Sunday, July 18, 2010

Countdown to a book launch party …

The book launch party for Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, took place on Wednesday, July 14, at Traveler's Bookcase in Los Angeles. Surrounded by family, friends, and many of the store's regular customers, my sister Julie and I celebrated the publication of this book that means so much to both of us—as a collaboration between two sisters and as a tribute to a country we love. Following is a small diary of the days leading up the big night and the night itself (with plenty of photos). Bon appetit!

Jules and me at Traveler's Bookcase

Three days until the launch:

The invitations have been sent. Announcements have gone out in the LA Times and the LA Weekly’s Squid Ink food blog. Traveler’s Bookcase has taken charge of the wine, and I’m pretty sure I know what I’m going to wear: the bamboo dress that I bought from Loehmann’s on super sale + 75% off. I spend the evening watching a movie (Shopgirl, yes again, if you must know), unwinding and gearing up for the next three days of running around the city shopping for ingredients and cooking.

Two days until the launch:

9 a.m.
I pick up my friend Jenny, who will be my trusty sidekick/sous chef for the preparations, and we drive to the Bangkok Market (4757 Melrose Ave.) to buy ingredients for the three dishes that will be served at the party: clay pot chicken, grilled lemongrass chicken and pork, and banana flower salad (the latter two recipes soon to come). I’m not happy with the fish sauce selection, and there are only five banana flowers (Jules needs ten—sadly, she can't be with us because she's working), but otherwise, I find everything on my list. Then I get to the cash register, the clerk rings the items through, and I see the tiny sign that says the debit card machine isn’t working. Jenny guards our purchases while I drive down the block to take cash out of an ATM. Rather than be annoyed, I just pretend I’m back in Asia, where inconvenience is a part of daily life!

11 a.m.
Jenny and I swing by to get my mom for a trip to Chinatown, where we hunt for a clay pot worthy of crowd-sized servings. I bought one here years ago, for a party in Paso Robles—where I also gave it away. The guy I gave it to deserved it (he let Jules and me stay at his house instead of an expensive hotel for the weekend). Still, I regret giving it to him, since I can't find another one. It was only $7, and it was perfect for feeding a couple dozen people. Lesson learned: make sure to keep a clay pot for yourself before handing them out at parties.

After exploring all the shops (and buying a few fun trinkets), we go to Pho 97 (727 N. Broadway, #120) for lunch, to whet our appetites for the book launch. Jenny has the chicken pho and my mom and I have the grilled pork with rice noodles and spring rolls (#21 on the menu). My mom hasn’t had much Vietnamese food, and she loves this dish. The broth in Jenny’s soup is complex, the way the broth in a traditional, well-made pho should be. I haven’t been to Pho 97 in years and had forgotten how much I like it. I plan to recommend it to everyone who asks me where to eat good Vietnamese food in L.A. (It also seems cleaner than it used to be.)

3 p.m.
On the way home, Jenny and I swing into the Bangluk Market (5170 Hollywood Boulevard), where I find a fish sauce I’m somewhat satisfied with. It still has sugar in it, but only 1%, as opposed to most others with more + fructose and/or MSG. I keep hoping one day that I’ll stumble across a fish sauce made in Vietnam, but for now, all I can find are brands with Vietnamese words on the labels but made in Thailand.

One day until the launch:

10 a.m.
To Costco with my mom and dad to buy pork shoulder, chicken breasts, and all of the serving supplies (paper plates, cups, spoons and forks, etc.) Many thanks to my parents for helping fund the party!

6 p.m.
Because I’m short five banana flowers, I pick up Jenny, who is ready with her trusty box cutter and step ladder, and we head out to plunder the city’s banana trees. We start on her corner: Blackburn and La Jolla, where we not so surreptitiously cut two banana flowers from a tree in front of an apartment building. Feeling triumphant, we drive around her neighborhood for half an hour, but our happiness is soon dampened. The only banana tree we see belongs to a house and is behind a high adobe fence.

Earlier in the day, I saw some banana flowers at a house on Beverly Boulevard near Van Ness, so we take off across the city. But when we get to the house, the banana flowers are higher than I remembered. We prop the step-ladder on the sidewalk, and Jenny does her best to bend the tree down so the flower (big and tempting) is reachable. There we are as the automatic sprinklers soak us, cars race by, and the flower hangs just out of reach. Unbelievably, given all the noise we make, no one comes out of the house to ask what in the heck we’re doing beneath the windows with a ladder and box cutter!

