by Mike Sula
illustrations by Mary Rednikova
As a kid growing up in small town Central Wisconsin, Yia Vang’s stomach lurched at the sight of the mayo-drenched bagged salad ubiquitous on the buffets at Hmong potlucks celebrations. It never failed to make its appearance among the laab, egg rolls, barbecue pork, papaya salad, and khao poon. Always the most awkward guest at the party, it grew increasingly mushy as it rose to room temperature.
“I hated it,” says Vang, the chef behind St. Paul, Minnesota’s itinerant Union Hmong Kitchen. “It would sit there all day. It was all melty and crap.”
But the salad, carpeted with shredded cheddar and mined with limp, out-of-season tomatoes, wasn’t among the dishes Vang’s mom brought to the U.S. from the Thai refugee camp where he was born and spent the first four and a half years of his life. Nor was it in anyone’s repertoire among the first wave of refugees to settle in the Midwest after the United States withdrew from Vietnam in the mid-70s and its stateless CIA-funded allies were forced to flee the Laotian highlands.
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