Road trippin’ for pork belly: How grocery shopping became a daughter’s act of love

I feel the cold stares piercing into my back. I have unknowingly committed the ultimate faux pas: cutting the checkout line at an Asian grocery store. In my defense, I had tried to ask for clarity from a store clerk, only to be shooed away.

“All this is for my mom!” I want to tell the crowd. “I drove four hours just for pork belly!”

Instead, I avoid eye contact like the introvert that I am, and make a beeline for the exit with my overflowing grocery cart.

How did I end up in this situation? COVID-19.

Home for the pandemic

For the past three years, I have called Los Angeles home, but when COVID-19 put the city on lockdown, I yearned for the comfort and familiarity of my hometown. Even the City of Angels can feel alienating and lonely, especially in a pandemic.

Waycross Georgia
Photo submitted: Hieu Gray

I booked a one-way ticket to my hometown of Waycross, GA to spend my summer riding out the health crisis at my parents’ home in the Deep South.

It’s been over two decades since I’ve lived for this extended period of time with them. I’ve traded in the ethereal palm trees of La La Land for the pine trees of my youth.

Living at home made me feel like a kid again. My mom cooks the foods I grew up eating, as if time has stood still. A warm pot of rice appears on the counter as a rack of ribs seasoned with garlic and fish sauce bakes in the oven. For the first couple of weeks, I am presented with elaborate Vietnamese meals like bún bò huế (spicy beef noodle soup), lemongrass pork chops, and beef sautéed with rice noodles.

See also: Communication and complexity: The essence of cooking for others

Eating my parents out of house & home

As the weeks pass, however, the Vietnamese dishes appear less and less. I have unknowingly depleted my mother’s pantry of precious Vietnamese staples, and the nearest Asian supermarket is four hours away. My parents cannot make the trek like they used to since my dad’s cancer has relapsed.

pork belly
Photo submitted: Hieu Gray

They are too polite to admit that their daughter is eating them out of house and home. “Getting groceries” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re one of a handful of Vietnamese families living in a small rural town. Hard-to-find ingredients like lychee and fermented tofu become a half-day trek to the nearest Asian supermarket.

Unbeknownst to them, my parents are living in a food desert with little access to culturally relevant foods. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Food deserts are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away.”

The quest for the perfect pork belly

One ingredient I’d gladly travel for is pork belly. My mother uses it to make the family favorite thịt heo quay, or roasted pork belly. Every time I visit home, I request that she make this dish. The crispy and bubbly skin crackles as my mother cuts it into bite-sized cubes. We eat these delectable morsels with rice or wrapped in lettuce with fresh herbs. If I wanted her to make this dish during my stay, I’d have to make a special trip to Atlanta. It’s the least I could do to repay my parents’ hospitality.

Pork belly
Photo submitted: Hieu Gray

Like any chef, my mother is very particular about her ingredients. She prefers a specific cut of pork belly that can’t be found in my hometown, where residents are mostly familiar with pork belly in the form of thinly sliced bacon. It’s nearly impossible to find a thick slab at a local butcher.

The supermarket time capsule

I set out on the road in the late morning. It’s been a couple years since I’ve driven to Atlanta. The highways that once seemed so familiar now seem so foreign. As I adjust to the terrain, I rely less on my iPhone for directions and trust my memory to lead the way.

The closer I get to the city, the more I think about the pandemic that hangs over everything like a shadow. Billboards with messages like “Feel Sick, Stay Home” appear at regular intervals next to Amber Alerts. It hits home the reality of the pandemic. I’m not home for vacation, but to escape a deadly disease.

Finally, the exit for Jimmy Carter Boulevard appears, and Hong Kong Supermarket slowly comes into view. Pulling into the parking lot, no evidence of the pandemic seems to exist. The crowds are just as dense as I remember them. Overzealous shoppers nearly bulldoze one another, vying to enter first. It feels like another typical Sunday when Asian families chaotically buy food for the week ahead.

Hong Kong Supermarket in Atlanta
Photo credit: Hong Kong Supermarket

Entering the sliding doors is like entering a time capsule. I revert back to my old routine from when I still lived in Atlanta and worked at CNN five years ago.

Back then, I would visit my parents monthly. Each trip home began with going to the Asian supermarket and a call to my mother while at the store. She has only been a couple of times, but has an uncanny talent to direct me exactly to the aisle for the specific ingredient she wants.

This time I FaceTime her and show her the products, instead of describing them to her in my hackneyed Vietnamese.

I walk towards the back of the supermarket, where the meat section encases almost every cut imaginable. It’s more dense and populated than my neighborhood Kroger and filled with offal like tripe and intestines.

There’s a science involved in pork belly selection. My mother says there should be an equal amount of skin, fat, and meat. If even one layer is out of proportion, then the whole slab will lose its magical allure. Our connection breaks up, and I am left alone to determine which pieces to select. A sign reads in Vietnamese, Chinese, and English, “Due to high demand, only 3 pork belly [sic] per customer.” The Asian customer before me ignores the printout and orders four.

When it’s my turn, I defiantly ignore the sign as well, and order eight slabs. I traveled four hours; I deserve it.

In my broken Vietnamese, I speak to the meat monger and point to the ones I want. Confidence is key when defying orders. I call upon this newly found sense of bravado as I make my way to the checkout lanes.

Hong Kong Supermarket
Photo credit: Hong Kong Supermarket

With a shopping cart piled high with staples from my mother’s shopping list, like fish sauce and Maggi seasoning, I throw in some hard-to-find impulse buys like red hairy rambutans and tropical fruit flavored Hi-Chew candy. Almost at the finish line, I am hindered by a confusing set-up of queues made even more impenetrable by social distancing guidelines.

I have no choice but to assertively forge ahead. Suddenly, I feel the sting of daggers on my back. Unknowingly, I have cut the checkout line.

I emerge realizing that I will never take grocery shopping for granted ever again.

The trek for comfort food

As the sun sets, I make it back home after eight grueling hours of driving. I am tired, but excited to savor the food that has just been purchased. My parents welcome me with open arms. We unload what seems like an unending amount of groceries. In the kitchen, my mother methodically examines the pork belly and slaps the raw skin like a baby’s behind for good measure.

Pork belly buns
Photo submitted: Hieu Gray

We eat the pork belly two weeks later. My parents have entered hoarding mode, not knowing when I’ll make the tiring trek again. As refugees, they know how it feels to live without, even in this land of plenty. However, there lies the contradiction. About 23.5 million people live in food deserts. Nearly half of them are also low-income.

For some, America may be the land of abundance, but for the millions like my parents, access to culturally relevant food is hard to come by. According to the USDA, “Food deserts may be under-reported because the North American Industry Classification System places small corner grocery stores in the same category as grocery stores like Safeway and Whole Foods.” An even more nuanced approach should exist to take into account ethnic supermarkets in order to create a fuller picture of the food deserts that exist.

For now, my road trip is the only way to overcome these barriers to culturally relevant foods for my parents, but it will not be sustainable for the long run. Eventually, I will have to return back to Los Angeles, and there will be no one to make the trek for my parents. How long will my parents go without their treasured fish sauce or bún (vermicelli noodles)? I feel a tinge of guilt wishing that I lived closer, but I have the pandemic to thank for my long and much needed sojourn.

I relish the feast before me. The skin is just as crispy as I remembered, with equal layers of fat and meat. Our family of seven quickly devour two slabs.

Seeing our joy, my mother grabs two more hefty chunks out of the freezer, ready to make some more. I advise her to wait until we crave it again. One can have too much of a good thing. I savor each bite more slowly, knowing the cost.

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