Monday December 04, 2017

Why Jan Wong travelled to France, Italy and China to eat with strangers

Jan Wong is the author of the memoir Apron Strings.

Jan Wong is the author of the memoir Apron Strings. (Kelly Baker)

Listen 18:36

Jan Wong is as passionate about food as she is about writing. The journalist planned a trip with her son Sam to travel the world and learn how to cook three of the world's most famous cuisine: French, Italian and Chinese. She chronicles this trip in her latest memoir, Apron Strings: Navigating Food, and Family in France, Italy and China.

Family matters 

"Sam, my last child, loved to cook and worked in restaurants for six years. I dreamed up this trip because I wanted to spend time with him. It was wonderful and we only had one huge fight in Bologna, Italy, over the order of meat courses. Sam and I wanted to impress my husband with our newfound expertise on Italian cooking. We had this huge knock-down, drag-out fight and I thought, 'He's gonna walk out on me!' But we recovered fairly quickly — we let off steam and I think we became closer than ever."     

Scarce ingredients, abundant flavour

"My Italian host prepared traditional dishes different from everything I had known. She prepared spaghetti carbonara using one egg for 10 people and it was the most delicious meal I had ever had. Gradually, I began to see a pattern in Italian food — it's called cucina povera or the 'cooking of the poor.' I also saw that pattern when I got to China — some of the most famous dishes come from this idea of making something delicious from nothing."

Eating together

"In France and Italy, people eat communally. I was struck by that. In China, my experience was the opposite. In Shanghai, I never met any grandparents. Half the time, the father is not at the table because he's off making billions and the kids aren't coming to dinner because they're in the lower level of the house playing video games and eating chips. In a sense, China is becoming more like us. We don't eat with our grandparents, except during Thanksgiving. In Italy and France, the grandparents were with us all the time. I think the lesson is eat at home and eat with your family."

Jan Wong's comments have been edited and condensed.