Alexander Barrett is the editorial director of
Amy Barrett lives and teaches in Saigon, Vietnam. She is currently extolling the virtues of in-shell cashews. She has one brother.
Before I had a chance to dismount the Vespa, a dog sprinted out of the house, barking as loud and as fast and snarling as big as he possibly could. I stepped down expecting a face-off, but as soon a he reached my feet, he flipped over, anticipating tummy rubs. He was not disappointed.
I made my way through the open gate, past the front door and toward a hole at the back of the house. It was dark. The few small windows were covered with fronds from the palms outside. And it was hot. Hotter than it was outside, which was incredibly hot. This heat set off my newly cultivated sunburn, a wave of tiny pin pricks going up and down my neck and back, making me wish I had reapplied for a fourth time at the pool the day before.
This room was an oven. An oven for making Bánh đập, the traditional rice cracker of Vietnam.
There were two women in that oven. The first was the boss. She sat next to a vat of a runny mixture containing water, rice flour, sesame seeds and a few diced chili peppers.
She dipped a ladle made of a coconut shell and a small piece of bamboo into the mixture and spread it evenly in a twelve inch circle on a piece of muslin covering a pot of boiling water. The pot sat in a fire surrounded by a mound of hardened clay to contain the heat.
When the circle firmed up slightly, she slid a pair of chopsticks underneath and carefully placed it on the six foot stretched canvas that was resting on top of her vat of cracker mixture. The whole process took about forty five seconds. She’d had practice. When the canvas was full of these proto-crackers, she’d take it outside to bake in the sun for a few hours.
The second woman did not look at me. She was focused on the task at hand. This was the boss’s assistant. She sat crouched in the corner, staring intently into a small crucible filled with burning yellow charcoal. Earlier, she’d taken the circles made that morning off of the canvasses outside and brought them back into the room. And now, with a pair of chopsticks, she held them over the charcoal. One at a time. She moved them slowly over the flames, waiting to see the exact shade of golden brown her boss had taught her to see so many years ago. When When the entire cracker was toasted perfectly, she could set it aside and move on to the next.
As the pair started work on yet another cracker, I made my way into the house to escape the heat. The main room served as the living room, the bedroom for the entire family, and the family’s buddhist altar. It also featured a very nice framed photo of Ho Chi Minh.
Overhead, a little boat poked its bow out from above the rafters. That’s the boat they’d all into when the village floods in the rainy season. They’ve been lucky the past few years.
Waiting by the front door in a pair of floral blue pajamas was the matriarch of the house. Very old. Very small. She was a cracker woman once, too. Then her son married and his wife, the current boss, became her student. And then one day, she retired all together and her daughter-in-law took over. That was twenty four years ago.
The old woman pointed back to the little oven of a room and said something I couldn’t understand. She wanted me to try a cracker. I walked back across the living room and into a freshly toasted rice cracker that was bigger than my head. Holding it gently on both sides, I applied a touch of downward pressure and the cracker snapped in half. The sound was as satisfying as the thing itself. Subtle sesame, killer crunch, a suggestion of chili that I am still considering. It’s the kind of cracker that other crackers should aspire to be. But they don’t because crackers nowadays have their priorities all mixed up.
I gave the boss a thumbs up. She smiled, nodded, then went back to her vat and her circles. She still had crackers to make. She’s made about seven hundred everyday for the past twenty four years. And she’ll keep doing it until she has a son who can get married to someone who will take her place. Someone who, like her, will build their life around crispy treats. Someone who will sit in a dark, sweltering cave so we all have something to munch on.
I turned to leave and said thank you in the best Vietnamese I could manage. She smiled one more time before fanning herself with her hand and making the universal face for “It’s so hot in here.” It will be so hot in there for many years to come. I gave her an awkward laugh, took another bite of my gigantic cracker and stepped through the door.
Outside, the hundred degree heat was a relief.
The dog was ready for more scratches.