A young refugee forced out of Vietnam, a country torn by warfare and political instability, sits at the center of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the breathtaking memoir by author Beth Nguyen. Coming of age during the 1980’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Nguyen navigated the tumultuous landscape of American life, from her education to her family’s love of diverse cuisines.

“I grew up in a refugee family and that absolutely shaped my worldview,” said Nguyen, who is currently a professor in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It wasn’t something I realized until I was an adult. When I was growing up, nobody talked about being a refugee; nobody talked about trauma or racism. I didn’t know that there was language for what I was feeling.”

Nguyen published Stealing Buddha’s Dinner in 2007 to much acclaim. She would later pen the novels, Pioneer Girl and Short Girls as well as essays for The Paris Review and The New Yorker. Her essays, “I Thought Beef Stroganoff Was For Fancy People” and “Cake Isn’t Just During a Pandemic,” in Bon Appétit and in Time Magazine are highly recommended reads.

Nguyen caught up with Spoon University recently to chat about her childhood in Grand Rapids, her incredible career thus far, and her love for food.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the initial spark that inspired you to write Stealing Buddha’s Dinner?

I didn’t intend to write a memoir. I studied poetry and fiction in college before heading to graduate school to receive an MFA in creative writing, and nonfiction was not as popular at that time as a course of study. I was always writing about family and identity and all the issues that I cover in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, but I was writing about them in poetry and fiction. I wasn’t happy with my work and one day, out of sheer frustration, I started writing stories, not as short stories but just as the way I remembered things happening. I realized that I’d been using fiction as a disguise, and that’s not really the best purpose of the craft of fiction. That’s when I understood that what I was writing should actually be nonfiction.

Food serves as the through line in many of your works. Was food a source of comfort for you as a child? Does food still serve this role in your life today?

Food became a through line in a natural way in that it kept asserting itself as a metaphor. When I was growing up my family didn’t have a lot of money, but food was something that we could hang onto pretty easily, for comfort and as a way to mark our culture and identity. I always think about how refugees and immigrants are asked to give up so much, but what they never give up is their food. This symbolism kept coming back in my writing.

Food absolutely is a source of comfort in my life, still. I strongly support comfort eating.

In the memoir, you describe your journey back to Vietnam. How did your experience in Vietnam alter your view on food and the interconnecting relationship with your family?

One of the hilarious things about visiting Vietnam with my grandmother was how obvious it was to everybody that I was American. People we visited kept making me French fries because they weren’t sure I would want to eat the Vietnamese food that I really preferred.

It was incredibly moving to see Vietnam with my grandmother and to see her with her siblings, and to sit with relatives in a giant circle on the floor with tons of dishes in front of us. It made me think about how my concept of food has always been connected to sharing, and how that resonates in a larger way through life.

What are your current inspirations and your hopes for the future?

In terms of my writing, I’m currently working on my fourth book called Owner of a Lonely Heart. It’s a collection of memoir-essays, mostly about my mother and our odd relationship, and how my thinking about motherhood has changed since I’ve had children. After this book, I’m planning to get back to writing fiction.

What do you do in your spare time?

I’ve always been into cooking and baking, and like a lot of people during the pandemic, I rewatched every season of The Great British Baking Show. They’re always talking about things like génoise sponge, so one day I decided to learn how to make one. I loved it. I’ve since made some really complicated bakes, and I find the whole process to be satisfying, fun in a problem-solving kind of way. Unlike writing, baking for me is finite, goal-oriented. And then it’s done. You can’t revise a cake!

Has your reflection on your childhood changed as you’ve aged? Had you written the memoir today, do you feel you would have written it differently, perhaps focused on different elements?

We are supposed to keep changing: opinions, outlook, food preferences, fashion, everything. This is true for writing, too. To me, it is a mark of progress to look back and realize how different we used to be, even if it’s often painful. So if I rewrote Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, it would be completely different because I feel like a completely different person now.

One reason why writing is so exciting and why nonfiction writing is so dynamic is because we can measure our changing, our growth, through our words and our critical thinking. Culture changes fast. Language shifts all the time. At every step, we are both being changed and are contributing to change. It’s not always easy, at all. But it’s necessary. On the subject of change, I feel like I should explain why I’m going by the name Beth instead of Bich Minh. This piece  I wrote covers it. Food-themed spoiler: one of my realizations happened when I was at a Shake Shack.

What is your advice for aspiring and upcoming food writers?

My advice for anyone who wants to write: read as extensively as you can, read for history and context as well, and keep practicing. There's a huge difference between writing and publishing, and honestly no one needs to publish everything they write. More and more, I think about how when I first started writing (about food, about anything), it was for the fun and joy and pleasure of it. I loved the construction of sentences, the thrill of a concrete description. Finally, I would say that it's important to remember that you can do this! But you also have to want to do this, and to figure out why.

This story was part of Brainfood: Careers in the Food World. Check out the rest of the collection here, and see you at Brainfood on Friday, Nov. 12 at 3 p.m. ET!