When veteran journalist Jan Wong found herself out of the newspaper business and teaching at a college in the Maritimes, she hatched a fantastic plan for her first sabbatical: a trip around the world to learn from home cooks. Wong invited her young adult son, a 22 year-old philosophy major and restaurant cook, to join her on the trip, and they set off for France, Italy and China to live with and learn from families cooking in their own homes. The result of their adventures and misadventures along the way is Wong’s book, Apron Strings, a funny and honest collection of tales and recipes from the road.
TGL: You traveled with your own son and were embedded in the kitchens of families around the world. Do you see food as a relationship-builder?
JAN: Food is the magic bridge to other people’s souls. Before you even sit down, if you can cook together you can really connect. It’s an activity where you can talk about other things as you’re preparing a meal. Your hands are busy but you don’t have to keep thinking, so if you’re chopping carrots you can chop the carrots and talk. That’s a way to bond, you can share the work and bond.
When you sit down to eat at table with other people, it’s a time when you can talk to other people. If the food is good, everyone becomes in a good mood — that’s why in diplomacy, very often they’ll have a dinner. They don’t have a dance, they don’t go swimming; they sit down at a table and they eat. That’s why it was important in this book to eat, as well as cook together.
TGL: Why did you choose to focus on home cooking?
JAN: The difference with going to someone’s home is that you can make food that is entirely replicable in any kitchen. These are not people with super-hot stoves and high end equipment. Everyone can take these recipes and make them at home. I got to see how the host families in each country lived, and got to understand and know their families, and through them I understood the political situation in each country, the economic situation, and what’s happening with the millenials in that country and the parents and the grandparents.
I originally planned to go to a cooking school, but I realized that wouldn’t make for good writing. I realized I need to get into somebody’s kitchen and see what they do at home. I hadn’t thought past that — I just knew I needed to get inside the house. I was really learning so much that is not related to food, like how handicapped children are treated in France, or how inheritance works there. It’s like those Russian nesting dolls: the outer surface was the cooking and then I started getting to know them, and getting to the core of the family.
The kitchen is one of the most intimate room of the house. Now we have these open concept houses, but the kitchen used to be hidden away. In these homes we visited, the kitchens were more traditional and cut off. It’s also a place where so much happens because people are there for hours and hours. When you’re right in someone’s kitchen, it’s pretty invasive, but that’s why, for a journalist, you really can understand that person by looking in their fridge, seeing the kind of equipment they have. You understand a lot about their way of life.
TGL: You tell the story of Maria Rosa, the Italian grandmother who buys her meat only from one butcher, where she can see the cattle grazing behind the butcher shop. You also tell the story of a famous Tuscan butcher whose all local “Tuscan meat” it turns out was being imported from Spain. What does it say about local food if even in rural Italy — a place many of us would think of as the home of slow food — food fraud is happening?
JAN: Yes, she was very insistent that this was the only place where she would buy her meat. In any system in any country, you are going to have people who are going to cheat. The way to avoid that is to know the producer. In Maria Rosa’s place, she knew the butcher directly. I wonder how many people living in town knew the Tuscan butcher was buying that meat from Spain. He was a big tourist attraction, that’s why he had so many restaurants attached to his butcher shop. Maybe the local townspeople were shopping elsewhere.
It’s not the same in Ripergo (Maria Rosa’s hometown), where it’s not touristy, it’s a small village, and only local people are eating there. Nobody’s written about Asti or Ripergo, and yet it’s a wonderful place, in the heart of the slow food movement. China is becoming much more like we are in North America – but like on steroids — and it is affecting the food. Mainly they don’t want to get fat, but also they’re worried about the safety of their food supply. There are a lot of unscrupulous vendors and suppliers. There the authenticity is, it’s not just “is it local,” but “is it going to kill you?”
TGL: Your book’s description of Chinese home cookery is particularly interesting, as sometimes it feels like French and Italian food stories have been told before. What other stories of food and place are yet to be told?
JAN: Most countries are flying under the radar. When food writers go, they generally go to the professional schools or schools that cater to food writers, or they go to the fancy restaurants, but I was looking for great home cooks.
I would say Indian food, I think this book would have worked if I’d gone to India. Mexican food, Japanese food was very attractive too. I thought Japanese food would not translate well into a book for a Western audience, because so much home cooking depends on what you can buy.
TGL: What can Canadians learn from the way people eat in other parts of the world?
JAN: There are several lessons for Canadians. It doesn’t take a lot of money to eat well. The other lesson is: don’t buy processed foods. Buy the fresh foods, try to buy it in season. There’s always something you can eat and we should prepare our food. It doesn’t take a lot of work. The third lesson is that we should sit down with our families at dinner time. If we have to push dinner a little later, so that everyone is home, we should push it. It’s important for a marriage, for parents and children, that they sit down everyday and not grabbing things on the way. They won’t be so fat, they’ll be healthier, it’ll be cheaper. We’ll save money, we’ll be healthier and our families won’t fall apart.
Story by Meghan Sheffield
Oct 29, 2018
To help celebrate Jan’s Taste Canada Awards nomination we are giving away a copy of her book Apron Strings! See contest rules below.
- FOLLOW @thegoodlocal on Instagram
- LIKE our Instagram post
- TAG a friend in SEPARATE COMMENTS (but as many as you wish)
- The winner will be chosen at random and notified by DM Nov 2. Good luck!
*Contest is available to Canadian residents only.