The Lunch Letters
Author: Nguyễn Thị Hải Hà
Translation: Đặng Hoàng Lan
We live in a small U.S. town with a small population. Therefore, when we want to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant, we have to drive for an hour. Most Vietnamese can cook for themselves and Vietnamese wives usually serve their husbands’ meals. All of wives know how to cook Vietnamese dishes. Men without wives or with wives who can’t cook try to find culinary solutions. A small restaurant found a way to prepare meals and deliver them at an affordable price. The story goes like this.
Mr. An opened his lunch box. There was a piece of paper in a small packet of utensils and spices. The yellow lined paper came from a legal pad like the ones sold in the supermarket.
I wondered whether you enjoyed my dishes or not. On the third day, I noticed that your lunch box was empty. Could you tell me what foods are suited to your taste, so that I can serve you better?
P.S. You needn’t wash the lunchbox. My customers have never done that before. You are the only one.
Dear Ms. Chef,
I had guessed the cook was a woman, so I called you by Ms. I hoped you were a woman because the male chefs are much more common in the U.S. If I misunderstood, please forgive me. Honestly, I have never had such a good meal. Your food is delicious. The presentation of the rice and vegetables was very well done.
I had guessed you were a new chef because I have noticed that the dishes in my lunchbox have been more delicious recently. You are the first chef writing to ask my opinion about my meals. According to the rules of the restaurant, I can’t order specific plates. If I order something specific, the restaurant will charge me a different price. You cook very well, so I like almost all of your dishes.
I have lived abroad for many years, so I have never heard anyone calling the lunch box by the word “gà mên”. I washed my lunchbox because I have an agreement with the restaurant owner. I don’t like to use plastic spoons or plastic food containers. People often throw plastic boxes, spoons, and chopsticks into the trash after eating. I don’t want to pollute our environment, so I have two metal boxes. I wash the used metal lunchbox and exchange it for a new one every day. Thank you very much.
Your loyal customer.
P.S. How talented you are! How did you know that I had eaten all the food in the box when I returned it washed? (Just kidding!)
Dear Mr. An,
I am so glad you like my food. Thank you for your nice compliment. If I have many more customers like you, I will keep my job for a long time. It is difficult for me to find a good job because I am deaf and mute. Moreover, I have a school-aged child, and I don’t have any computer skills. Let me tell you a fun story. Actually, the dishes you ate on those days were the special ones I cook for my husband. He works in a factory, so his lunchtime is the same time as yours.
In the factory, there are many Chinese and Indian workers. They order Chinese and Indian meals from my restaurant that are cooked by other chefs. I ask my delivery boy to deliver my husband’s lunch with the other deliveries. My husband said that having homemade lunches delivered to him was a luxury. He said that he could bring his own food, but I enjoy taking care of him. I can’t express my love for him in words. I can only show my affection by sending him food.
It seems that my husband and I do not have the deep love that we had in the beginning. A great distance has grown between us. My mother often says, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. I want to re-conquer my husband’s heart, so I learned to prepare his favorite dishes. I found a notebook in which my mother-in-law had copied the recipes for his favorite dishes. I was so nervous when I cooked the first lunch for him. I waited for my husband to say something when he came back home from work. But he didn’t say anything, and he was even more close-mouthed than usual.
I asked him, “Did you have a delicious meal today?”
“Quite good,” he replied.
“Just okay?” I asked.
“What would you like me to say?” he questioned.
“What was your best favorite dish?” I wanted to know.
“Broccoli fried beef.”
He quietly undressed and went to bed. He turned his back to me. I held him in my arms, but he seemed to be far away. I asked myself, “Broccoli fried beef?” I didn’t cook it.
On the third day he scolded me, “You are just at home and cooking, but you still haven’t done anything. You should give me a variety of dishes, but every day you give me the same dish – broccoli fried beef. I am bored to death with broccoli fried beef!”
