This is Everything is on the table, Column featuring writers whose stories we love to share about food, conflict, and society.
I didn’t grow up eating Stroganoff beef; I grew up thinking about it. It was in the 1980s, in a mostly white Midwestern town where my Vietnamese refugee family had resettled and where I had to get used to my friends describing my grandmother’s food as strange, smelly and terrible. They were evading her quick-fried stir-fries and pho, and heading home to meatloaf and tuna casserole we It is believed to be strange, smelly and gross. But their food was everywhere and our food wasn’t integrated or customized yet, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out American It was meant to mean. I studied commercials, and tracked what characters ate in the books they liked, such as tomato sandwiches Harriet the Spy. I thought all the foods mentioned – salisbury steak, chicken la king, beef stroganoff – should be luxurious.
I first tasted the Stroganoff when I was seven years old, and for years after that I have been wondering how to get back to that moment: my friend Tara’s house, so large that it had its own formal dining room, table covered with breakable plates, the napkins Tara and her parents put on On their arms. It was winter vacation. Garlands line the fireplace and wrap around the railing. Under the Christmas tree, already open gifts were displayed. Everything about Tara was located in a neighborhood, a world, far from what my sister and I knew. Invited to spend the day, we kept looking at each other for clues: How were we supposed to behave?
At home with our family, dinner was free for everyone. The rice was kept hot in his cooker. The only time I used a napkin was when something spilled. My sister Bo Kho our grandmother and I loved the beef broth with hints of star anise, and ban po, lemon beef with rice noodles. But at Tara’s house, we sat down to eat yellow noodles spotted with sauce of diced beef. I’ve never had such a thing before. It looked straight out of a commercial, and I pretended for a moment that I was in one, trying to remember the silk of the salty ketchup in case I never tasted it again.
It wasn’t until college that I discovered packages of pasta labeled “Stroganoff” in the grocery store. All I had to do was boil the water, milk, and butter, then pour in the pasta and the powdered sauce. Add your beef, according to the directions, but even without it you’ll get a thick sauce that coats the pasta and tastes just like Tara. I used to imagine her mom surrounded by intricate cookbooks, but now I understood: the idea of fancy wasn’t theirs; it was mine.