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Friday, January 14, 2011

Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate Revels

Life is Like Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate Revels 1

My oldest uncle passed away a month ago today.

On the way to the cemetery, while reminiscing about him and my ba noi (Vietnamese paternal grandmother), my second-youngest aunt remarked that if she had a different mother, the family would not be where we are today. While I've always thought this, somehow hearing my aunt voice it out loud, and in Vietnamese, seemed to make the statement all the more profound.

When my Chinese grandfather left, my grandma was pregnant with her sixth child and my oldest uncle was only 10 years old. A less determined woman probably would not have been able to hold the family together, much less lift us all out of poverty.

During his eulogy, my dad spoke about hy sinh, the Vietnamese word for sacrifice. My dad's family didn't move into town until he was 18 years old. Before then, it was a hardscrabble existence in the countryside as the older siblings helped my grandma while the younger siblings took care of the babies. My grandma used to tell me stories of how when she couldn't afford rice, she fed my aunts and uncles Rau Den (Vietnamese Amaranth), which was essentially a weed that grew quickly and plentifully. She'd slice bananas, dry them, and then sell them at the market and do all sorts of other things to make ends meet. My youngest aunt used to tell me stories about playing with corn husk dolls. Someone else in the village, who wanted a little girl, offered to take youngest aunt off my grandma's hands. Little more than toddlers themselves, my youngest uncle and second-youngest uncle would barricade the door to keep the man out. The family was staying together no matter what.

My grandfather's oldest brother offered to take oldest uncle into town to educate him along with his children. And so my oldest uncle started school, jumping into third grade, but he quickly excelled, learning to read and write Chinese along with other subjects. He hated being away from the family though and always felt the weight of responsibility as the oldest son. And so it was, that after he finished fifth grade, he came back home to help my grandma. That was when my dad was able to begin his education, three years behind his classmates. My oldest uncle never went back to school again, sacrificing his education so my father could receive his. And with his help, and as the other aunts and uncles grew old enough to pitch in too, my grandma was able to educate the rest of the family and eventually moved them into town.

If my grandma wasn't who she was, if my oldest uncle wasn't who he was, I can't imagine the family being who, or where, we are today.

Though he never formally went to school beyond fifth grade, after the family moved to town, my second-youngest aunt's husband gave oldest uncle a two-week crash course in high school math and he was able to get into the local college. And again, when my family started our life over in America, he learned English and three years later, graduated from community college with my dad.

He wasn't the head of the family simply because he was the oldest, but because he was respected and beloved by everyone. We consulted him when it was time to get married, to buy a house, to look up our Chinese genealogy. He was interested in learning everything and delighted in everyone's accomplishments.

Several years ago, he stumbled upon my blog and remarked that he enjoyed reading the posts where I talked about my grandma and family. He often emailed me links to Vietnamese recipes or other news. After that, he was always in the back of my mind when I wrote particular posts about our family, wondering if he would enjoy them. I really haven't wanted to write this post at all. As if writing it down makes the fact that he's gone even more true.

Life is Like Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate Revels 2

I've long struggled with how personal I wanted to get on the blog. Yet, to not acknowledge such a profound impact doesn't seem right either. What I've eventually realized is that as more family and friends read my blog, and as other bloggers and readers become friends, it serves to record my life. Perhaps a bit delayed, but nonetheless, a record of the minutiae and the major moments.

And those who only care about the recipes and nothing else, well, I don't pay them no nevermind anyway.

After nearly five years of blogging, and for even longer as a reader, the blogs that I still continue to read are records of other people's minutiae too. After all, if I wanted a collection of recipes, I could just go to any old cookbook for that.

Life is Like Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate Revels 3

My college job was editing student evaluations of classes. In between the many, many trite comments about how this class was "better than 'Cats'" or "two thumbs up," I remember an analogy with vanilla ice cream with chocolate revels. Memory escapes me whether the comparison was to the class, or to life in general, but the image stayed with me.

Not to turn this analogy into as hackneyed a phrase as the others, or god forbid the "chocolate box" one, but life as vanilla ice cream with chocolate revels always seemed entirely apropos to me. Vanilla ice cream is somewhat innocuous. Sometimes I crave such blandness. And sometimes, those small bursts of chocolate revels make digging through all that vanilla worthwhile.

Life is Like Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate Revels 4

*Poke. Poke.* Lil' sis asked me recently to blog again during one of our daily morning chats.

Every morning, for years and years, my dad would start his day by calling my oldest uncle when he got into the shop. They'd chat about whatever they talk about and then he would begin his day. Sometimes now he forgets, the instinct to call his oldest brother a visceral reminder that his routine is interrupted forever.

