pho house

by Elizabeth de Barros

Every country has a national dish, one the people are proud of. It even may not taste very good, but it’s what they identify with and have come to love.

The first time I walked into a pho house, I knew I had entered a land of strange ritual unaware. For one thing, the Vietnamese love their pho. It’s what’s on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Variations of the broth abound, ranging from mild to spicy-hot, North or South, but the secret is in the onions — they’re charred. Some bowls have nothing more than a lone noodle afloat, others come with a plate of garnishes for a dozen rainbow effects. No matter, it’s pho they come for. There I sat, in a non-descript storefront, the odd American mother with toddler in tow, as people ate their pho in silence all around us. Others carried their bowls cafeteria-style to the table in solemn affair. Among the sips and stares, I was ready to taste what all the fuss was about.


Home schooling is a lot like making pho—at least it is in our house. Every morning, I throw my bones into the pot and let them simmer for hours until all the marrow leeches out. I have no idea what the end result will be, I just know I’m giving all I’ve got. Taste tests happen along the way, with non-exact measures of this and that, the means of which are constantly up for evaluation. Of this pho, the first ladling won’t be available for a while. Real flavor takes time.

Meantime, our 8-year old hacks away at nouns and their related pronouns in the kitchen or car, depending, while our 13-year old calculates how long it will take before he finishes the day’s math. He’s got better things to do. Tonight he gets to defend his title at the regional spelling bee one last time; words are all that matter today. Eighth grade looks nothing like seventh. His Doc Martens don’t fit him anymore. Nothing does. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s got something to do with all those egg sandwiches he  chows down for breakfast.

Home schooling is a massive test kitchen. It requires faith in the basic recipe and making an effort to procure ingredients that sometimes take you to exotic places, often found inside your child’s mind.

Every day is another attempt at perfecting my pho. Time to go char some onions.