A New Food Memoir Explores the Great Cuisines of France, Italy, and China

CC BY 2.0. Brando -- The 'primo,' or first course, of a traditional Italian meal

While traveling, journalist Jan Wong opted for host families, not cooking school, when it came to learning about local food.

While cooking alongside a woman named Maristella in a tiny northwestern Italian village, Canadian journalist Jan Wong was horrified to watch her make spaghetti carbonara with only a single egg -- for 10 people! -- and no cheese or garlic. "I've read Marcella Hazan!" Wong said in an interview with CBC. Maristella's version was a significant deviation from what most of us North Americans view as the standard for Italian cooking; and yet, that carbonara turned out to be the most delicious spaghetti Wong has ever had.

Wong is the author of a new book called "Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China." It tells the story of Wong and her 22-year-old son Sam wanting to become acquainted with three of the world's great cuisines by traveling to these countries and embedding themselves in families, in order to learn how to cook the 'local' way. Wong did not have personal relationships with these families before arriving, but arranged it through friends.

Apron Strings

© Amazon

France was the first destination, and it turned out to be a fascinating lesson in how some French people are dealing with the refugee crisis in Europe -- not exactly what they'd expected. The family in which Wong stayed consisted of a retired couple, their two adopted adult children, both of which have Down syndrome, and an undocumented migrant couple from Georgia that had just had a new baby two weeks prior. Wong and Sam found themselves in charge of cooking for the entire household for the first while, until the housekeeper arrived. This wasn't overly challenging, thanks to the plethora of fresh ingredients. As Wong told an interviewer:

"We were in France! You open the fridge and all the ingredients are there. Oh, you need creme fraîche? There it is! Oh, you need a cut-up rabbit? There it is!"

In Italy, they stayed with a woman who was so nervous about the prospect of teaching foreigners how to cook that she rallied a number of friends to give lessons, a task which they took very seriously. There, Wong experienced many "miracles of the loaves and fishes," wherein seemingly paltry ingredients were transformed into feasts for a crowd -- that single egg for carbonara, or a single rabbit for 8 people. It's a different approach from how we eat on this side of the ocean (and one that could possibly benefit our waistlines):

"French people and Italian people eat communally. When you pass around a platter, everybody does the mental math. Nobody takes more than they should."

The final destination was China, a place Wong had visited many times over the years, but saw with new eyes through Sam's perspective. They stayed with three ultra-rich families in Shanghai, where cooking was exclusively done by maids.

Tragically, these maids were treated horribly by the lady of the house, who screamed at them to perform tasks. Wong said she felt like she was in the midst of class warfare. Maids are ubiquitous in Shanghai and they earn twice as much as the average factory worker. This is known as the "humiliation tax": to be relatively high earners, they put up with disrespectful treatment. And yet, they're putting kids through university, starting up businesses, and buying real estate. The rich feel threatened, wondering how long they'll "stay on top."

What Wong found is that the multi-generational family structure is breaking down in China. She never shared a meal with grandparents, the fathers were always gone making money, and the kids were in their rooms playing video games and eating chips. The culture seemed more like North America than it used to be, and she found that scary.

What has she learned after this whole culinary adventure?

"Eat at home. Eat with your family. It's not that hard to cook. Don't kill yourself over a complicated recipe. Talk to your family around the table and it will be so much fun."

It sounds a lot like the message we repeat on TreeHugger over and over again. Cooking from scratch and eating together can solve a lot of the world's problems, from food waste to better nutrition to child nurturing to building community. The more we do, the better off we'll all be.