When my Aunty Sue arrived in Chicago in 1968—the summer hot and familiar like Thailand—she didn’t know how to cook. This seemed ludicrous. To me, Aunty Sue was born with a pan in her hand. I knew her only as Aunty Sue, not Sumon Intudom, a girl who graduated from Chulalongkorn University’s nursing school, a girl who dreamed of a land far away from her humble roots in the town of Phrae, a girl who didn’t know how to boil an egg.
Aunty Sue recognized she had to learn to cook if she were to survive in this cold land. Nothing tasted right. The burgers were too greasy and made her skin break out. Pizzas overflowed with cheese; Thais weren’t accustomed to dairy. And desserts were too lip-puckeringly sweet.
So she studied the art of cooking by watching her peers in the nurses’ dorm kitchen on the seedy side of the city. She jotted down recipes. She tasted things her Thai tongue had never experienced, like ham. Like mayonnaise. Like a beef tongue taco with spicy salsa. Like salsa. At night, when the dorm was quiet, she tested out recipes. Some were disastrous, like Italian meatballs that always came out flat. She needed tasters and found other Thai nurses willing to try her cooking. My mother, one of them.
My son, Bodhi, doesn’t eat well. He is two. He eats rice—especially Daddy’s fried rice (sometimes); mac and cheese, the powdered yellow kind (sometimes); noodles, the Asian variety, like lo mein or chow fun (sometimes). He devours grapes (always).
I say sometimes because Bodhi has the habit of saying, “I don’t like fried rice anymore,” and then, within minutes, “Daddy, fried rice is my favorite.”
His eating habits make me think he is not my child but one that happened into my world, this found boy, this challenge I am supposed to conquer. How do I make this boy eat a pea? How do I make him try new things? How do I make him love food?
I say to my wife: “He gets this from your white side.”
This past summer I brought Bodhi and my wife, Deedra, to Thailand. Aunty Sue cooked for us every day. Each meal was a feast. I told Aunty that Deedra’s favorite Thai dish was massamun, a southern Thai curry dish that has meat, potatoes, and peanuts. Aunty Sue spent two days making massamun, stewing the beef until it was fork tender, bringing the curry and coconut milk to a slow simmer. When she wasn’t cooking, she was on the floor playing with Bodhi, who clung to her the way I had, who always wanted to be with her, who cried when she left the room.
“I tried my best,” Aunty Sue said. She came in from the outdoor kitchen, her face streaked with sweat. “I’m not sure it’s good.” She always said this when she cooked, always humble, always in doubt of her artistry. Most great artists possess this insecurity.
After one bite, Deedra closed her eyes, and I knew she was elsewhere, the way we were elsewhere on those long days in Chicago, my family missing home, me imagining what their home might be like.
“This is the best,” Deedra said. “It can’t get better than this.”
There are days I find myself searching. Not with eyes or hands. With the mouth. I am trying to locate taste. I cannot name the taste, but it is what sends my mind into overdrive. It is this taste that has halted my daily routine and put me into a state of pondering. What am I looking for? What is it I’m wanting? What is this I’m feeling?
A taste is not an image. It is not animate. The remembered taste is even more illusory. It can only be made real in the mouth.
My mouth is empty.
It is torturous, this feeling.
To want something so badly but not have a name for that want. It is like holding a loved one only to find they have vanished.
The anthropologist John S. Allen writes in The Omnivorous Mind, “We all have our food memories, some good and some bad. The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. Food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body.”
Aunty Sue closed her eyes to taste whatever she was concocting. I wanted to crawl into her brain to witness what memory she recalled so she could recreate. A time when I was not yet there. Before she even met my mother. Before transplanting herself. Did she become the girl tasting tom yum, spicy soup, at a noodle cart, the one outside her house in Phrae, under the shadow of a mango tree? Or the sister among four other siblings, relishing her mother’s green curry that was sweet on the tongue with a spice that hugged the back of the throat? Or the nursing student, on a break between classes, savoring coconut ice cream scooped from a large silver barrel cart to stave off the Bangkok heat?
Sometimes when tasting, my aunt shook her head. Sometimes she nodded.
Every time she cooked was a form of remembering.
