[[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part iii of a triple book review, the first and second parts of which can be read by clicking here and here respectively.]]
Jennifer 8. Lee. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008. 320 pages. ISBN-13: 9780446580076. Clothbound $24.99.
Jen Lin-Liu. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey through China. San Diego & New York: Harcourt 2008. 352 pages. ISBN-13: 9780151012916. Clothbound $24.00.
Nicole Mones. The Last Chinese Chef. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2007. 278 pages. ISBN-13:
So far in this review we have been looking at books that are classed as non-fiction. The Library of Congress catalogues Lee's book, in part, as 'Chinese Americans -- United States -- Social life and customs,' and Lin-Liu's book as 'China -- Social life and customs,' which neatly illustrates the close kinship of these works. Nicole Mones's The Last Chinese Chef, by contrast, is a work of fiction. Like her two previous novels, The Last Chinese Chef is about an American woman in China: Alice Mannegan, in Lost in Translation, works as an interpreter; Lia Frank, in A Cup of Light, is an art appraiser. In The Last Chinese Chef, we meet Maggie McElroy, a food writer who works for Table magazine (Gourmet? -- Mones herself has written about Chinese food for Gourmet since 1999). Maggie is in what the French would call 'a situation': in the year following the untimely death of her beloved husband, Matt Mason, she sells their California house, withdraws from her friends, travels the country writing about different communities, and tries to heal. Then comes the bombshell: a paternity suit in Beijing -- against her husband's estate. She asks her editor for time off from work, so that she can go to China to investigate this; instead, she is given an assignment in Beijing: to write a chef profile on Sam Liang, an American-Born Chinese who (like Jen Lin-Liu, author of Serve the People) has gone back to China to discover his roots, to cook, and to write.
This project will be a bit of a challenge for Maggie:
The truth was, she had never really liked Chinese food. Of course, she'd had Chinese food only in America, which was clearly part of the story. She'd always heard people say it was different in China .... The trouble with Chinese food in America, to her, was that it seemed all the same. Even when a restaurant had a hundred and fifty items on the menu, she could order them all and still get only the same few flavors over and over again. There was the tangy brown sauce, the salted black bean; the ginger-garlic-green onion, the syrupy lemon. Then there was the pale opal sauce that was usually called lobster whether or not lobster had ever been anywhere near it. [p. 27](Shades of Lin-Liu, once again.) But she accepts the assignment, and heads immediately to Beijing -- to pursue both Table's business and her own.
Interviewing Sam, Maggie begins right away to learn about Chinese cuisine across the globe. Some of her lessons will be familiar to readers of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and Serve the People, but others actually go well beyond anything explored in either of those books:
"Chinese-American [cooking] evolved for a different reason -- to get Americans to accept a fundamentally different way of cooking and eating. They did this by aiming at familiarity, which was kind of weirdly brilliant. From the time the first chop suey houses opened, that's what they were selling, the thing that seems exotic but is actually familiar. Here it's different. It's the opposite. Every dish has to be unique, different from every other. Yet all follow rigid principles, and all aim to accomplish things Western cuisine doesn't even shoot for, much less attain .... For one thing, we have formal ideals of flavor and texture. Those are the rigid principles I mentioned. Each one is like a goal that every chef tries to reach -- either purely, by itself, or in combination with the others. Then there's artifice .... Illusion. Food should be more than food; it should tease and provoke the mind. We have a lot of dishes that come to the table looking like one thing and turn out to be something else .... We strive to fool the diner for a moment. It adds a layer of intellectual play to the meal. When it works, the gourmet is delighted .... Then there's healing. We use food to promote health. I'm not talking about balanced nutrition -- every cuisine does that, to some degree. I'm talking about each food having a specific medicinal purpose. We see every ingredient as having certain properties -- hot, cold, dry, wet, sour, spicy, bitter, sweet, and so on. And we think many imbalances are caused by these properties being out of whack. So a cook who is adept can create dishes that will heal the diner .... The right foods can ease the mind and heart. It's all one system .... One more. The most important of all. It's community. Every meal eaten in China, whether the grandest banquet or the poorest lunch eaten by workers in an alley -- all eating is shared by the group" [pp. 35-7]In their long first conversation, Sam continues to educate Maggie (and the reader) in the principles of Chinese cuisine:
