“I started the whole VietnamEazy concept because of my husband. His disdain for the strong smell of fish sauce often led me to substitute salt to satisfy his taste.”
These are the words of Kieu, the main character in Trami Nguyen Cron’s debut novel, VietnamEazy. The only San Jose’s Parks & Rec department volunteer to write a novel about a TV cooking show, Cron hails from Saigon via France, Dallas and Salt Lake City. What a combination.
The book centers on Kieu, a Vietnamese-American woman trying to win a TV cooking show by introducing the general masses to the multisensory allure of Vietnamese food. Her husband is emotionally distant, apathetic, badly withdrawn and lacks any desire to appreciate the talents and passions of his wife. He’d rather crunch code and listen to audio books than discuss their relationship.
In the process, Kieu develops a concept called VietnamEazy, a technique for composing a symphony of Vietnamese sustenance, but with simple ingredients one can track down in any podunk American McMarket. She loves food and is determined to slaughter the patriarchal subordinate stereotypes crushing second-generation Vietnamese women in the U.S., whose parents force-cram decades-old familial expectations on them.
Our protagonist Kieu notes that “the trick to cooking fish sauce was to simmer it long enough to reach the point of indescribable delicacy where the pungent smell is replaced by a sweet, savory umami aroma. This essence is unique to Southeast Asian cuisines.”
In the book we learn intricate details about Vietnamese food, including recipes that open each chapter, but VietnamEazy is much more than a foodie story. Each time Kieu cooks something, it reminds her of stories her mother or grandmother told her in years past. Memories emerge and the resulting novel interweaves several different narratives. For one, we get the current-day tale of Kieu competing on a ridiculous TV cooking show, replete with flashy Hollywood-style participants of varying degrees of flagrant superficiality. And then we get a few lifetimes’ worth of mother-daughter relationship issues unique to the Vietnamese.
“I have a lot of stories that were told to me when I was growing up,” said Trami, who will be at Hicklebee’s Books on Friday for a reading and signing. “But we never get to hear these stories in mainstream America. All we hear are stories about the Vietnam War. There are a lot of stories besides those that are related to the war. So I thought, how do we tell these stories and make it funny so people can learn something about Vietnam?”
And that we do. For example, we don’t even get past the first few pages before learning that many Vietnamese women are raised to hate themselves so much that they secretly desire “Western” features like double-creased eyelids or a high-bridge nose. Some even apply Scotch tape to hold back their eyelids while sleeping, so that by morning they’ll have the crease for at least a few hours.
We also learn that in many Vietnamese families, men are encouraged to succeed by becoming doctors or lawyers, while the girls are encouraged to sacrifice anything they’d possibly want to achieve in life to instead serve and support their husbands’ ambitions. In today’s Vietnam, much of this has given way to modernization, but here in the States, especially with daughters raised by parents stuck in a 1975 mentality, authoritarian flavors of family rule still persist. Girls are not expected to challenge anything their mothers tell them. Men, of course, are more than allowed to change their fates and do as they please, but women are apparently born with specific feminine virtues to which they must adhere.
As a result, Kieu wants to throw such ruinous traditions out the window while introducing TV audiences to the wonders of Vietnamese food in the process. She is a hero and her husband has no idea what he’s missing.
In the end, we get some awesome recipes, too, some of which are local. For example, Chef Chris Yeo of Straits and Sino restaurants contributed “Sauteed Crab in Secret Sauce” and Tyrone Huynh of Big T’s Seafood Market Bar contributed “Hades Rice.”
Trami Nguyen Cron
Friday, July 1, 7-8pm
Free, Hicklebee’s Books
1378 Lincoln Ave, San Jose