My nine-year-old son and I were headed home from Pittsburgh a few weeks ago when I had a craving for pho (can you call something a craving when you want to eat it every day of your life?) Anyhow, it seemed that we’d be passing through Utica, NY around noon, so I googled “Vietnamese in Utica.” A restaurant name popped up, I re-routed my GPS, and we arrived two hours later, just as the clock struck 12.
The hole-in-the-wall restaurant wasn’t in the nicest part of town and didn’t look too impressive, but that’s not uncommon; some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve eaten has been in ramshackle strip malls with homeless guys and booted cars out front.
We sat down and ordered the usual—pho for me and bun thit nung (noodles, pork, fried spring roll, and veggies) for him.
I went to the bathroom to pee and wash my hands. As I sat there, taking in my surroundings, my peripheral vision quickly absorbed a sight my mind didn’t want to see. Clusters of mouse—or, more likely, rat—feces littered the bathroom floor like spilt coffee grounds. I told myself it couldn’t be poop...how could they not even attempt to hide such a vast amount of poop?? And if it was this bad in here...what did the kitchen look like?? I immediately searched reviews for our chosen lunch spot (yes, while still sitting on the toilet). Multiple reviews, four stars or one (but nothing in between), either praising the “best Vietnamese ever,” or warning, “filthy, not worth the risk!”
I sat back down with my son. “Hey, bud, I think we need to go, there’s mouse poop everywhere in that bathroom.”
“But we already ordered.”
“I know, but it’s filthy in there...I don’t know if we should eat here.”
“But she’s probably already making our food.”
The look of concern on his face—that the woman who had just taken our order (and presumably owned, cooked at, and was responsible for cleaning the restaurant) would have to waste the food she had already begun preparing, if we left—touched me.
“OK, bud. We’ll eat.”
I’ll admit, I was wary when those giant bowls of food were placed in front of us, digging around with my chopsticks for signs of insects, animal parts or any variety of shit. But the presentation was beautiful in its authenticity. Having been previously married to a Vietnamese guy whose mother made the best bowl of pho on the east coast, I know my pho. And this bowl didn’t disappoint. I can honestly say, it’s the best I’ve had since my divorce, nearly 20 years ago.
That bowl of soup did more than fill my stomach. My brain flooded with memories of days gone by, sitting around a big table with my husband and a bunch of Vietnamese men, always the only woman sitting there—scandalously, in retrospect—the other women sitting together, presumably discussing “women stuff.” I don’t know why I sat with the men...I couldn’t understand a single word. Sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke, downing Heinekens, this is how we spent most Saturday nights. To this day, it is one of my favorite memories. Maybe that’s why I so enjoy being in the presence of people who are speaking anything other than English—the anonymity, the lack of pressure to be witty, to say anything at all.
But I learned another thing at those Saturday night gatherings. Namely, that my sensitive, white American stomach was inferior. One evening, shortly after finishing a bowl of Thit ko, one of my absolute favorite home-made Vietnamese dishes (I’ve yet to find this in a restaurant), I became sick...really sick. In fact, I don’t think I was halfway through my bowl when the pains set in. I ran to the bathroom and proceeded to vomit into the cracked toilet bowl for the next hour. Between violent regurgitations, I studied every nook and cranny of the bathroom, which assisted heavily in the speedy emptying of my insides. Brown, peeling wallpaper, a trash can overflowing with used tissues, the stained toilet bowl, and a generous ground cover of mouse poop.
I had used that bathroom countless times and had never noticed anything other than a bathroom. Living with this other culture for several years, I had become just as comfortable with the dirt (a.k.a. signs of life) as my then-husband, his family, and the refugees and extended family they hosted every Saturday night. Yet, 95 percent of my days were still spent in the sterile, Clorox-clean world so prized by Americans. As a result, my weak intestinal tract went to war with the foreign bacteria, as my dozen-or-so Vietnamese dinner companions scarfed down bowl after bowl of the same, without even a momentary glimpse of indigestion.
I remembered that night around the toilet bowl, quite fondly, as I downed every last drop of my Utica, mouse-poop pho. It was delicious, and neither of us got sick. Maybe it was good luck, or maybe it was the iron stomach I’ve been slowly perfecting over years of travel, eating street food in developing countries, and never remembering to “boil the water.” But whatever the reason, our lunch in Utica served as an important reminder—the best food is rarely organic, expensive, or even clean. The best food tells a story—about the person who prepared it, or—many times—about yourself. It transports you, maybe to the past, maybe to a place you’ve never been but now have a driving need to go. The best food makes you feel. And if you get a little sick from time to time, it’ll just make you (or at least your stomach) stronger.
We could all use a little mouse shit from time to time ;)