Most professions don’t offer the luxury of an extended break. If you’re lucky enough to get one, you take it with open arms, and hopefully make good use of the time off—and that’s exactly what Jan Wong did to complete her latest book.
The award-winning author and journalist—who is currently a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, News Brunswick—decided to use her time wisely during her sabbatical. It resulted in a three-month culinary journey with her youngest son, Sam. The time off also allowed her to document their adventures in her new memoir, Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China.
“As a life-long journalist, this was my first ever sabbatical. It was so valuable because I’m used to getting very limited vacation,” Wong told the Straight by phone from her home in Fredericton. “I was handed this time on a silver platter, so I was trying to think of a project that was doable in that amount of time [six months].”
She already had a book contract on the table, but it took some thinking for her to decide on the context of her next published paperback. The imminence of her eldest son getting married made Wong realize she was running out of moments to spend quality time with her second-born.
“I realized it was change that I wasn’t ready for,” said Wong. “I thought ‘Oh, I better grab Sam before he settles down with someone’.”
Since he has a deep interest in cooking, she decided to ask him to join her on a journey through three different countries to learn about home-cooking. “I’ve always loved food, and I’ve always wanted to write about food, but because I was a business reporter and China correspondent, I never really got to write just about food,” explained Wong. “It was always something I wanted to do.”
With their bags and appetites in tow, the mother-and-son duo set off on the once-in-a-lifetime trip in January 2016—starting in southeastern France, before moving on to northern Italy, and ending off in the central coast of China in April the same year.
Wong arranged to stay with different families in each city they visited, which proved to be both fruitful and demanding. On the plus side, she met many individuals who were able to teach her and Sam about regional home-style cooking and local cuisine. On the other hand, it became difficult to keep track of everyone she met and all the dishes she had learned to make.
“The hardest part [about writing this book] were all the different languages and trying to keep the narrative thread going. I had to get all the terminology, and I had so many characters,” said Wong. “I was going cross-eyed trying to get everything straight. That’s why in the beginning of the book, I had to have a list of all the characters.”
Beyond the difficulties of organizing and gathering information for her book, Wong and Sam created lasting memories through their travels and time spent in overseas kitchens. In Allex, France, they lived with a family that sheltered undocumented migrants and learned to make classic French dishes like gâteau de foie (baked chicken liver mousse) from the house keeper.
In Repergo, Italy, they learned about Italian food rules (such as never to drink coffee after 11 a.m. and not to dip bread in olive oil) and how to make simple but delicious home-cooked meals—including spaghetti carbonara. "I love Italy, I think it was my favourite country,” said Wong. “I talk about cuisine of the poor, and I think I prefer simple food over fancy, so that’s why I love Italian food. It’s not hard to make and it’s so satisfying.”
Wong and Sam finished off their culinary trip in Shanghai, China, where they stayed in high-end housing owned by the newly rich and cooked alongside their maids who had migrated to the city from other Chinese provinces. Some of their favourite Chinese dishes include smashed cold cucumbers and white-cut chicken.
Apron Strings is more than a memoir—it’s an amusing and informative read sprinkled with historical facts, entertaining anecdotes, and recipes for those curious about the food that Wong and her son learned to make abroad.
“I thought it would be fun to break up some of the type with some recipes, [and] people might want to make some of the foods I talk about,” Wong stated. “These recipes are easy, inexpensive, and delicious. It’s for families who don’t have a lot of time.”
There were bumps along the way—like disagreements and arguments stemmed from the tension that built up from seeing each other every day for three months—but they ended the trip on a good note. Sam continued to stay in China to improve his Chinese, and now he’s passed the highest level of the Mandarin test.
Wong and her son may not be on the same continents these days, but she reflects back on her trip fondly—especially the Italian food, which she regularly makes at home. “The most memorable part [of my trip] was learning how to relax, [and] cook a great meal without breaking a sweat. That was the big lesson for me,” she added.
When we asked the former hard-news journalist about her thoughts on the way that food was covered in Canadian media, she didn’t hold back. “Newsrooms aren’t paying reporters to do real food journalism, it’s just [become] a luxury,” Wong stated. “It shouldn’t be, because people eat three times a day, and it’s important. Food is a big part of people’s budgets, restaurants is a major industry, and supermarkets [too]. We’re leaving it un-reported, and I think we need to focus on this.”
Wong has published five other non-fiction bestsellers, including Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, Lunch With Jan Wong: Sweet and Sour Celebrity Interviews, and Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption, and Yes, Happiness. What else is on the horizon? She wants to work on the finale to Out of the Blue, to explain what happened when her former employer, the Globe and Mail newspaper, came after her for violating a confidentiality agreement.
“I should do that this summer maybe, but it’s hard and I’m so tired,” Wong said with a laugh. “It’s so much work to write a book. Once it’s published, you still need to do a lot of follow-up work. But I highly recommend it.”