Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. In this episode, contributor Andrea Nguyen continues her search for Viet-Cajun food. If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode, you should go do that and then join us back here for a visit to New Orleans East, where members of the Vietnamese community grow and share food with deep cultural roots. And there's king cake!
Tap Bui: I'm Tap Bui, I'm the co-director of Song community development corporation that oversees VEGGI Farmers Cooperative and supports them in whatever work that they do, I was born and raised in this community...

Andrea Nguyen: The roads from Treme to New Orleans East became progressively difficult to navigate.

TB: New Orleans East is largely ignored by the proper city of New Orleans. We are 60% of the land mass and 40% of the taxpayer space. But we don't see that support in resources go back here, especially post Katrina. You can see there's still a lot of blighted properties at scale in New Orleans East. So… Cause, there was a report after Hurricane Katrina that slated New Orleans East should just be green space, you know, so not recognizing that there’ve been communities who have been here for generations. But there was a report that recommended the city just designate this entire space as green space, which was a big no-no. Right? Because, you know, there's cultural identities here.

AN: Remember how Mrs. Le of Cajun Seafood mentioned faith in her life? Many Vietnamese refugees to New Orleans like her resettled in New Orleans East. We’re at a 3-acre farm. The chiming church bells come from across the street, at the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. The church has been a gathering spot for the community for years. It organizes a popular annual Tet festival that draws people from all over. Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. Tet happened last weekend and it was the best, everyone tells me. I see the stage for the crooners who came from California. The yellow South Vietnam flag with its red bars waves proudly next to the red-white-and-blue American flag. The festival grounds are next to the farm, run by the VEGGI Farmers Cooperative.

TB: But currently, I mean, there's some support from MQVN Church, but you know, it's really through the nonprofit efforts that this farm has evolved to where it is now.

AN: The co-op sells what’s harvested on this farm. But, it also sells produce grown in people’s home gardens and other things too.

Tom Nguyen: For me, I also sell people's plants. And so like, they, uh, propagate plants and they don't have an outlet to sell it to. So I, uh, approach them and I just like, you know, find people.

TN: I'm Tom Nguyen and I'm the farm lead for Veggie Farm co-op out in New Orleans East. I've been, uh, with veggi for like five, six years now. For one example, like, my mechanic, he happens to be an amazing, uh, you know, gardener. He has like tons of good pool plants. So through like the last two seasons, I've been able to like, have a, a relationship with him where he would grow, like, uh, propagate all these plants, start them, and then I would buy from him and then bring it to the, the city and sell it.

AN: What is Tom’s mechanic growing?

Maddie Edwards: Uh, betel leaf

AN: Wild betel leaf is also called wild pepper leaf. Vietnamese people know the tender, heart-shaped leaves as la lot! It’s a tropical plant that thrives in hot humid weather. The leaves release an intoxicating incense like aroma whenever they’re heated. It’s highly prized because it’s hard to find.

ME: My name is Madeleine Edwards. I go by Maddie and I'm operations and marketing for Veggi Farmer's Cooperative. I've been with veggi full-time since July, but working markets and with the growers since… January of 2020. So the mechanic, he mentions. Yeah. He grows it at his house in his backyard. Uh, your mom grows it. Um…

TN: Mm-hmm. I grow it.

ME: So just through those individuals and Tom's relationships, now we have people knocking at our door for the betel leaf.

TN: That's like the, one of the reasons that really drew me towards veggie is they were willing to provide me land to grow. I was volunteering and I just felt more connected to the place I am once I actually touched the dirt and the soil and the ground and stuff. To see these other farmers cultivating out here, like every day on a daily basis, it just shows what people are capable of doing. We don't need too much to actually survive.

AN: The VEGGI Farmer’s Coperative is cultivating an unusual Vietnamese American experience. Here’s Tap again:
TB: I actually came onto an organization called MQVN Community Development Corporation that was formed post-Katrina to help with rebuilding efforts. Um, and so I joined around the same time. The BP oil drill disaster happened in 2010. We know a lot of our fisher folks were impacted, and so we wanted to develop a program that will help sustain their income while they're at loss. And then from there it kind of evolved into this three acre growing land.

