Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen, MANGO & PEPPERCORNS

Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen, MANGO & PEPPERCORNS

“The funny thing is, that’s what we did as a family: some families take vacations, my family worked together.” Lyn Nguyen talks with Zibby about her book, Mango and Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream, which she co-wrote with her mother Tung and her mother’s business partner, Katherine Manning. Lyn shares stories about the mentalities her mother instilled in her, the relationship she has with Kathy (“she is, in many ways, my second mom”), and what life has been like at the family restaurant, Hy Vong, during the pandemic.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lyn. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mango and Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream.

Lyn Nguyen: Thank you for having me on. This is such an honor.

Zibby: As I was just mentioning with you, you cowrote this with your mother, Tung. I probably won’t pronounce it right, how do you pronounce her last name? Nguyen?

Lyn: We pronounce it, Nguyen, it’s like W-E-I-N.

Zibby: Okay. Katherine Manning, who you call Kathy; yourself; and then with Elisa Ung who it sounds like helped orchestrate and do interviews and things like that, correct?

Lyn: That’s right, yes.

Zibby: As I was reading it, as I said, I wasn’t sure who I was interviewing, but I was just so thrilled to talk to one of you from this book because what a story. Oh, my gosh, I cannot believe it, the things that happened with your mom. Why don’t you start by, if you don’t mind, telling listeners a little about what this book is broadly about? Then we’ll dive into your family history and everything.

Lyn: Mango and Peppercorns, from my perspective, is really a story about my mother, who is a Vietnamese refugee who came over during the Vietnam War, and Kathy, who is an American who resettled her. I think throughout the book, the most interesting thing is that they were really able to create a very unique family and community brought together by food. I think that transcends anybody’s story because as we eat, especially during COVID, you find that food brings people together. It allows you to savor flavors. It allows you to have new experiences. Mango and Peppercorns really tells their story through food.

Zibby: I’m a pretty picky eater, I have to say, to the disappointment of my husband. With all these recipes and descriptions of food, I was like, oh, my gosh, I have to try all of these. I always love when books include recipes because it just adds another element of interest and everything. Before I read the book, when I flipped through it, I was like, well, I don’t know if I would eat this. Then after I read the book, I was like, okay, now after this flavorful description, I have to do it. Of course, the food in this book was sort of a means to an end. This is, in fact, the means to an end of survival, really, for your mom and where she started. There was one part of the book, and I don’t have the exact quote in front of me, but she talked about how she never even thought about being someone who lived in the big house and had this, that, or the other thing. It was about survival. It was just about getting through that day. What did they need to do to get through the day? Was it her mom who said that? Maybe it was your grandmother who said that. Do you remember what I’m talking about?

Lyn: Yeah, I do. It’s really my mom’s perspective. She’s very much a survivalist. She’s very much about putting one foot in front of the other. Even if today’s a bad day, you’re going to wake up tomorrow, and you’re going to just keep fighting. I, as an adult now, have such a better appreciation of her. I go to a grocery store in a foreign country, and I can’t figure my way through the aisles. I can’t read the packages. To think about her being dropped into the United States without any family, without knowing the language, and then surviving and having a restaurant that people flocked to I think really speaks a lot to her perseverance. Also, she spoke through her food. That was her way of communicating. I admire her resilience in terms of being able to wake up each day and just fight for a new day.

Zibby: It’s also a story about running a business. There’s this element of how to make a business that depends on a creative product, something that’s a service to others. How do you continue to transform it, produce it, monetize it, and get press and do all these things? It’s also a business primer, if you will, with her and Kathy, how they split ways at one point, how they came back together. The whole story was fascinating, even the fact that they fought all the time and that was just their way of communicating. They’re like, don’t worry about it. Yet the restaurant became, Hy Vong — did I pronounce that right? Hy Vong?

Lyn: Yes, you did.

Zibby: Hy Vong became this complete top-of-the-restaurant-charts Miami institution despite barely having air conditioning and them building their own walls and everything. It’s amazing. It’s really an amazing story.

Lyn: Thank you. Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun to write. Originally, many, many years ago, I said to my mom, “I want to write a book.” Originally, it was really just a pet project for me because my mother would never share her stories with me. It was always too painful, too much to talk about. It was always about looking forward. We’re here today. Where are we going tomorrow? I, as an adult, really wanted to understand a lot more about her and her background and what she came from. That has been so much fun for me because I learned so much about her. I learned about my family. It’s just been a great journey.

Zibby: You said in the book you didn’t even learn about your dad and exactly how that whole situation happened until you read it in the book. Is that true? That’s crazy.

Lyn: That’s true. That was probably the biggest shock from the entire experience is finding out that — who was my dad? Was it really who I thought it was? A lot of those trips that we made to find him, so to speak, were veils of different agendas.

Zibby: I don’t remember, is your dad still alive? Do you know?

Lyn: I’ve never tried to reach out or find him. It’s a history that is kind of reimagined now, so to speak, . To be honest, a lot of people say, do you wish you did meet your dad or know about him? I am so lucky that I was raised by Kathy and my mom and even Kathy’s mother, who I consider my grandmother. I had a complete family unit in my eyes and in my perspective. They raised me in their perspective, which is a strong woman who is independent. I never felt like I had a hole that needed to be filled. I think I’m lucky in that. It hasn’t been something that I’ve looked to do. I honestly wouldn’t even know how.

