Book Club Tuesday: Mango and Peppercorns

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Not all food-related journeys happen in cookbooks. One of my favourite cookbook-adjacent genres is the food memoir. An inverse of the cookbook, a food memoir follows a life throughout the chapters and, each of these chapters is accompanied by related recipe(s). In the recently published food memoir, Mango and Peppercorns, it’s the story behind the famed Miami restaurant, Hy Vong, that the book centres on.

Told from 3 different perspectives, authors Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen (with the help of Elisa Ung), tell the story of how this unlikely family came to be. The book begins as Tung describes her escape from Saigon in 1975 when the Vietnam War was ending, and the Communists started to take over. From selling her soup in a market stall (the money being sent back to her family living in the countryside), Tung makes a harrowing escape onto a wooden boat which would begin the seemingly impossible journey to the United States. At the time, Tung’s journey wasn’t so much to somewhere as it was getting away with the hopes of survival. With all the terrible challenges and heartbreaking choices Tung faces, she holds onto hope. Without speaking much English (and being pregnant), Tung courageously decides that she “would face this country [her] way.”(26) And, it was Kathy Manning, a Miami resident, who was moved to action by following in her Grandma Peterson’s footsteps by helping others (her grandmother cared for many foster children throughout her life) to take in Vietnamese refugees who came to America looking for a safe haven.

At times, the relationship between Tung and Kathy is difficult and I found that I wondered how these two very different women were able to come together as a family and as business partners. But like the title, which is explained later in the book: “Mango and peppercorns — so different, yet somehow so right together”(122), Tung and Kathy are very different yet, I am not sure that their dreams and goals would have been realized in the same way if they weren’t together. So, from their initial meeting, they eventually build a restaurant, Hy Vong (which means “hope” in Vietnamese), the book follows their relationship from 1975 until 2020. The success and happiness that Tung and Kathy find is made more inspiring through the gritty and difficult times they face.

What I found at the heart of Mango and Peppercorns is an intergenerational story about how strong women inspire and support each other. For both Tung and Kathy, their grandmother’s play a pivotal role in shaping the people they become and, it is the values and strength that is then passed on to Lyn Nguyen (Tung’s daughter). Lyn, born in America to a Vietnamese mother, we learn about how these two cultures affect her and about her challenges growing up. It is her mother, Tung, and Kathy who influence her drive and success in life. After graduating from Harvard, then Cornell, Lyn follows in the entrepreneurial footsteps of her family to cofound and become CEO of Liquid Analytics (an AI intelligence innovation firm). As I made the Pumpkin Soup (Bí Đo) with Fried Shallots, I think of how Tung’s Bà Nội (grandmother) taught her this recipe and how learning to cook paved the way for Tung’s survival and future.

Mango and Peppercorns is about overcoming challenges through hard work and hope. While the journey touches on issues of race, class, and gender, the book is about the unexpected friendship and family that develops between two women who are complete opposites but draw strength from each other. Both driven and industrious, it is Tung’s fierce practicality and Kathy’s limitless dreaming that maintain hope throughout the book. What I appreciated most was reading about their journey from each of them — Tung, Kathy, and Lyn — to “hear” their voices and to see how the comingling of perspectives presented a nuanced memoir.

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Pumpkin Soup (Bi Dò) w/ Fried Onions, p. 27

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Raincoast Books and Chronicle Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

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