Jan Wong on travel, food, family and the changes in France, Italy and China
Jan Wong is the author of five non-fiction bestsellers, including Out of the Blue and Red China Blues, named one of Time magazine’s top ten non-fiction books of 1996. (Twenty years later, the book is still in print.) She has won numerous journalism awards and is now a professor of journalism at St. Thomas University. A third-generation Canadian, Jan is the eldest daughter of a prominent Montreal restaurateur. Her latest book, Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China, explores not only diet and cuisine but also the changing nature of deep culture in those three countries. She sat down without Atlantic Books Today’s Simon Thibault to discuss the new book:
Atlantic Books Today: How did the book come to be?
Jan Wong: I wanted to spend time with my younger son, Sam, after my older son, Ben, announced he was getting married. I realized I had been demoted from the number one female in his life to a distant second. So I tried to devise a project that would entice Sam. I am very interested in food and food cultures and Sam was thinking about becoming a chef and had worked in kitchens for 6 years. I thought of going to three countries with what I view as the best cuisines and embedding us with local families, and asking them to teach us home cooking. That way Sam would have to eat with me, and not be able to escape (laughs).
ABT: The title: Apron Strings. That expression tends to have certain connotations, especially when talking about mother-child relationships. Tell us about that choice for a title.
Wong: Especially when it comes to mother/son relationships. The title refers to the idea that sons are tied to their mothers but not in a good way. The narrative thread in the book is the relationship between my son Sam and me as he is becoming a man, and the strings are becoming tauter. He is stretching them, and eventually they are going to break and he is going to be an independent man. But the journey between mothers and sons is different than mothers and daughters, or fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters.
Mother and son is very rarely written about and I think it’s because it is very difficult. I mean for me it was a real shock with my older son when he announced he was getting married and our relationship went through a transformation. But I would hasten to add that this is a good thing. It is important for sons to place their allegiances with their wives or partners. But it is very hard for the mother to go through this and there was no warning.
ABT: The book is divided into three countries, three cuisines: France, Italy and China. That is enough to write about for a while but you chose to focus on the families as much as you did on the food, and went into great detail about the lives of the people while you were there. Why did you choose to do this?
Wong: I think that if I just wrote about the food, it wouldn’t be as interesting. Food springs from the terroir it is consumed in. It is important to understand the families and the cultural history behind them. The book is not a cookbook, it is a book about relationships and family sitting at the table. I guess this is about the glue that binds families together.
ABT: There is a common theme in the book: reality v. expectation. The reality of what you thought France would be like versus the reality of it and the same goes for Italy, China, family and your son. Did you expect the book to go on this path when you started?
Wong: I didn’t expect it, I thought it would be like all those travel books: the picturesque French village and everyone would be shopping in markets. I didn’t think that everyone would be shopping at the hypermarchés (supermarkets) and didn’t expect them to be alright. I didn’t expect that in Italy the adult children would often come home for meals. I also didn’t expect to have cooked with so many people in Italy. That was mostly so that no one person would be burdened with teaching me (laughs).
In China I was surprised that the maids didn’t do more of the cooking. The tai- tai’s (the ladies of the house) wanted to cook. They felt like their maids were incompetent and couldn’t cook. And yet when they did, it was like Martha Stewart coming into her kitchen, expecting that all the mise en place would be done. I thought I would be hanging with the maid but we were caught in the middle of this class warfare, which I found very unpleasant. If I hadn’t done this kind of reporting – I had written a story where I posed as a maid for an extended period of time – I don’t know if I could’ve told this story. But what all of this told me is this: you need to live in people’s homes to understand them.
ABT: When talking about your writing practice, you wrote, “Everything is copy.” Tell us about that.
Wong: Because I think journalists have to get to the closest version of the truth that they can find. And very often the closest version is right around you with your family, because you understand them better than anyone. When my son was 10, our family was quarantined during the SARS crisis because I had been in a hospital where everyone needed to be quarantined. My job was to write about what to do during quarantine and so I thought the best way to write the story would be to write a funny story, a personal story. I mean you could read the public health information, but most people didn’t bother reading that. But if you could write a funny story about stuff your kids say and them yelling, “that’s off the record!”, people laugh out loud and they learn. You want to get the best content and if the best content is your kid wanting to know if he has to go to school during a quarantine, it is funny and human. So that’s why. And his particular feelings are secondary (laughs).
ABT: What does your son think of the book?
Wong: He says he liked it. He was given full editorial voice, so if he disagreed with something, he could give his view of the events. But there were only a few times that he felt that he had to do that and he was able to talk to the editor.
ABT: Now that the experience has been had, the book written, what do you think about your relationship with your son?
Wong: I just feel so grateful and lucky that I had a chance to go on this trip, this voyage with Sam. I highly recommend it. I think parents should grab their offspring before they find a job, a partner. It doesn’t matter, it could be any parent, any country, just go somewhere where neither of you are in your comfort zone. Just go somewhere. I think it’s a magical moment with your kid and I am grateful that I had a publisher who wanted to publish this story. Writing is a privilege, which allows you to barge into peoples houses and you can ask people to check out their pantry. That’s a real, rare privilege.