Learning about bánh mì

By Judy Woodward

Bánh mì in the Vietnamese language means “wheat bread.”

But during the first half of the 20th century, in the skillful hands of Vietnamese cooks forging the tenuous bridges between French colonial food tastes and the natural abundance of Vietnamese cuisine, a bánh mì became a delicious sandwich with a meat or charcuterie filling set off by fresh herbs, pickled vegetables and sauces.

And that was before it made the long trip to the United States as part of the cultural luggage of Vietnamese immigrants of the 1980s, and long before it fell into the hands of celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain who made it “trendy.”

To poet, activist and writer Ánh-Hoa Thị Nguyễn, bánh mì is also a symbol of a painful disconnect between a suddenly modish foodstuff and the wider American society’s ignorance and indifference toward the immigrant Vietnamese community that created it.

“Bánh mì didn’t just show up out of nowhere,” she says. “It (comes out of) a painful past that is associated with the ethnic community. To appropriate a food without understanding where it came from is to do it a disservice.”

Nguyễn’s piece, “Buy Ten Get One Free! An Open Letter to Bánh Mì Wannabes,” is one of the essays in the collection “What We Hunger For: Refugee and Immigrant Stories about Food and Family” (Minnesota Historical Society, 2021).

The book has been chosen as the main reading selection in St. Paul’s Read Brave citywide reading initiative. And Nguyễn is one of the featured speakers at an online community conversation sponsored by the St. Anthony Park Library and the Branch Library Association on Monday, March 28 at 6:30 p.m. She’ll be joined by essayist Simi Kang and the book’s editor Sun Yung Shin in an exploration of the many links between food and family in the immigrant experience.

 Nguyễn offers her essay as “a road map” to learn more about the people behind the food.          

“If you love a food and want to learn more about it, this is how you engage with it…. At the end of day, how much better the world would be if we took the time to learn about our neighbors and what is meaningful to them. Even something as small as banh mi.”

To learn more about immigrant food traditions — and share some of your own — you can sign up for the discussion online here (https://sppl.bibliocommons.com/events/). Or call St. Anthony Park Library manager Erin Zolotukhin-Ridgway at 651-642-0411 for more information.

You can see more of Ánh-Hoa Thị Nguyễn’s work at https://dvan.org/author/anhhoanguyen/  

Judy Woodward is a resident of St. Anthony Park and a reference librarian at the Ramsey County Library in Roseville.

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