When your pedigree includes the Montreal restaurateur responsible for the first all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Canada, it may seem as if the world could be your smorgasbord. But all Jan Wong wanted was a simple culinary journey with her son before he left home to start his own adult career (most likely continuing in his grandfather’s footsteps in the food industry). Jan’s son, Sam, was an aspiring chef and his addiction to YouTube cooking videos was the twenty-first century equivalent of his mother’s fondness for pouring over cookbooks. For Jan, this seemed a perfect pairing for the premise of her book Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China (Goose Lane) as she set out to experience home cooking in three countries of culinary renown. The tricky part was warming Sam to the idea of spending so much time with his mother, quite possibly sharing a room for the duration, most likely eating 267 meals together. He did agree to go and the overlapping themes of Jan’s roles as doting mother and intrepid journalist become as central to the book as her love of cooking and eating.
Jan and Sam stayed in the homes of locals who agreed to take them in. The generosity, hospitality, and collaboration of these families were remarkable, as they went about their lives with this mother and son in tow revealing how market trips, kitchen prep, and mealtimes govern the daily routines of three different cultures. There were very few formal sessions in the process; most of the learning came from impromptu lessons from household help or family members sharing whichever cultural specialities were on the family menus, including béchamel sauce in France, risotto in Italy, and egg-drop soup in China. The Wongs cooked alongside their hosts, sometimes pulling together meals on their own and peppering in some Western influences (Sam had earned his chops by working in seven restaurants back home and he was bombarded with requests to bake bread in China, which he obliged many times over, even though bread has never been a part of Chinese cuisine).
Apron Strings is sprinkled with aspects of Jan’s personal, professional, and family life that make the book interesting enough, but it is the cast of characters she and Sam live with — their range of talents and backgrounds — that make her story come alive. The French family, with Jan and Sam already taking up space in their home, selflessly had a revolving door that took in refugees as well. In Italy, they stayed in a farmhouse on a winery and were inspired by many generations of the family’s old world traditions. The Chinese households that took them in were within the wealthy echelons of Shanghai where live-in maids did most of the cooking instruction for Jan and Sam.
With a foodie’s sensibilities and a reporter’s demand for detail, Jan’s prose reads like a poetic collection of recipes, capturing the local ingredients, kitchen techniques, and food rules that unofficially govern different cultures. Even though her goal was to simply learn home cooking from ordinary families, it is her journalistic eye that took her beyond the accumulation of family recipes by delving into the effects that economics, politics, and history have on the food in the regions they visited. Jan remarks on a few similarities between countries when she writes: “As we would see on our journey through three nations, kitchen equipment was surprisingly crappy. For centuries, people with the greatest cuisines in the world had been turning out meals with a fork or a pair of chopsticks. Kitchenware shops in France and Italy were few and far between and shockingly expensive — perhaps because they rarely deigned to stock anything made in China. As for China, they prepared everything with a cleaver, a chopping board, and chopsticks.” But the silver lining to this observation was: “Their gadgets, or lack thereof, taught me that you didn’t need stuff to prepare a good meal.”
Apron Strings is an entertaining escape into global cuisine at its roots in home kitchens. Even though they were gaining valuable firsthand experience in foreign kitchens, Jan and Sam also ate — a lot. Food coma is a phrase that Jan is not shy about using. The meals that are laid out for them are sensual teasers for the readers who want to dive right in with them; even though we cannot make that physical connection over the food, the emotional bond between mother and son, along with the relationships between the Wongs and their host families, tug at the heart strings that are clearly attached to the apron strings.