The Triumphal Story of Hmong Sausage
I love eating Hmong sausage. What is Hmong sausage? This sausage is usually packed with a ratio of three-fourths pork shoulder and one-fourth pork belly that’s been coarsely grounded, mixed with a perfect blend of lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, Thai chiles, garlic, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and salt. Although there are several ways to cook it, such as deep-frying or oven-baking, it’s best prepared when it’s grilled over a low-heat wood fire so that the fat slowly melts inside its casing, allowing the fat to flavor the meat along with all the aromatics.
I’ve been eating Hmong sausage for as long as I can remember. My parents fed it to me growing up, and now I’m feeding it to my son. In fact, it’s one of my son’s favorite food! (I know because it’s one of the few foods that he won’t spit out and throw on the ground.) But what makes Hmong sausage special is not merely because of its taste, but the story that comes with it. There’s a narrative behind this dish.
Hmong sausage is ancestral food. It represents Hmong history. The Hmong people are an Asian ethnic group scattered across Southeast Asia and the southern part of China for several thousand years. The Cold War era marked an important point in the history of the Hmong because it was at this time that the Hmong merged out of isolation and into Western civilization. In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s the Hmong were caught up in the political struggles in Southeast Asia that came as a result of the ongoing conflicts of the Cold War.
During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were recruited by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to combat the spread of communism during the Cold War era. Thousands were trained by the CIA to sabotage war supplies moving along the Ho Chi Minh Trail with guerrilla tactics, and to rescue American pilots shot down over Laos. The Hmong became the United States’ secret army in Laos. This was known as the Secret War.
This went on for several years until the spring of 1975 when the United States abandoned the Vietnam War, pulled out from Southeast Asia, and left the Hmong behind. The Hmong became targets of persecution and genocide by the ruling Communist government in Laos. Fearing for their lives, the Hmong abandoned their highland villages and fled to Thailand for refuge. The Hmong had to hide in bushes and mountains. Many died of hunger and disease, and many drowned by trying to cross the Mekong River to get to the border of Thailand.
Upon arrival in Thailand, the Hmong received refugee status and were placed in refugee camps. From the refugee camps, they were dispersed into the Western world—mainly to America. The Hmong who reside in the United States today are a result of U.S. foreign intervention and militarization in Southeast Asia.
Hmong sausage represents the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors. It represents the story of my parents’ and grandparents’ hellish and triumphal journey to America. However, behind this story is another story—a much deeper one. There’s a narrative behind this dish that stretches back to the creation of the world.
The Story Behind the Story
In the beginning, God made a world that was edible. And it was good. He made trees both “pleasant to the sight” and “good for food” (Gen 2:9), and he created humans to eat his world: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Gen 1:29). Food is God’s love made edible.
After the flood, God gave his herbivore image-bearers a gift of a new banquet: eating animals. “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Gen 9:3). God gave us “every plant” and “every tree” to eat between Adam and Noah. Then he added “every moving thing” to our diet from Noah to Moses.
Yet when God delivered his people from the womb of Egyptian slavery, he decided to forbid them from eating certain animals like pigs to teach his people, and the world with them, about himself.
For thousands of years, God’s covenant people on earth saw his created world in categories of clean and unclean, holy and common. These dietary restrictions didn’t merely indicate that Israel was a separate nation and a chosen people by God. God was showing the separation between his holiness and humanity’s sin, and preparing the way for his Son. He had something to teach us that was drastically more important than the freedom to eat all animals.
When the right time came, God sent his own Son, born under that first covenant (Gal 4:4), and with the coming of history’s apex, and the new covenant (Jer 31:31–34; Heb 8:6), Jesus himself, shocking as it would have been at the time, “declared all foods clean.”
