Bitter Melon Soup

The ’78 Astros were not very good, but I remained a devoted fan, following them on my portable radio through another summer. One slow Tuesday, I was listening to a double header, half-heartedly rolling newspapers for delivery, when the bounce of a basketball caught my attention. I pushed my work aside—I was twelve at the time—to follow the unmistakable rhythm to the driveway next door. There, I found my new neighbor, maybe a little older than me, practicing layups by himself. He glanced at me, smiled as he pulled up on a jump shot, and asked, “You want to play?”

Just like that we were fast friends, and for years we played a few times most weeks, often daily. Neither of us ever rang a doorbell or made a phone call, just started bouncing the ball.

“Call me Tony; nobody here gets my other name.” He had just moved in with his parents, siblings, a grandmother, even an aunt along with some cousins. I wondered how that would work out in a four-bedroom house, but Tony seemed happy with it. I learned the Lao family had escaped from Vietnam, but did not come directly to Texas. They had to wait in crowded housing somewhere else until a Houston church sponsored them and a government agency found them a home. Tony had hated that stopping-off place, so this Houston ranch-style house with a backyard and a basketball goal in the drive was a dream.

Before 1975, less than a hundred people with Vietnamese backgrounds lived in Houston. Within a few years, tens of thousands of families resettled along the Gulf Coast where they would find familiar humidity levels and bays filled with the shrimp, crabs, and fish they would recognize as distant cousins to the ones back home. Houston (along with New Orleans and LA) quickly grew into a lively center for a growing Vietnamese diaspora.

My seventh-grade mind did not pause to contemplate such demographic change playing out right on my block. I just had a new friend with an irresistible smile and a deadly jump shot.

Tony was fast and could go left or right on a dime. Not too tall, he stayed outside where he could unleash quick jumpers all day, unless he saw an opening and would stutter step by for a zig-zagging layup. I told him his game reminded me of one of my heroes: Calvin Murphy, the 5-foot-9 dynamo point guard for the Houston Rockets. Both Murphy and Tony smiled a lot, even during intense plays, and chattered throughout. After I told him about Murphy, Tony would show me moves he picked up watching the Rockets and we would then try to perfect them together.

While basketball served as our introduction, food strengthened our bond as we were always hungry in the afternoons. After playing too long in the Houston heat, I might sneak into the house to see if we had any exotic (to Tony) Fritos and bean dip. At other times, he might go see if his grandmother had some crispy spring rolls for us. Sitting against the basketball goal, we would squirt hot sauce on the rolls before downing them in a few bites. If the sun was really blazing, Tony might bring out a salty lemonade that was more quenching than ice tea or even Gatorade.

Salty and sour were our flavors. Tony loved the big dill pickles that were usually in our refrigerator, and he became addicted to Kool-Aid once I showed him how to eat it. We would pour packets into our palms and then top it with lots of salt before licking our hands clean. Our tongues and lips would glow unnatural shades of purple or red as we started the next game. No telling what we looked like to people driving by.

That first summer, the Lao’s vegetable garden grew into a buzzing, green mystery that sparked some controversy among neighbors. Soon after the move-in, a series of intricate bamboo trellises sprouted along our fence line, and almost overnight lush vines were creeping up the poles. The foliage looked familiar, like cucumber or squash, but not quite like anything we grew. Whatever these varieties were, they proved persistent in our gumbo soil. Each vine seemed to grow a foot a day while sending new branches off in other directions. Before long, they sought more sun on our side of the fence and tumbled over into our yard creating a glorious green wall. Early in the mornings, greedy bees darted distractedly among all of yellow blossoms they had to choose from.

Soon quirky fruit, looking like wild imaginings of Dr. Seuss, began to morph from the flowers. Some grew into shiny green melons covered in smooth bumps, like a cartoon witch’s nose. (I would later learn to call these bitter melons.) The squash (luffa gourds), looking like a cross between a zucchini and a cucumber but spotted yellow and green, grew and grew to an impressive three or four feet long.

Mrs. G, out watering her lawn across the street one day, stopped me to ask, “What is going on with all those vines coming over on your momma’s yard!? That is not right.”

