Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

A Feast For the Senses: Kim Thùy Talks to Lucy van Oldenbarneveld


Listening in on Lucy van Oldenbarneveld’s conversation with Kim Thùy left me feeling like I had just enjoyed a great meal with two good friends, which is fitting, given that the conversation focused on Thùy’s new cookbook, Secrets from My Vietnamese Kitchen.


Over the course of an hour, Thùy regaled the audience with tales from her home, her travels as a writer and her experiences in a Malaysian refugee camp. Humble, humorous, reflective and empowering – Thùy and Oldenbarneveld explored how food can bring people together, communicate feelings, and bring out the best parts of humanity.


Using Oldenbarneveld’s questions as springboard, Thùy responded with a contagious energy. Thùy had the audience in awe with her ability to cook for three different palates at home (her husband and two sons), then in stitches with her humble brag about her contribution to the Quebec gene pool. Early in life, Thùy told her rapt listeners, she had been allergic to everything, including moderate temperature variations. Now, she can handle the Canadian cold and, by her own admission, is completely indestructible. Thùy also reflected on the beauty and blessing of being able to age, and she had her audience on the edge their seats with her tales from Italy, where flavors of gelato need to be individually appreciated and a bead of sweat can test the limits of human control. 


Thùy explored the intimacy and expression allowed by the rituals of cooking and sharing food. In her family, food is the most frequents means to express emotions. Instead of asking “How are you?” or saying “I love you,” it is the act offering of food (“Have you eaten?” “Try the chicken!”) and sharing of meals that provide the most poignant displays of affection. I was especially moved by Thùy’s story of sharing a Coke among thirteen members of her family, including her six year-old brother, in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Despite the heat and thirst, each family member took only the tiniest sip each time the drink was passed. A single Coke was shared three times amongst each of the family members, without anyone having to say a word.


In addition to being an amazing storyteller, Thùy also demonstrated an openness with her audience, especially in her willingness to learn the meaning and weight of new words. Oldenbarneveld’s uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter facilitated a language lesson none are likely to forget, done with a humor and grace that resonated with this audience member and second language learner.


Over the course of an hour, Thùy and Oldenbarneveld’s intimate discussion on food, family and feeling left me sated. That said, if seconds had been offered, I would have gladly stayed for more!