I guessed the delivery boy gave you the wrong lunch like he did to my husband. Why would the restaurant serve only broccoli fried beef for three consecutive days? How careless the restaurant was! The restaurant will lose customers and I will lose my job if this continues. Do you have another woman cooking for you? I am just asking you, but you don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to discuss your private life. I hope you have a good meal and a good rest.
Your faithful chef,
What a terrible mistake! What a travesty! You also knew that the mixup was not my fault because I was the only receiver. Sadly, your husband had to eat broccoli fried with beef for three consecutive days while I was eating well. Last night your meat-stuffed colocynth soup was wonderful. The way you tied the onion skin around the bitter melon was meticulous and visually appealing. How did you find a loach in this country (a small long fresh-water fish)? Here people usually use a canned fish that is not tough and brittle like the loach in Vietnam. My favorite part was the soft aromatic mushrooms in the broth. I ate this kind of delicious food when my mother was alive. The preparation of this dish may have been lost for a long time which is to say that it is rare in this country. I have lived alone in the U.S. for a long time. I’m not a picky eater, but that does not mean I don’t know how to appreciate delicious food.
The restaurant served the dish “broccoli fried beef” for consecutive three days. Well, I can explain it like this:
I really liked the noodles with roast beef you prepared on the first day. In fact, I called the restaurant to tell them the dish was very delicious. I even suggested that the restaurant should continue to serve the noodles prepared like that. The owner of the restaurant was very surprised because no one has ever extended their compliments to the chef for a great meal. If the customers are continuously praising the food, the restaurant will have a reason to increase their monthly meal price. I have eaten at this restaurant for many years, but I have never left any compliments for the chef.
Please do not scold the delivery boy and continue cooking for me. I can pay a higher price or I can leave you a big tip. To be honest with you, on these days I waited impatiently for my lunch to be delivered. Actually, I waited for your letter. I always read your letter first so that I can enjoy my lunch with delight. A few short lines of yours are enough to give me a little joy on lonely nights. However, the letter is thin …
My colleague often says that I was a lonely man. I hadn’t thought about my loneliness until quite recently. My nights are long and quiet. The silence of the nights makes me reluctant to retire even though I have reached retirement age. Actually, I was required to stop working two years ago, but I kept postponing it. During the day I get into my daily routine of work, but in the night I really want someone to talk with me.
Chatting is an art. People say that retirees should marry or make friends with someone who knows the art of conversation. It’s too late for me to get married, and making friends has become more difficult. There are very few Vietnamese people in my small town. When I get together with my friends, whether they are Vietnamese or American, we do nothing but eat and drink.
My coworkers and I rarely talk to each other at work. I have never had anyone who can talk with me or listen to my stories. It is so hard to find a person with whom I can exchange confidences and share my thoughts. It is no wonder the prince in the story “One Thousand and One Nights” couldn’t kill the girl who had spent the night with him just because she knew how to tell fairy tales and listen to what he was saying.
You asked me why I order monthly meals. The reason is that I don’t have anyone to cook for me. I was married to an American girl before, but our marriage lasted only two days. The story was quite complicated and it’s hard to explain in a letter. I will tell you the story of my failed two-day marriage if you continue to cook for me. I wonder whether you will believe me or not when I tell you that I am addicted to your food.
Of course, I can eat out.There are many Chinese and American restaurants here. They include Ihop, McDonald’s, Burger King, Roy Rogers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, but no one can make traditional Vietnamese food for me. The old Vietnamese recipes and preparation techniques are known only to Vietnamese mothers who were taught by their mothers. The art of Vietnamese food is a secret passed down for many generations.
I would like to tell you about an animated film, and the main character is a mouse who wants to be a chef. The mouse’s name is Remy and he worked in a famous French restaurant. Remy conquered the famous Parisian food critic, Anton, whose harsh reviews have made many restaurants shut down and their owners commit suicide. Anton was very impressed with Remy’s ratatouille which is a traditional French folk dish. Remy’s delicious ratatouille reminded Anton of his mother’s cooking. I feel like Anton when I eat your expertly prepared food which makes me think of my childhood and the food my mother used to make for me. So you probably know that how much I love your food!
