Your eight things
Have you heard of Camilla Gibb? She is an anthropologist-turned-writer born in London, England and grew up in Toronto. If that wasn’t enough to make me curious, my professor-friend Anne Meneley knew Gibb, and even attested to tea-sipping with this Giller Prize finalist on her front porch. For the longest time I’ve wanted to read her book because I love the fine dotted details of culture that a good anthropologist is trained to not only observe, but describe in a manner most investigative and least invasive. If National Geographic were a novel, that’s what you’d find when you read the work of a cultural anthropologist.
Gibb’s latest novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, is set in modern-day Hanoi, Vietnam where an American expat searches for her father and his life during his disappearance in the war, and so far this historical fiction is being told through bowls of broth-infused pho, extra-long chopsticks, and the starvation-savaged girls who learn to beg with their bodies. It is a Hanoi emerging out of a desperate and trying time, revealing the heart of the nation as it is. Recently, Gibb even spoke about The Beauty of Humanity Movement at the Toronto Reference Library. So from having trolleyed this book along on my commute between errands, work, and home, I have to share with you, food-oriented reader, this deliciously descriptive part …
Tư’s mother, meanwhile, had knocked on the doors of every one of the new butcher shops that opened in the 1990s until she found one proprietor who was obliged to listen because he came from the same village as her mother. The story is now legendary in their family: ‘Tell me nine ways to prepare pork for Tet and I’ll consider hiring you,’ the butcher said. And so Tư’s mother recalled the pork dishes they used to eat during the holidays at her grandmother’s house. She described the sensation of her teeth collapsing through fried rice paper into the soft, ground pork middle of a spring roll, the crisp saltiness of pig skin fried with onions, the silk of the finest pork and cinnamon pâté coating her tongue, the soft chew of pork sausages, the buttery collapse of pig’s trotters stewed with bamboo shoots, the ticklish texture of pig intestines resting on vermicelli and the fill of sticky rice, pork and green beans boiled in banana leaves. Just when she was about to falter, she remembered how her father used to reminisce about the dishes his mother made for Tet during his boyhood in Huế: pork bologna, fermented pork hash, pig’s brain pie …
The butcher raised his finger. ‘You’re hired. Stop there before I fire you.’
My mouth salivates from just reading this list of nine from one ingredient! What impresses me the most in Gibb’s book is the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese during the communist occupation. Now I know that things were scarce and carefully doled out between households under communism, but really, really that blows my mind, this mind that is attached to this body which is used to North American plentifulness, is that society lives everyday under controlled limits. From where you can walk on the road, to the number of tinned milk cans you can collect.
Imagine if at your grocery store, all the cashiers took customers with 1-8 items or less. That’s it. You can only cook with eight items or less. Would I be able to whip up nine dishes under such constraints, like Tư’s mother? And don’t forget the frequency of rations. This might be the last time I check out eight items for weeks!
Which poses an interesting question to us, reader-busy-in-the-kitchen: What eight items would you take out from the grocery store to survive on? Would you divvy up the nutritional guide and shop accordingly? Stock up on the comfort foods during such regress? Under such constrains, what would be your eight things to live on?
Thinking about resourcefulness in food, I admire those who make use of an entire animal. My mom has always prepared fresh fish in the traditional Chinese way where the whole body is steamed and consumed with light soy dressing and green onion, unlike the censored chopped parts of fillets that make the eater forget where the dish came from. When I was travelling in Amsterdam, I came across a Turkish restaurant called Saray which prepared a whole fish deliciously grilled to perfection. I remember the crispy skin, the delicate almost buttery texture of the meat, and running my knife against the wiry spine to eat as cleanly off the bone as I could. That’s where this photo comes from.