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The Trouble With Ông Ngoại’s Cooking

In my family, which coalesced around the women in the kitchen, the men must have felt isolated in their own homes

Growing up, I only saw my grandfather, my ông ngoại, cook two things: fish-sauce eggs and ramen. I’m talking two-minute, 99-cent ramen, so full of sodium that you choke on the first sip. The eggs took more effort. Ông Ngoại whipped them with a fork until they got frothy, then poured in a generous glug or two of fish sauce. The yellow of the eggs darkened like a wet rag. He’d fry the eggs until their edges rippled, then slide them on top of rice.

We didn’t speak much during those meals, though Ông Ngoại had plenty of stories to tell. He grew up in prewar Vietnam, in a fishing village that remains just as poor and isolated today as it was 80 years ago. He moved from home to home as a child, because his parents couldn’t afford to feed him and his siblings, then joined the army in his teenage years. When he was stationed in a village bordering Cambodia at the age of 22, he met my grandmother, a willowy 15-year-old who seemed almost as lonely as he was, and proposed that same day. They wrote letters until she turned 18, when they married.

During their 60-something years together, they raised four kids and saw the births of grandchildren and my daughter, their great-grandchild. Through it all, my grandmother, Bà Ngoại, did the job mothers of that generation did: She cooked endless meals with what she had on hand. This legacy of women-run households, especially in communities of color, runs strong and true, to the point where reminiscing about Grandma’s cooking or learning to cook among generations of women has become a trope. And such a trope doesn’t come without complications, the dark underbelly of gender expectations: While my bà ngoại’s story has been flattened into a few remembered recipes and moments in the kitchen, my ông ngoại never really got the chance to participate in that exchange. In many ways, he must have felt like a bit of an interloper in his own home.

After my family immigrated to the United States when I was 5, we began a new tradition of Sunday lunches — our equivalent of the Italian Sunday Supper. At noon sharp, Bà Ngoại and my aunts spread their offerings on the oilcloth: lemongrass-rubbed catfish, squares of noodles brushed with garlic oil, sticky rice studded with red sausage and strips of omelet. Sunday lunches were all-day affairs, mellowing out into afternoons when everyone sprawled on couches and floors, napping off the food.

When I grew older, Bà Ngoại enlisted me to help cook. I learned to wrap spring rolls tight as forefingers and devein pounds of shrimp. While I worked alongside the women, I heard my cousins playing outside through screen doors. I wanted to join them, but I had already been initiated into the sweaty inner sanctum of my family kitchen and there was no going back. Perched atop a step stool, I felt several steps behind, both in cooking and understanding. Their conversation and jokes confused me; there was a sense of knowingness behind their words that didn’t yet cohere for me. But I never doubted I belonged there, with the women in my family.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that men have existed at the periphery of my life — my father left my mother and me when I was a year old. When I think of the people who have nurtured me, I think of my bà ngoại sprinkling sugar on buttered bread for my bedtime snack, my mother sneaking wafers under my door after someone put me in time out, my tiny, beloved aunt teaching me to make flan.

Immigrant women of my grandmother’s generation — and, to an extent, my mother’s — are often missing from public discourse, except through the stories their children tell. When women in communities such as mine are seen as nurturers first and foremost, they often lose their voices in public spaces, even as they command authority in their households. Their kitchens bustle with ideas and ambition, but many times, those ideas don’t make it past the threshold of the home. At the same time, women become totems of domesticity and are seen as the bearers of family history, roles that hold their own troublesome power.

When you spend your life feeding, cooking, meeting others’ needs, you may forget to allow others to see you as anything but a nurturer. I think of my grandmother, massaging her swollen ankles as she reached for yet another frying pan, a whole hidden world behind her sharp eyes. Her stories are myriad, as exciting and sorrowful as my grandfather’s, but now I can only recount them through recipes and memories of her kitchen. It doesn’t feel like I’ve done justice to her.

And then there are the men missing from this narrative of home cooking, those shadows in my life and home. Did they feel shut out? Were they comfortable at the periphery, or did they want to wedge into the chaos of the family kitchen, gutting fish and laughing alongside their wives and mothers? I recall those hot afternoons by the stove with my mother, grandmother, and aunts, and wonder how the men could have felt anything but isolated. I think they must have felt unseen too.

