We are 286 days into a world on actual fire, and I’m eating pho like it’s the secret antidote. Pho is the steaming security blanket to my current dystopian nightmares; the carbohydrate cure-all for my wintry blues; the delicious, healing constant in a world ravaged by political fuckboys and predatory weather. Eating pho is an aggressive act of self care for me; a chance to administer much-needed soup CPR. Over Vietnamese iced coffee and spicy noodle soup, I talk, brood, listen, heal, think, breathe, and just get right. No matter what state of mind I go in, I always come out better, and ready for whatever comes next.
Given our current political climate and the built-in anxiety, it’s no surprise I’ve eaten approximately 96,000 bowls of pho in the past 10 months (give or take a few bowls). Watching the world burn down around you can have that effect. Pho is the place I remember there are good things in the world while also bracing myself for it.
My first bowl of pho was not a transcendent experience. One of my best friends, Auticia, took me to a Than Brothers in Ballard, where I eyed the plate of garnishes meanly and the plate of cream puffs with confusion. Who ate these things together? There was sriracha on the table, and a giant squeeze bottle of dark mystery goo — all of which would be dumped into a bowl of broth with rice noodles, then paired with basil, bean sprouts, lime, and jalapeno. If the sriracha and jalapeno weren’t enough, there was an ominous jar of what looked like the jam equivalent of a fire alarm on the table. Why not pour gasoline directly into your mouth and then toss in a lit match? At the time, I didn’t even use black pepper because it was kinda spicy, you guys. The whole flavor mash-up was a bridge too far for this zero-star, plain-eating Queen of Mayonnaise.
That first bowl of pho was mostly chicken and an excess of plum sauce, something Auticia thought I would like. I poured in way too much – for years I did this – and using chopsticks proved to be more of a Mensa test than I care to admit. In a surprise move to everyone including myself, I tossed in three bean sprouts because my passion for food could not be contained in that moment. Then I put fucking salt on it, proving that my previous passion for food stopped around first base. Instead of soup, or even food, I created a gothic salt lick unfit for human consumption that day.
Fast forward some years to a first date that was more ‘exploratory hang’ than anything – my husband says it was closer to a date since he had romantic intentions, and who am I to argue since we’re married now? – which began at my apartment. I made him a mixtape, we played video games, went to the record store, and then wandered into my old soupy nemesis, the Ballard Than Brothers. My first thought upon entering was: “Marika, you can do this.” My second thought was: “Oh shit, there’s Tom.”
I chose the place because I recognized it, knew I could afford it, and hoped to look like the type of person who ate more than just pizza (I was not that type of person). My husband had mentioned he took Japanese in high school, and fencing – fencing – so I assumed he was cool with international soups that made no sense to me.
In an odd plot twist, my friend Auticia – who had introduced me to pho at the very same place – had been looking for Tom, her ex, who was sitting in the next booth over. This would prove to be an awkward sort-of blessing in disguise. Between fielding Tom’s questions about how she was doing (“Just contact her, Tom, you should really just call her”) and trying to carry on a first-date conversation knowing that Tom was listening, I forgot to feel weird about our soup that didn’t come from a can. I also didn’t want to look like some plebe who was afraid of garnishes, so I scattered a few basil leaves and bean sprouts – more than three, less than ten – into my bowl of soup that day.
Through Justin, I was encouraged to add basil to my pho, but my mother gets the real basil credit. Growing up on an herb farm, there were so many different varieties to pick from in the yard. I loved the smell of basil and, while it was a little zesty for my green tastebuds, I especially loved pesto. I remember the first time one of my friends saw the icecube trays of pesto stacked in our freezer; she thought that was soooo weeeeird. I didn’t take offense, though — she’d said the same thing about bagels the week before.
15 years later, my bowl of pho includes everything but the fire alarm jam (I tried it once, then received a strongly-worded letter from the lower half of my body). Chopsticks are easy to use, iced coffee is necessary, and I stopped ordering the medium when all I really needed was a small. We have pho once a week, but on bad weeks – like when the threat of nuclear war looms large on the horizon – we go two or three times. It’s a ritual, a meditation; each time the same ingredients, each time tinkering to get it right, like some kind of soupy alchemists. Somehow, soup and coffee have become that feeling of safety and returning home for me. But I didn’t get here alone.