And so it is, after a month's hiatus, I feel like I need to get back into my routine.

1 year ago today, Best of: Top 11 to 20 Recipes of 2007.
2 years ago today, one of my most popular recipes: Bo Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew).
3 years ago today, Banh Tom (Vietnamese Shrimp and Yam Fritters).


  1. Your family history is fascinating, WC. And I've missed your posts. I'm sorry you and your family will be missing this beloved uncle.

  2. I'm sorry for your loss and your family's loss. The passing of a beloved family member, and the head of the family no less, can be devastating. But your family is obviously close and strong and I hope you can weather this change by coming together as you always do.

  3. Wow. I feel like I know your oldest uncle now, and I think he is wonderful. Your family is rich in love and tradition, and I thank you for sharing some of it here. The recipes are fantastic, but the icing on the cake (the 'chocolate revels', if you will) is the occasional glimpse into your history. Warm and fascinating.

    I've missed you!

  4. I also meant to offer condolences, please forgive me for having to post a 2nd time. I hope your family continues to bond throughout this time, and your dad adjusts to the loss of his brother without too much pain.

  5. My family's history is similar to yours in many ways. My grandmother and oldest aunt passed away eight and six years ago. We think of them most of all during family gatherings and holidays. I am sorry of your loss. BTW, I have been a fan of your website for 2 months and miss your posting.

  6. One of the aspects of your blog that I have always enjoyed, that initially attracted me and drew me back again and again, is the clarity of your writing, the obvious care you take in putting together each post. This is a wonderful reflection on your uncle and his importance in your life. No doubt he was very proud of your blog.

    My deepest condolences to you and your family on your loss.

  7. My sympathies go out to you and your family on the loss of your uncle. The post is a lovely tribute to your grandmother,
    illustrating her strength in the face of such adversity.

    Anna's Table

  8. Hi WC, really sorry to hear about your loss. My trip back home last Christmas really reminded me of all the sacrifices my family made. Looking forward to your blog posts in 2011 yo.

  9. I'm sorry to hear about your loss. My sympathies to you and your family.

    I feel selfish in saying I've missed your posts but it's true. Nice to see you back at it, breaking with a very thoughtful and sincere post on sacrifice and family.

  10. So sorry to hear about your loss. Thank you for sharing your story about your family. It reminded me of my ba ngoai who recently passed away. Although it's still painful to remember that she's gone, it's also really comforting to hear your story and remind myself that my family was able to come this far because of her.

  11. Sorry to hear about your loss. I am glad to have found your site though. Hope to read more soon.

  12. Sometimes the sacrifices the older generation made seem unfathomable--the details more family fable than real--given the relative comfort we enjoy today. Writing about those sacrifices, those special people helps make them tangible to us and the generations that come after. That sort of family loyalty and go-for-it-iveness certainly inspires me.

    As a writer it can be so difficult to write about such personal matters, especially when the loss is raw and new. As a reader, I am very sorry for this loss to your family, but very thankful that you continue to write.

  13. I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Family is so important and I know that you always show that the tight bond of family means more then anything. I can't wait to see mine in May.

  14. I'm so sorry for your loss. This was so touching, the love and respect you have for your uncle so clear.

  15. My sincere sympathy to you, WC. Thanks so much for sharing your family story. Your oldest uncle had really lived a life of thinking of other people more than himself. What a life that was. I believe that his legacy will continue to live on in your family as you tell one another of how he lived. Thank you for writing more than just recipes.

  16. oh chi WC, this is such a moving & loving tribute, thank you so much for sharing. i am so sorry for your loss.

    i have missed you & your blog.

  17. Condolences to all your family :(
    Your family is amazing, you guys are so tight-knit

  18. Please accept my most heartfelt condolences to you and your family for your loss.

  19. I offer my deep sympathy for your loss. What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  20. I'm sorry to hear about your family's loss, it is wonderful you have such memories of him and his role in your family.

  21. I am so, so sorry for your loss. This is such a moving and wonderful tribute to your oldest uncle. It made me cry a little to read!

  22. i'm just here to look at pictures and read about your family history. =)

  23. I'm so sorry to hear this. What a nice post to share with us. Sending our good wishes to you there in California.

  24. i'm so sorry to hear about your loss. losing family, especially those that you were so close with is always hard. but memories, they're golden. it's what keeps you grounded and so, whatsabetterterm, "you".

    sending electronic hugs your way!

  25. You are right ... I read your blog not just for the recipes (though they are what I enjoy) but, I love the "stories" you feature too.

    When you talk about your trips and stuff you did, it makes me smile. Sometimes, I wonder wouldn't it be nice to have families here with me ...

