Now for the second mystery: the homecoming that the taste of your barbecue bestowed upon me. Some may argue, and I hope you won’t, Bridges, that my family and I didn’t live in Boiling Springs long enough to make it our home nor to make me a Southerner. But 1975 to 1978 were years that formed me. These were the years when I acquired a new language, the third of my young life. English is now the only language in which I can claim fluency. In Vietnamese and French, I’m at best a writer of haikus or of unintentionally experimental, disjointed prose. In English, I’m a novelist.
The Belgian-born French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar once wrote that “the true birthplace is . . . [where] for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself. My first homelands have been books, and to a lesser degree schools.” Yourcenar is right that for some of us, the word “homeland” isn’t singular but plural. She’s also right about the critical self-recognition that books can allow us to experience. How else can I explain the homecoming that I’ve felt on the pages of novels by Harper Lee, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner? I think there’s a connection between how these books and how your barbecue seem like longtime friends to me. Yes, Bridges, I just compared you to Lee, McCullers and Faulkner. You’re very welcome.
The words “homeland” and “home” can refer to a place that may be on a map but does not necessarily exist yet within your heart; a place you have to learn, slowly and with trepidation, to claim because you’re afraid that it never claimed you; a place that lies dormant within you, like a seed or a song, waiting. Waiting for words like these to wake it up: “I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil . . .” (Faulkner, “The Sound and the Fury”). Or waiting for the alchemy that occurs when patience, heat and smoke coax forth every ounce of flavor that a slab of pork has to give.
Bridges, I’m a writer and I’m food-obsessed, so it makes perfect sense to me that homelands — whether dormant or active — can be found in books and in flavors. So much so that I wrote my second novel, “Bitter in the Mouth,” about a young girl who has a neurological condition that causes her to experience the sensation of taste when she hears or speaks certain words. Her name is Linda Hammerick, and she’s from the Tar Heel State.
Bridges, I hope you don’t mind, but you have a cameo — actually several cameos — in my second novel. I took some liberties: I shortened your name a bit; I referred to your barbecue as “pulled” pork, as opposed to “chopped;” I added perhaps a couple more pigs to your neon sign; and I renamed myself Linda Hammerick and imagined a different life and family for her in Boiling Springs. But otherwise it’s a story about tasting and claiming a home in the American South.
I hope you’ll like it as much as I liked you.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
2000 East Dixon Blvd.
Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m to 8 p.m. (because the barbecue is cooked fresh every day, they occasionally run out early). Jumbo Plate (barbecue, slaw, baked beans, French fries, hush puppies or buns), $10.50.
Truong is the author of two novels, “The Book of Salt” and “Bitter in the Mouth.”