It’s said that everyone has their own “love language” — or way to express affection for those they care about — that can manifest as everything from sending encouraging texts to a friend, to changing the oil in a loved one’s car, to splurging on a one-in-a-lifetime couple’s cruise. For Thi Tan “Jeannie” Finch, known to her nine grandchildren as Maw Maw, cooking the foods of her native Vietnam is a love language that’s spanned decades, particularly around the holidays and through the Lunar New Year.
“It’s always like a banquet when I come over here!” Peyton Finch, her granddaughter and current marketing intern for Rouses, laughs as she sits side-by-side with her grandmother. “She’s just a very generous person. She wants to share her love through cooking.”
Originally from Binh Dinh, Nghia Binh, Vietnam, Finch met her husband when he was stationed in Vietnam with the Coast Guard and eventually settled in Slidell with their five children, joining the more than 30,000 people of Vietnamese ancestry currently living in Louisiana. She raised her children, including Peyton’s dad, Tony, with the mindset of “counting on your family to do your part,” says Finch. That mindset carried through to her restaurant, Thi Tan’s Asian Cuisine in Slidell, as well.
When Finch decided to open Thi Tan’s Asian Cuisine, she purchased the property on her own — and told her husband about the plan after the fact.
“When I came over here [to America] I had a dream. I said, ‘My dream will come true.’ I said, ‘I’m going to have a small house, have a whole bunch of kids, and when all my kids grow up, I would like to open a restaurant. I opened the restaurant, and owned it almost seven years,” Jeannie remembers. “All of them worked in the restaurant, too. The funny thing is on Friday night when the customers would come in and it would be crowded, all I would have to do is pick up the phone and they would all come help me. It was more like a family restaurant.”
And while the restaurant primarily served Chinese food to the public, at home, Jeannie’s passion for Vietnamese food shines through. The laundry list of delicious dishes that are often found bubbling in Jeannie’s kitchen are enough to make anyone wish for a dinner invitation: barbecue fish, chicken with snow peas, carrots and bok choy; Vietnamese-style chicken wings; lemongrass chicken; bun bo, the spicy pork-and-beef soup; bun thit nuong, a vermicelli rice noodle dish; and, of course, pho with chicken and oxtail.
“She is definitely the person in charge of cooking. She wants to do everything. She has her own way of doing everything, and she does it the best,” Peyton says admiringly. “Growing up, she was always sending food to everyone’s houses, so to all my cousins’ houses, my house — it would be a big pot of pho, fried rice, a pan of egg rolls … so much food!”
“With me and my husband, I cook all day, and he’s the delivery. All of time,” laughs Jeannie.
And while for many people in the local Vietnamese community, the Lunar New Year might be marked by fireworks, concerts, dragon dances and carnival games like those found at the annual Mary Queen of Vietnam Church celebration in New Orleans East, for the Finch family, it’s all about — what else? — delicious food and plenty of family bonding time.
Jeannie points to sweet, sticky rice, roasted pork, and roasted duck as favorite foods for the Lunar New Year, as well as a bevy of local seafood, but reaffirms that family togetherness is the most important tradition when it comes to marking the transition between years.
“We always get together. I have two sisters who live in the United States, too, so for the Vietnamese New Year, we sometimes get together, even though we live so far away,” explains Jeannie. “When we get together, we cook all kinds of Vietnamese food, and everybody cooks together. My sisters are good cooks, too!”
“We have a really big family and everybody’s very close. Even though everyone lives far away, when we all get together, it’s like there was no time between the last time we saw each other,” says Peyton. “I have this very vivid memory of her sisters coming over when I was very young and showing me how to roll egg rolls for the first time. It was a super cool experience, because I remember I was the only grandkid that was home, so it felt really special that I got to be a part of that.”
Spring rolls and egg rolls are also a family favorite around the holidays, and are easy to personalize with fish, shrimp, chicken, pork and, of course, plenty of fresh vegetables. Finch is an avid gardener, and her hand-grown bounty is always finding its way into her dishes. “All of the lettuce, the cilantro — everything — from the top of the pho to what she puts in the spring rolls, it’s from her garden,” Peyton notes. “She spends a lot of time working on it.”
Peyton is also working to keep her grandmother’s kitchen traditions and spirit of generosity alive and well by learning exactly what makes Jeannie’s dishes so magical. “I love to share my cooking with other people, and I think that’s something I inherited from her. I just started learning how to make pho over this past year, so sometimes I’ll call her and be like, ‘What do you put in this?’ or ‘I need help with this.’ And she’s always willing to teach me or send me different ingredients. I’m starting to learn everything that I know from her.”And if food is a love language for Jeannie, it’s clear that it’s becoming one for her granddaughter, too.
“My mom’s side of the family, the food is American-style, but over here, it’s mostly Vietnamese food. It’s like two different kinds of Christmas,” Peyton says. “The first one is mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, macaroni — all that. And then I come here, with Maw Maw, and it’s a completely different experience. It’s so cool to have those two cuisines coexist in my family.”