"One of the most important peaks of flavor is xian. Xian means the sweet, natural flavor -- like butter, fresh fish, luscious clear chicken broth. Then we have xiang, the fragrant flavor -- think frying onions, roasted meat. Nong is the concentrated flavor, the complex, deep taste you get from meat stews or dark sauces or fermented things. Then there is the rich flavor, the flavor of fat. This is called you er bu ni, which means to taste of fat without being oily. We love this one. Fat is very important to us. Fat is not something undesirable to be removed and thrown away, not in China. We have a lot of dishes that actually focus on fat and make it delectable. Bring pork belly to the table, when it's done right, and Chinese diners will groan with happiness .... That's just flavor. We have texture. There are ideals of texture, too -- three main ones. Cui is dry and crispy, nun is when you take something fibrous like shark's fin and make it smooth and yielding, and ruan is perfect softness -- velveted chicken, a soft-boiled egg. I think it's fair to say we control texture more than any other cuisine does. In fact some dishes we cook have nothing at all to do with flavor. Only texture; that is all they attempt .... Once you understand the ideal flavors and textures, the idea is to mix and match them. That's an art in itself, called tiaowei. Then we match the dishes in their cycles. Then there is the meal as a whole -- the menu -- which is a sort of narrative of rhythms and meanings and moods" [pp. 53-4].Sam comes by his deep learning honestly. He is the scion of an intensely culinary family: his father, Liang Yeh, had been a chef in China before fleeing the Communist regime. His three 'uncles,' actually dear family friends, are all chefs and food scholars. But his grandfather, Liang Wei, is the most famous of all: born in the final years of the Qing dynasty, and sold into slavery as a boy, he and his friend Peng Changhai found rescue from a squalid fate as young apprentices of Tan Zuanqing, 'the greatest chef of his generation' [p. 43]. Liang Wei studied the food classics, but more importantly, he watched every dish that Lord Tan prepared, with an eye toward mastering his technique. When Tan died suddenly, Liang Wei himself rose to prominence as an imperial chef in the court of 慈禧太后 Ci Xi, the Dowager Empress who essentially ruled China until her death in 1908. In 1911, with the fall of the Qing dynasty, Liang and Peng left the palace and opened restaurants. More momentously, in 1925 Liang wrote an autobiographical memoir -- entitled, in fact, The Last Chinese Chef -- that became a food classic. One of Sam's major projects is to translate this into English.
Several things are going on here at once. First of all, of course, Mones is playing with the stratagem of the book-within-a-book: a book about a Chinese chef that involves a book about a Chinese chef. Each chapter is furnished with an epigraph from Liang Wei's book, and Maggie (and we) get to read quite a bit of it, in Sam's translation -- so much, in fact, that the reader might well be excused for not realizing that the 1925 book is as fictitious as Maggie and Sam are. Second, the legacy of this book, which is cherished and revered by Sam, helps to ground him in a complex family history, which lends realism to his story, even as it dishes up a banquet of food lore. Third, the realism of the family history is itself enhanced by being rooted firmly in the actual history of China in the early twentieth century.
Is there a politics of food? There is in China, according to The Last Chinese Chef. In a passage evidently meant to convey the passionate beliefs of Sam's father, we are told that 'the Communists had made it illegal to appreciate fine food or even remember that it had once existed. They had the masses eating slop and gristle and thinking it perfectly fine. In America and Europe, too, Chinese gourmets were all but nonexistent' [p. 39]. Moreover, 'When Sam had tried to suggest to his father that things had changed, that a world of art and discernment and taste was being reborn in China and that going back might be worthwhile, the old man erupted. "Never return to China! Never set foot there! It is a dangerous place, run by thugs!"' [ibid.]
The plot unfolds in some predictable (and some less predictable) ways. Maggie needs -- for her own peace of mind as well as for the financial implications -- to discover conclusively whether her husband had indeed fathered the child in question. Sam, meanwhile, is not only translating his grandfather's book, but planning to open a restaurant in Beijing -- one that will celebrate and resuscitate the legacy of traditional imperial cuisine. And, more urgent than either of these goals, when Maggie first meets him he is preparing to audition for the Chinese national cooking team at the 2008 Olympics. There are ten chefs competing for two spots in the northern-style category of cooking; nine days from his first conversation with Maggie, Sam must prepare an imperial-style banquet for the panel of judges. From then on, Maggie's own plot is interleaved with Sam's preparation for the banquet, which is planned, dish by dish, in loving detail. Not surprisingly, their lives become entwined as well. Will they become a couple? Will Sam win the competition? And will Liang Yeh, Sam's father, forgive him -- as Jen Lin-Liu's parents did eventually -- for leaving America and moving to China?
The answers to these questions, gentle reader, you must discover for yourself. But I will say that, for me, the two most important characters in the novel are neither Sam nor Maggie, nor even Liang Wei, but two characters that Mones did not create: China and Chinese cuisine. In The Last Chinese Chef -- in both books by that title -- China and her cuisine come as vibrantly and vividly alive as they do in the other books discussed in this review. For this if for nothing else, Mones's novel is well worth reading.
[[This is part iii of a triple book review, the first and second parts of which can be read by clicking here and here respectively.]]