Zibby: Me neither. Not too much to go on there. That’s another element of the story that was so interesting, is how your mom and Kathy had this platonic, lifelong cohabitation relationship where they coparented you. Kathy writes in the book, she just sort of decided to be celibate at one point. Your mom had a series of different husbands or relationships and whatever. Yet it just worked. It worked for them. Kathy had you strapped on her back in the restaurant. That’s so cute, oh, my gosh. Then , he’s the one who when you were finishing high school suggested that you apply to Harvard, which by the way when I read in the book, I was like, why is she even suggesting that? Then the next page was like, and then I got in. I was like, what? Your guidance counselor was like, forget it, don’t even go to college. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s amazing.

Lyn: She’s always been my champion. She’s always been, dream big. Shot for the stars. Nothing can stop you. My mom who is a very, very practical person and then Kathy who’s this huge dreamer, they really balance each other out. Kathy’s always been such a supporter. She is, in many ways, my second mom, but growing up, I never thought of her like that. My mom was always my mom. Kathy was always this fun aunt who I could talk to and would take me out. That just really worked. They knew their places in terms of their relationship to me but also their relationship to each other. I think it speaks a lot for Kathy in terms of how she always stood by my mom and yet let her grow and evolve and be her own person. They’re remarkable women. I’m not sure that I could do half of what they’ve done. They’re certainly great role models.

Zibby: I think part of it is what you said originally about your mom’s whole outlook, which is something that I feel like the whole wellness industry is trying to get to do. Think about where you are today. Be where your feet are. Focus on the now. That’s sort of what she does, and always seeing the bright side. There was this one passage in the beginning about her grandmother who your mom was super close to. I just want to read this one passage. “Remembering Bà Nội’s voice kept me going. It always had. When I was three and stricken with smallpox, my parents were unable to afford medicine. It was Bà Nội –” Is that how you pronounce it? Bà Nội?

Lyn: Bà Nội, yeah.

Zibby: “– Bà Nội who laid me on the dirt floor of her hut and nursed me back to health. As I grew up always following her around like a baby duck, she looked at my face full of smallpox scars not in horror as so many others did, but like I was the most beautiful person she had ever seen. When we had only a few grains of rice to eat, Bà Nội taught me to thank God for salt. Rice was just rice, she told me, but if you have rice and salt, you have a meal.”

Lyn: That’s true.

Zibby: What an attitude. It’s just amazing.

Lyn: It’s being thankful for every day, and such little things. Even my mom today, when we eat rice — rice, you can go to the store and buy at any time. It’s one of the cheapest things to get. Even if there’s a cup of rice left over, she saves it. It’s because you just don’t know where the next meal is going to come from. Growing up, a cup of rice was the most precious thing that they could have. The poverty that she lived in, she lived in a one-room hut. I went back to Vietnam. I happened to see a house that was very similar to what she grew up in. It’s probably the same size as her bedroom today. It was so tiny, dirt floor. Still, she grew up so happy because they were always so thankful for what they had that day. She would say that even when they were working long, long hours in the field, everybody would sing and tell jokes. It was really about embracing your community and just being thankful that, you know what, you woke up this morning and you have a chance to fight for another day.

Zibby: That is such a great message. It’s such a great message. I wonder how your mom’s parenting of you — you make some mentions of it, how you didn’t really want to work in the restaurant so much. You wanted to be with your friends. You were kind of embarrassed, like every teenager is of their parents at some point. You preferred spaghetti and meatballs or something to their food for a while. Their attitude, it’s so amazing, but I feel like it’s sort of counter to the way most Americans — it’s such a mass generalization, but the general zeitgeist societal messaging here, it’s just a little bit different. The fact that by age eight she was doing farming and building a house for her parents soon after and all these things, I’m like, I have an almost-eight-year-old, that is not what is happening around here. It’s like, “Can I have a seltzer?” I’m like, oh, my gosh, look what Tung was doing. Tell me a little bit about that and growing up, you as an American with an immigrant mother and how the differences were played out.

Lyn: I would say the biggest thing that got instilled in me is hard work. You just are always working. A lot of people say, how can you — you run a business. Then you come home, and you have these other projects. I enjoy it. You’re always trying to better yourself. You’re always trying to move yourself forward incrementally. It could be reading a book. That’s enjoyment. It’s not that you’re just being “lazy.” It’s very much of a hard work ethic and also being — I own a business. It’s ups and downs. It’s a rollercoaster. You certainly don’t plan life the way it happens. You kind of roll with it. You say, okay, so how can I take what I have today and make it better tomorrow? I think that that persistence and just that work ethic of showing up every day was really deeply, deeply instilled in me. Even after I would be picked up from school when I was very, very little, I would go to the restaurant. I would help peel carrots. I would help set tables. That’s just what we did. The funny thing is, that’s what we did as a family. Some families take vacations. My family worked together.