Please forgive me. I have been too talkative today. Would you mind telling me how you lost your voice and hearing? Was it an accident or a disease? How could you learn to write so well when you cannot speak or hear? It could not have been easy for you to learn to read and write. I really admire you.
Your loyal customer
P.S. I forgot to thank you for the delicious gracilaria that was moulded in the shape of a multicolored flower. It is so beautiful that I could not bring myself to eat and I put it in the fridge. Maybe you should stop trying to win your husband’s heart with delicious food. I think you should change your makeup and dress. You should seduce your husband and try to have another baby.
Dear Mr. An,
My daughter is six years old. We gleefully watched the film “Ratatouille” together because she loves to watch cartoons and I enjoy all things relating to food. I love to hear that you are addicted to my food. Today I showed off my specialty “Duck cooked with soy cheese”. The dried bamboo shoots were soaked in water until they were no longer acrid. Then, I selected only the soft bamboo parts soaked them with the soy cheese in order to infuse the flavors before adding them to the soup. It cost me a lot of time and effort. The salad was made with slices of banana flower which is difficult to find. I’m not telling you this to ask for more money. In my opinion, a chef’s lovingly and expertly prepared food is worth more than any amount of money.
My husband was born in the United States. He prefered American food to Vietnamese food. Yesterday he told me that I should learn to make spaghetti and other American or Italian dishes. Then he wanted me to stop delivering his lunch. He said that his colleague just ate sandwiches, so they always ridicule him for having spoons and chopsticks.
My husband recently came home from work very late and very drunk. The next morning while I was doing the laundry, I smelt perfume and I found lipstick on his shirt collar. The trace of lipstick was evidence that someone had kissed my husband yesterday. What could I say and what could I do to release my anguish? I wanted to tell my secret to a stranger like you because I know you will keep it to yourself.
My husband and I met in Vietnam. We fell in love and got married. I have lived in the U.S. for many years, but I have never learned to speak English well, so it has been difficult for me to integrate into the local community. Previously, I liked to cook and stay at home. But now, I dream of having a career like the women on TV. These career women are always fashionably dressed and I also want to be beautiful in a fancy dress. If I had a good job, I would work for the rest of my life.
This morning I watched a woman commit suicide on television by jumping in front of a train. Her daughter and my daughter are in the same class. I often see this woman while I am waiting for the bus to pick my child up for school. They live in the same apartment complex but in a different building. The poor innocent child tried to free herself from her mother’s grip, but she failed. The woman jumped in front of the train holding her daughter’s hand and killing them both. I have heard that the family is devastated. She committed an insane act in a moment of desperation. I don’t think that a desperate mother has the right to deprive her child of life.
I think you should not be afraid to retire. Retirement doesn’t mean that you have to stay at home all day, day after day. You could travel or learn more hobbies such as photography, chess, reading, or writing. Why don’t you write because I think that you have an aptitude for literature?
I wish you a good night. Today I sent some black-eyed peas with coconut milk chè for your desert. Please ẹnjoy your meal.
You wrote “The letter is thin …” What does that mean?
According to your story, you are an immigrant while I settled in the U.S. as a refugee. I have a friend who likes to travel. He came to Kyoto and visited the ancient capital of Japan many times. He said that he loved life in Japan. He believes that Kyoto is his home, and he was a citizen of Kyoto in a previous life.
I still wonder how long I must live in a city in order to call that city my own and that country my home? I have lived in this town longer than I lived in Vietnam, but I still don’t feel this town is my home. Moreover, sadly I no longer feel Vietnam is my home anymore. I have fallen into a strange and lost feeling in both Vietnam and the United States. The house where I am living now is my home. When I go away I still want to return to my house. People often describe the word “country” by using two words. The word ‘home” is usually accompanied by the word “country”. I have a home, but I do not have a home country. What do you think about your love for your homeland? Do you feel that this country is your home?
