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. 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.
Apron Strings (2017 Goose Lane Editions) is a different kind of book. Part memoir, part travelogue and part culinary guide, it will appeal to different readers on different levels. In my case, I didn’t think I would particularly enjoy reading a book about a mother and son travelling to three different countries to see how the “average” person eats and lives, but I was pleasantly surprised how easily Ms Wong drew me into the story. I would say it is 70% memoir, 15% travelogue and 15% culinary guide, with a few recipes thrown in.
“I wanted to learn home cooking. I wanted to know how ordinary folks made dinner, whether in this time-starved world they were still sitting down to dinner with their families.”
The book quickly takes us to France where Ms Wong and her son Sam (who is a cook) get lodgings with a family in the tiny village of Allex in the south of France. There they are introduced to different foods, and methods of obtaining them. They are also surprised that in their journeys, “kitchen equipment was surprisingly crappy”, many cooking with a dinner fork, or an old wooden spatula. Pots were missing lids, knives were dull, and they used the old fashioned type of manual can openers. At breakfast, Ms Wong often found herself alone:
“I would make myself a steaming mug of English tea – I’d carried my favourite King Cole teabags from the Maritimes where the tea is always strong and the people are strong and nice.”
Ms Wong has a very engaging writing style, and humorous at times too. In Italy, she watches as Mirella bakes:
“When you cook, you rely on instincts and experience. When you bake, you measure. You had to sit up straight and pay attention. Thus, I have failed almost everytime I attempted to bake a pie or a cake. Once, my cookies stuck to Teflon!”
I found the travelogue portions most interesting, for I often wonder what day-to-day life is like in other countries. It appears that in France and Italy, most of the time is spent preparing meals: as soon as one meal is enjoyed, it is time to begin preparing the next. The dishes often require many ingredients, and there’s not just one dish or entree, there are several, all requiring a different level of preparation. In China, the nouveau riche in Shanghai hire full-time cooks, so Sam his mother spent much time interacting with them and getting their life stories. This is where the real value of Apron Strings lies, in my opinion. That is why I gave it 4 stars at Goodreads. My only negative comment about Apron Strings is the lack of pictures, either of the people, the food, or the places. Perhaps a companion volume with colour pictures and more recipes is forthcoming?
“What sets it apart is Wong’s nearly-obsessively sharp observational skills, which lead to snippets of wisdom about how culture and politics influence the kitchen.” – The Toronto Star
Apron Strings: Navigating Food and family in France, Italy and China by Jan Wong
Goose Lane Editions
The Kindle edition is a real bargain at $5.20!