My ông ngoại was an intensely loving man, but his love language couldn’t be the same as the women in my family, who showered their children with easy affection, sometimes in the form of sticky banana pudding and shrimp fritters. Ông Ngoại was shooed out of the kitchen, as if he were a nuisance.

During my afternoons alone with him, those rare occasions when Ông Ngoại would be tasked with serving me lunch, I would follow him into the kitchen, where he’d rustle around to find a pot. He surveyed the pantry before landing on either ramen or eggs. He wasn’t a hesitant cook, but he didn’t seem to find any particular joy in the enterprise. He rolled up the sleeves of his button-up, put a dish towel in his back pocket, and got to the necessary work of feeding his grandchild.

I won’t cloud the memories by pretending his cooking was anything special; it wasn’t. Yet I craved his food the way a child craves anything they think they don’t get enough of — junk food, milkshakes, Halloween candy. I looked forward to a meal with him the way I never looked forward to the carefully planned Sunday lunches, mostly because my time with him was rare. There are so many things I should have asked him. Did he learn to cook when he was in the army? What did he eat when he was a child, traveling from home to home? But our meals were silent, almost forcefully so. I was afraid to break the silence.

Perhaps the oceans between us could be better navigated through regular domestic acts: fixing breakfast for me in the mornings or helping to tuck me in at night. The familiar comfort of those rituals may have eased our mutual reserve. I know that I craved my grandfather’s presence keenly, hoping to spend just a few minutes at his feet, to hear him reading aloud in French or lecturing me about my questionable reading material. Our relationship has always been characterized by deep longing and words too veiled for easy translation.

But as I grew older, I moved away from him and closer to the women in my family. After a painstaking learning curve, I became more accustomed to my grandmother’s kitchen, and learned that I could cut carrots while keeping an ear out for gossip and stories. I heard about who had turned down a marriage proposal back in the day, who had suffered from years of infertility before having a miracle baby, who once longed to be a Russian scholar and teacher. Now, years later, it’s clear to me that the women in my family cooked out of self-love, as well as love for others. We fed ourselves on companionship, sampling the past together to keep its flavor alive. What a feast for the men to have missed out on.

Today, our family kitchen no longer bustles. My ông ngoại is in the late phases of kidney failure and we are all chastened by grief. He doesn’t eat much: sometimes a little rice made digestible with broth, maybe a boiled egg. He’s the smallest I’ve ever seen him, probably smaller than he was back in his teenage years when he joined the army. I can wrap my hand around his wrist. His skin always feels too cold, ephemeral as an onion skin.

My bà ngoại tries to entice him with his favorite foods — fatty steak cooked rare, roast quail, tamarind candies that stick to your molars. He pushes the food back to us, protesting in that croaky, tired voice, “Eat! Eat! I don’t have any appetite.” I don’t know that he’ll be strong enough to cook again.

The trouble with my ông ngoại’s cooking, frankly, is that there was too little of it in my lifetime. For all the elaborate, gorgeously plated meals I have enjoyed around the world, I find myself wanting to trade them for another meal alone with my grandfather. I think of the ramen, the eggs, and consider the gaping loss of meals he could have cooked for me, and I for him. The hunger that won’t abate.

In my own household, for better or worse, things are different. My husband and I both cook for ourselves and our daughter. We weave in and out of the kitchen, experimenting with new recipes and tasting each other’s dishes. He enjoys a freedom and sense of ownership over our household that I suspect the men in my family didn’t, confident that we are both allowed to nurture our loved ones as expressively and intimately as we wish. Yet our kitchen is disconcertingly orderly; there’s no bustle, no bawdy jokes, no decades-long feuds to rehash. I wonder what my daughter will miss out on without the communal, women-led kitchen of my youth. It’s clear to me that we sometimes trade one kind of longing for another.

These days, many miles away from Ông Ngoại, if I’m having a bad day, my husband knows what to do. He goes to the kitchen and cracks a few eggs into a bowl.

“Is there enough fish sauce?” he calls.

If I can smell it from where I’m sitting, I tell him it’s good. I already anticipate the flood of memory that I’ve come to crave and dread in equal measure. We spear the eggs and eat in silence, like there are endless years ahead to say whatever we have to say.

Thao Thai writes about food, family, and culture — and especially the intersection of the three. She lives with her husband and daughter in Columbus, Ohio. Nhung Le is a Vietnamese freelance illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY.