Life / Food

Jan Wong cooks up a three-month bonding trip with her 22-year-old son

Award-winning journalist takes her son on a culinary journey to France, Italy and China as research for her new book.

Sam, far right, and Jan Wong with Maria Stella’s family in her kitchen in Asti, Italy.

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Sam, far right, and Jan Wong with Maria Stella’s family in her kitchen in Asti, Italy.

Not every mother would be able to convince her 22-year-old to come along on a months-long travel and cooking adventure. But Jan Wong envisioned a trip with her youngest and began plotting.

If she pays for everything, well, what millennial could say no to that?

An aspiring chef who speaks multiple languages, Sam, now 24, made the perfect companion on the research trip for a new book, during which the author stayed with strangers in France, Italy and China to learn culinary traditions from seemingly ordinary families.

Apron Strings, a memoir about food and family, was written after three months of travel and 267 meals together. In the book, Wong, an award-winning journalist and author, observes the intimate aspects of home cooking — from how Italian matriarchs chop vegetables (“cutting against the thumb,” directly into the pot), to the way a father in France rushes to cut chicken into bite-size pieces for a child with special needs. It also covers food history, globalization, and cultural etiquette.

Mainly, however, Apron Strings is a story about a mother’s attempt to rekindle a closeness with her child — a desire fuelled by the chagrin Wong feels after her older son, Ben, gets married without inviting any family to the ceremony.

“When Ben did that — and he did it with the kindest of intentions, because his wife was upset that her mother wasn’t going to make it — it was such a weird feeling like, well I don’t count at all? What about my feelings? I felt really sad,” says Wong, in an interview earlier this month.

She wanted to re-establish a bond with Sam before he, too, started his own family.

The mother-son relationship is a touchy subject, Wong says, and there aren’t many resources to prepare a mother for the separation anxiety she may feel when a son begins to distance himself. She couldn’t even find any books on the subject, Wong says. “I like to say it’s because the first in the genre killed it, which was Oedipus.”

Apron Strings by Jan Wong, Goose Lane.

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Apron Strings by Jan Wong, Goose Lane.

By working together on recipes and navigating relationships and language barriers, Wong says she and Sam became much more comfortable around each other.

While they were always close, she understood better how Sam was developing as an adult by seeing him in a new context — one in which he didn’t need to be reminded of getting out of bed, or cleaning up after dinner.

Sitting in a cathedral in Romans-sur-Isère in the Drôme, Wong also relished the physical closeness of Sam. “I closed my eyes and soaked in the warmth of my son,” she writes.

It wasn’t all perfect: they had one big fight in Bologna during a break in their home-stay, when Wong’s husband came to visit and they wanted to cook him a meal in their Airbnb.

The shouting match was about which course to serve first (pasta followed by meats or meat-pasta-meat), which Wong says shows just how tired and “crazy” they were. But they let it out and were fine afterwards.

Learning to work together is one of the reasons Wong strongly recommends travelling with adult children.

“When you spend day after day with them, you understand, and you adjust,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be expensive; maybe just go somewhere 100 miles from your city. If you have to go to a rock concert, go to a rock concert; rent a cheap motel, just get away. It has to be one-on-one. Three hours at Thanksgiving doesn’t do it.”

That is, if they can wrangle their kids into doing it. Her advice? “Pay for everything. If you’re the parent, pay for everything. Make it attractive. Because remember, they don’t want to spend the weekend with you.”

Food tips Jan Wong learned on her trip

• You don’t have to grease a pan when baking a cake or a loaf. “You can end up with buttery fingers; it’s disgusting,” says Wong. Instead, take a chunk of parchment paper, crumple it up and sprinkle water on it, which softens the paper. When you place it in a spring-form pan, it will stay put for the cake batter.

• Make a lot of salad dressing at once. Make a jar of vinaigrette (it lasts about four weeks).

• You don’t have to buy expensive things to make a delicious meal. “That’s what I talk about when I was in Italy: cucina povera — cooking of the poor — you can make something delicious from nothing. That’s why Italian food is so popular and that’s why Italians refuse to go to eat in Italian restaurants. They’re like, are you kidding me, $20 for pasta with tomato sauce?”

• When putting away groceries, process everything. “Wash all the lettuce now; Wash the green onions and chop them up. I usually put it on paper towel so it doesn’t rest in its goo — you want it to be damp but not sitting in liquid. Then when it’s time to eat, you don’t have to do everything.”

• Don’t cook for Instagram. “I find it tiresome, because you’re talking about the way a food looks and that can really lead you down the wrong direction. It should really be the way it tastes. For instance, blanquette de veau: it looks terrible. It’s just white sauce on pale veal.”

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