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Miracle Meal

Art by Terri Groat-Ellner

Turkey and fish sauce didn't mix, but other holiday traditions fit just right

By Andrew X. Pham

Somewhere on every American family tree, there must have been a first Christmas and a first Thanksgiving, a time when the rituals were new and tradition was something to be adopted or adapted.

My family came to America from Vietnam seventeen years ago, late in the fall. Our journey to this land of milk and honey was tortuous and dangerous, yet not so much unlike those of countless others before us--and, no doubt, those of countless others yet to come--that I need belabor the details. In short, we were very grateful for deliverance to this safe haven. So before our American friends uttered the meaning of Thanksgiving, we already understood some measure of the Thanksgiving spirit. But it was through their display of the Christmas spirit that we felt at home that first season in America.

Somehow in the turmoil of settling into our new home and the birth of our baby sister, Kay, the only one to be born on American soil, we missed Thanksgiving. With Christmas just around the corner, my parents considered it prudent and convenient to lump the holidays together. We were to have the Thanksgiving turkey, a welcoming gift from our American friends, for our Christmas dinner. And, of course, we would have our first Christmas tree.

Now, the Christmas tree was astounding compared to our New Year blossom branches. We had read about it in the story books and seen pictures of it, but to have our very own was something incredibly special. Even before the tree arrived, we children argued over how to decorate it. At last, we arrived at a solution: each of us would decorate a few branches according to his preference.

Underneath the tree materialized scores of presents in shiny colored papers with ribbons, bows and laces. The boxes piled higher each day till they formed mounds around the tree. The strings of Christmas lights flashed and twinkled and the gifts beneath gleamed like treasures. Still more presents arrived from old friends, new friends, acquaintances and neighbors.

Then the strangers came--not one or two, but dozens--to wish us a happy first holiday in America. The few days before Christmas our doorbell never seemed to stop ringing. My mother worried she might run out of tea or sweets before she ran out of guests. My father worried he did not get everyone's address to send thank-you cards.

It touched us to see so many people we had never met wishing us well and bearing gifts to make our transition into our new home easier. Our entire family quickly felt welcomed in a foreign land. We children sat many hours in front of our Christmas tree enchanted by the lesson of the Season of Giving.

When Christmas Day rolled around, my father, armed with a cookbook, orchestrated Operation Turkey. My mother--a fine cook--was convinced that nothing could possibly taste good without the omnipotent fish sauce and gave the turkey a generous dousing. Between my father's interpretation and my mother's improvisation, they turned out a swollen ghastly thing that was closer to sunflower yellow than golden brown.

Our Thanksgiving-Christmas bounty included all the traditional dishes and a pot of rice, which my mother could not resist from steaming. The candied yams were good because she was familiar with the recipe. The mashed potatoes were true to their origin: a box. The steamed peas were soupy. The cranberry "sauce" retained its package shape minus the can. As for the bread, well, that came out of a bag sliced.

Something miraculous happened at the meal; our parents sat us at the table with them. It was the first time we were given that privilege. We had been taught early on that children should neither be seen nor heard, especially during meals. Our first Thanksgiving-Christmas dinner marked a transition for our family--the start of letting go of old traditions and adopting new ones.

My father said a few appropriate words, then carved the turkey. We fidgeted, uncomfortable with the whole affair. Plates moved round the table and we sampled our portions of the turkey. Glances darted back and forth. One by one we voiced our doubts.

"Eat the turkey!" my father ordered. He was indignant. "You should be happy and thankful we have anything to eat at all."

"Uh, it tastes funny," Tim said.

"Can I just eat the yams?" Curt asked.

Pointing at the turkey, our youngest brother, Francis, wailed, "It's bleeding!"

That launched my father into a lengthy lecture on the scarcity of food when he was young. By the time he talked about those less fortunate around the world, our portions of the turkey had found their way into our pockets. After dinner and our parents had gone to bed, we had our Thanksgiving-Christmas dinner with something new and absolutely marvelous--peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

We didn't open our presents until the morning after Christmas Day because my parents considered it a religious holiday that should be afforded the same gravity as Sunday congregations. My mother, so filled with the Christmas spirit, wanted to make Christmas last as long as possible. She proposed everyone open just one present a day until none was left. With our hoard of presents, that would have seen us well into February. Fortunately, our new friends visited that day. They introduced us to the custom of having someone play Santa and hand out the presents one at a time.

Years down the road, when we were old enough for our protests to carry weight, our parents finally relented and gave up the turkey they could never get right. They substituted it with the great American alternative--takeout. More years took us, their grown children, far from home. It was a good thing then that the Christmas and Thanksgiving traditions had taken firm roots in the family. Year after year, the lure of tradition brought us all home for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas morning when Kay, the youngest, would make her rounds as Santa to hand out the presents one by one.

Art by Terri Groat-Ellner

As for the meals, I found myself the Christmas cook. My brother Curt took on Thanksgiving. Not wanting to be left out, my father declared himself the soup specialist for both occasions. Numerous cookbooks, PBS cooking shows and years of practice made him quite good at it. My mother, on the other hand, happily declared both Thanksgiving and Christmas her personal holidays from the kitchen.

Over the years, these new traditions gave us things we could count on, such as turkey for Thanksgiving, roast for Christmas and all of the family under one roof for the holidays. These American traditions were the first things we gained in America, and with a little more practice, I suppose, we would do like immigrants before us and forget we ever made those stumbling first steps.

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From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of Metro

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