First of all, I would like to put it right on the table that I am no expert at Vietnamese cuisine. Despite a million daydreams, I have never traveled to Hanoi and stood over a steaming bowl of pho with a dozen bikes swerving around me as I stuff my face at a street market. As much as I like the romantic image, I don’t have that kind of expertise, that kind of taste memory.
What I do have is my high-school best friend.
And having a best friend comes with all kinds of other memories, even if they are steeped in the deep, inner world of young adult drama. Van and I met in 9th grade, and it didn’t seem likely, at first, that we would be close friends. I was sullen and wore black. She was outgoing and got up on tables in French class to recite limericks. When we did become friends, I hardly ever thought about the fact that she is Vietnamese, but I’ve thought of it a lot since.
The thing is, when you fall into friendship, you hardly realize you’re taking on aspects of your friend’s culture. You’re just liking the conversation, you go see a movie, meet for coffee. Suddenly, you know for sure you have each other’s back. So you go on a road trip, start trading Kurt Vonnegut books, making dinner for all your mohawked friends. It doesn’t register that for the rest of your life, when you smell the starchy fragrance of rice cooking, you’ll think of sitting in your friend’s house after school with her grandmother hunched over an alter, spitting tobacco into a spittoon. You can’t comprehend that you’ll pick up chopsticks often and be grateful for that time that Van was still getting ready and her father brought you to the table for a lesson on how to hold them. And you especially aren’t aware that Cha Gio, an eggroll-like appetizer, will forever top your list of comfort food. Van’s mother made these often and left big plates in her small, tidy kitchen. We’d come home late at night and somehow the world of Rusty’s-left-me-for-his-ex-girlfriend and should-we-get-the-hell-out-of-Florida-for-spring-break? and I’m-getting-a-C-in-Algebra would give way to the feeling of being HOME, because home meant there was a plate of something made just for you, and back then ‘you’ was a collective term.
In eating from those plates of Cha Gio, I also got to discover something new. So these rolls are the sum of what it means to make a friend in the tumultuous social world of school, which is exactly what I woke up thinking about on A’s first day of kindergarten. She was a little overwhelmed by the whole institution. She was wondering how she’d ever make friends. If people would like her. These conversations dredge up some pretty strange things in my own psyche, but as I reassured her that she WILL make friends and it’s normal to feel nervous and she is amazing just being her and all the words you grasp around for when trying to saddle life into something understandable for a 5-year-old, I suddenly thought of Van and the way we would sit together eating Cha Gio together after school. In a moment of clarity, I was okay with A’s struggle because I knew that there would be people in the world for her. I knew someday she would meet her Van.
That afternoon, I grabbed a Vietnamese cookbook and tried my hand at making Cha Gio. I needed to do it to remind myself of all the unknowns that turn out good; to remind myself that someday, somewhere A will see something in a girl standing on a table in French class, which might turn out to be a friendship that will take her all the way to the day when she is sending her own daughter off to school.
I also made these because Van is back in my life. She never really left, but you know– friendships ebb and flow. We live closer than we have in years and despite time, we still seem to have a lot in common. So I also made Cha Gio as a huge thank you thrown into the universe for my friendship with Van. I’m happy she’s back. I’m happy she’s here. This is my edible version of standing on a table and reciting limericks back.