"Ca Lem" Means Ice Cream In Vietnamese

Doesn't "ca lem" sound like something sweet and wonderful? The feel of the word in my mouth reminds me of caramel. I learned it while reading Stealing Buddha's Dinner. I just finished it last night. It's a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.

I took it out of the library and it's a little overdue, so I'm returning it today. But first I wanted to write about it. If you love food, or grew up in the 80's, or like me was in high school and college during the 80's, you'll have a wonderful walk down memory lane. It's interesting seeing the same things experienced by someone at a different age.

The author Bich Minh Nguyen, first name pronounced "Bit", tells us about her life as a young Vietnamese girl, who immigrates to the United States and grows up in Michigan. Her extended family comes to America without her mother. Bich's father soon marries a Hispanic woman, a second-generation Mexican-American. The chapter titles all deal with food as do many of her childhood memories. As a girl, she is constantly trying to fit with the other kids in school, who are mostly white.

"Rosa kept trying to teach us the language through immersion techniques. Buenos Noches, Andale, and Callate la boca had become part of our vocabulary. Though I generally considered myself pretty quiet, I heard that last one a lot. I tried to keep the phrases under wraps to my friends. They thought that I was different enough with the whole Vietnamese thing; adding Mexican American to the mix just put me over the edge."

I want to share few more quotes from the book and my reaction to them.

"At home, I kept opening the refrigerator and cupboards wishing for American foods to magically appear. I wanted what the other kids had" Bundt cakes and casseroles, Cheetos and Doritos. My secret dream was to bite off just the tip of every slice of pizza in the two-for-one deal we got at Little Ceasar's. The more American foods I ate, the more my desires multiplied, outpacing any interest in Vietnamese food."

When I was a kid, my parents would not let me and my brother eat sugared cereals. It was such a treat when I stayed over my friends or other relatives houses and I could eat Captain Crunch and Fruity Pebbles, so I completely identified with the author when she talked about longing for different foods.

"At home I watched TV, slowly eating a pudding snack to try and make it last through as much as possible of the NBC Saturday night lineup, which included at various times, Gimme a Break!, Diff'rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, The Golden Girls, and 227."

I watched all of these shows too!

"Jennifer introduced me to the concept of homemade, which I only associated with American food, when she gave me half of a cookie her mother had baked. Nestle's Toll House, she called it, and I thought, you name your cookies? But it was like no cookie I had ever had. It was crumbly and rich, the chocolate chips bearing no resemblance to the pinpoints found in Chips Ahoy. ... The concept of homemade cookies struck me as suspect and impossible. 'What do you mean, your mom made them?' I demanded."
My mom baked all the time, so the concept of homemade was part of me from day one. In fact, where I grew up was very close to the town of Whitman where the original Toll House Restaurant was located. One day my mom brought me and my brother there for lunch. Luckily she brought us before the restaurant was destroyed in a fire. Many of my childhood memories are associated with my mother's baking, especially her Toll House cookies. One day, I had planned to run away for some reason. I noticed that my mother was baking these cookies and I decided that things weren't that bad and I'd stick around for a little longer.

Stealing Buddha's Dinner reminded me of so many of my own memories -from the food and music, to the television shows to what it's like being a minority student and trying to fit in or just make your way through. Reading the book, my heart broke for the author so many times, because I felt the same way.

There was also one section where Bich talked about how Rosa was very politically involved and would not let them eat grapes because of the grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez. I remember one summer as a child where my parents stopped buying grapes too and I didn't understand why. They explained to me that the workers who picked the grapes were treated badly and this was a way to help them. This was when I learned that food is political. As an aside, Cesar Chavez's birthday is March 31st and there is a petition to make his birthday a national holiday. I just signed.

There are a bunch more quotes, paragraphs, well pages actually that I'd like to share, but this post is getting too long. Read the book. You will enjoy it.


