In a quantitative world where our measurements matter, we heed our numbers. Throughout a lifetime of extremely important life statistics—from test scores to weight, jobs worked, pets owned, meals eaten—we add up the lists to see what they say about our total. We are data-driven because we hope that in connecting the dots a deeper understanding of who we are will be revealed.
This “need to know numbers” explains, in part, the popular DNA testing kits that are sold today. The urge to track an ancestor’s journey by distances traveled and challenges overcome can potentially broaden and enrich the individual stories of our own lives. Is it an immigrant story of coming from afar and facing obstacles? A history that began in a country we’d never imagined? Where does it start, and how does it get to our part of the plot?
The story Tay Nguyen shares on this week’s episode of The Delicious Story is not only epic but compelling. We do segue to a discussion of food, and the content may surprise you. I’ll just say it’s not what I had originally thought we would discuss.
But first, Tay shares this nail-biting story of how his family was able to leave war-torn, communist-overridden South Vietnam to reach the United States.
Tay describes details of his family’s journey—having to learn English, find a sponsor, and work all manner of jobs to establish and build their life here in the U.S.—which were challenges they willingly took on to become citizens and contributors to their new country. In the spirit of giving back, Tay made his choice as to how best to serve his home before he even completed high school.
Did I mention hard work? It was a true gift of time to capture this conversation with Tay because the guy is always working! He is a husband and father who is also a co-business owner of Kirby’s Moving Company.
Tay comes from a military family and felt a strong desire to serve his new country through military service. He details some incredible anecdotes of his experiences, which you can hear in the interview. When we delve into a discussion of meals, Tay gave high praise for the MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) and the U.S. Military effort to assure that service personnel eat well even in challenging circumstances.
Tay is not the first service person I’ve heard relate fond memories of MREs, and I started wondering about their history. Feeding soldiers is one of many strategic challenges associated with combat. Food is costly to produce, must be kept safe for consumption, and has to be portable. In this country, the very first rations were established by congressional resolution during the Revolutionary War in the form of a day’s worth of food dispensed to include beef, peas and a starch.
By the Civil War, canned goods were used to help keep foods preserved and mobile. And by the 1950s during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, MREs consisted of more dried foods to help lighten their weight for transport. Technology continues to be deployed to create MREs that are portable, safe and as nutritious as possible in all the climates and locations where the U.S. military is located.
You’ll quickly realize the importance of these meals to soldiers in Tay’s stories. It doesn’t take much imagination to think how essential food that tastes somewhat of home would matter to people far away in a dangerous situation.
But when we discussed meals that were most memorable, it was those hot meals shipped in to combat areas that Tay remembers as most significant. You’ll want to listen in as Tay beautifully describes those meals and what they meant to him.
The subject of comfort food led us to a popular Vietnamese dish called pho. I know it to be soup but don’t know much more, so a quick search on the internet provided surprising information.
Pho likely began in North Vietnam and was a dish influenced by French colonists who were there in the late 1800s. The pho of North Vietnam today is a simple soup with only chilis and limes served on the side while the Southern version is heartier with the addition of meats, vegetables, and other seasonings to create a sweeter flavor. Tay provides a tasty description of pho building off the base broth of either beef or chicken with a suggestion of the types of other ingredients that help make the soup a robust dish.
I admit to being somewhat intimidated by pho—what to order and how to eat it—but it turns out that most of the ingredients are familiar to other dishes I already love. The one green herb I didn’t recognize in photos is called saw-leaf herb, which is akin to cilantro.
Here is a beautiful description of pho and how to eat it over at First We Feast.
Pho was a favorite dish brought to the U.S. with the first Vietnamese refugees of the 1970s, and is now a popular offering at both Vietnamese restaurants and other eclectic contemporary eateries. Tay says his favorite restaurant to eat pho is at the Pho All Seasons here in Des Moines.
It seems right to end our conversation by highlighting this dish which came to the States by way of Vietnamese immigrants fleeing war, much like Tay’s family. Like so many immigrant stories of today’s Americans, they traveled long distances and endured hardships but contribute to the melting pot of our country. We are richer for their arrival because of the values of family, work-ethic, tradition and flavor they share.