Pancakes were my dad’s specialty, mostly because he made them on special occasions: when his parents came to town, after I won a roller skating competition, before a drive to nearby Sequoia National Park.
His favorite special occasions were when his beloved Los Angeles Rams played the San Francisco 49ers. Before his friend Arlie, a Niners fan, would arrive to watch the game with him, he’d make his pancakes. It was a pre-game ritual and a prayer rolled into one: “Dear Heavenly Father of Football, bless these pancakes we are about to receive—and also, if you wouldn’t mind, bless the Rams with strong defense and a lot of touchdowns today.”
The pancakes he made weren’t distinctive. They weren’t whisked from scratch or shaped like hearts or topped with a blueberry smiley face. They were made with Bisquick, oil, and eggs.
Sometimes he’d let me pour the batter into the pan, and together we’d marvel at the sharp, short-lived sound it made on impact. Tzzzuuhhh, tzzzuuhh. How quickly it spread, how gracefully, I thought, each pancake stopped just shy of a collision with the other. We never poured more than two at a time.
“Nobody likes to be crowded,” he’d say.
The result was my then-favorite food: pancakes thick in the center, burned at the edges, and drowned in buttermilk syrup. Pancakes made by my dad and me.
Cooking wasn’t something he did often. Neither was showing up for dinner on time. Vast swaths of my childhood are usurped by the memory of a single, recurring event: my kid brother and I sitting at the dinner table watching ketchup bubble and drip down the sides of a steaming meatloaf, my mother shouting to us from the kitchen, “Look but don’t touch.”
We were waiting for my dad to come home. When at last he'd arrive, he’d kiss my mom on the cheek, and together we’d eat and watch Wheel of Fortune.
This ritual ended right before my 10th birthday, when my dad stopped coming home at all. Soon after, my parents divorced. My dad remarried and my mom got a second and a third job. Lines were drawn, sides were taken. I was not on his. We rarely met, and when we did, we masked our hurt with small talk and wooden smiles. Our before, as in “before the divorce,” became a hollow, infinite after.
Time passed. He started a business and divorced again. I moved to Los Angeles and then to New York. Our fragile “after” morphed into a series of stops and starts, the former marked by awkward attempts at recapturing our pancake days; the latter by the silences between them.
Fast forward to 2010. I am married and living in Tel Aviv. It is late May, and the hamsin have arrived, kicking up dust and stirring the heat. I sit alone on my balcony watching a bougainvillea tree sway in the wind and thinking of the night before. Last night, my husband made his safta’s ktsitsot, and after placing three perfectly round meatballs on his plate, turned to me and said, “I don’t love you anymore.”
He’d spend the next day moving out.
Where will I go?, I think to myself. I am not yet a resident and will have to leave Israel. I think of the friends I will lose and the money this will cost. And then, I think of my dad. Specifically, I think of the day when, while playing with my brother in our overstuffed garage, I found a black, dust-covered box with a gold medal inside. I’d taken it to my mom to ask if I could keep it.
“Where did you find that?” she said, breathless and impatient. “Put it back before your father sees it.”
I would later learn that it was an award my dad won for heroism and valor. In 1969, he killed an enemy soldier while on night watch in Vietnam. Presumably, he’d saved his platoon from a surprise attack. He was barely 20 years old.
He didn’t tell me this. My mother did. I recently read somewhere that over a quarter of a million Vietnam veterans still have PTSD. I’m not sure if my dad ever had any psychological trauma relating to his service. (His hearing, on the other hand, was greatly affected, a fact that makes it difficult for him to converse on the phone, and consequently, difficult for the two of us to converse at all.) Like so many veterans, he never talked about the war. Even now, the subject of Vietnam remains private, off limits to everyone, perhaps even to himself.
On the balcony, a cluster of pink flower petals has collected in a corner. I pick them up and throw them over the crumbling cement ledge. “Vietnam,” I say to the bougainvillea tree. I will go to Vietnam.
I decided to fly from Tel Aviv to Bangkok, with a loose plan to spend three months making a loop: Thailand to Laos to Vietnam to Cambodia. And then? I didn’t yet know the answer.