All Foods Clean
In the new covenant, there is no more distinction between clean and unclean. Because of Jesus, a new reality has emerged in which the old distinctions have been down away and replaced with something better. In Mark 7:18–19, Jesus says: “‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” The declaration of all foods clean is in parenthesis in our English translations, indicating that it’s not Jesus’s main point in the passage but serves his claim that “the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:16). The cleanliness of food serves as a minor theme in Jesus’s teaching during his earthly ministry.
However, this theme becomes unmistakable after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Peter, who stands behind Mark’s Gospel, saw that Jesus’s instruction in Mark 7 had implications that were broader and deeper than anyone noted at the time. Mark 7 pointed forward to new covenant realities, and the words in parenthesis are Peter’s later reflection on the profound meaning of Jesus’s words.
Peter, at the time of Mark 7, obviously didn’t grasp what Jesus said. So, the risen Christ spoke in Acts 10 to Peter while Peter was on a housetop praying and hungry. God granted Peter a vision and he saw the heavens open like a large sheet was let down by its four corners. In the sheet were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds. And then came a voice that said to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (Acts 10:10–13).
Peter, repeating his past mistake of rebuking Jesus when Jesus spoke of going to the cross, attempts to correct God again by responding: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). To which the risen Christ responds, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15)—and it happens three times just to make sure Peter doesn’t miss the point.
The vision made it clear to early Christians that there could be no more distinction between clean and unclean. But this had a broader application than its dietary implications because we ultimately find the main point is about Gentiles. “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Gentiles are included in the true Israel by faith in Christ (Rom 9:24; Eph 3:6). Paul makes this remarkable reality crystal clear in Romans 14–15 and 1 Corinthians 8, both of which can be summarized in Colossians 2:16: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink.”
Pigs and Serpents
It’s important to take a moment to reflect on the category of “unclean animals” that God kept from the mouths of his first-covenant people. Why did God tag pigs as unclean and thus forbid his people from eating pork? What was the reason behind the rule? Scripture tells us that pork was unclean because these animals do not chew with their cud (Lev 11:7–8). Some scholars suggest that all unclean animals symbolically bore some association with either the murderous activity of the serpent or the divine punishment against him in Genesis 3. Those animals most identified with the serpent’s dust-eating and most connected with death and waste were “unclean.”
Thus, it is most likely that pigs were tagged as unclean due to their indiscriminate diet—eating garbage and even at times their own young—and for not chewing with their cud—a symbol of appreciating God’s provision. So, the ancient Israelites refused to eat pork not only because God had commanded it, but also because they saw the similarity between pigs and serpents and because God forbade all animals that were similar to the tempter. Serpent-like animals must not be eaten until the Messiah comes and defeat the devil. Eating the serpents would represent complete triumph over him, but not until the Messiah comes would that triumph be realized (Gen 3:15).
But now everything has changed because of Jesus. Through the cross, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col 2:15). In Jesus’s first coming “the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9). In Christ, the new creation is inaugurated (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).
Therefore, eating pork, like Hmong sausage, as new-covenant Christians should not merely be seen as equal to eating chicken or beef. Pork, like other formerly unclean foods, is special. They are triumph food. That is, they are food that were unclean under the law and is now clean only because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. By eating what was formerly unclean, we are declaring the triumph of grace over sin and death unto eternal life through Jesus Christ.
So, the next time you take a bite of that Hmong sausage, remember that it’s not just any food, it’s triumph food. To a lesser degree, it represents our Hmong ancestors’ toil, strife, and triumph to bring us to a new land called America so that we may live and prosper and prolong our days. But to a greater degree, it represents Jesus’s defeat of the serpent and his promise to bring his people into the New Jerusalem. It’s food purchased by the blood of Christ. Hmong sausage is God’s love made edible.
Tuezong Xiong (BS, University of Northwestern–St. Paul) received his bachelors degree in Pastoral Ministry and Bible at the University of Northwestern–St. Paul. He is currently studying at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN for his Masters of Divinity. He is the husband of Pa Kou and a father to Piper. He also blogs at www.tuezongxiong.wordpress.com.