The best of two cultures

A Vietnamese woman and an American share friendship and chocolate cookies.

The soft pink of my nail polish matches the gentleness of the Vietnamese women at my nail shop. A few years ago, I decided I wanted nicer hands. I was drawn to the lighted sign that said "Walk-Ins Welcome."

"Can we help you today?" inquired a small Asian woman watching the Weather Channel on a TV overhead.

"Just a manicure," I answered shyly.

"Oh, you want acrylics," she said, encouragingly, looking at my hands.

I nodded like an adolescent going along with the crowd. She guided me to a small table with all the little bottles my daughter would have wanted for her very own.

As she placed her white mask on, my anxiety grew. She applied the strong-smelling glue, followed by the acrylic. Then she used the drill for filing, which loudly sent pieces of plastic into the air. We hadn't gotten to the polish, and I felt exhausted.

"Best to get your keys and pay me first before polish," she instructed.

Soon I sat at the drying table, holding my hands just so to avoid the slightest smudge. Because I was an amateur, I tried to reach for my car keys too early. She patiently guided me back to her table and reapplied the light pink to my thumbs.

I was afraid she would want to change the sign to "Walk-Ins Welcome, Experience Preferred."

I left the shop thanking her, apologizing, and staring at my new-looking hands.

I now return every few weeks, opting for a simple manicure these days.

My relationship with Van and her family has grown closer over the years. We share stories and secrets and like to laugh. I hand them fresh-baked cookies and coffeecake. They massage my hands with soft cream.

One snowy Friday afternoon, I mentioned to Van that I was entering an annual baking contest that raises money for charity.

"Oh, I'd like to learn to make cookies like you," she said, as she instructed me to wash my hands before the polish.

I liked the idea of helping her wish come true, but it would be a recipe exchange across cultures and therefore a little challenging.

There is nothing comparable in Vietnamese to English teaspoons and tablespoons. Fractions would be difficult in a new language. I tried to explain about cookie sheets, describing them as flat pans with no sides.

But it wasn't just equipment. Vanilla, chocolate chips, white flour, and sugar were not to be found in Van's kitchen cupboard.

I thought we could go together to the baking aisle at the supermarket. But our plans changed when three teenagers arrived at the shop asking for "just a fill – and French manicures."

I'm always surprised by the hours Van and her family keep in the shop. "Oh, no," she said when I commented. "This easy; the fields in Vietnam hard and no money."

As I left, I wondered about the juxtaposition of chocolate chip cookies and the fields of Vietnam.

I remembered the cookie-baking class I organized for friends last year. Everyone arrived with a bowl, spoon, and chocolate chips.

Eight women around our kitchen table provided the most important ingredient: laughter. We took batches of cookies from the oven – they were all a little different, matching our individuality. Next time, I thought, I'd invite Van.

The following morning, in preparation for the baking contest, I searched through my recipes. The old magazine and newspaper clippings were as sweet as the cookies themselves.

Buried in between Mrs. Step's lemon bread and Mom's oatmeal cookies, I found the chocolate pecan cookie recipe I'd created for Passover, in which cups of ground pecans become a kind of sweet flour.

I sorted through our cluttered utensil drawer, finding extra teaspoons and measuring cups. As I baked, I put aside a baking "care package" for Van – cups, spoons, brown sugar, baking soda, and chocolate chips.

I wanted to create a winning entry and also figure out a way to teach Van how to pull plump cookies from her own oven. I emptied out gift chocolates from a decorative red box on our counter. Lining it with pink tissue paper, I gingerly placed my baked cookies inside. When I arrived to drop off my entry, I was greeted by chocolate masterpieces: Harry Potter characters, chocolate violins, and a cake version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

I smiled tentatively as I handed over my small red box of cookies. It was a little like leaving one of my children at day care. I left quickly, reassuring myself that it was all for a good cause, and blue ribbons weren't important.

I stopped in at the nail shop on my way home, excited to share my baking care package. I'd slipped an index card inside, detailing my recipe with a small secret – always mix the dough with your hands.

Van hugged me, surrounded by women sitting peacefully, fingers outstretched, touching a culture I have come to love.

Flourless Chocolate Pecan Cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 egg

3/4 cup light brown sugar

3-1/2 cups finely ground pecans

1 teaspoon vanilla

1-1/2 cups (8 to 10 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat butter and egg until blended. Mix in brown sugar and then vanilla. Fold in ground pecans and chocolate chips.

Drop by rounded tablespoons onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 12 minutes, or until cookies flatten slightly and edges are barely brown,

Makes approximately 15 chewy cookies, depending on size.

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