Saint Thomas University Journalism Professor and writer Jan Wong was at Kinsella Auditorium in Fredericton on Sept. 28, 2017, launching her more recent book Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China, published recently by New Brunswick-based Goose Lane Editions.
Wong was once called “the Hannibal lector of the lunch set” for her “Lunch with Jan” stories in the nineties. Goose Lane Editions’ Director, Suzanne Alexander, called her “a formidable interviewer” in her introduction. Wong’s former journalism student and CBC investigative reporter, Karissa Donkin, a graduate from 2012, turned the tables on Wong and interviewed the author about her book for the Fredericton crowd.
According to Wong, the origin of the book came from her deep desire to connect with her sons, the eldest of whom had recently decided to get married. So, Wong decided to look for a book project that would allow her to spend time with her younger “foodie” son, Sam, who had worked in restaurants since the age of sixteen and wanted to be a chef. She was also disappointed that she “could find hardly any books about mothers and sons” so she decided to write one.
One of the challenging lessons to learn over the course of the project for Wong was that her child was now a young man, despite her not having changed that much. Wong jokingly says that the key to getting along with her son was “dominance” and having fights. On a practical level, Sam helped her embed into the families they stayed with. As a result of this experience, Wong sees a change in Sam, who might not want to be a chef after his travels, in part because the Chinese families scorned at his hope to become a chef, a profession seen as a “lower class” endeavour.
More largely, Wong had ideas about the globalization of food trends, wanted to learn recipes, and needed to research the way families work now, among other questions addressed in her book. About the practical aspects of her work as a writer, Wong revealed that “when you’re a journalist, you have a notion and when you go out, everything changes.” Eventually, Wong also discovered that she was committing “reverse cultural appropriation,” since “people who look like [her] don’t usually write about European food.”
Wong lived with the families that she learned to cook with in her book. Without living with the families “you won’t know” things about the families, which was one of the thematic sidelines of the project. At times, Wong and her son would have welcomed a hotel stay because “it’s a strain to have guests and it’s a strain to be a guest.”
The French family, a retired couple who lived in a farmhouse in the Drome region, immediately invited Wong and her son to live with them. The family home was a sort of Spanish inn because they had welcomed a refugee Georgian family and some of the food was made by the helpers who assisted the wife’s elderly mother and their two adopted children with Down’s Syndrome. Wong even visited a food bank in France where the Georgian family “shopped” and told the crowd that the food it had “was delicious!”
The Piedmontese Italian family did not invite them to stay so Wong and her son were housed close by at a family member’s rental. The mother took Wong around to various families in order to lessen the pressure she felt of having to teach Wong all about Italian cooking. The Italians even resorted to making animal sounds to help her understand but they didn’t even try to understand Wong’s meagre Italian. During this part of the trip, Wong and her son “were imbued with all the food rules of the Italians,” even leading to a fight with her son about course order.
When they arrived in China, however, Wong and her son stayed in mansions with nouveau riche families who had maids and thought they would learn to cook Chinese food from the maids. However, the “tai tai,” the Chinese equivalent of the Stepford wives, wanted to teach her to cook while the maids actually did all the work. Sam was also passed off as a “celebrity chef” for the Chinese family who, because of their social status, “all wanted to eat white bread.”
Wong’s least favourite foods were the “insalata russa,” a Russian potato salad made in Italy, and the bland Georgian food made by the refugees in France. Wong’s book includes occasional recipes to reproduce some of the delicious specialized dishes she learned while on her trip. This is Wong’s sixth non-fiction book and the first about food.
Sophie M. Lavoie writes on arts and culture for the NB Media Co-op.