Maybe you should take your daughter to the school counselor. Her friend’s death could have been a psychological trauma that could hurt her soul for a long time. I wonder why people dare to die, but they still dare not to live. During our ocean crossing from Vietnam, we still had hope of being saved even when starvation and death were upon us. We had to fight for our lives with every blink and every shallow breath. We still wanted to live even though our lives were not worth living. Why did the woman push her daughter in front of a locomotive like that? It was not only pitiful. It was shameful.
My boss called me into his office and urged me to take an early retirement. I answered that I would think about it. On my way to work every day, I enjoy looking at the rows of bare trees in the foggy winter mornings. When I retire, I will always remember those roads lined with leafless trees. My office window looks out over a river where it is traversed by light blue swing bridge. When the sunlight shines on the bridge in the mornings, the river gradually changes color from pale pink to light orange to luminous yellow. It is a magical and extraordinary sight. I look at the bridge each day, and when I retire I will no longer see it. Do you think that I will remember the scenes around me more than my coworkers? My colleagues say that I am a lonely and stonehearted man because I don’t want to be friends with anyone. Maybe my two-day wife couldn’t tolerate my cold temperament. I thought that I could live alone without friends for a lifetime, but now I suddenly realize that I need someone to talk with me.
I have shared quite a lot with you even though we don’t know each other well. I hope you will forgive me. If you don’t have time, you can throw my letter away. But since you have a kindness to nourish my stomach, perhaps you will feed my solitary mind and write me a few lines. I look forward to your letters more than I do your meals.
Your precious customer
Dear Mr. An,
I was still thinking about the woman who committed suicide and killed her child. At the beginning of our marriage seven years ago, I was so full of love and happiness that I couldn’t think of a day that my husband would be unfaithful. I really cannot understand how a woman can commit suicide and force her child to die because of her own despair. Unlike me, she could speak, hear, read, and write. She had her friends and her homeland while I have nothing except my husband and my child. I took your advice to heart, and I wore beautiful clothes and more attractive makeup. One night I attempted to seduce my husband with sexy lingerie. I was trying to hold on his love and have one more baby. But my husband refused me, and he admitted that he had fallen in love with another woman.
Before getting married and having children, I used to imagine traveling to strange countries where I had never been. Have you seen “The Wind Journeys”? I often borrow films from the local library, and I watch them with closed-captioning for the deaf. When you watch this movie, you will see the beauty of the South American countries. The film’s story is about an accordion with the top carved into the head of Satan. The custodian has to deliver the accordion to a monk who lives on a high desert mountain. He and his disciple take the accordion with them as they cross over 80 distinct geographical regions. The cinematography in the movie is so beautiful. Many times I have dreamed of sitting on a summit in the midst of interminable mountains and thick forests. I have also dreamed of sitting by a babbling stream while listening to the pan flutes played by tribal people.
I thought that I would travel with my husband when our children grew up. When we travel, we can be anyone. We are just faces in a crowd. We could save money for decades just to spend it all in order to image ourselves as millionaires.
Once you told me that one of your friends loved Kyoto so much that he wanted to live there permanently. I like Kyoto, too. I have watched a lot of Japanese movies about geishas and samurais. I have read a lot of travel books about Japan. Did you know that Zen Master Basho was hypothesized and brainwashed into thinking that he was a spy for a powerful warlord when he was traveling around Northern Japan? If I had the chance, I would go to Japan.
I also want to visit Bhutan. The woman who committed suicide once lent me some books about Bhutan. Bhutan is a country that measures the wealth of the country by its gross national happiness. If I could travel to Bhutan, I would ask to stay and make Bhutan my home. If you are afraid of flying, you should not go to Bhutan. The airstrip is very dangerous because it’s short and situated precariously. There are about ten pilots who are skilled enough to take off and land on that runway. Additionally, it is much too difficult to apply for entry to Bhutan.