AN: Most of the fisher folks returned to the water for their livelihood but the co-op continues its work. Its success isn’t just about selling what’s harvested here. It’s about building community and opportunity. New Orleans – the city where the tourists go, where there’s industry, is a hike from New Orleans East. There’s distance, and maybe also language and cultural barriers standing between residents in the East and their potential customers in the city. Another barrier is age. The residents in New Orleans East who are looking to earn a little extra income are often senior citizens. There’s an older couple tending to the dark, rich soil, tidying up rows of mint, cilantro, and baby lettuces.
TB: Their rows are always like super immaculate and neat and so they're just little bit OCD about it.

AN: This is what they’re telling us: It’s fun to grow things. Growing a small amount is good but when you have too much, it gets tiring. Selling is hard. If we tried to sell our produce ourselves, who would buy it? These young people help us and barely get paid anything. They’ve been helping out for about ten years. We know it and we appreciate it.

Farmers: Thank you. Thank you, Maddie.

AN: I wanted to know more about Maddie’s experience at Veggi.

ME: Yeah, so, not being from New Orleans and, you know, not, uh, being Vietnamese either. It's been like a huge learning experience. So they've gifted some rows to Tom and I, so in the last year I've kind of started to grow alongside of them and I learned so much just about care, about harvesting just being around them, you know, and working and seeing all their hard work is just really humbling. They are the hardest workers I've ever met. Um, seven hour days here, you know, 80 plus years old. So, um, you know, if I can be a cheerleader and an ally to them, that's the best work that I, you know, I've done.

TN: If we can kind of put all our, our resources together to be able to distribute these goods to the rest of the city…

AN: Thinking back on what Tap said when we met, I had to ask how they felt about city folks now valuing the culture and quality products coming from the New Orleans East community.

TB: A model minority myth, right? It's like, oh, Asians are, you know, they're self-sufficient, you know, they're resilient. So like I play off this idea of resilience it, of it causing disinvestment in communities because, you know, everyone's been doing studies of the Vietnamese community here, how they bounce back so quickly post Katrina. But I think that's inadvertently causing this disinvestment in communities because they know that we can take care of our own. And that's not the case. You know, like we still need support. There's also trauma built being built on top of trauma, uh, from different storms that happen from different disasters and violence.

TN: But out here on the farm too is like, one thing I wanna mention is you can see like how we have fencing around here. Our farmers have been robbed and held up at gunpoint at certain times. So security is one of the main concerns too.

TB: A lot of times we do feel that Vietnamese communities are targeted, so there's a point in time last year I thought there was a string of violent attacks on seniors that are not reported because they don't trust the system to be reported and they know that nothing will be done anyway.

AN: Taking in all that Tom and Tap just said can be a major downer. They’re not exaggerating. When you drive around New Orleans East, things can seem bleak. There are potholes and empty storefronts. The color, life, and music of the French Quarter aren’t here. But Tap and her cohort of 30 somethings aren’t giving up. Why do you still live here?

TB: Uh, this is where I was raised and born. My mom doesn't wanna go anywhere else. My whole family's here. We don't have a sense of connection to Vietnam itself other than like visiting and my father's buried there. But other than that, this is home. This is where we're committed to do the work.

AN: The Veggi Farmer’s cooperative is a work in progress. It isn’t picture perfect. Turns out, that kind of beauty is only topsoil deep.

ME: Like, we're, we're working with the land here in rows, obviously those have been built over time. Um, but this is beautiful. You know, this is attainable. If you come here, you're like, you know, it's inspiring to see that you can still grow really nice produce with weeds, you know? There's no harsh chemicals, harsh fertilizers. This is just literally planting in the ground. The soil is so important. Yeah. And here all that's being done is building up the soil and not stripping it.

AN: We spent a good 2 hours at the farm and there were many things learned, one of which was this: Viet-Cajun and Viet-Creole was not top of mind in New Orleans East – the nerve center of the Vietnamese community. What was important was building community and cultivating deep, strong roots. Everyone, from Chi to Anh to Tap, mentioned the Saturday morning farmer’s market as emblematic of the community. It starts early.