    Hold on to the memories ... they are the best!!! What he had taught you throughout the years are still there with you.

    Take Care!

  26. Thank you so much for sharing your story, it really made my day. The day you posted this blog was also the day the day of my father's would-be 55th birthday. I thought I could manage to be strong but after reading your post, all the memories of my dad came back to me and I had to hold in my tears because I was at work. He passed away a year ago and it has been one difficult year for all of us. All I can say is that each day gets better, but there will always be times (and sometimes theres lots of them) where you will find yourself crying and in a lot of hurt just when you thought you were getting better. I hope that you stay strong and do whatever you need to do to grieve. What I've learned in the last year has changed my perspective of life, family, and love. My condolences to you and your family and may you have strength and love to guide you through.

  27. My condolence.

    That was beautiful.

  28. (((hugs))))

    Please accept my condolences. I began to worry about you when you haven't been on and I was hoping you were on vacation or something, something happy. Your post makes me think of my family back home.

  29. I am thinking of you as you grieve the passing of your oldest uncle. I was touched by this post about the sacrifices he made to keep the family together. I admire people like him. Thanks for sharing.

  30. He wasn't just an uncle, he truly was a hero.

    I am so sorry for your families loss. But what a blessing to have had such a man in your lives. May his spirit remain with you always.

  31. This was a lovely post. I know your uncle would have liked it as well. I've never really posted anything on your blog but enjoyed reading them quietly. Not only for the recipes but the stories you share as well. But this post really touched me and reminded me of the hardship my parents had to go through to bring us here. Glad to others who appreciate what their families did for them them as well. Keep posting and keep smiling. :)

  32. I have read your blog for long time. I am sorry for your families loss. I do know how it is to lose a dear one since I lost my mom a year ago. The pain still there but it's getting better as time passed by. Do talk about it more will help you and the families get through the toughest time easier. Take care!

  33. My deepest sympathies to you and your family. I'm a new reader here, having found your blog when looking for advice on starting my own food blog. What I thought would be a brief visit just to get a few helpful tips turned into many hours reading & browsing... I have truly enjoyed your writing and photography.

    It may feel strange to write about something so deeply personal in a food blog, but it somehow makes complete sense to me. Food IS personal. I think it features so prominently in so many of our pivotal memories. And in this case, sharing something this personal with us makes you seem more like a distant friend than just someone posting recipes.

    I'm glad you're back. I hope your spirits are lifted soon, and I look forward to reading more from you.

  34. Nikki,
    Thank you. It's been a tough time.

    Scrapper Al,
    Thank you. We've been hanging in there.

    Thank you. I've missed blogging too. It's just been hard to write. Well, this wasn't quite the tribute post I meant to write. That one's a lot harder.

    Thank you. I think a lot of Vietnamese families have very similar stories. My ba noi passed away almost eight years ago as well and I miss her every day.

    Thank you. Well, some posts deserve a little more care in crafting together what it all means.

    Thank you.

    Thank you. I've been enjoying your posts about your trip home.

    Thank you. Awww, it's always nice to be missed. I've missed blogging a lot too, but it's been a little rough to get going again.

    Thank you. I always think so many Vietnamese stories are similar.

    Eating with Hudson,
    Thank you.

  35. Tammy,
    Thank you. Some of the stories my family members tell do seem unimaginable. And yet, to not acknowledge when one of them passes would be unimaginable as well.

    Thank you. Here's hoping that your family visit will be lovely and filled with good eats!

    5 o'clock tsp,

    Thank you.

    Co Toan,
    Thank you. Everyone who met my uncle loved him. He was the nicest man. I see a lot of him in my cousin, his oldest son, and that gladdens me a lot too.

    Thank you. It's nice to be missed!

    Gourmet Pigs,
    Thank you.

    Snohomish Shepherdess,
    Thank you.

    La Takahashi,
    Thank you.

    Thank you.

  36. Dragonkiri,
    Thank you. You should've seen the pile of Kleenex I went through writing it.

    Whatever brings you here!

    Thank you.

    Thank you. (((hugs))) to you too!

    Tigger mum,
    Thank you. You've been reading for a looong time! I love having my family around. I missed them so when I was in college and living alone.

    Thank you. I'm so sorry for your loss. Your father was so young! I try not to think, because it hurts. But then not thinking hurts too.

    Thank you.

    Thank you. Oh, if only it was something fun like a vacation. :(

    Thank you.

    Thank you.

    Mod Socialites,
    Thank you. I think my uncle would have appreciated it.

    Thank you. I'm so sorry for your loss as well.

    Thank you. I guess that's the natural evolution of laying some things out there online. Or rather, since food has always been connected to family for me, it's hard to not write about one without the other. And welcome!


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