I answered I wasn’t sure what they were before adding, “I haven’t tasted one.”

As I biked away she chuckled, “Be careful, those chinky cucumbers may get you.”

When I asked Tony about these botanical curiosities, he disappeared into the house and came back with two bowls of bitter melon soup, each melon stuffed with soft, poached pork. The soup was both delicious and quenching in its sharp brininess. And I loved that the flavors were both familiar—Southerners adore pork-flavored bitter greens—and also completely new.

After my delicious lesson on bitter melons, Tony’s older brother Ty (the gardener in the family) wanted to know about the vegetables growing in our yard. He pointed at the small native birds-eye peppers and asked if he could try them. I replied, “Sure, but be careful; they are hot-hot!” I didn’t think he understood my English as he went to popping them in his mouth, snacking on them as if they were candies. But he did not flinch or shed a single tear.

This remarkable feat made Ty an instant legend in my mind, and I was honored to walk him through the rest of our vegetable garden. He chuckled at the fat shape of our eggplants and shared the Vietnamese names of some of what we had. Eggplant: cà tím. Okra: dâu bap. He rubbed some tomato leaves together to smell and that made him smile. He took some birds eyes for seeds, and I gave him some tomatoes and mint for grandmother. We were garden friends from then on.

This exchange went on throughout the summer of 1978. When our peaches were ready, we picked some for grandmother. A couple of weeks later, Ty cut a sweet melon, tasting something like a cross between an American honey dew and a winter squash, that the three of us ate quietly in the driveway.

But not until our first winter as neighbors were our families forever bound together as the kind of friends who would share food at births, weddings, and funerals. Around noon on Christmas Eve, my mom sent me next door with two massive trays of assorted Christmas cookies she had spent the week baking. A few other neighbors got a small tin of her treats, but the Laos had a lot of kids in the house and not everybody on the block had been welcoming.

Mr. Lao was effusively thankful and tried to tell me something as the little ones in the family huddled around to see the cookies. He asked Tony to translate to me: “Please be home in three hours; we will come to your door with a Christmas gift.” I looked at Tony with a question in my eyes but he just flashed one of his sly smiles.

Three hours later, our doorbell rang and as instructed, I was waiting. Tony was at the door with three of the younger members of the family. “Merry Christmas!” they sang out, and in they came with huge platters of food and a soup tureen. Unsure of how to respond to such overwhelming generosity, I called my mom out from the kitchen.

She pointed to our dining room table and gushed, “Oh my goodness, Tony. That all looks just beautiful.”

Dad came into the dining room, just as surprised, and patted Tony’s back. “Please tell your family ‘thank you’ for us. This looks like a true feast.”

Tony smiled, “OK, but this is not all; we will be right back.”

They returned a few minutes later with bowls of sauces, plates of fresh herbs and lettuces, along with bright red bakery boxes framed in gold lettering. Tony opened all the platters and explained what each was. The grandmother had sent crispy fried spring rolls and soft summer rolls, so beautifully translucent you could see the shrimp and herbs on the inside. One of his sisters was excited to point out that we were to wrap the spring rolls in the lettuce with the herbs before dipping in the sauce. Little brother explained the bánh cuán, a dumpling filled with mushroom and pork.

Tony motioned me over to the big bowl of soup. “The soup is made from the squash you picked for us on your side of the fence. So you helped! I know you will like it.” I inhaled the steamy aroma of the soup and immediately fell in love with it. My dad with his sweet tooth was already opening the box of French/Vietnamese pastries to sample as my mom slapped at his hands. The kids giggled.

Back out on the porch under our blinking Christmas lights, they turned and thanked my mom for the cookies once more before bounding home. With this grand gesture, our Christmas Eve became something completely new, a feast we would talk about for decades to come. Mom and Dad made room on the table for the spring rolls and dumplings next to our usual potato salad and Swedish meatballs, a dish our great grandmother had brought to America at the turn of the century. That night, we had so much fun wrapping the spring rolls in lettuce and trying the different sauces with the dumplings. I even found that the peanut sauce went great with our spiced meatballs and that the herbs went very well with Swedish pickled herring!

