Mangoes in a crate

Hung Nguyen is associated with mangoes and Kathy Manning with peppercorns in their memoir Mango and Peppercorns. (Image courtesy of Antonio Cansino on Pixabay)

Tung Nguyen chose the name “Hope” (Hy Vong) for the Miami-based Vietnamese restaurant that she opened with Kathy Manning in 1980.  While reading Mango and Peppercorns, Tung’s and Kathy’s memoir, written with writer and restaurant critic Elisa Ung, I began to think about the specific meaning of hope within Tung’s personal context. For Tung Nguyen, having hope meant that she eventually managed to see her Vietnamese family again after a decade-long separation. Having hope meant that she found a way to successfully raise her daughter in a country whose culture and language often confounded her. And having hope meant that her hard work earned her recognition and respect within her community of American customers and Vietnamese expats.

As I became absorbed in her story, I had my own personal hopes for Tung Nguyen. I hoped that living in the US would help her look at Vietnamese culture from a different perspective, help her see through the shallow prejudices that she, born a peasant, suffered in her own country.  I also hoped that she would overcome the trauma in her rich personal history and find a way to connect with people across cultural and class boundaries.

In the creation of Mango and Peppercorns, Tung Nguyen had to confront traumatic experiences buried in her memory.  This is a woman who didn’t decide to emigrate to the United States after carefully planning a life-changing move, but rather had to make a spur-of-the-moment decision.  On an April morning in 1975 when the Viet Cong marched into the Vietnamese capital, she hastily climbed into a boat at the pier in Saigon. The then twenty-two-year-old believed that she was heading for the mountains where she would eat “packaged noodles and bananas” with other refugees until the communists were gone.  When she found herself on the open sea with little food and scarce drinking water, then later witnessed dead bodies being thrown overboard, she realized that her destination must be different from what she had originally anticipated.

Reading about Tung’s past in Vietnam, I came to learn how attached she was to the family she left behind.  As a teenager, she wanted to build for her parents a house out of bricks. She made a deal to work with her local brick maker and roof tile maker — they allowed her to keep one brick or tile out of every ten she made. It took Tung Nguyen a whole year to earn all the bricks and tiles that were needed, but her parents did get their house.

When her father passed away shortly after, Tung Nguyen left for Saigon where she, along with another young woman from her village, set up a soup stand in the indoor market. She sent most of her earnings home to her mother and seven siblings, which allowed the family to stay together. Otherwise Tung’s mother would have had to sell her youngest sons into slavery to avoid starvation.

After Tung Nguyen left for the United States, she was separated from her family for ten years without knowing whether they had survived the rule of the Viet Cong.

Kathy Manning is Tung’s business partner, and the other heroine in Mango and Peppercorns. In 1975, while still a graduate student at the University of Miami, Kathy was host to a group of Vietnamese refugees, including pregnant Tung Nguyen.  Kathy was at once impressed by the exceptional food that Tung could make and appalled by the disparaging attitude of the other refugees towards the young woman.  Because Tung had grown up as a peasant without formal education, Kathy’s Vietnamese room-mate Thao, who hailed from a well-positioned family in Vietnam, did not want to sit down and eat at the same table with Tung.  The prejudice against her humble origins was so strong that unbeknown to Tung Nguyen, when Thao accompanied her to the doctor as a translator, she tried to arrange an abortion on the premise that a poor and uneducated single mother such as Tung shouldn’t have a child.  However, with Kathy’s support, Tung was able to stand her ground and keep the baby. The two women raised Tung’s daughter together in a shared household.

In 1980, Kathy and Tung opened Hy Vong, a fourteen-seat restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana. At that time, Americans were not familiar with Vietnamese food.  However, Tung’s exceptional cooking skills and Kathy’s dedication to procuring only the best ingredients and to maintaining close personal relationships with their customers made for a restaurant that was one of a kind. Despite its humble atmosphere, patrons would wait for hours to eat there because its exceptional food would arrive at the table in a way that created a sense of belonging. In the words of food critic Rafael Navarro, the place had “soul, a conscience — humanity.” The restaurant earned top Zagat ratings, but after thirty-five years in business, it had to close. Now Kathy and Tung host pop-up dinners in the Miami area that allow them to recreate the community atmosphere of Hy Vong.

Mango and Peppercorns isn’t the usual feel-good memoir about a Vietnamese immigrant who worked hard to earn a share of the American dream. Kathy and Tung’s honest voices recount the bitter disagreements they’ve shared and the considerable cultural differences they’ve struggled to overcome over the years.  In reading their story, I felt humbled by Tung’s ability to carry on cooking for long hours in a cramped kitchen, to find her way through Miami with little English, and to negotiate the disrespectful attitude of some of her fellow Vietnamese refugees. I was equally amazed by Kathy’s willingness to follow Tung to her home village in Vietnam and face the bitterness of its inhabitants towards Americans.  Most probably, Kathy’s respect for Tung’s skill and her ability to love Tung’s daughter as her own repeatedly smoothed Kathy and Tung’s tumultuous relationship.

When I eat at a restaurant, I don’t often think about the complex circumstances of the people who have prepared my food. Mango and Peppercorns has helped me gain insight into the intricate aspirations of immigrants who have shaped — and continue to shape — the landscape of American cuisine. If these two exceptional women hadn’t met and managed to work through their differences, Miami wouldn’t have tasted the richness of Vietnamese cuisine or benefited from Kathy’s dedication to building a community around food. I do hope that there are people like them where I live too.

If you enjoyed this book review, you might also want to read Shoba Narayan The Milk Lady of Bangalore or Boris Fishman Savage Feast.