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Stealing Buddha’s Dinner


I am not good at reading non-fiction, and a perfectly juicy book will sit on my pile for months, rejected in favor of far callower fiction, because it has the misfortune to have the word “memoir” or “account” on its cover. I blame this problem on school, starting with the first grade, where the only books about women on the “Biography Cart” were Amelia Earhart, Florence Nightingale and Julia Ward Howe, books I could recite from memory by the end of second grade. I was not interested in Daniel Boone, Henry Ford, or the other 70 books, all about famous men, and machines and shooting and so forth. The deal was sealed in law school, where I recall reading the same sentence in a Property case approximately 30 times, and probably highlighted it at least 15 of those times. I am capable of reading for information, I do it when it’s necessary, but never in my 47 years have I said to myself “I wish I had time to read a really good piece of non-fiction.” Not one time. No Malcolm Gladwell, not even Thomas Friedman.


Strange, then, that I am so completely smitten with Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen, (pronounced “Bic,” by the way) which is not only non-fiction, but has the word “memoir” on the cover. I bought it because it was about many things of great personal interest to me, including Food, Asia, Asians, Asian Food, Buddhism, and  Differentness. It sat and sat on the shelf, however,  as I read novels, then magazines, then nothing; it sat until I picked it up yesterday morning, began to read with my morning coffee, and consumed it as greedily as the author remembers consuming American candy in her early years here.

smarties[1]The secret here, is that Nguyen became a friend early in the book, and I trusted her to tell me everything, to do it beautifully, and not to leave me feeling manipulated or “instructed,” and she didn’t disappoint.  We have much in common, the author and I; we grew up a scant 9 years and 68 miles apart, we are both avid readers, come from a mix of cultures, and felt ourselves to be “outsiders” as children. She describes, in lyrical detail, the lunch room scenes, the foods and even the stores and restaurants I know from growing up in Michigan. She also read and re-read  the same books I did, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Harriet the Spy, and was also enthralled by the descriptions of what everybody ate. That’s more than enough social glue to form the easy beginning of a friendship.

The differences between us though, are what held my interest. Nguyen was an immigrant from 1975 Saigon, and her sense of “differentness” and search for her true identity were of a very different variety from my own. I could have chosen, perhaps, to be more athletic and less eccentric, but Nguyen’s alienation involved an immutably Asian face, a petite frame and Buddhist roots among a sea of tall, blonde, Christians in Grand Rapids, Michigan (before we all became so “diverse”).  It also included a multigenerational home with a grandmother who made daily offerings to a Buddhist shrine,  a Hispanic stepmother with a culture and baggage of her own, an absent birth mother who could never be discussed, and the shame of bargain-basement clothes and generic cookies in a universe of pastel crewnecks and Hostess snack cakes.

buddha in reposeNgyuen grows up moving among her Vietnamese roots, her stepmother’s traditions and decrees, and her yearning to be like the families she sees in commercials and meets at friends’ houses. She does not fit into the world of her Grand Rapids school friends with their canopy beds, fervent Christianity, and mothers who are “homemakers” and send to school perfectly packaged lunches full of desirable, brand-name items. She is equally ill at ease with her stepmother’s family and their traditions, and eventually becomes so thoroughly assimilated that she mixes badly with the clique of other Vietnamese immigrant children who have grown up preserving their heritage through language and cultural tradition. No matter where she is, even when it seems that she is getting what she wanted, Nguyen is missing pieces of her other selves, and rarely feels complete or satisfied.


Food is an essential part of Nguyen’s journey through childhood without a comfortable identity. There is always, in her house, the Vietnamese food cooked by her grandmother, and the fruit which, after it is offered to Buddha, is lovingly peeled, cut and presented to Nguyen and her sister Anh. There is the haphazard, low-budget, sometimes Mexican cooking of stepmother Rosa, and the wonder of the tamales prepared by Rosa’s family for various holidays.  There are always dreams of the American food seen on TV: the Pringles, the bouncing cubes of Jello, the salad dressing pouring from the cruet at the family table, and mothers who, in cahoots with Poppin’ Fresh, understand that “Nothin Says Lovin like Something from the Oven.”  There are restaurant meals, from ersatz Mexican at Chi Chis to a brief family love affair with Ponderosa. There is a particularly lovely thread about Nguyen’s difficulty using a knife and fork to cut meat at a friend’s house , and of her grandmother’s unspoken understanding in the form of serving her un-cut pieces of food so that she could practice using a knife and fork.


