d keep Gollum in my closet, feed him pig, take him on walks, and play riddle games with him.”
The unusual thing about The Hobbit is that the dwarves will actually get to return to their home and reclaim it. One imagines, though, that they will not be unchanged by the cuisines they were forced to endure in exile. As Gandalf tells Bilbo: “You will not be the same.”