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By Bang Tran, FoodCorps service member with Captain Planet Foundation

There are few things more American than a little Vietnamese lady roasting a turkey for the holidays.

There are few things I’ve endured worse than eating my mom’s holiday turkey a few years back.

It was overdone – colorless, flavorless, gritty, dry, and if I went on with more unsavory adjectives to describe that unfortunate bird, I’d reach the limits of the English language and would have to switch to Vietnamese.

When my parents crossed the Pacific Ocean to settle in the American South in the early 90s, they left behind their families and the only home they’d known. They carried with them only their memories and their hopes for a brighter future in the United States, so unfortunately a recipe for moist turkey was nowhere to be seen.

After the turkey experiment, I realized that my parents had progressively added more and more American food to our celebrations as the years passed. I came to see that our food began to mirror how we eventually embraced our identities as Americans.

When we gather for celebrations like Thanksgiving or Christmas, there are always the traditional Vietnamese dishes to be found: chả giò, thịt ram, canh chua, cá kho tộ, phở. Next to these dishes from our home country is usually an eclectic mixture of American food: fried chicken, hot wings, mashed potatoes, slow-cooked greens, and ham.

If you were to sit at our family table on a normal day, it would only be Vietnamese food. Our everyday meals consist mostly of rice, some vegetables, and either a Vietnamese meat or seafood dish. But when we celebrate, there are no boundaries when it comes to food. You might see my dad’s Southern barbecue, and my mom would serve coffee or tea (sweet or green, darlin’?). For dessert she’d probably bring out chè thái, a refreshing medley of Asian fruits traditionally floating in a glass of coconut milk, but her recipe calls for strawberry milk instead. This past Thanksgiving, we even had sweet potato soufflé at the table. Can you imagine going to your favorite phở restaurant and finding sweet potato soufflé on the menu?

To top it all off, it was a Paula Deen recipe. I never thought I’d see a Paula Deen recipe next to hột vịt lộn (English speakers may know it more familiarly as balut: fertilized duck egg). An incredible sight to behold, honestly.

I often tell people that I was born in Vietnam, but in reality I was born in the Philippines; my mother gave birth to me en route to America. I was literally born in the space between Vietnam and the United States, a child caught in between two completely different cultures. I spoke Vietnamese at home and English at school, ate chicken nuggets for lunch and thịt bò xào for dinner, so I feel a mysterious comfort in finding Paula Deen occupying the same kitchen as my mother.

When my family gathers to celebrate, the food at our table is not only a snapshot of where we are in life, but also a reflection of the long journey we’ve taken. Vietnamese home cooking sits next to Filipino street food, and Southern cooking always finds a place at the table. As my parents, aunts, and uncles tell stories of Vietnam and their immigration, you could almost trace each milestone with a different dish at the table. That’s why there’s no other place I’d rather eat than at the family table, and that’s why when I come home for the holidays, I truly know who I am.

It is incredible how much history a meal can contain, and it’s equally mystifying how much we can see ourselves in the food we eat. Even though my mom still can’t roast a turkey worth a damn, I can’t wait to come home this year to see what where our journey has led us.

{{ image(3962, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:142, “height”:180}) }}Bang, born in the Philippines and raised in Atlanta, GA, is a FoodCorps service member with Captain Planet Foundation. He majored in environmental sciences worked in a pollinator ecology lab which exposed him to food production. After interning at a local community garden, he fell in love with urban agriculture and started to explore what Atlanta had to offer in the local food scene.

Since then he’s been teaching garden based lessons, integrating the curriculum into outdoor learning. As an avid cook, he finds that cooking with his students from produce they’ve grown in the school garden as the most engaging aspect of service.