Photographer An-My Lê Remembers Her Grandmother’s Substitution Soup

published Oct 9, 2016
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Illustrations by Amy Jean Porter)

This month, we’re delighted to share four essays from The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook about the power of a simple bowl of soup. Vietnamese-American photographer An-My Lê kicks off the series with a story about her maternal grandmother’s pho.

We had just finished celebrating the New Year and gone to sleep when we were awoken by wild shouts, loud explosions, gun fires, and flares. The Communists had infiltrated Saigon and a small platoon was taking position in the recess of the entrance to our apartment building. They fought there until they were overrun at dawn.

I was born in Saigon and spent my early childhood there and in Huê, Vietnam. While I was too young to have been shaken by the fear, chaos, and helplessness of a daily life of war, I of course could not forget the Têt Offensive, and I still remember being dropped off at school early one morning, only to find the school gates demolished and still smoldering from a mortar attack.

My brothers and I would take this all in stride. Instead, we focused on the elaborate gatherings my maternal grandmother — whom we affectionately called Bà Mình, or grandmother ours — would throw for our extended family. For her, any occasion was an opportunity for an elaborate feast: exams, graduations, mid-autumn lunar festival, Têt, Christmas. She directed her army of cooks, suppliers, and volunteers with precision, and the culminating event never disappointed.

Within a few months of the Têt Offensive, my mother received a scholarship to return to France to work on her Ph.D. in English literature. My father could not leave Vietnam but they decided together that my mother should take the opportunity to advance her career and allow us children to live in more safe, normal circumstances for a few years. My brothers and I could hardly believe it; it seemed like something out of a fairy tale.

We arrived in Paris the summer of ’68, not long after the momentous student uprising, and moved into Bà Mình’s fifth floor walk-up apartment. She had come there a couple of years before us and had managed to secure a two-bedroom apartment in a maze-like and incredibly drafty housing complex for low-income Catholics in the 14th arrondissement.

My memories of that first autumn in Paris are dominated by games of tag and dramatic play in the courtyard of the public girls’ school I was enrolled in. Wearing coveralls with our names hand embroidered on them, the girls and I chased each other around the chestnut trees, laughing and stomping on piles of brittle leaves. I also remember struggling: with spelling as the teacher intoned passages from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past for the weekly dictée and with memorizing one La Fontaine fable after another.

For the most part, though, I felt like any other French schoolgirl — until I came home from school. My mom would still be at the library doing her research, but Bà Mình would be there, enveloped in clouds of smoke, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, listening to Trinh Công Sơn, the Bob Dylan of Vietnam, commandeering the apartment’s kitchen and living room for her culinary experimentations. Looking up at me with a huge smile — she had lacquered black teeth, and wore her hair in the northern traditional style, slicked and twisted in a black velvet wrap which was then spun and pinned around her head — she’d beckon me to come try whatever she was working on. Then we would eat and critique the dish together.

At the time, there were a few high priced and mediocre Chinese restaurants in Paris. There was also one Vietnamese restaurant, located in the basement of a family grocery store that everyone in my family suspected was an informal gathering place for the Vietnamese communists of Paris. The dining room was painted hospital green and could only be accessed by a very steep, precarious wooden ladder. It opened on Tuesdays and Thursdays for lunch and served only one delicious dish, a northern Vietnamese style congee with tripe and blood sausage.

Within this bleak culinary landscape, Bà Mình resorted to taste and memory to conjure a complete repertory of Vietnamese home-cooked dishes. I quickly became her commis, taste tester, and sous-chef. Up and down the five flights of stairs and through the drafty passageways of the housing complex, I was often sent to look for “Chinese” parsley or cilantro at the various grocers and outdoor markets. Ciboulette chinoise, Chinese chive or scallion was relatively easier to find and fortunately the Communist grocery store had an endless supply of fish sauce. Until Asian ingredients were more readily imported, Bà Mình deftly played the game of substitution. And although we yearned for the real thing, we were always grateful to sit down to dinner and try one of her preparations.

These days, I can easily find a fragrant phở accompanied by the most elaborate platter of herbs such as spearmint, cilantro, Thai basil, and saw tooth coriander whether I am in Vancouver, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, or Sydney. But I still make Bà Mình’s phở for my children on weekends when they are begging for it and we have run out of Asian ingredients. When I do, I think fondly of my time in Paris, and of course of Grandmother Ours, who recently passed away at the age of 102 while living in California.

An-My Lê is a Vietnamese-American photographer whose work has explored the military conflicts that have framed the last half-century of American history: the war in Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her latest project, Events Ashore (Aperture, 2014), takes on the always polarizing and mythologizing representations of American military force. Her photographs have been widely exhibited and collected. She is a professor of photography at Bard College and a 2012 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.

Excerpted from The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes © 2016, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, published by powerHouse Books.

Get the Book: The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, $22.50 at Amazon