While my mother and husband were the basil enablers, my brother, Sam, encouraged me to spice up all the food in my life — so that’s why I tried the sriracha. The first time I grabbed the sriracha bottle, everyone at the table stopped and stared. My friend said, “You know that’s spicier than black pepper, right?” and everybody laughed. I shrugged and put six drops in…and thus our red-hot romance began. (Yes, I know sriracha isn’t spicy to normal humans and most infants.)
I remember learning how to use chopsticks from both my father and grandmother. My young, uncoordinated fingers, angry at everyone who appeared to be born with this knowledge; the accompanying shame and relief when I finally asked for a fork. When I eventually mastered the chopsticks, I thought I deserved some kind of parade — then remembered how many people in the world use chopsticks every day. To be honest, “mastering the chopsticks” was mostly being able to pick up more than four grains of rice at a time.
I added lime when [redacted] told me she was leaving her husband, and then she ordered extra limes. This was confusing to me. I’d always left it alone because my soup didn’t need a gin-and-tonic garnish, it just needed more plum sauce for Salt Lick City. She squeezed so many limes into her soup, I wondered if it made the bitterness of her impending divorce pale in comparison. I squeezed a lime into my bowl, too, to be supportive, and have done so ever since.
My celestial sister, Sara Rose, introduced me to cafe sua da, the Vietnamese iced coffee. I watched how her eyes lit up when they brought it to our table, and marveled at how slow it dripped. Was all this waiting worth it? She said there was condensed milk in it, which sounded both fattening and on-brand for me. The next time I went out for pho, I tried it, and fell in love with all three inches of coffee that were provided.
My former bosslady and sweet friend, Lisa, educated me on broth more than once, explaining that it wasn’t just water, it was bone broth. I’d never given the broth a second glance, but she recommended some pho restaurants where the broth was King and you swore fealty to it. She was absolutely right, which is why I’m pledged to this one particular restaurant if they ever raise their banners one day and go to war. Our friend, Kyle, used to sip the broth for a while before diving into the rest – something I didn’t understand at the time (why fill up with liquid when there are noodles to be had?) – but now that I’m a fan, I do that, too.
One of our magical food friends, Traca, introduced us to the glory of Andrea Nguyen, when her cookbook was featured in Traca’s cookbook book club, years ago. After reading Andrea’s take on how she eats pho, I edited how much of what I put into my soup — she basically says DON’T FUCK UP THE BROTH but in a friendly, professional way — and learned to use the condiments to dip meat into, which I do about half the time now. I also like how she said she only puts a few bean sprouts and basil in as she eats, so they’re fresh throughout the whole experience. I thought that sounded perfectly reasonable, but I’m not that kind of adult. I just put on my eating dress, mix it all up, and go to fucking town.
I don’t eat at the best pho restaurants, but I have had some excellent pho that was six bucks and the fancy pho at $14. There’s a Than Brothers right on our block – they’re decent, especially since they upped their broth game – so we wander down there every week or so, and remember our first not-a-date with a mouth full of nostalgic noodles and a lot less plum sauce.
Sometimes when I’m stuck — or comparing myself to Susie Successful Who Makes All The Right Decisions and Says She Actually Likes Salad (SUSIE LIES) — I remember that I eat pho. It’s not radical and it’s not that interesting, but it’s proof of evolution. It’s a bunch of little reminders to myself that I’m all right, that I’m taking the steps to make myself whole in this dingy little West Seattle restaurant. It reminds me of the people who influenced each tiny transformation of that pho, and of the memories made with so many people with just that soup between us.
I remember that I eat pho, and that it’s part of a routine – in a life I really love – in a marriage I never thought possible – in a neighborhood we’re a real part of. I need that reminder while the flames of life get hotter, and my energy wanes, and the political fatigue sets in. I remember where I was 15 years ago, and that salt-lick bowl of soup, and see that even I can be influenced and evolve. This gives me a little hope that the rest of the world can, too.