My mother makes the best egg rolls, but there was a time where I hated them.
As a child, I devoured as many as I could. I’d stuff one in my mouth and grab one for each hand before running off to play with my sister and my cousins.
If you’ve never had a Vietnamese egg roll, you’re missing out. A thin wheat wrapper hugs a savory mixture of seasoned pork, crunchy wood ear mushrooms, carrots, and chewy noodles, then the entire thing is fried until golden brown and crispy. They were time consuming to roll and fry, but I’d hover in the kitchen for the first one to emerge from the hot oil. If I was lucky, my mother would let me eat the “ugly” ones, where the wrapper burst and the escaped filling became crispy crunchy. The pretty ones were saved for company. As delicious as they were, there was one day a year where I hated seeing them on our family table: Thanksgiving.
Growing up, I thought Thanksgiving was the most American of all holidays. Classroom lessons revolved around the Mayflower, Pilgrims, and turkey. There were turkey pine cone crafts, handprint turkeys, and actual turkeys. School lunch the week before Thanksgiving consisted of roast turkey, cornbread dressing, and mushy green beans. We even got an entire week off for Thanksgiving break.
For my immigrant family, holidays meant a paid day off from work. They also meant that our large extended family gathered for a day of eating. Each adult woman in my family contributed giant trays of fried rice, noodles, stuffed chicken wings, and, of course, egg rolls. Our Thanksgiving feast was no different. The array of dishes would make any foodie cry with happiness, but I wasn’t satisfied. Neither were the rest of us young kids. We wanted turkey. Turkey! After all, Thanksgiving was all about the giant turkey. That’s what we learned in school.
For years my cousins and I begged for a roast turkey. We were Americans, and Americans ate turkey on the third Thursday of November. How could we celebrate like proper Americans if we didn’t cook and eat that awkward looking bird?
Finally my mother and aunts caved. My youngest aunt bought a precooked turkey package from our local grocery store. None of us knew what to do with the giblet gravy or stuffing that came with it, but the same aunt volunteered to make mashed potatoes. The kids happily sat in a giant circle on the kitchen floor and peeled potatoes. We reheated the turkey and placed it next to the Vietnamese dishes. It didn’t matter that no one knew how to carve the bird. We finally ate turkey on Thanksgiving Day … and refused to admit that we liked our family’s cooking better.
My family eventually gave up on the turkey because it wasn’t very tasty, but the mashed potatoes stuck. My aunt made a huge bowl every year. My cousins and I fought to lick the beaters she used to make them.
When I moved away from home and couldn’t afford the airfare back to Louisiana for Thanksgiving, I started my own feast with local friends. My boyfriend (now husband) and I studied recipes and techniques to roast the best turkey possible. I channeled my southern roots and made cornbread dressing and collard greens from scratch. It never crossed my mind to make egg rolls or any Vietnamese dish for my all-American holiday.
As a teenager, I tried so hard to be less Vietnamese and more American. Or at least what I thought it meant to be American back then. The longer I lived away from my large family, the more I embraced my Vietnamese heritage — namely the food. I missed my mom’s food. We had many long distance phone calls as I tried to recreate her recipes.
Now as a mother, it’s vital that I share my Vietnamese heritage with my biracial children. Food is how many communities connect, so that’s where I started. Up until last year, our Thanksgiving dinner consisted of traditional dishes: turkey, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and crescent rolls. Our dressing was always cornbread based, in honor of our southern heritage. Our table had no hints of Vietnamese food. Last Thanksgiving, I became determined to make my mother’s egg rolls for our dinner. If we couldn’t go to Louisiana for the holiday, I’d bring a bit of my family to us. I called her multiple times to double- and triple-check ingredients. She never measures when she cooks.
My husband, daughter, and son gathered around the dinner table as I set out the ingredients for the egg rolls. I taught my kids how to slowly pull the wrappers apart and cover them with a damp paper towel — just like my mother taught me. I demonstrated how to spoon the filling onto the wrapper, roll it, and seal it with a bit of egg yolk — the same way I watched my mother do hundreds of times. Next I let each family member roll their own, which my mother never allowed me to do. She could do it faster and better so why let me try?
The kids quickly became bored with the monotonous task of rolling 50+ egg rolls, so I let them go back to their video games. What mattered was that they experienced making egg rolls firsthand. I may not be able to teach my children how to speak Vietnamese, but I can instill pride in their heritage through our family’s recipes.
Last year, my first batch of Vietnamese egg rolls sat next to our platters of cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, and turkey. The table represented my Vietnamese American heritage and both my husband’s and my southern heritage. My son enjoyed the Vietnamese addition while my daughter, who is not a fan of egg rolls, was unimpressed. My husband was thrilled to be able to eat as many egg rolls as his stomach could hold. My mom’s egg rolls have earned a permanent place on our Thanksgiving menu.
For the first time in my adult life, my Thanksgiving feast was truly American.
Now that you’re hungry, try your hand at making my mother’s Vietnamese egg rolls?More On