How I Wrote It

Why Jan Wong deleted the word 'delicious' from her food travelogue Apron Strings

Jan Wong and her son went on a tour of homecooking in France, Italy and China.
Jan Wong's Apron Strings describes her trip to discover more about home cooking in France, Italy and China. (George Whiteside/Goose Lane Editions)

In Apron Strings, Jan Wong and her son Sam embark on a tour of homecooking in France, Italy and China. While learning to cook dishes like spaghetti carbonara and scallion pancakes, Wong comes to terms with her son's growing independence and explores the unique bond between mother and son. 

In her own words, Wong, award-winning journalist and author of Red China Blues, discusses the process of writing Apron Strings.

Cooking up the idea

"The catalyst was a phone call from my agent. I hadn't written a book since I self-published Out of the Blue, which was a memoir about my workplace depression. It was so much work because with self-publishing you have to do all the marketing and distribution. So I was kind of tired, but my agent asked, 'Do you have a project?' I said, 'No, I have nothing. No ideas. I'm not doing anything.' I was quite adamant and I said, 'Why don't you think of an idea?'

"As soon as I hung up, an idea flashed into my mind. My younger son is graduating from university; maybe we could do something together? He loves to cook and he's worked in restaurants ever since he was 16. Why don't I do something about food? We could travel. So this embryo of an idea happened as soon as I hung up the phone.

"I mentioned it to my son who was very unenthusiastic. It took him a long time to say yes and essentially it was because all of my neighbours and everybody I knew was saying, 'Sam if you don't go, I'm going to go.' And so he finally agreed."

Food and family

"The impetus for the book was really the mother-son relationship. It's about the relationship of a mother with a growing son who's becoming more and more independent and not wanting to be with his mother. There's this feeling of loss, and yet I want him to be independent. Because cooking is his love, it was interesting to see him go into these strangers' homes and and connect with them and cook with them. It was a perfect mother-son project.

"Food is really important [to my family] because it knits us all together. I always wanted the kids to be in the kitchen cooking with me or helping me out. We didn't do that thing where you eat in the car on your way to some game. Somehow we managed to always have a sit-down dinner and that's what I was looking for in the families that we stayed with. I wanted to see if in France people still had dinner together — and they did, exactly at 8:00 p.m. In Italy, the same thing. I was quite amazed. In China, it was not like that; sometimes people ate together, but very often one parent was off working because these were really rich people. So they were traveling and the children were not involved in cooking at all."

Deleting the word 'delicious'

"When you write about food you want to be able to convey the smells and tastes. It is actually one of the most difficult things to do in writing. I was constantly reading while I was writing. I read books about food, about cooks and also totally unrelated things. One of the things I read in the newspaper was an interview with the New York Times food critic Pete Wells. What I found really interesting is he said, 'Don't use the word delicious because it's a meaningless word.' And I went, 'Oh my God. He's right.' So I did this word search and I deleted all the times I used the word 'delicious.' I think there are two left in the book, but those are quotes. Delicious is a stupid word. It's an empty word and irritating to the reader. What Pete Wells does instead is he simply describes what the food is. If it's an eggplant, sprinkled with sea salt and grilled in olive oil then that's what you say. In describing it, the reader will be able to taste it."

Harnessing her 'Otherness'

"I realized that people who look like me don't write about French food or Italian food. Usually we're slotted into our ethnic heritage box, which [for me] is Chinese food. But people who are not Chinese feel very free to write about Chinese food as experts.

"I didn't think about this, until I was in France. François, the father of the house we were staying in, suggested we check out Anne-Sophie Pic, who owns this Michelin-starred empire and has a cooking school, a bistro, a restaurant and a hotel. François said, 'It'll be easy because you look Asian, so you can just walk in and say you want to ask questions about it.' At that moment I realized that I look like a real foreigner. It gave me carte blanche to go in and ask a lot of questions. It was a very interesting moment and it was nice to be able to use my 'Otherness' to get people to talk to me."

Jan Wong's comments have been edited and condensed.

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