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Comfort Food

The following article appeared in the March 2002 issue of Cape Cod Magazine:

As a survivor of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge, and as a recent visitor to her native country, Bopha Samms knows all too well what it is to be hungry. Today, she finds comfort in serving others home-cooked meals at her popular Pocasset restaurant.
-By Brian Tarcy

Cover image of Cape Cod MagazineIt was soup, and her mother told her that she used too much salt. That’s what Bopha Samms remembers about one of the first meals she ever cooked. She was nine, maybe 10 years old in what was then, peaceful Cambodia.

Samms, 46, says that first memory of cooking, using vegetables an d meat that she stole from her mother, stuck with her as a learning experience. Other memories about food, from just a few years later, stick with her too. But those are different.

Now the owner of a successful restaurant, Stir Crazy, on McArthur Boulevard in Pocasset, Samms has a perspective on food that is primal – beyond the scope of culinary school.

"During the Khmer Rouge, you are so hungry that what you dream is about food," says Samms. "I never dreamed of getting out of the country and owning a restaurant."

Hers, certainly, in not exactly the background of a typical Cape Cod restaurant owner. But her understanding of the real meaning of food gives her a chance to serve it with a sort of reverent love.

Samms’ perspective widened again in January when she spent two weeks back in Cambodia for the first time since she left in 1979. She arrived, saw the incessant poverty, and cried for a week. She returned to the United States thinking, "Here I am over here trying to match what goes with my curtains, while people over there are starving to death." A successful business owner who has built a comfortable life in America, Samms is now committed to planning fund-raisers and working to help Cambodian relief organizations.

A survivor of the brutal Pol Pot regime, which killed more than one million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, she says it took so long to go back because the memories are so harsh. "I never intended to go back to Cambodia," she says. I resigned myself from being Cambodian. That’s how painful it was I made a promise to myself that I would never go back."

Relaxed on a couch in her two-year old Sagamore home with a view of the Cape Cod Canal, Samms tells her story, as she has countless times. She smiles, always gracious.

Bopha preparing a meal at Stir Crazy RestaurantBut, at times, she fidgets and changes positions. It’s a story with lots of words, sure. But this is a survivor’s story – 14 of 19 in her family died within a two-year period during one of the worst holocausts of the 20th century. This story, even after many tellings, burns. Listen: "You get to the point when everybody in your family dies, you can’t even cry anymore," she says.

In 1970, war broke out in Cambodia and Samms, the fourth oldest of 11 children, finished high school just about the time that Pol Pot and the Communists took over the entire country in 1975. She lived in the city of Phnom Penh. In the years prior to 1975, people fled the countryside causing Phnom Penh to grow from 150,000 to more than one million people.

"One time, I was in class and I saw a bomb explode," she says. "It was right outside the window. Everybody ducked under the table."

In time, she would learn that bombs were just one of her worries. The day that the Communists took over the country, April 17, 1975, the entire city was sent away. "They knocked on our doors and yelled, ‘You get out. Pack your bags and go.’… We are labeled the April 17 group," she shays. They were given hours, then sent to the countryside.

"We didn’t realize how bad it was," she says. "When we first walked out of the city, we saw all these dead bodies lying around, men in uniform (of the opposition to Pol Pot). They don’t bury them. They leave the bodies there to discourage you from standing up against them." It was the hottest month of the year in Cambodia, with termperatures sometimes reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

For five years, they walked, and farmed, and walked some more. “I pretended I was dumb and stupid and couldn’t even read or write. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be alive,” she says. The family would sometimes stop for months, build the beginning of a temporary shack shelter by weaving grass, and then were forced to move before it was finished. “There was no comfort zone,” she recalls.

Hope washed away as her relatives fell to starvation and disease. There were times when Samms was so hungry that she could not walk, but could only crawls through the rice paddies.

With a mixture of luck and guile, Samms and four siblings made it to Thailand. "My mother was the last person who died," she remembers. "She made me promise that I would not give up."

Her story is full of sad, ironic, and even funny drama as she rolls through five years on the run in Cambodia and a one-year stint in refugee camps of Thailand and the Philippines before arriving in the United States in January 1981.

Bopha and siblings at Khoa Dang CampBopha Samms, far right, poses with her family and friends in a Thailand refugee camp in 1979. Shown left to right, rear, are: Savry Castiglioni and Sophan Yin, Samms' sisters; and Samms' husband, Synbonard Samms. Shown left to right, front, are: family friend, Chanmony Pock; and Samms' brothers, Thomas and Rithy Plang.

Four times, Samms and her husband-to-be, Sybonard Samms, were separated before finally ending up together by luck in Providence, Rhode Island.

Finally, in America, hers is the classic story of an immigrant struggling to learn a language, and a culture, while working to get ahead financially. With the help of a local family, she arrived on the Cape in April 1981 to work as a live-in nanny, and learned English and earned her GED at Bourne High School. Later, a series of restaurant jobs convinced her and her bosses that she was a hard worker who instinctively seemed to learn. Then, she started attending potluck suppers at the First Baptist Church of Pocasset. "My food usually disappeared first," she says.

While working full time, and raising two children, she took restaurant management classes at Cape Cod Community College. In 1989, despite a bad economy, she opened Stir Crazy, then in Buzzards Bay. The name of the restaurant came from a group of friends, who chose it in a vote that included a handful of other options.

In 1994 pregnant with her third child, she moved the restaurant to its current location on McArthur Boulevard, where she serves "a basic home-cooked meal that people eat every day at home in Southeast Asia. It’s a combination of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian," she says.

A home-cooked meal, for Bopha Samms, is a dream come true. ♦

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