I write this to let you see that life does not end after retirement. I wish you were happy. You should take some time to think over your retirement plans. Of course, I would be very sad if you decided to retire and travel. There would be no one to eat my food and read my letters. Now I wonder whether my husband will ask for a divorce. If he does, where will I live and how will I raise my child alone? It’s possible that my husband will have to pay alimony and child support, but perhaps it will not be sufficient. We live in his house that he had bought before he married me. If he doesn’t want us to stay, we will have to move out.
I wish you a good night’s sleep. I hope you enjoy my banana chè and meat pie.
Your faithful chef,
I have boldly applied for my retirement on your recommendation. I only need to announce my plans two weeks before I quit, however my boss seems to be ready for me to leave. I haven’t given my notice yet, but I have already trained my replacement. If I am not wanted, then I shouldn’t stay in my job. Work is just like love. We can’t keep on loving one way forever. I’m also exhausted. Every afternoon when I come back home from work, I have to stand on a crowded train. Last week, I saw my reflection in the window of the train. I was slumped over, my hair was white, and I looked like a mudfish in thick glasses. A little boy stood up to give me his seat. He told me that he could stand because he was still young.
Someday, I hope to travel to Japan, Bhutan, and Chile so that I can see these countries through your eyes. But, before I go, I would like you to help me with a few things. My house isn’t big, and it was built out of two old railroad cars. The property taxes are very low, and the house is adequate and provides the necessities such as electricity, water, toilet, etc. My needs are simple, and with no wife or children, I am able to save a lot of money because my salary is more than adequate. Why don’t I retire?
About ten years ago, I was the chief engineer of an engineering team. I trusted my staff and I didn’t micromanage them, but my assistant abused his power by engaging in irresponsible hiring practices. I have heard that he misappropriated a large amount of money. I had only paid attention to the technical and design aspects of the project. When the incident was finally revealed, I was punished because I didn’t fulfill my managerial responsibilities. My boss fired my staff, and I was demoted to a lower position. Most people in my position would have retired early, but I continued to work. If I had chosen to stay at home, I would have probably died of boredom and loneliness the very next day.
You have made me change my mind, though. I’m not rich, but I’m good with my hands. I will have the freedom to travel for several years without coming back home. I will travel very far, so I won’t be able to order food from you, but I want to ask you to be my housesitter. If necessary, you could bring your child to my home while I am away, and I can contact you by mail via my home address. You could take care of my house to protect it from damage and thieves.
I could put you in touch with my friend, Mr. V. He has been my lawyer for many years. You could consult him about trivial matters such as hiring a repairman or he could help you with any legal problems such as filing for a divorce. He often advocates for low-income families and his fees are based on your income. I have lived here for decades, and I understand how justice is often denied and poverty is usually enforced. I could ask him to help and guide you.
I will deposit your salary into a bank account which I have opened for you. Your responsibilities consist of looking after my house and my four-legged child (my cat). Her name is Nora, and she has been with me for a decade. If I ever loved a woman, it would be the same as my love for Nora. I hesitate to travel just because there is no one to take care of Nora. I have a feeling that you are a patient person and have a love for animals. Actually, I could board the cat, but I want Nora to be cared for and loved as if she were my family. There are free computer classes being offered at the library near my house. You could use my computer to take the class, and you could also use my kitchen to cook for your customers even though my kitchen is quite small.
I think you will have fun and I hope that by the time I return, your situation will have been much improved.
P.S. Once you asked me about “the letter is thin …” which I forgot to answer. It is a verse, but I have forgotten the author’s name. “Letters are as thin as a dream. Love is as sad as estrangement.” Our letters may never result in a relationship, but I want to keep our friendship. Many people don’t believe that friendship can exist between a man and a woman, but I disagree. Why not?
The story is based on the movie “The Lunchbox” by Director Ritesh Batra.