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Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Asian Sandwich Deli: a food poem.

Hey all--sorry for the delay in posts from me, school has been very hectic. Anne and I should have our first combined post--a big blog on the dinner party we threw last month--but in the mean time, I thought I'd put up a poem of mine. It's about food--specifically, a now-departed restaurant in Tucson that I loved--but it's also one of the most emotional and, I think, one of the better pieces I've written. Hope you enjoy.

The Asian Sandwich Deli
“Hole in the wall” is an understatement.
It’s just a small chunk of an ugly strip mall on Speedway Boulevard,
and a rough midpoint between two extremes called home.

I spent years going by it;
driven from my father’s to my mother’s, passed back and forth
like a book they were taking turns reading.
We never stopped for sandwiches.

Till one day, somewhere in those first days of my last year,
My father said to me,
In the tone which one reserves for things
Like the discovery of sunken Spanish treasure
“You know, you really ought to try that little Asian sandwich shop
I went today, it was amazing.”

The thing was a work of beauty.
Soft, warm bread folded round crisp vegetables
And roast pork that glistened under the florescent lights.
The first bite knocked me out,
And I woke up on a wet, mossy hillside in old Saigon
in what I now would guess was 1900.

Head spinning, I stumbled down side streets,
till I stood staring in the window of a just-built bakery;
the glistening temple where the French officers,
in their bright blue uniforms,
Sit drinking coffee and imagining lovers
Left behind on the left bank
By now, they’ve forgotten their names.

When my taste buds stopped vibrating,
I ran back to school, where my friends raised their eyebrows
at my babbling rhapsody to what was
after all,
a sandwich shop.
“What you get, the hyperbole special?,”
David cracked.
But it was a break from the usual burger joint,
So they eventually came along.
Within two weeks, they too became converts,
And we would make our twice-weekly pilgrimage
And loiter at its low metal tables
Hiding from the future and the ending of our gang.
Taking comfort in roast meat and reassuring lies.
“College won’t change anything,
We’ve got plenty of time.”

Back in Saigon, I crack the door slowly,
taking in the bakery with hungry interloper’s eyes.
A lieutenant named Jean-Luc waves me over
“You must be straight from Paris,
dressed like that.”
He grabs my hand.
“Tell me, how’s Celine’s?
You know the place,
The little Café chantant
With the good absinthe,
and those two blond sisters singing cabaret songs?”
“They’re as lovely as ever” I reply.
I have no idea, of course,
but he seemed to need the reassurance.

Even the ones who weren’t there, were.
When I think of Kyle,
I am always watching him standing,
thumb on chin as he stared
at the bright photos on the laminated board,
before saying “no, too much flavor,” in that London lilt
And heading off down the road
For a cheeseburger
with extra bacon on top.
He never did come back.

My father and I only went together once.
That was a two-car year,
so we’d mostly say hello coming through doors,
or tell our stories standing in the kitchen,
squeezing in cups of tea between lectures
and band practices.

He gets fond by getting nervous though.
It’s a sticky summer afternoon, and I’m running out of calendar pages
when he barges in:
“Have you bothered to merge your accounts yet?”
It’s an issue of the greatest importance,
and as we race to the bank, he darts through traffic,
Eying the other cars like invaders.

Task done, he eases up
as he always does.
The deli was across the street,
and I suggest stopping for sandwiches.

There, he marvels at the case of little pork pies
which he wishes he’d had in his boarding school days,
where they seem to have served nothing
but tapioca pudding and mushy peas
that he and his friends would make faces at,
and fantasized about force-feeding to the instructors.

In the deli, someone has painted Winnie the Pooh on the fading purple wall;
He asks out-loud
“Remember the AA Milne stories your mother read you?
You wouldn’t go to bed until you’d had two or three
And she could never say no to you.”
I smile and nod
I suspect it’s the retelling I remember,
but why say so?
Let him remember us then.

The Bánh mì—the Vietnamese sandwich in the poem—is a fascinating culinary phenomenon.  See the following links for some excellent pieces on the sandwich, its variants and its origins:

   •  The Banh Mi of My Dreams The Washington Post.
   •  Bánh Mì: The baguette-bound culinary bonanza Austin Chronicle.
   •  Banh mi? There is no sub Boston Globe.
   •  Vietnamese Banh Mi Recipe. Food Network
   •  The Best Bánh Mì -Vietnamese Sandwiches Battle of the Bánh Mì
   •  Banh Mi in Chicago
   •  Building on Layers of Tradition The New York Times.

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  1. I had not seen this version yet: love what you've done with the poem! It makes me both nostalgic and hungry for Bánh mì.

  2. Thanks for posting this slice of your life in a sandwich poem.


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