We have one more idea—a banana flower Jenny saw near her mechanic’s just up the road. We score. Two trees with a flower each right in front of an apartment building. We raid the first tree easily—a small flower, but we’ll take what we can get. Then we go for the second tree. Perhaps we’re being punished for our greediness. As we pull the trunk down, Jenny says, “These trees are really flexible.” Snap! Turns out it’s possible to break a banana tree. I quickly cut the flower, and we prop the broken tree behind another against a second floor balcony and take off running. Thrilled with our four contraband banana flowers, and covered in scratches and banana flower sap, Jenny and I spend the rest of the evening drinking wine and prepping ingredients.

Contraband banana flowers from
the banana trees around Los Angeles

Day of the book launch:

5:30 a.m.
I get up early so I won’t be rushed and spend a leisurely few hours making clay pot chicken—which I totally botch. I go against my own instructions and use coconut milk instead of coconut juice/water. It’s too sweet. I try to balance things out by using less sugar in the carmelization process and more fish sauce and chili, but ultimately have to dilute the liquid with water, so what I end up with tastes more like tom kha gai, which will be noted more than once at the party.

9 a.m.
I cut a hundred or so strips of pork and chicken, stab them with skewers, and leave them to soak in the marinade.

11 a.m.
I finish prepping the banana flower salad, so everything will be ready for Jules when she gets off work early—if she gets off work early. We’re still not sure if it’s going to happen, but we have high hopes, since banana flower salad is her dish.

I think I’m going to die from the heat. I finish printing the brochures for the party, then spend half an hour passed out waiting for the next phase of preparations to begin.

1 p.m.
My parents arrive, final ingredients are chopped, and the real cooking starts. By three thirty my dad is standing over a grill finessing the pork and chicken, and Jules has arrived—YAY!—and is fast at work on her banana flower salad.

Dad valiantly grilling pork and chicken (while
reading the paper!) in insane summer heat

6 p.m.
Dad drops Jules and me off at Traveler’s Bookcase to help Greg and Natalie, the owners, set up, which doesn't take as long as expected. But our chance to relax is short-lived. Friends, family, and customers are beginning to arrive—along with the
Mandoline Grill food truck, which parks right outside the store.
Me, Jules, Natalie (owner, Traveler's Bookcase),
Mong (owner, Mandoline Grill food truck)

7:30 p.m.
The store is PACKED with about fifty people: family, friends, regular store customers, people who read about the event in one of the papers, and
Nick Ut, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who took the iconic Vietnam War photo of the girl running from the napalm attack. What an honor to have him at our launch! Jules and I are in awe as we have our picture taken with him!

Jules and me with Nick Ut

My mom and Jeanne serve the food, and once everyone has a plate and some wine, Jules and I get started. I speak briefly about the origins of Communion, I read briefly from the introduction, Jules speaks briefly about photographing Communion, we banter like the good sisters we are, and then we answer a few questions, briefly—because the heat is crazy (the store’s air conditioner broke four hours ago), and it does, as Jules says, feel just like Vietnam tonight. Then …

My cousin Jeanne and Mom serving food.

Jules and me reading, talking,
and having fun with the audience.

8:30 p.m.

The fun begins. I get to sign books (like a real author!!) and listen to want-to-be-writers ask for advice (like a real author!!), while everyone mingles, drinks, and eats inside and out. The sidewalk is crowded with people enjoying dishes from the food truck, and once again Jules and I feel like we’re in Vietnam, sweating like crazy while everyone eats sitting on plastic chairs and the ground. Most people stay until around ten, and the consensus is: success!

Sidewalk dining at the Mandoline Grill
food truck outside Traveler's Bookcase

Natalie and Greg of Traveler’s Bookcase, not only for hosting the party, but for being such enthusiastic supporters of my books; Jules whose photos make Communion the kind of book that people are drawn to from across a room; Mong for hauling her food truck across town and serving such terrific dishes; my dad for being the best dad ever and grilling for two and a half hours in miserable heat; my mom for being the best mom ever and serving food; Jim for really “getting it”; Jenny for being the best banana flower hunting partner ever; Hilary for taking photos all night; Jeanne for serving food with my mom; Connie for being the best writing friend/partner a girl could ever have; and for coming to the party, buying books, and being so proud of Jules and me (that is what touched me the most!): Clive, Colette, Jen B/writing + Ed, Ann, Michelle C., Melissa, Kelly, Jen B/NCJW, Michelle K., Emily, Macie, Anita, Carlos, Kyle, Michael, Marta, Mickey, Josh, Barbara, and the many others I met who had such nice things to say about Communion. Additional thanks to my publisher Albert, my colleague Janet B., and the book's designer Janet M., without whom Communion would not exist.

I had SO much fun—for my first book launch party, I could not have asked for a better night!!

For more pictures from the night, you can go to the Communion Facebook page, where I have posted a full photo album.

For more about the book, please visit my website.