Book review: Apron Strings, by Jan Wong

Jan Wong, Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China (Fredericton, NB, Goose Lane Editions, 2017). 380pp. index. ISBN 978-0-86492-961-7. Also available as EPUB and Kindle.
Jan Wong, a journalist of long standing, has taken a trip with her younger son, Sam. They stayed in specific households in France, Italy, and China, in order to see and describe the home cooking of those countries. (Sam, in his early twenties, has cooking cred and wants to become a chef.) The result is this fascinating book.
In this book  you learn how households in these three countries differ or are the same. How they prepare and eat their food. And how meticulously Jan Wong takes notes on everything, from the killing of a chicken to the way family meals are conducted (in France and Italy both, dinner—even a four-course one—starts at 8 on the dot).  She must have a terrific shorthand technique, because she doesn't miss a trick, whether she's describing family dynamics or cooking techniques.
The openness and generosity of the French and Italian households astounded me. The French family welcomes refugees and other immigrants into their busy lives, as well as the journalist and her son. In addition, the hosts in all three countries took the trouble to arrange cooking sessions with relatives and friends so that Jan and Sam could have a wider experience of foods of the different areas.
The book is full of hints. Specifically, did you know you can freeze a mirepoix? I didn't. Finely chop your celery, carrot, onion, and parsley, saute it briefly, then freeze it in, say, half-cup batches. Add a portion to whatever stew or soup you're making. It saves so much time when you're preparing a four-course meal that must be served at 8 sharp, which seems to be a daily occurrence for these women.
Italy sometimes has a poor reputation when it comes to its exported products. Olive oil, for example, is not always what the label says it is, sometimes coming from offshore tankers of dubious provenance. And yet the Italians are known to love good food. How do they manage it? Well, as far as I can tell, everything they eat comes from a friend or relative. The olive oil is from the uncle of your son-in-law or the cousin of a neighbour who has a grove of olive trees. The prosciutto is from a hog raised and butchered by the farmer down the road whom you've known for thirty years. Or fifty. They seem to eat no commercial preparations but instead buy only from people they know. The commercially produced stuff is for the export trade.
Now, what about China? Oh my. Of the "tai-tais" who hosted Jan and Sam, most were women who had grown up in poverty but married men who have succeeded in the New China—the China of millionaires and billionaires (read Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians or China Rich Girlfriend for details). The households described in Apron Strings are all rich beyond imagining. And most of the women of these mansions treat their help—their maids and cooks—shamefully, screaming at them, insulting them, and making impossible demands.
If you like knowing how other people comport themselves, how other households are run, how other housewives manage the daily routine (and who is not curious about such things?), then this book will satisfy you as thoroughly as one of those four-course meals.
And this is not to mention what she tells us about the mother/son dynamic of making this trip with Sam (note the book's title: Apron Strings).
I couldn't put it down.


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