Although I would have loved this book just because Nguyen writes so lovingly and with such focus about food, there is much more to relish.  Nguyen’s frank narrative also outlines the tension of a blended family, a difficult relationship with her stepmother, who is “not her real mother,” but is also her only mother, her changing place in the family as her sister and stepsister become teenagers and leave her behind, and the constant pressure to accept Jesus and be saved, despite the fact that she replaces the word “God” with “Buddha” when saying the pledge of allegiance in school.

Running through the vivid descriptions of Nguyen’s complicated childhood are filaments which, in the end, come together to answer the question of what is “real life.” Is it the commercials with perfect families, the Grand Rapids households with bobbed mothers who bake, the Vietnamese community with its Tet celebrations and dried squid snacks, or the world of Jo March and Laura Ingalls Wilder? This question is answered in a way that is at once inevitable and surprising.  What could, with a heavier touch, have become a  sodden tale of yearning and isolation becomes, in the end, one of the most life-affirming things I have ever read. The life it affirms is messy, and complicated, and confusing, but a life that shaped a writer of this caliber really can’t be written off as “sad.” Please read this book, read it soon, and give yourself a little time to savor what you’re offered. I may never again see the word “memoir” and flinch.


It’s Complicated….

Looking for vegetarian cookbooks at the library, I had already grabbed a (very disappointing) volume from the editors of “Vegetarian Times” when Rob joined me and pointed up to a volume called Simple Food for the Good Life by Helen Nearing. I had been hearing about Helen and Scott Nearing and their influence in the “Back to the Land” movement for most of my life, and was curious to see what kind of cookbook would come out of their self sufficient, no-frills lifestyle. I was further hooked when I saw the book’s cover, and read that it was “An Alternative Cook Book With a collection of EASY RECIPES That Have Evolved from Necessity or Available Garden Produce Intended for the Use of People of Moderate Fortune Who Do Not Affect Magnificence in Their Style of Living” authored “By That Frugal Housewife Helen Nearing.” (Although, based on the listing, the subtitles were apparently changed at some point after the book’s publication in 1980). Given my perpetual interest in thrift and my more recent focus on eating locally and seasonally, this sounded like a perfect read.


Imagine my surprise when I read on the first page of the first chapter the following words:

It has been said (and probably by a good cook) that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are good cooks and those who wish they were good cooks. I hold that there is a third category: those who are not good cooks and who couldn’t care less. I am happily one one of these….

This is not an auspicious beginning for a cookbook. It got worse. After explaining that, in preparation for writing the book, she spent hundreds of hours in various libraries poring over ancient cookbooks to see what had already been written, Nearing goes on to say that her book

is to be written by a simple woman who doesn’t read or use recipes, who doesn’t set a fancy table. It is to be for simple-living people who have other things paramount on their minds rather than culinary concerns, than eating and preparing dainty and elaborate dishes. It is not for those who are interested in eating as such. This is for those frugal, abstemious folk who eat to nourish their bodies and leave self-indulgent delicacies to the gourmets.

Danger, danger Will Robinson…

melting-butter…and yet I read on. I considered Nearing’s assertions that “the more appetizing foods are made, the more is eaten and the worse for the health of the body” and that “[i]f you are not hungry enough to eat unsalted popcorn or bread without loads of butter and jam, or salad without a spicy dressing or sauce, why eat at all? Why not wait until you are hungry, without craving extra stimulants?” Although it begs the whole question of taking pleasure in life, I see her point. I also read her opinions on how food should be consumed raw as often as possible, how cooking was drudgery and a waste of time, and I disagreed with her and found it presumptuous for her to choose what was, or was not a waste of time for other folks who might enjoy cooking as much as she enjoyed building houses from stone. I read her eloquent explanation of why she was a vegetarian, and was moved (although unconverted); I completely endorsed her position on the preference for fresh food rather than the processed variety.

I will add, at this point,  that I found the interspersing of quotes from various ancient cookbooks throughout the book to be TOTALLY maddening. The fact that someone who wrote a “booke of cookerie” in 1685 (when he wasn’t bleeding people or covering them with leeches) thought that no one should eat salt is not particularly persuasive.