For as long as we lived as neighbors, every year the same ritual played out: around noon I brought trays of pecan sandies, fudge, and pink divinity next door and a few hours later the kids with trays of food arrived at our door. Decades later at a new Vietnamese cafe, my mom ran into one of the youngest girls who had brought the food, now all grown up with children of her own. She reminisced with Mom and told her that one of her fond memories of living on the old block was waiting for the Christmas Eve cookies. When it was time to pay, Mom found out her tab had been covered. Once again, spring rolls were gifted, this time in return for the memory of decorated Christmas cookies.

One midsummer day back around 1980, lumbering black clouds rolled over Houston from the Gulf. Thunder boomed all around us as Tony and I tempted fate trying to finish a game. The hair stood up on our arms as the air pressure dropped, making us giddy and alive, so as the deluged dropped we went under the house eaves to enjoy the show with a couple of cokes.

I loved a big Gulf storm back then, and I miss them even more now that I live in New York. After a while we could not resist and took off into the rain, the fat tropical drops warm on our skin. We kicked at the water puddling up and slid across the slick St. Augustine lawn as if we were sliding into home plate at the Dome, again and again.

As the street began to turn into a rushing river, I shouted to my friend: “Bet you never been in a flood like this?”

Tony laughed. “This is nothing, man. Monsoons in Vietnam are real. They can wash you away to somewhere you’ll never be found.”

The image of storms bigger than our Texas-size downpours intrigued me, but also the just the idea of my neighbor being back in one was difficult to envision. Tony seldom mentioned his birthplace or much about home. I did not have much of an idea what Tony’s pre-Texas life was like or what he went through to make it to this random street in the middle of Houston. He did not seem to want to talk about his family history very often, and I got the sense he wanted to fit in more than call attention to the fact he was an immigrant. Food and the garden were the main languages used to communicate about the past.

I thought about this when we heard “chink” or “gook” thrown around in the neighborhood, even though we usually pretended not to notice. We went to different schools so I do not know what it was like for Tony in between classes. Had he ever seen a kid pull his eyes back before singing, “Me Chinese/me play joke/me put pee-pee in your coke?” Did he hear the jokes about keeping the dogs safe around the new neighbors? Did he see the news reports of the KKK coming down to Galveston Bay, with guns brandished to harass Vietnamese shrimpers? Burning crosses and shrimp boats at the dock? Killing two brothers? I could only imagine because boy code ruled that you just did not ask questions about that kind of thing.

Some fighting even came to our block one afternoon, summer of 1982. The neighbors on our other side had put their house up for sale and word got out that they had accepted an offer from relatives of the Laos. That Saturday morning when some dads were out mowing the lawns, a loud argument broke out around the “for sale” sign. Mr. K, a large intimidating man, let it be known to all that he was furious about the block “being run over,” as he tried to rally a sense of unity among the other men. He ranted about property values, cleanliness, and his right to raise his kids in a safe neighborhood. All of that flew over my head as I felt nothing but safe with the Laos, and the perpetually shiny floors inside their house always amazed me. We couldn’t even wear shoes inside.

But Mr. K carried on, many of his rants leading off with qualifications: “I do not have a racist bone in my body, but . . .” or “I am all for anyone coming to this country, but they have to want to work and learn the language and . . .” Eventually, the argument ended in a short, ugly fight, mostly pushes and shoves with just a few fists thrown, but still the only physical confrontation I ever witnessed among adults on the block.

None of the Laos were outside at the time of the fight, so I am not sure what they heard or saw. I do know the sale did not go through.

At the end of summer 1984, I went away to UT in Austin and my one-on-one basketball games with Tony ended almost as abruptly as they began. We played maybe two or three more times when I was home on breaks.

But when my father died the summer after my freshman year, Tony met me between our houses, near the hoop. Neither of us had words, so we just shook hands. After the funeral, church ladies and friends of the family filled our refrigerator and freezer with cheesy casseroles or barbecued brisket, but I could not bring myself to eat much of that heavy food. The days following the burial, I lived mostly on the bitter melon soup and spring rolls that showed up in our kitchen.

