A whiff of the past

It was New Year’s Eve 2015 in Mission Viejo. My cousins and I honored our tradition of the Nguyen crazy family game night. Somewhere between rounds of dish cleaning blackjack (loser had to do the dishes for a week) and drunk Jenga, those of us who were born in Vietnam started to describe the country to J. — the only one at the table born in the States and never visited Vietnam. At first, we talked about the weather, the heat and humidity, the sights, what the girls missed the most since they left, then naturally, V. sighed, “Sometimes I wish I could smell my mom suon non ram man (pork ribs in caramelized sauce) on a Sunday afternoon again.

“Dude, what you mean? Your mom made that all the time.” — J. asked, gently pushing the margarita pitcher away from V.’s reach. “It’s not the same”, I found myself reciting to J. all the theories of how smell was the strongest memory trigger I once heard years ago as eloquently as I could while the margarita was kicking.

It’s true, with all the right ingredients, you can whip up a pan of sizzling pork ribs in golden caramelized fish sauce on any day of the week and it will smell just as good. But for those of us growing up in that town in the Mekong Delta, Sundays were special and Sunday dinners were the best. Our moms would often save the special dishes (aka the kids’ favorites) for that occasion. And since our dinner time was always around 5:30PM, by 3:30PM, they would begin chopping the ribs, crushing the shallot and garlic, adding peanut oil in the hot wok. 30 seconds later, the kitchen would be filled the aroma of sautéed garlic and shallot. In with the ribs, here came the sizzle. Then just when they are slightly charred, a generous spoon of fish sauce. And there it was — the magical smell of Sunday afternoon.

As kids, the kitchen was not our playground but it was hard for my mom and V.’s to keep us away whenever they made their Sunday pork ribs. We would rush in, inhale and exhale, trying to sneak a peak into the bubbling wok while the adults shooed us away. Experience also taught us to time our kitchen visit around 5:00PM at when the sauce has been reduced and almost thickened and our moms were having the final tasting of the ribs. Entered at the right time and we would be trusted to try a piece to judge if the seasoning was enough. Talk about empowerment.

That was the Sunday afternoon pork ribs that V. and I tried to enlighten J. Perhaps we were persuasive or perhaps the margarita helped, but at the end of our ramblings, J. nodded with a “Makes sense”, the glass in his hand half empty.

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