My mother used to tell me this story:
“We found you in the dumpster in Chinatown, Aunty and me. We heard rustling and crying, so we checked, thinking it was a raccoon or rat. Chicago rats are like dogs. But it wasn’t rat or raccoon. It was you. Eating something. You were always eating something. I said to your Aunty, Should we keep him? She smiled—you know how she is—she smiled and said, Only if we can afford him. He will eat a lot. He will cost a lot of money. He must belong to the restaurant owner. You know the restaurant, don’t you? We used to go there every Sunday. They had the best crab curry. The best black bean spare ribs. You know the restaurant, don’t you? The owner was Chinese but could speak Thai. He had Tourette’s. He would scream. Out of nowhere. It scared you. So yeah, we believed you to be his son. That’s why we went there all the time. So you could visit your Tourette’s father. Aunty said the owner must’ve threw you out because you were eating too much of his food, and he feared the restaurant would go under. We liked the restaurant. You liked the restaurant. You ate all of their fried rice and seafood chow fun, even though you always startled when the owner screamed out of the blue. You hid in Aunty’s arms. Remember? Your Aunty said we should take you. She had a weakness for chubby babies. You were the chubbiest. Look at you now. Still chubby. So we took you in. From that dumpster in Chinatown. From the Chinese man with Tourette’s. Thank your Aunty for saving you.”
I liked this story because I knew it was a story. I liked this story because my mother told it in a way that made me laugh. I liked this story because Aunty never said anything. She just smiled.
I’ve been to too many social gatherings where you stand with a drink in hand among a bunch of strangers and then one of those long awkward silences happens. Often times, I excuse myself to go hide in the bathroom. I find myself in a lot of bathrooms.
Aunty Sue, however, taught me a trick. Simply ask, “So what’s the last great meal you had?” and notice the change that comes over people. Notice the release of tension in the shoulders. Notice the smile that comes on us when we relive a good memory. Notice the emergence of story.
“Food, glorious food!” In high school, I was cast as every main chorus person in the musical Oliver. I was the Long Song Seller (Southside toughies called me the Long Dong Seller), the Drunkard Who Opened Act 2, the Policeman Who Shot Bill Sykes with a Starting Pistol, and the Policeman Who Carried the Dead Body of Nancy Which Was Unexpectedly Heavy and So Was Dropped on Opening Night. Aunty Sue came to every performance. I found her in the same place—house left, top row, against a sidewall. Whenever I looked up, the lights blinding, I would find the silhouette of her. Patting her heart. A sign that she saw me. That she was there.
Every meal is a big deal in Thailand. There are three breakfasts. Two lunches. Maybe an early dinner and a late-night one. That’s what Thais do. They eat. That is why a common greeting in Thailand is Have you eaten?
Every meal is a feast. Every feast full of food and family. This is food, too, this gathering of people. In Thailand, the worst thing to do is eat alone. It is bad luck.
In our Chicago home, Aunty Sue crafted meals that brought Thailand to life, or a version of Thailand. That was what my immigrant family missed most, even beyond the family they left behind. Food and the familiarities of food.
Our home was on the south side of Chicago, in a white bi-level with a detached garage. In a neighborhood of tough Polish and Irish. Aunty Sue did not have the ingredients she needed. Where was she to find kaffir lime leaves? Or holy basil? How do you satiate fruit cravings for mangosteens or durians or rambutans? Nowhere was unripe green papaya. She did not know how to ask for pork neck at the butcher’s shop. She could not find fish heads for stock. How do you cook Thai food without a mortar and pestle? That would come years later.
The ingredients of home were not available to her. At least not yet, not in the ’70s, the beginning of the influx of Southeast Asian immigrants. The first Thai grocery store in Chicago would open sometime in the early ’80s, and even then, the produce arrived withered, the fruit browned.
So Aunty Sue improvised. She re-imagined. She couldn’t give us Thailand, but she could give us something that was like Thailand.
Spicy Oscar Meyer Hot Dog Salad, with slivers of raw onion and jalapeño peppers. Ground pork and shrimp burgers, slathered in hot sauce and dilled cucumbers. Phad Thai with ketchup instead of tamarind paste. Thick brown gravy from a McCormick packet over ramen noodles. Shredded carrot spicy salad.
This was Thai food—our version of Thai food—and it was home.
“I went to Thai restaurants all over Chicago,” Aunty Sue said, “and the food didn’t taste like home. It tasted like America.”
I spend a lot of time talking about food. I am dramatic about it. It’s my favorite subject. Because I teach, many of my lessons involve food in one way or another. At the start of every semester, I ask my students about their last great meal, and at the end of every class, I tell my students: “Now go eat something delicious.”
In terms of food, we are experts. Many times, when we describe food, we stop and swallow, our imaginations taking us to the point of salivating. Sometimes, we qualify our food. It isn’t just lasagna—it’s Grandma’s lasagna. It isn’t just ribs—it’s Father’s applewood smoked ribs. It’s not just a grilled cheese—it’s Aunty Sue’s grilled cheese.
I would see Aunty Sue pat her chest at other places, too. When I competed in tennis and golf tournaments. At Thai temple events, like Halloween costume contests. We left Thailand this past year—Deedra, Bodhi, and I going through security—and when we looked back, Aunty was patting her chest.
