Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef

Nicole Mones has written the same book three times. Her first, Lost in Translation, features an American English/Chinese interpreter who accompanies a Chinese archaeology group on an expedition, falls in love with a Chinese man, and must come to terms with her racist father. The second, A Cup of Light, features a hard-of-hearing American porcelain expert with who falls in love with an American living in China. Her father is absent. In the The Last Chinese Chef, our heroine is food writer Maggie McElroy, one year widowed, on a trip to China to resolve a paternity suit against her late husband, Matt. Though raised by a single mother, Maggie doesn't have parental issues. Sam Liang, the love interest, gets those.

(Warning: plot spoilers ahead!)

Maggie has lived in suspended animation since Matt's abrupt death on a San Francisco streetcorner. Now, flying from California to China to resolve the claim against his estate, she must function. Sarah, her editor at Table magazine, has given her an assignment to write about rising chef Sam Liang.

It is here that the problems begin. Maggie is forty (as Mones ages, so do her leading ladies), Sam, we are told, is older. He is the product of an Ohio Jewish mother and a Chinese refugee father, Liang Yeh. Yeh is the son of Liang We, the last Chinese chef, a man famed for cooking in the Imperial Chinese style and penning the great The Last Chinese Chef.

Liang Yeh, fleeing Communism, refuses to cook in the United States. Nor does he want Sam to. Sam attends college and teaches school for a time, eventually deciding, against Yeh's wishes, to live in China and learn classical cooking. To this end, he seeks out his father's great friends, Tan, Jiang, and Xie, now old men who happily take on the task of training the Last Chinese Chef's grandson.

Sam is an immensely talented cook who, we are told, can prepare chicken soup and brisket. Little else is said about a Jewish woman marrying a Chinese national, doubtless an unusual alliance in the Midwest during the sixties. It is also difficult to accept Maggie's profession; a food writer who travels the byways of America searching out regional specialties, she doesn't like Chinese food. Nor does she realize that American Chinese food and the food served in China might differ. Reading a menu on her first dinner outing in China:

"...what he (the man who wrote the menu's introduction) was describing certainly didn't sound like the food she knew from home...Could the food in China be truly exceptional? Well then, she would eat; she would keep an open mind." (28)

Always a good idea for a food writer, especially one this limited. Later Maggie announces to Sam "I never cook." (128) She doesn't: she can't. Nor does she evince any interest in doing so. Of all the food writers I've read, the only ones who never refer to cooking themselves are Jane and Michael Stern, who, I am certain, have the good sense to realize that what often passes for Chinese food here certainly isn't what Chinese nationals tuck into come dinnertime. The final nail in the career coffin:

"Food writers weren't supposed to be fat." (152)

According to whom? Jeffrey Steingarten, Jane Stern, and John Thorne are far from svelte. All are wonderful food writers.

But back to our story.

Magge and Sam meet and hit it off; depsite his misgivings, he agrees to allow Maggie into the kitchen, where he gently questions her and feeds her a "healing" meal for her grief, a poached chicken that, while delicious, vaguely offends Maggie. She does't want food therapy.

Sam, meanwhile, learns he is a contestant in a major food competition, a cultural festival intended to coincide with the Olympics in Beijing. To this end, he must prepare a banquet for twelve, which will be rigorously judged à la Iron Chef. If Sam wins, he'll earn a spot on a ten-man cooking team. If not, he'll still have the publicity from Maggie's article.

--

Prior to writing, Mones ran a textile importing business from China. She is fluent in Mandarin and China's labrynthine culture. She and her husband, lawyer Paul Mones, are foodies with an extraordinary grasp on Chinese cuisine and history. Her sumptuous descriptions of dishes and their attendant meanings are the true reason to read this novel. When writing about food, Mones shines:

"She turned to the second platter, which held lotus root and crisp, strong-tasting yellow celery and sausage...Then the beggar's chicken...A magnificently herbed chicken aroma rushed into the air...it was moist and dense with profound flavor...first marinated, then spiked with bits of aromatic vegetable and salt-cured ham..." (129)

"But best of all was the second soup...The live fish had been transformed into pale, fluffy fish balls, light and airy and ultra-fresh. These floated in the perfectly intense fish broth with shrimp, clouds of tofu, and tangy shreds of mustard green." (153)

Her explanations of Chinese culinary history are illuminating to those of us accustomed to Betty Crocker. The Chinese meal is a complex interplay of texture, aroma, fat, literary allusions, political implication, and wordless communication between diner and chef. Much of this is worked into The Last Chinese Chef, which acts a book within the book.

--

Unfortunately, Mones has opted to hang Chinese culinary history on an increasingly unrealistic plot. When Maggie meets Shuying, Matt's potential daughter, she is almost loving. Shuying, if Matt's child, should be provided for. When Maggie meets Shuying's elusive mother, Gao Lan, her reasonable anger and resentment (Gao Lan admits the suit is a sham) quickly shift into an earnest wish to help no matter what.

Meanwhile, Sam's Uncle Wang Xie lies dying in Hangzhou. Improbably, Sam invites Maggie to join him in the Wang household. Maggie speaks no Chinese and is not even Sam's friend, yet Xie, his wife, and four adult children welcome her warmly. While nice for story purposes, what family dealing with a mortally ill patriarch would wish for a stranger--a person unable even to speak their language--in their home? Never mind. Propped in a chair, Xie harangues Sam into a practice run for the competition. In one day, without help, Sam manages to cook and serve the family a twelve-course menu.

Xie dies on banquet night. Putting grief aside, Sam prepares the festive meal in his empty restaurant (his backer has inexplicably bailed out) with only Jiang and Tan as his assistants. Maggie is invited into the kitchen to watch. Sam chats away with her, taking long breaks to explain various morsels and bits of food culture. Tan, meanwhile, gets drunk. Neither the talkative, relaxed chef nor his elderly, drunken assistants match any real sense of what goes on in a restaurant kitchen, particularly one where a competition meal is being prepared. Tan, sloshed, destoys the signature dish. No matter: Sam's father Yeh appears, and though he hasn't touched a knife in forty years, he saves the day with several complex dishes that keep the judges happy.

---

The plot cries for pruning. There is the crumpled newspaper photo of Matt Maggie carries everywhere--a photo snapped moments after Matt was killed by a car. An unknown woman kneels beside him. Might it be Gao Lan? Well, no. Gao Lan has never been outside China. And what of the shadowy, unnamed man who is Shuying's real father? Is it Carey, Matt's carousing colleague? Nope: Carey may be a cad, but he wouldn't sleep with Gao Lan, and he wants to help his friend's widow before vanishing once more into the alluring Beijing night.

Oh, Great editors of yore, whither goest ye?

"Too little (information about Matt's affair) would disrespect her." (69)

(Is this a rap video or a novel?)

"It (cooking) did what art did, refracted civilization." (123)

"His head made a tick in response." (259)

Worst of all:

"Of course he had pain and remorse in his suitcase." (261)

Anybody else remember Barbara De Angelis' horribly silly infomerical about relationships? The part where she tries to "hide" a luggage cart loaded with suitcases? Maybe one belongs to Sam.

Psychobabble will wreck litertaure faster than an armed Terre Hautian blogging from a grimy basement.

----

Mones' deep knowledge is evident in her well-researched novels and fine journalism for Gourmet. It doesn't require a fictional veneer. There's a terrific non-fiction book in there somewhere--maybe more than one. But first the Maggies and Sams must be put out with the compost.

Nicole Mones: The Last Chinese Chef. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 2007.

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