In the winter of 1976, a group of newly arrived Vietnamese refugees gather for their first Tet in their new land. There, they cook bánh chưng: labor-intensive, Bible-sized chunks of sticky rice, pork and beans, traditionally made to celebrate the Lunar New Year in their native northern region. But they couldn’t find a key element. Before cooking, the ingredients are wrapped in banana leaves, which have proven difficult to find in snowy Pennsylvania. So they cleverly used trompe l’oeil, brushing food coloring on plastic wrap to mimic its look.
“Food doesn’t get stuck in amber,” says chef and cookbook author Diep Tran, as she tells this story about her partner’s mother. “Food evolves and is dynamic. Your Tết celebration may change too.”
Tran was once the beloved L.A. The chef and owner of Vietnamese restaurant Good Girl Dinette has been proving this for the past years making bánh chưng with her annual Lunar New Year party. What started as a small group of queer friends turned into a public event; in two years when COVID separated many families, more than 11 joined the event via Zoom. This year, on an unseasonably wet and cold Saturday, Tran and her Banh Chung Collective held their first in-person bánh chưng making event in three years, to a sold-out crowd 11 At Alma’s Backyard Farm in Compton, CA.
It all started with an alternative to the New Year’s family reunion that Tran grew up with. After years of attending celebrations with relatives who were upset about her queer identity, Tran opted out of family events, including Tết. “I was really excited but didn’t get much out of it,” she said. “Just because we have a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean we need to be with each other.”
They emphasized that the event was queer-centric, but not queer-exclusive. “No one ever asks, ‘So when are you going to get married and have kids?'” Tran explained. “It’s not so focused on these heterosexual milestones of adulthood. It’s really a celebration of normalization, which is what it’s like when you identify as queer in your community.”
Ultimately she wanted the event to present a more inclusive New Year’s vision. “People think we’re going to celebrate that we have to hide a lot of things under the table,” Tran said. “But really, it can include conversations about incarceration or how to include the queer AAPI community. Tết can include all of those things.”