Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen, Reviewed

Nguyen’s writing immerses readers in a richly detailed world of traditional Vietnamese dishes, American junk food, and tamales. With food as a starting point, she explores issues of belonging, marginalization, class, and girlhood. This is the kind of book you can just get lost in. You fall in love with the characters. You root for them and take pleasure in their successes, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. (Like the terrific scene where school-age Nguyen and her sister triumphantly make a mess of the perfect, pretty white girl’s bedroom! So much joy in this moment– and a little bit of the brashness of youth.)

I love the author’s descriptions of the books she read growing up, with a focus on everything food-related in classics like Little House on the Prairie and Little Women. She tells her stories with a sharp attention to class and race, to plenitude and deprivation, to all the meanings that food takes on.

I couldn’t believe when she mentioned Harriet the Spy‘s tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches! I distinctly remember wanting to eat those because of that character, too. The difference of course being that I was the privileged white kid whose mom was there to make the sandwich, to pack all the “right” things in my lunch, and have pork chops ready for dinner. I don’t know what to say besides the fact that books like this are really important. Being in a privileged position allows you to take a lot of things for granted, to let them to go completely unexamined. This book calls out, puts a name to, the assumptions, the little cultural building blocks of white supremacy. But racial and class hierarchies play out in what’s for dinner, in how comfortable a kid feels at another kid’s house, in how teachers and other adults might praise a student (or write them off). Those things stick to you, and make you who you are.

Nguyen does an amazing job picking those complex experiences apart. This is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this race-class-gender-food nexus. Not to mention family, immigration, American consumer culture, school, friendship, and so on. In short, there is a lot of good, important stuff going on in this book!