Thinking that we were not exactly kindred spirits, but that Nearing had raised some good points along the way, I proceeded to the recipe section of the book. In the chapter on breakfast, Nearing first allows as how she and her husband Scott “can do without” it.The reasons for this became apparent as I read the recipes. My favorite is something called “Horse Chow,” which consists of 4 cups of raw oats, 1/2 cup raisins, the juice of 1 lemon, a dash of sea salt and olive or vegetable oil “to moisten.” This is consumed raw, lest you are imagining a bowl  hot oatmeal with raisins and odd seasonings. There is another recipe for “Miracle Mush,” made of 2 apples, 1 carrot and 1 beet grated together and topped with 1/4 cup grated nuts. These are not repulsive ideas, although the Horse Chow might be considered what my-brother-the-doctor calls “Colon Blow.”

I read on through the soups, most of which sounded reasonably good, if quite austere. There was a chapter of salad recipes which, again, were acceptable, albeit unlikely to show up on my table for the simple reason that I could not serve my family a salad of lima beans and dandelion plants. I continued through the chapter of vegetable recipes, endured an endless tirade against salt and spices in the chapter on herbs, and actually found some “keepers” in the section on casseroles and leftovers.


By the chapter on baked goods I was so accustomed to Nearing’s culinary eccentricities that I was not at all surprised to learn that she had an obsession with “over-starching,” and that she mostly preferred her baked goods not to be baked goods at all. There is a recipe for “bread” made by soaking wheatberries until they sprout, grinding them and shaping them into a loaf, sprinkling the loaf with sunflower seed and baking. This might be yummy, but it’s a safe bet that a non-vegetarian, post-Tassajara family will not scarf up the sprouted wheatberry “Wayfarer’s Bread.” On the other hand, there is an intriguing recipe for “”O-So-Easy Bread” that involves nothing more than mixing honey, yeast and whole wheat flour and baking it. No kneading, no rising. In the dessert chapter there are possible hits like candy made from oats, peanut butter, honey, vanilla and nuts and definite misses like the “Seaweed Pudding” made from dried seaweed, homemade jam and sour cream. In the last chapter, which focuses on drinks, Nearing is fiercely assertive about the fact that she and Scott rarely drank water (“perhaps in the hottest part of the summer we might drink a glass a day”) and that no one else would need to drink much, either, if they just stopped eating salty and spicy foods. This exhortation I met with a very polite “whatever, Helen….”

There is certainly evidence that the Nearing’s low-effort, high-virtue diet was healthful; Scott died in 1983 at the age of 100, and Helen died in 1995 at the age of 91. I completely agree with and admire their choice to eat local, unprocessed, high-fiber, low fat foods and I respect their vegetarianism. I find the insistence on minimal seasonings and drinking the smallest possible amount of anything to be nutty, and I do not see enough calcium in the book’s recipes to feed a growing child or a woman at risk for osteoporosis. In a “big picture” way, it’s hard not to admire people who were really pioneers, and turned away from a society that they saw heading in a wrong direction. They were true revolutionaries and extremists, and I probably should not expect their diets to include elements of the excessive and materialistic society the fled in the late 1930’s.

On the other hand, and it’s a big hand, I am stung by the implication that it is silly and lazy and dangerous to enjoy the cooking or consumption of food that is beautiful and delicious. I don’t see food as fuel, and even if it is, in part, a necessary evil, why should it not be a source of pleasure? Families and friends connect over food, food is shared as an expression of love and good will, and some of the most otherwise austere groups in the world (I’m thinking of the Amish) consider it a gift to turn the earth’s bounty into chess pies and homemade bread. I’m glad I read this book. I’m glad partly because I got some interesting recipes, and an interesting glimpse into the domestic lives of a pair of tremendously interesting and influential people.


family-meal-31I’m also glad because the repeated claims that cooking is drudgery and that eating is nothing more than scratching a biological itch sharpened my own sense that there is an essential spiritual component to cooking and eating. I can’t imagine a large Italian family sitting down to a Sunday dinner at Nona’s house and having nothing rich, spicy or lovingly prepared set on the table, and I can’t imagine that scenario in many Jewish, Indian, African American, Greek or Chinese families, either. It’s not about conspicuous or excessive consumption; there are cultures in which culinary miracles are wrought with very little in the way of ingredients and a great deal in the way of skill and tradition. With love. I would rather be in the desert with Bedouins tearing a camel apart with my hands, or eating (God save me) lutefisk with the Swedes in a Lutheran church basement and enjoying the moment than eat anything with the sense that I was in the hangar for some sort of soulless re-fueling.