Food says a lot about who we are. Look at the divisions of BBQ in our country—Memphis, Texas, Kansas City, Carolina, Alabama. Look at the war between NYC and Chicago about which city has the superior pizza. (FYI: Chicago pizza. Southsider 4 life.) Name a region and there emerges a food. Rochester’s Garbage Plate, Hawaii’s obsession with Spam. Fast food corporations like McDonald’s understand this. In Thailand, McDonald’s has on their menu the Pork Samurai Burger because beef is considered a luxury. In Maine, the McLobster roll. In Japan the Ebi Filet-O shrimp burger. Food is a reflection of the priorities of a culture. What is Texas without beef? Or Iowa without corn? Or Thailand if not for jasmine rice and fish sauce? Food is an announcement of place, a connection to home.
Another story, one Aunty Sue liked to tell:
“Your mother’s milk had gone dry, so we started you on formula. You couldn’t tolerate it. You would drink a couple of mouthfuls and spit it out. You weren’t eating at all and cried non-stop, which set your mother on edge. For weeks you didn’t stop crying. You barely ate, which is hard to believe now. Because you eat all the time. My fault, I’m sure. Then in a moment of desperateness, I spooned a bit of rice and fish sauce into your mouth. You quieted. You smiled. A miracle! Then you reached into my mouth and ate what I ate. For rice. For noodles. For my grilled cheese. And I knew. I knew I created a boy who loved food. I knew you were mine.”
This semester, a student: “My grandmother used to make these homemade pierogis. She only made them once a year. On my birthday. It was a major production. Rolling out the dough. Perfecting the filling. When I bit into her pierogi, butter salted the lips, and there would be this crunch and chew. Not like a chip. Not like the snap of a carrot. But like the break of leather left too long in the sun. That’s the sound. Or something like that. I would eat and eat and eat until I was sick. No pierogi left behind, she said. She said weird things like that.”
“When’s your birthday?” I said.
“In a couple of months.”
“Will she make those pierogis?”
“No,” he said. “She passed away.”
This summer: Aunty Sue passed away.
Deedra had massamun at a Thai restaurant on her birthday, the first time since my aunt’s passing. “It’s not good. It’s not fair.”
This is not about food.
Let me tell you about Aunty Sue’s grilled cheese. There is nothing particularly special about the sandwich. She made it the way others made it. Butter. Cheap white Wonder bread. Kraft American cheese. Sometimes some garlic powder on the bread. Only if I asked. Sometimes she put in slices of tomatoes from her garden. Sometimes ham. But that grilled cheese. That taste of it. It has followed me for years. I’ve eaten many grilled cheeses in my lifetime. Some with fancy cheeses. Some with fancy bread. Some with mayonnaise instead of butter. But none like Aunty Sue’s.
Aunty Sue’s grilled cheese became part of the family menu, and because it became part of the family menu, it became Thai. That’s what I want.
There are pictures of Bodhi and Aunty Sue together, and most of them are in the kitchen. In all the pictures, joy paints her face, a laugh frozen, a wide-open mouth of elation. And my son, too, smiling and doing what one-year-olds do. This is his Grandma Sue—this white-haired woman he clings to, who makes five versions of fried rice to appease his finicky taste buds, this woman he met only once in a stretch of two weeks one summer. A year after that visit, he will discover these photos, and his father will ask, “Do you remember her? Do you remember Grandma Sue? She loved you so much. Greatest cook on earth. Do you remember her?”
He will shake his head. He will say no.
Something inside the father breaks.
I keep searching for that taste, that grilled cheese. I search for other tastes, too—Aunty Sue’s Phad Thai, her macaroni stir-fry, her coconut milk soup.
What I am really searching for is her.
When he was not yet a year old, Bodhi reached into my mouth and ate the fried rice I was eating. He couldn’t form words, but my wife and I taught him the sign for “more,” putting his fingers together in both hands then repeatedly touching them against each other. With that first taste of fried rice, he signed for more. He signed for more after every bite. When I was too slow to feed, he put his little fingers into my mouth, searching.
We wish. We yearn. We search. Whatever memory that tickles the tongue is only memory, which means it is loss. We are losing every second. That grilled cheese is a memory. That massamun, a memory. Aunty Sue, a memory. This is what we face. And yet we keep recalling. We keep searching for that elusive taste. What was your last great meal? And we are off, losing ourselves in sensorial ecstasy, and at times, in a bubble of memory that contains not so much the food but the people the food comes to represent, the people who have become memory, too. And we hold on. We keep looking. We keep hoping. A hand touching the heart.