Book Response: The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Book Response: The Beauty of Humanity Movement

A couple of years ago, I heard Camilla Gibb read from her book The Beauty of Humanity Movement. What captivated me about her story was her personal introduction. She based the story off her own visit to Vietnam and the particular pho seller that she visited on the street for many of the days that she was there.


Food, Travel, and Writing

There’s something about the repetition of visiting a place again and again, or eating the same soup over and over again that I feel represents as close as a visitor will ever get to knowing what a place is like. Camilla Gibb picked her small piece of Vietnam to explore -- the world of a pho seller, and she took that experience and translated it into a beautiful story set in communist-era Vietnam.

She describes how “The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl…” -- the bowl of pho.



Communist Era Pho

In her story, she weaves together the past and present life of Hung, the pho seller, who had a small pho shop in the 50s that was visited by a small group of artists each day. Each day they visited they got their fill of pho and conversation. They called themselves “The Beauty of Humanity Movement.” They were a small group of artists and writers that challenged the ways of communism and its rise in their communities. Hung was captivated by their poetic words that they published in a magazine.

The authorities soon found out about their meetings and strongly encouraged them to write for the communist regime. Really, they had no choice. Soon after, Hung had an empty shop. No one visited anymore for fear of being associated with the movement. Hung barely escaped when his shop was shut down. He was left to sell pho on the streets. He felt he needed to continue making pho in memory of the friends he lost. He made his pho with what little he could find growing around him and what little ration he received.           

The story follows Hung through the communist era, through his many days, years, and decades on the street to the present day. Gibb describes how many would seek his pho cart, its location changing throughout each month. Hung’s patrons were set on knowing where he was, because they had come to rely upon his pho to start their day. Word would spread quickly whenever he moved.



Learning from the Toronto Pho Experts

This story has been with me for a while now, and I have made my own pho, and tried out different kinds of pho at different shops throughout Toronto. Pho is not very difficult to make. Most of the effort should go into the broth because that is where the flavour is. The rest of the ingredients add a fresh crunch. The broth is usually made with beef, but I wanted to try out a vegetarian recipe this time. A lot of flavour comes from the beef, so I found a vegetarian recipe that suggests charring the onion and the ginger before simmering the broth. I also toasted the spices (coriander seed, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves) to extract as much flavour as possible. Really, the best thing to do is let the broth sit and eat it the next day to let the flavours develop more complexity.

After you make the broth, you can choose whatever you have on hand to make your pho hearty. This time I added wide rice noodles, bok choy (spinach would work too), tofu, bean sprouts, coriander, green onion, and mushrooms.

I’m going to miss all the pho shops in Toronto, as I will be leaving in less than two months for Wolfville, Nova Scotia. So now is my time to try different recipes and take notes from the Toronto experts. Do you have a favourite pho recipe? Have you ventured to make your own?


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About Avery Peters

Sharing stories. Sharing food.

I express my creativity in the kitchen. My inspiration comes from being outside—in the forest, on the farm, by the ocean, or going to the farmers’ market. I love to share food with family and friends.