Nine Nguyen: My name's Nini Nguyen, and I'm a chef. We're in New Orleans East in the neighborhood I grew up in. And, uh, we are at the farmer's market. So on Saturday's early, early in the morning before the sun rises, um, a lot of Vietnamese people will gather and sell either vegetables they've grown in their backyard or, you know, seafood that they've fished. When I was a little kid, there was a butcher and they'd pull pigs off of the, like, vans and everybody would be arguing on like what cut of the pork, uh, the pig that they wanted and ordered. But we have herbs, lots of cilantro with the root, which is like exciting cuz you don't always find that…

AN: The Saturday Vietnamese Farmer’s Market happens in a strip mall parking lot anchored by a small Asian grocery store and a coffee shop. We got there at 6:30am and hung out with Nini. The morning light cast a warm reddish glow on the nearby trees. The light is beautiful but it’s hard to gloss over the fact that on this day in early February, it was about 40 degrees fahrenheit. There are half a dozen vendors who’ve put down plastic tarps in the parking lot and arranged their beautiful vegetables for regulars. A few others sell dried shrimp and homemade food from the beds of their pickup trucks. All the vendors are women and they look kind, but tough. There’s chit chat but there's a gentle focus on making a sale. This isn’t an easy life.

NN: Katrina was really, really bad because it was, the city was underwater and like so many places were devastated…

AN: A lot of people that we've spoken to this week mention Katrina and it's like as if it's something that's so fresh in their memory

NN: Um, I lived in this neighborhood and the Vietnamese people here, there was like New York Times articles about how resilient they are because everybody helped each other. Um, but at that point, so many people, even my parents were tired of evacuating every year. And, you know, everyone lost stuff and, and so they saw opportunities in other places and then there was a big exodus. I think we are very resilient. I think that we do figure out ways and help each other. And I think that's one very beautiful thing about this community. And it's like, it is, it's not really a myth because it is true, but I don't like it because it makes us fall in between the cracks. People don't worry about us. Um, or don't think because they're like, oh yeah, they get, they're okay. They'll figure it out. And it's like, no, we need help. This is not a like lush, um, booming part of town. And when rebuilding people really took that into consideration, and so I think people are more prepared now.

AN: When Vietnamese refugees came to New Orleans, many likely didn’t know what New Orleans was.

NN: When my grandmother came here in the seventies, like she didn't know how to make American food. She learned how to make Vietnamese food with the ingredients that she found. And in doing so, we've adapted so many different ingredients that are like regional to New Orleans or Louisiana. So like Vietnamese people taught each other how to make Creole food.

AN: So you call it Vietnamese Creole, Creole food. What's this Viet Cajun thing that I see all over the country? On menus…

NN: Yeah. I think the Cajun food is, well, like Cajun culture is really in Lafayette, so, um, west Louisiana. And um, and I think that when Katrina happened, a lot of people from Louisiana ended up relocating to Texas and um, and Vietnamese people existed in New Orleans, but they also exist all throughout southeast, uh, Louisiana. And they started migrating to Texas. And then to differentiate themselves, they develop Viet Cajun food. Um, it's, it's something I think that is more like from the west side of Lou, Louisiana. And um, and I think it's just like a easier, like catchier phrase.

AN: Marketing?

NN: Yeah, definitely marketing. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. But, um, but a lot of Vietnamese people left here. The population I think has shrunk and, um, and so things got more popular in Texas. And it really gained popularity once, like David Chang went and then he was like so upset that Vietnamese people in New Orleans aren't doing this thing and that they were doing it in Texas. And I'm like, you don't understand like Cajun and Creole are not the same.

AN: Did y’all hear that? New Orleans-born Viet-American chef Nini Nguyen says that Viet-Creole is her preferred term. Presenting her culture and community is important. She’s working on a cookbook to capture this place – her layered, complex home. Nini and I are now in the small Asian grocery store that anchors the strip mall where the farmer’s market happens. I spy locally made Vietnamese snacks like freshly fried sesame balls. It’s barely past 7am and the market is busy. Most of the shoppers are Asian Americans. A handful are Black Americans.

NN: When I was growing up, it was mostly Vietnamese people. So, people from South America, central America, like West Caribbean, all shop at these stores because we all have the similar ingredients. We are very integrated here. Everybody, like everyone is, goes to the same place. We all root for the Saints.

AN: Do you think that's part of the creole nature of this area?

NN: Asians, Black, Brown people, we coexist and, and, um, growing up, like all my black friends ate Mama noodles. We were very open and, and I think, um, it's something that I feel like, uh, our school also embraced. Like, growing up in New Orleans East, a lot of my teachers were black. Um, so I had a lot of like, uh, a great like education even though it's like a failing part of the city, like school system wise. Um, we really embraced each other's cultures and we taught each other cultures.