At the start of my trip, I didn’t think about my dad at all. I was too busy getting lost and feeling out of place and tasting foods I’d never seen before. In Thailand, I ate laap and durian ice cream. In Laos, I toured rice and mung bean farms, and played duc day with locals over Beerlao and tam. I saw ballets, went hiking, and took questionably constructed buses to villages with no name. Through it all, I rarely thought about my dad.
Eventually, however, the eagerness that required I accept every invitation and see every recommended sight subsided, giving way to a slower, more peaceful pace. I spent long, lazy afternoons reading and people-watching and drinking too many Thai iced teas. With more time to think, my thoughts turned to my dad.
These thoughts became especially vivid while researching routes and transportation between Laos and Vietnam. If I heard a laugh like his, I thought of him. If I saw a man with a mustache, I thought of him. If I smelled pancakes on the street—they are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia—I thought of him. Vietnam’s proximity was stirring my emotions. By the time I left Laos, my dad was the only thing on my mind.
When I arrived in Hanoi, the sensory overload shocked me. Vietnam is, at once, familiar and distant. In Halong Bay, endless mist floats over and into junk boats and cliff edges. In Vinh Moc, dank tunnels attest to lives lived entirely underground. In Ho Chi Minh City, buildings with ornate ceilings and bright tiled floors whisper of past French colonial rule.
I was unprepared for the real Vietnam. For its sounds and smells and breadth. For its darkness and vitality and cool. For its many thousand layers of tradition and lore that can never be fully peeled back.
I wondered, everywhere I went, if my dad had once been where I stood. In Hoi An, a port city and UNESCO World Heritage Site near My Lai and the former Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone, he came into particularly sharp view.
I am starting the long walk back to Hoi An’s city center after a day on the beach. Hungry, I turn off the main road and enter a bungalow with a sign that, I hope, says “restaurant.” There’s an upper deck and a small bar and two wooden tables set with unlit candles. In the back, a pond with a bird feeder at its center. There are no customers.
“You want eat?” A woman appears and sets a metal basket full of neon condiments on the table in front of me. “I bring menu for you.” Her voice is staccato and quick, a medley of diphthongs and off-glides and abrupt nasal stops. It is also kind.
When she returns and hands me the menu, I stammer and shrug. It’s written in Vietnamese and has no pictures.
“You want noodle? You want soup?”
“Noodles?” I ask more than state.
“Noodle good. Pork okay for you?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Okay. Cao lầu. Famous food for Hoi An. Only make in Hoi An. I bring you.”
She leaves and turns on the radio behind the bar. I sit and watch the birds stop at the edge of the pond, then quickly fly away.
When my meal arrives, I cup the bowl and admire the salty perfume. There are bean sprouts and greens and chiles. There are peanuts and a squeeze of lime. Fried pork rinds are sprinkled on the braised chunks of pork. Lining the cao lầu’s perimeter are the long, square-edged noodles that give the dish its name. I mix all of these together and take my first bite. It’s acidic and sweet, tacky and dense.
Legend has it that cau lầu noodles can only be produced in Hoi An. Of their three ingredients—water, ash, and ground rice—two can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It is said that the water is from an ancient Cham well just outside of town, and the ash is made from firewood on the nearby Cham Islands.
With each bite I take, a stream of memories pours forth. My dad washing our dog. My dad playing cards. My dad on a ski lift with me. We’d gone snowboarding when I’d visited him in Reno on my 21st birthday, and when his back had acted up, he’d nursed three cups of cocoa in the lodge so that I could have a full day on the slopes. Recalling this, I start to cry. Another memory: My dad pinning my Bluebirds badge on a pig-tailed, six year-old me. And another: My dad clapping wildly for me at my college graduation. And still another: My dad sitting across from me seven years earlier at a restaurant in New York, the last time I’d seen him.
I’m openly weeping now, hunched over my bowl and what remains of my new favorite dish. I can’t stop crying, and I can’t understand why I started.
Now, nearly a decade later, the reason is clear. Though my dad and I didn’t talk during my travels and we don’t speak often now, it was as if he was there with me. Alone in Vietnam, eating a dish whose ingredients aren’t available anywhere else, I felt closer to him than I had in 25 years. It was as if he had finally come home.