I'm sitting in a small restaurant, located in a strip shopping center at the edge of Conroe, Texas. It's a family-owned place, clean but sparsely decorated. I'm not sure what the theme is supposed to be. There are paintings of geishas and farmers in rice paddies, Chinese junkets and paper lanterns, the ubiquitous Buddha, statues of koi. The menu features hand-rolled sushi, sashimi, and a dozen varieties of pho. The bottled chili sauce is labeled in characters I can't read, with translations in English and French. The clientele is an even mix of middle-class white couples, Asian families, pierced college students talking about their church youth group, and a grey-haired man, sitting at the sushi bar in a Harley Davidson t-shirt, who is the right age to have participated in the Vietnam War. There are several dozen places just like this all over the Houston area. Heck, there are three near my office that we rotate for lunch.
I'm culturally Texan, even though I'm a military brat and lived in several states growing up. My dad lived in Japan, Thailand, and Guam while serving in the Air Force, and has talked about some of the food he ate there, but either he didn't bring back a taste for Asian foods, as many GIs do, or my mom wasn't inclined to learn to make them. I'm unaware if he even asked her. We ate typical Southern food with Texas influences – no turnip greens, but meat loaf and chicken-fried steak, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, stacked enchiladas, pot roast, casseroles. Cornbread and biscuits. Sometimes we had spaghetti, which bears almost no resemblance to authentic Italian-style pasta dishes, outside of the noodles (sorry, Mom, but it's true. Yes, I know you like it, but that doesn't mean it's authentic.) It wasn't until I left home and started traveling on my own that I was exposed to other cuisines: a French restaurant near my college campus, a trip to New Orleans that fostered a love of authentic Cajun foods, working with an Indian man who introduced the joys of curries and raita. Tapas (I'm never eating pancreas again, and you can't make me). Souvlaki and pirogues and really smelly cheeses. Persian and Thai. And suishi and Vietnamese noodle soups.
The coastal cities, the New Yorks and the San Franciscos, received most of our immigrants and got to experience the aromas of their foods long before Middle America did. Our soldiers brought back their acquired fondness for oregano and soy sauce, as the English military took home their taste for Indian and Chinese cooking. And barely 30 years after an ugly war in Vietnam, I'm surrounded by their noodle houses, breathing in the vapors of basil and lemongrass.