Long before I was a cooker, I was a reader and a writer. I was one of those kids who had to be told not to read at the dinner table, and I was writing “novels” on my red Olivetti Valentine typewriter in fourth grade. The reading and eating experiences are paralell for me insofar as I reject “junk” in both areas of my life (most of the time). This doesn’t mean that I am re-reading all of Shakespeare on a monthly basis, any more than I eat nothing but seared Ahi tuna and flageolets with shaved truffles. I read all of the Twilight books, I read mysteries as an escape when I am stressed, and I used to enjoy the odd Cheeto and french fry before they were banned from consumption in this life. Mostly, though, as I prefer a well-prepared meal with beautiful, whole ingredients, I prefer a well-written book with beautiful, thoughtful ideas. After consuming either of these, I am well nourished.
I first heard about The Last Chinese Chef on “The Splendid Table,” when author Nicole Mones was interviewed by host Lynne Rosetto Kasper. I was intrigued by the discussion about “real” Chinese food, the Chinese food that we rarely see in this country, and about the emphasis on characteristics like texture for the sake of texture. Mones has spent a great deal of time in China, and is a food writer whose work often appears in “Gourmet” magazine. I knew she would know her stuff in the food department, and that her descriptions of China would probably be accurate, but until I actually read the book I didn’t know if she could really write. The book is, in some reviews, characterized as “sensuous” or “romantic,” both of which concerned me. I am certainly not anti-sensuality or anti-romance, but I do have a deep and abiding horror concerning the kind of formulaic, “Chick Lit” romances that involve improbably spunky young women who get involved in various hilarious scrapes and end up with the guy. (Or the alternative, the older wiser woman reflecting on her divorce/widowhood/eternal singleness who meets a gruff but sensitive local man after moving to Vermont to start a yarn store). Entertaining, they may be, but such books are the intellectual equivalent of generic barbecue potato chips.
I needn’t have worried. The romance in this novel is predictable only in the sense that the characters and their interactions are so true that you see a relationship developing, slowly and tentatively, as you would in your own life. There is an emphasis throughout the book on the Chinese notion of “guanxi,” the idea of family and friends being interconnected and committed to supporting each other. More than romance, this book is about love – love between spouses, love between parents and children, love for friends, and love for country and community. It is also about Chinese history before and after the Cultural Revolution, and about the ways in which the most venerable aspects of Chinese society weathered that change and went to ground, only to reappear in recent years.
Finally, the book is about food. I learned about the “real” Chinese food, from it’s importance as a communal commodity (which is why Chinese restaurants serve food “family style” rather than plating individually), about the astonishing, complex dishes that were created in Imperial China before Mao, and about the tension between the old and new influences on Chinese cuisine. Mones uses the device of excerpts from a fictitious Chinese classic entitled “The Last Chinese Chef” to dish out information about Chinese cuisine in it’s most evolved form. There are descriptions of dishes that are so vivid, and so loving that you will become possessed with the idea of finding someone who can cook such things, and there are descriptions of the relationship between food and art, particularly poetry. This is a different way of looking at food than most of us are familiar with; even the television shows and articles about fine Western chefs present a more egocentric orientation in which the chef is the object of worship and admiration. In The Last Great Chinese Chef we see food prepared to delight the consumer, or “gourmet,” not only through the taste buds and eyes, but on an intellectual level, with clever references to poetry and characters in the Chinese language. It is not about showing off what the chef can produce so that he can be venerated, it is about making a connection, forming a relationship between the person in the kitchen and the people around the table.
I was startled to see this book referred to somewhere in the interworld as a “great beach read.” I think that cheapens it’s value, and places it in a category with the bumper crop of formulaic “problem” romances and Chick Lit available at every Walgreen’s. This is, like the food prepared and described by it’s title character, a book to be savored.