PunditMom said…
Thanks so much for the recommendation! This sounds really interesting!
che said…
i like immigrant stories . it is always nice to see them fit into their new world. i'll see if the lib here has that book.thanks .

p.s. did she write about my fav vietnam/thai foods - pad thai and tom yang soup ?
Lisa Johnson said…
pundit mom - You're welcome! It's a great book.

che - I hope they have it. If not, maybe they can order it. I don't remember those two foods, but she mentioned pho and shumai, which I really like.
When I was younger, my parents didn't allow me to drink soda except on 'special' occasions. But even then I could only have 7up or ginger ale and she would water it down to cut the sweetness. Thanks for the book recommendation!
jac said…
Hey cus
I need to take a look at this book !!
Hi Anali! Thanks for stoppin by! I'm really enjoying your blog! I live in Quincy, too:) And, isn't it nice to think back on things we enjoyed when we were younger?? I loved my mom's homemade peanut butter cookies=:)
Nance said…
anali--great post. naturally, i loved the paragraph about chavez and the fact that "food is political." more people need to realize that we vote with our dollars! sounds like you were raised by very aware parents. good for them!
Anonymous said…
Great posst i will read that book and yes I made those cookies and the muffins:)
Anonymous said…
that last comment was by me kaylee I cant even spell my name right jeez.
karrie said…
Sounds like a great read! Have you read "Funny in Farsi?"
Lisa Johnson said…
mary - Welcome! You must have been shocked when you tasted soda with the full amount of sugar! : )

And you're quite welcome!

jac - It's quite a good read!

the lone beader - Welcome neighbor! I'm glad you like my blog. It is fun looking back on things. And I love peanut butter cookies! Actually I love all things peanut butter. : )

nance - I'm glad you liked that. I may add a new section relating to the politics of food. We'll see... I think my parents taught me pretty well too! If I do say so myself!

kaylee - The "e" and "w" are very easy to switch up on the keyboard. : ) I'm glad you like the post! And so happy that I've inspired your baking too!

karrie - It's a wonderful book. I haven't read "Funny in Farsi." It sounds kind of familiar though. I'll have to look it up.
FH said…
Sounds interesting!!Trisha's friend Chau Gnuyen bought some Vietnamese dessert for us,it was so good.Ice cream,I have to get it from the library.Thanks Anali:)
amisha said…
hi anali,
thanks for this interesting and thoughtful book review! i definitely remember a lot of those feelings growing up... would you believe i didn't eat indian food regularly till i was in college?? now it's so much easier to look back and see how much i was missing, and the pressures from all these different areas.
karmic said…
Anali, It's a lovely post. When I read it, I was like this book sounds familiar. Of course it was, for I had heard an interview with Bich Nguyen on NPR. Here is the link if you want to take a listen.

Oh yes and food is political too, isn't there a saying that goes we are what we eat?
Lisa Johnson said…
asha - I'm sure you will love this book!

amisha - You're welcome! What a shame that you were missing out on some serious good food for all that time. But I guess pretty much when we are younger we try and have the "typical" experience, whatever we think that is based on our immediate surroundings. There really is a lot of pressure when we're young. It's tough being a kid!

sanjay - Thank you! Yes I did hear the NPR story! That's where I learned about the book!

And that is a very true saying.
Suldog said…
This sounds like a wonderful book.

I'm currently reading a couple about Fred "Mister" Rogers - and they are two of the most moving and profound books I've ever read in my life; I'll be writing them up on my own blog soon - but I'll definitely look up your recommendation afterwards.
Nina said…
Now I've got something to look forward to reading, thanks!
Lisa Johnson said…
suldog - Oh I used to love Mr. Rogers! I'll be looking forward to your post!

nina - You're welcome!
Lotus Reads said…
Hi, Anali!

By sheer coincidence I picked up and thumbed through this book at the bookstore yesterday and made a mental note to borrow it from the library because it looked so interesting. Your post endorsing the book now has me wondering if I should perhaps look into purchasing it...the wait for a library copy can be agonizingly long!
Lisa Johnson said…
lotus reads - Hi! Welcome back! Well for me, I'll buy the book if I think I'll refer back to it again later or I just can't wait. Otherwise the library is fine. I don't know that I'd ever need to refer back to this book and there wasn't any wait at the library. Now if there had been recipes in it, that would have been another matter! : )

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