AN: Do you think that level of integration is really the strange positive outcome of just poor people being together in the same neighborhood?

NN: Yeah, I do. And I think that, um, I think it's, I think it's very complicated. I don't wanna say that it's like this like beautiful, like kumbaya kind of…And, and um, I think that besides the commonality of being poor in this neighborhood, it was also like the things that you ate, you know, bananas in America are not the bananas you would have in like Central, South America in the, you know, in Asia. And it's like, oh yeah, we don't like this American banana. We like all these other ones. Like where do you find that? So there's an old apartment complex called Versai Arms and that's where I grew up and that's where they put a lot of the Vietnamese people together. And I think that was the magic trick to making us so much more like independent. When I was a kid, like the streets were in Vietnamese. Um, and so it really helped me as a person who was born in the eighties, like, know the culture.

AN: It's insulated not isolated.

NN: Yeah. I remember going to Vietnam for the very first time and I'm like, oh my God, it makes sense now. Like, I don't know what pinpointed, but I was there there and I was like, okay, I get it. If you go to the French Quarter, it looks like the French Quarter in Vietnam.

AN: When I spoke with Mrs. Le and Chi Nguyen of Cajun Seafood, they referred to their customers as Americans, whether they were black, white or asian. Most customers at their Treme location were black Americans.

NN: I think that Vietnamese people here, especially cuz like we all run from hurricanes, it doesn't matter what color you are. At least for my teachers, like they were not scared to tell us. Like there were times where they closed the book and we're like, we're gonna tell you what wasn't in the book or about like, you know, the Treme, the first like free black neighborhood and what it was like to be Creole. Because Creole is like a blend, because they're like, oh yeah, New Orleans part of Mardi Gras. Like, there's so much more. I think that everyone has to know the contrast, right? Like if everything was so shiny and bright and pretty, then no one would like appreciate it. But I think that because like especially these groups of people have faced hardship, um, they can celebrate a little bit harder when it is nice.

AN: Is that why it's so crazy around here? Around Mardi Gras?

NN: No, that's the tourists.

AN: Okay.

NN: Um, but y'all should get a king cake.

AN: As it happens, we’re in New Orleans during peak king cake season. I’ve sampled 3 of them during my 5 days here. They’re everywhere. Competition is stiff. But the queen of king cakes in New Orleans is Dong Phuong Bakery. Their cake isn’t too-sweet, topped with a tangy cream cheese icing, decorated with king cake gold, green, and purple. In 2018, the James Beard Foundation named Dong Phuong an American Classic. May I ask you a question as to what you're coming here today to get?
Dong Phuong Bakery Patron: King cakes. Their bakery’s awesome. King cakes are the best in town.

AN: Customers pack into the bakery’s retail area. It’s the size of a single car garage. It’s a tight fit. The customer’s know the order of operations. I wanted to know more about Dong Phuong’s history.
Milagro DuCombs: My name is Milagra DuCombs and I'm the office manager. The name of the bakery is Dong Fong's Bakery. Uh, we started in 1982. With Vietnamese, uh, breads and pastries, um, that have a lot of French influences, you know, cuz French occupied Vietnam for a while. We celebrated 40 years last year. Today actually is my one year anniversary. I started in the middle of their last king cake season, so it didn't scare me off. So I I'm still here.

AN: Those baked goods in the corner there. Let's go over those. Tell us what you have here, because this case kind of demonstrates to me what the story of Dong Phuong Bakery and the story of the family.

MD: Uh, the, so this is the Pâté Chaud, um, it's kind of, it's a meat pie. It's a savory pork and onion mixture, um, baked. And the outside is a fluffy like, um, puff pastry. Yes.

AN: So what's the difference between the Pâté Chaud and the meat pie?

MD: It's the, the outside the dough. This one's a puff pastry, and this would just be just a dough, standard dough.

AN: So why would they be making a meat pie versus a Pâté Chaud? Like a meat pie is not something that we have... It's not Vietnamese.

MD: New Orleanians love the meat pies. Like, we also have a crawfish pie, which, um, is very popular, kind, kind of spicy.

AN: In Vietnamese, Dong Phuong refers to the east or eastern. But it’s not just a New Orleans East institution. Customers come from all over.