It’s all about how you as a family unit celebrate yourselves. It doesn’t have to be like every other family. I think that’s another thing that got very deeply instilled in me. I see it especially now as I’m developing more and more of my own friends. You don’t have to be like everybody else. It’s okay. It’s actually really good to have your own path and make your own choices. Your family doesn’t have to look like the family next door. Your job doesn’t have to be like the neighbors or your colleagues. Sometimes that’s hard because I, like I’m sure everybody else, compare myself to other people, and so being like, this is me and I’m okay with that. I’m not the doctor. I’m not the lawyer. I think especially today when people have so many opportunities with what they can make of their own lives and where their path can go, it’s really important to have that inner strength to say, you know what, I can do what I choose, and to stick with it and have that persistence to know that it’s going to be okay even if today it’s not.

Zibby: I know you run a business. This is none of my business. You don’t have to answer. Do you have your own family? Where do you live? Do you spend a lot of time with your mom and Kathy still? What’s the post-script on the book for you?

Lyn: I live in Boynton Beach, Florida, right now. It’s about an hour north of my parents. It’s close, but it’s not too close. Really, that was driven by the pandemic and traffic. Where they live, it’s very congested. I wanted to be in a little bit of a more rural area. I live with my boyfriend right now. We lived in New York. Then with the pandemic last year, like many people, we kind of fled. We bought a house in Boynton Beach where we could have a little bit more space. Before that, I was traveling about two weeks every month. I was always on the go. It actually enabled me to see my parents a bit more than I can now because when I would travel, I would always make sure to do a stopover in between trips. Now because of COVID, we’re just being a bit careful. I’m getting my second shot tomorrow. Yay! I’m hoping then we can see each other a little bit more. I’ve tried to be careful because they’re a little older.

Zibby: I get it. Aw, that’s so nice. Now in addition to everything else, all of you guys are now authors, just to add another feather in your cap. How is it having your story out there? I know it’s just coming out. How does it feel to take something that is such a part of you and having it be so public? For them too, I would imagine your mom thinks this is such a trip, right?

Lyn: They’re loving it for different reasons. Kathy loves being able to tell her story and interact with other people and really have a chance to celebrate what they’re worked for. For my mom, it’s all been a bit of a headrush. First, she couldn’t believe that people would even find her story interesting enough to have a book. Even through that process, she didn’t fully grasp that this was a book that was going to be published and read by other people. She just thought, oh, Lyn’s got this crazy idea. We’re writing this thing. It’s going to sit in her bookshelf or something like that. Then it’s been published. We’ve been so fortunate to have had such good reviews. People have really been attracted to the book. Now it’s that next phase of, I can’t believe people actually like the book. That’s been wonderful for her. It’s given her that additional confidence and that additional accolade that I really wanted her to experience because they worked so, so hard. The restaurant business is one of the hardest around. To do it for so many years and to love it for so many years and the community they built, I’m just so happy that they’re now getting that recognition and the accolades that I really wanted them to have.

Zibby: By the way, what did happen to the restaurant this past year?

Lyn: We transitioned to doing pickups. We schedule the pickup. People can order ten days in advance. It sells out in about two to three hours. We’ve been lucky. Our customers just keep following us and still coming to eat our food. Like many businesses, it’s changed its shape, so to speak. We’re doing the South Beath Wine & Food Festival, a private dinner coming up in May. Then Kathy and my mom actually want to do book tours. They want to go and go to book festivals and do some special cooking classes and really just have fun with the whole experience.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, if they want to come to New York and do a cooking demonstration in my house or something, I will invite all these people. I used to do author salons and everything here. I feel like life is just starting to get back to normal. My kitchen is not such a — it’s a normal — I couldn’t fit a million people in the kitchen. It’s not a professional kitchen. If they want to come to New York and do that as a stop, let me know. I would be so honored to have them cook here.

Lyn: They would love it. I will let them know.

Zibby: I’m not kidding. I mean that sincerely. Think about it. It would be amazing.

Lyn: Good. They love doing that. They love cooking for people and feeding people. That’s the biggest thing, is feeding people.

Zibby: We could do a whole talk and then a meal. Oh, my gosh, it would be so fun. Awesome. So what advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Lyn: It took us many, many years to get this book off the ground, mainly because I had to convince my mom that it was something to do. There’s two pieces of advice that I would have for authors. The first is, use your network. We were fortunate that we had a friend who had published books and was able to introduce us to agents and publishers. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends. You don’t know who’s going to point you into a direction that turns into something. Then the other is, believe in your dream. Don’t give up. Just because it doesn’t happen tomorrow, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen in a year or two years. Keep persistent in your dream.

Zibby: Love it. Sorry, my dog is wandering around here. She’s like my seeing eye dog. She follows me everywhere. It’s so cute.

Lyn: That’s awesome.

Zibby: Lyn, thank you. It was so nice to meet you. I’m so impressed by this story and the book and the whole thing. Bravo to all of you. I hope that our paths cross, hopefully in my apartment.

Lyn: Yes. Thank you so much, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Congratulations. Buh-bye.

Lyn: Bye.

Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen, MANGO & PEPPERCORNS

MANGO & PEPPERCORNS by Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen

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