Over Thanksgiving break that year, I heard the ball bouncing and went out to see Tony. We just shot around for a bit because he was busy but wanted to share some news: he was getting married. I hoped he didn’t notice my smile was pretend because I did feel honored that he wanted to tell me. But selfishly I knew this news meant more change.

Over the following years I seldom saw my friend as my visits home became less frequent and Tony moved his young family further out from the old neighborhood. The extended Lao family continued to open restaurants and coffee shops in old strip malls, helping to revive neglected parts of town. In building new lives for themselves, they helped transplant a culture that thrived beautifully in Houston, blossoming and vining in among the dogwoods and pines. I am not sure where Tony lives now, but the last I heard he and his family were still thriving and happy.

Today, four decades after our neighbors first arrived, Houston would be almost impossible to imagine without a Vietnamese influence, especially regarding our food. The bánh mi that seemed so exotic back in the ’70s is now classic comfort food and one of the first bites I grab when I fly in. That is, if Mom and I do not first stop at Mae’s, one of Houston’s oldest Vietnamese cafes, for the mustard green soup that sings to our Southern palates. No doubt many more bowls of pho are served in Houston than traditional Texas chili, though I doubt the oversize bowls of soup outsell gumbo yet.

The largest Asian shopping district in the country stretches for miles out the west side of town. I take my New Yorker husband there for a true taste of Texas: Cajun-Viet crawfish. This buttery wonder could only have been born of Houston and has become one of our great contributions to world culture, along with domed stadiums and mechanical bull-riding. You can now find the dish at a restaurant in Manhattan, and a third-generation Texan recently opened a Houston-style Vietnamese restaurant specializing in crawfish in Hanoi!

Some young Houston pit masters have been adding Vietnamese flavor to Texas barbecue to great acclaim, and the secret to my own Houston-style pimento cheese is three good squirts of sriracha with chopped chilis. Traditions live in the food here, but folks are always mixing in something new and stirring the pot.

Over my lifetime Houston has welcomed more refugees than any region in the country, and the city is now the most ethnically diverse in the U.S. Although our sports teams usually disappoint—I have never gotten over the Oilers move or forgiven the tacky new baseball park—we can take pride in our hospitality. When thousands of our displaced neighbors from New Orleans arrived at the Astrodome after escaping Hurricane Katrina in 2005, people from across the city turned out with barbecue pits in the parking lot to welcome them. When Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in 2017, the Sikh community rallied to cook for and feed thousands of displaced Texans. Like previous waves of newcomers before them—from poor, rural Texans fleeing played out farms the decades following World War II to highly educated professionals flying in from across the globe to work at the Texas Medical Center—each new group adds layers to this improbable city built on a flood-prone bayou.

Oh, there will always be small-minded people who cast a wary eye at the new family on the block, or even use them as political target practice. At the time of writing, my cousin sent me an article about a resurgence of anti-Asian and anti-Latinx hate crimes back home that threatens the peace and reputation the city has built. Calculated rhetoric about a “Kung Flu” and “rapists at the border” has succeeded in riling up old fears and hatreds. Some tiny men have even acted out violently in response. But this tactic will not work in Houston over the long run. The city is too grown up now.

I believe our culture of sharing food is one reason why. Just as people once called Atlanta the “city too busy to hate,” perhaps food-crazy Houston can be understood as the city having too much fun cooking to hate. I usually cringe when a foodie on Instagram tags a restaurant photo with #lifechanging! That kind of facile meme strikes me as silly. A grilled cheese, really? A toasted sandwich is going to change your life? I have to wonder. But then again, I cannot completely discount such sentiment because I have tasted the power of a great pho. Although I no longer live in Houston, I feel it when back home every Christmas Eve. As the party starts to quiet down late at night, someone old enough to know inevitably will wonder out loud: “Y’all remember the Christmas spring rolls?”

——

Rob Linné teaches at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. He is happy to share recommendations for great pho or crawfish in his hometown. He may be reached at: linne@adelphi.edu.

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