MD: Yeah, we get people from all over. We're out here way far in the East, but people do make the trek down here. Um, because we, we have a good reputation and we have a lot of, um, wholesalers that we sell our bread to. So a lot of po boy shops and, um, little stores carry our bread.

AN: It’s now 8am Saturday morning, and customers are lined up outside Dong Phuong for king cake. Here’s food anthropologist David Berris.

David Berris: So the king cake, of course, is this tradition that comes from both Europe and Latin America. It's the, the, the cake that people eat around epiphany. You know, in New Orleans you begin to live by the Catholic ritual calendar, whether you're Catholic or not. So, you know, everybody knows when King's Day is. And I'm like, that's crazy. I mean, I'm not a Catholic, and yet here I am ready for my king cake on King's Day. It's a season that opens up on, on, I think it's January 6th, with Epiphany. And then you have these king cakes, and there are varieties of them, ranging from the French, almond paste filled, puff pastry, you know, the galette des rois. And then you can get the very garish kind of brioche cakes. But then over the last 15 years or so, maybe really since Katrina, the whole king cake thing has really exploded. You have, of course, um, Dong Phuong who have this kind of famous king cake that people will, you know, order in advance and wait in long lines for. I think people should go to Dong Phuong at other times of year. But maybe I'm playing the same game here and saying, you know, I know when it's really good when it's not King Cake season, that's when you should go.

AN: So, so may I ask you something? So you're, you're not Vietnamese?

MD: No, I am Hispanic.

AN: In Hispanic culture there is the king cake. Yeah.

MD: Uh, Rosca de Reyes Yes. It's a Mexican, um… same seasonal product. And this is, it's similar cuz it's king cake, it's…it's, it's similar, just prepared differently.

AN: So did you like think that, you know, you'd end up working for a Vietnamese bakery selling king cakes to New Orleanians. I mean, how does that work in your mind?

MD: Yeah. Well I am a New Orleanian, born and raised here, I used to stand in this line waiting for King Cakes, so I know. And I live close by, so I'm very familiar with the business. A lot of my friends growing up were Vietnamese, majority of them, so it's, they go hand in hand. I also related a lot with, uh, Dong Phuongs. We have similar histories. We both, this family immigrated in the eighties. My family immigrated in the eighties. So, you know, I'm first generation American. I related a lot to their history.

AN: And you're Hispanic and you're representing them to us today, which I tell you is such a beautiful story and situation in and of itself.

MD: Ah, thank you. Thanks. And I'm proud to represent, I mean, I may not know all of the Vietnamese history, but I can relate to them, you know.

AN: Milagro took us into the kitchen to see how the magic happens. So how many king cakes are, are we talking about?
MD: We make about 1600 to 1700 a day. Yes.

AN: There’s more going on in other parts of the operation. Milagro takes me into what’s called the meat room. Most of the workers there are Vietnamese women prepping ingredients. One woman though, was scooping and placing a rich looking filling onto small dough rounds. What was in that filling? What was she making? My enquiring mind needed to know. Banh khoai vac, is a, um, southern Vietnamese, um, meat pie. Oh. So the pate chaud is very, uh, it's like this puff pastry thing, but this is almost like our empanada. Yeah. Vietnamese empanada. All the king cakes were spoken for that day. But that was ok. ‘Cause I wanted to try Dong Phuong’s banh mi, pate chaud, meat pie, and crawfish pie. How were they? Well, the sandwich and pate chaud were spot on. The meat pie had a rich dough, like brioche, maybe the same dough used for king cake. And that crawfish pie? It was like a Vietnamese empanada filling but instead of pork there was lots of crawfish, and jicama, plus a lot of black pepper. This isn’t Viet-Cajun. Maybe it’s Viet-Creole. It’s definitely very New Orleans. I think it’s the future of America.

SL: If you haven’t already, visit Oxford to see Tet New Orleans, a beautiful new short film by Marion Hill. It follows Chef Nini ng Wynn as she prepares a traditional feast for the lunar New year. This episode was produced by me, Christian Brown, and Andrea Nguyen. Original music by Dylan Trân. Thank you to Tap Bui, Tom Nguyen, Maddie Edwards, Nini Nguyen, and Milagra DuCombs. Thanks also to Dr. David Berris. Our podcast intern is Adam Forrester. Post-production and score thanks to Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.