An Evening in the Kitchen with Brooklyn Novelist Monique Truong
"I'm trying with each project to explore the language of food," says the author of The Sweetest Fruits.
To Southern food scholars, the name Lafcadio Hearn carries weight. He's credited with writing the first cookbook on Creole cuisine, and that’s how novelist Monique Truong first heard of him, too. She was looking for an early Southern cornbread recipe while researching for her second novel, Bitter in the Mouth, when she came upon his La Cuisine Creole, first published in 1885. But when she looked further into Hearn’s biography, she learned that he had moved to Japan and was best known for writing about Japanese ghost stories.
“I was like, Wait, what?” says Truong. This tidbit piqued her interest in the Greek-Irish writer, whose turn-of-the-20th-century career spanned continents and genres—from reporting in Cincinnati and the French West Indies to writing collections of legends in Japan. He eventually landed in New Orleans, where he wrote his only cookbook. Truong notes that just a couple months after it was published, The Christian Woman’s Exchange of New Orleans published the second Creole cookbook, The Creole Cookery Book. It doesn’t get quite the same recognition as Hearn’s.
“He’s a man writing to teach young women how to cook Creole,” says Truong, of his cookbook. “He wrote that men were more rational and scientific, and were therefore better cooks.”
Truong’s latest novel, The Sweetest Fruits, is based on Hearn’s life, told through the women who knew him the most. Each section is written from a different point of view: from his mother, Rosa, set in the Greek Ionian island of Lefkada; from his first wife, Alethea Foley, an African-American cook for a guesthouse in Cincinnati; and from his second wife, Setsu, daughter to a samurai family in Japan, with whom he had four children. An absorbing dive into disparate places and societies, the novel illustrates the critical roles women have played in the accomplishments of men. It also offers an intimate portrait of each region’s food culture, told through its characters.
“Alethea must have interested him in food,” says Truong.
We’re standing in Truong’s home kitchen in Brooklyn as she prepares a meal for her husband, Damijan Saccio, and me. I’m peeling ginger at a counter while she adds to a heaping bowl of shredded cabbage, one zip through the food processor shredding disc at a time. On her suggestion, we picked up ingredients at a Japanese grocery, Sunrise Mart, which reminded her of the time she spent living in Japan while on a writers’ fellowship for The Sweetest Fruit. Truong decided to make a dinner of okonomiyaki, the Japanese pancake loaded with slivered vegetables and pan-fried with bacon (her twist), and as a starter, some plump, raw sea scallops cradled in shiso leaves picked from her garden and sprinkled with flaky salt and lemon juice. Why okonomiyaki? Well, partly because as a diabetic, Truong doesn’t eat rice.
“One of my favorite things in the world is sticky rice,” she says, wistfully recounting a dish that her great-grandmother would make in a clay pot, Vietnamese caramelized pork or thịt kho tiêu. “You have to eat a tremendous amount of rice with it.”
Like Hearn, Truong is a multi-faceted writer who has lived all over the world. Born in Vietnam, she grew up with parents who were fluent in French and English, as her father was educated in Europe; her grandfather had a bookstore and publishing business in Saigon, and was a satirist. After the fall of Saigon, her family came to the U.S. as refugees and were sponsored by a rabbit farmer who lived in the tiny town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina. There, she attended grade school and learned to speak English.