This is part of my Summer Reads 2018 series where I’ll be reviewing a series of “not just cookbooks”.
Not able to take a trip this summer? I’ve got just the book for you! Jan Wong’s Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China is a perfect book for armchair travellers who love food (that’s all of us, right?). Taking us on sabbatical with her (and her 22 year-old son), Jan explores home cooking in each country – living, cooking and eating with locals for an incomparable culinary education.
From the publisher
Jan Wong knows food is better when shared, so when she set out to write a book about home cooking in France, Italy, and China, she asked her 22-year-old son, Sam, to join her. While he wasn’t keen on spending excessive time with his mom, he dreamed of becoming a chef. Ultimately, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
On their journey, Jan and Sam live and cook with locals, seeing first-hand how globalization is changing food, families, and cultures. In southeast France, they move in with a family sheltering undocumented migrants. From Bernadette, the housekeeper, they learn classic French family fare such as blanquette de veau. In a hamlet in the heart of Italy’s Slow Food country, the villagers teach them without fuss or fanfare how to make authentic spaghetti alle vongole and a proper risotto with leeks. In Shanghai, they home-cook firecracker chicken and scallion pancakes with the nouveaux riches and their migrant maids, who comprise one of the biggest demographic shift in world history. Along the way, mother and son explore their sometimes-fraught relationship, uniting — and occasionally clashing — over their mutual love of cooking.
A memoir about family, an exploration of the globalization of food cultures, and a meditation on the complicated relationships between mothers and sons, Apron Strings is complex, unpredictable, and unexpectedly hilarious.
At first glance, this has a lot going on – food, family, culture, politics, social commentary, in three different countries with a host of characters, plus there are recipes too – and for a less talented writer, this might have been a challenge to weave into a cohesive story. But Jan manages this beautifully, starting with a helpful “cheat sheet” listing all the people who appear in each section, their ages and their relationships with each other. I personally didn’t find I needed this but I appreciated the thought.
What I really liked is that even though each country section is its own story, within these, the chapters are like a collection of short stories, meaning that if, like me, you can’t read for a long time (if you’re commuting, for example), the chapters stand alone so you can read a little bit at a time (this is how I read it and perhaps it was a factor in not needing the “character guide”…).
The book is a wonderful insight into how regular folk eat – Jan and Sam spend time with a variety of “host families”, their friends and relatives (and sometimes with butchers and professional chefs !) with a simple request: “Show us what you eat and how you make it“. The addition of Sam to the research project wasn’t always a sure bet; he kind of had to be talked into it – being 22 and all, not sure he wanted to spend all that time with his mum but with a sincere interest in cooking and potentially wanting to become a chef if seemed like it would be wrong NOT to join her. In the end, Sam turns out to be a valuable addition and he is often the one getting his hands dirty cooking (and cleaning) while Jan takes meticulous notes. I can tell she’s an excellent note taker from the detail in the book. Having attended many cooking classes and attempted to document them with notes and photos and never being quite successful, I appreciated all the details, especially with respect to preparing the various dishes they learn. Jan obviously asked a lot of questions and was very thorough in her writeups of both how to make the dishes as well as the family and personal dynamics at play. As someone who loves to cook and learn, this was SUCH an interesting read for me and it will be an eye opening read for anyone who loves food and travel.
You’ll learn the secrets of classic dishes (sssh – French home cooks sometimes use Knorr stock cubes and Italians don’t all make their own fresh pasta!) and get an insider’s view of today’s society in each country they visit. They stay/ cook with a few different families in each country so they see a variety of lifestyles and are fully immersed in the day-to-day routines of those people. There’s no better “immersion” than this! In China, there is less variety as they only stay with “nouveaux riche” families (where the husbands have made a fortune in China’s new economy and the wives and children live such decadent lives it’s kind of hard to believe) and learn how to cook from their live-in servants (who are immigrants). I found this part of the book both fascinating and a little uncomfortable, if I’m being honest (the class system is alive and well in China). Overall, the book is a really interesting look at how how each culture views food, cooking and eating (and the rituals surrounding mealtimes).
If you’re hungry for travel but can’t get away, this should be at the top of your “must-read” list. Not only is it a great armchair read, you’ll learn some classic recipes from France, Italy and China, made do-able for you thanks to Jan and Sam.
Please note: This post contains product links from Amazon and The Book Depository which are affiliate links, meaning if you click over and purchase something, I will receive a very small percentage of the purchase price (at no extra cost to you). Thank you in advance!
Disclosure: I received a digital copy of Apron Strings from the publisher. I was not required to review this book, nor am I receiving compensation for doing do. All opinions my own.
MY BOOK! In the French kitchen with kids releases July 31, 2018! Click here for pre-order details!