Navigating food and family in France, Italy, and China

In her memoir "Apron Strings," Jan Wong reflects on time spent travelling and cooking with her younger son
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on August 31, 2018
creme brulee, pasta, dumplings
Jan Wong's memoir 'Apron Strings' documents the trip she took with her son to France, Italy, and China. (



I pondered what shape the book should take and how to research it. I spoke French and Mandarin. I told myself I could take a crash course in Italian at my university (for free!). I considered cooking schools but quickly discarded the idea. The cuisine program at Cordon Bleu in Paris took nine months and cost $42,000. In contrast, in Tuscany, many courses lasted only four or five days and seemed designed and priced for rich American tourists.

I wanted to learn home cooking. I wanted to know how ordinary folks made dinner, whether in this time-starved world they were still sitting down to dinner with their families. I wanted to know how the politics and economics of globalization had affected what they ate. Unlike cooking schools, you can’t Google “ordinary family” and find someone who loves home cooking and is willing to take in a total stranger. So, like journalists everywhere, I worked my contacts. A Chinese friend, Hilly, who lived in Shanghai, said she could set me up with rich friends and I could cook with their maids. Ashley, a British friend who owned a country home in Italy, recommended his neighbour. That left France, where my only contact had inconveniently decamped for Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, I focused on other logistics. This was going to be a long road trip. Norman couldn’t abandon his job as a software developer, and, as I’ve said, he can’t cook. I hoped Sam would be my companion. He was fluent in French. He had a working knowledge of Mandarin after spending his third year of university in Taiwan. More important, he was a fervent foodie. He didn’t read cookbooks — that was so 20th century — but he was addicted to YouTube cooking videos.

As a toddler, he liked hanging around the kitchen. As soon as he and his older brother, Ben, were out of strollers, Norman and I would take them on family trips to France and Italy, where the biggest tourist attraction was usually lunch. Aside from a summer job as a groundskeeper at a botanical garden, Sam had always worked in restaurants, from a hole-in-the-wall café to a French bistro to a private golf club, even in remote firefighting camps in northern Alberta. He could carve roasts, prep salads, slow-cook ribs, and make pizza. He could whip up a vat of asparagus risotto for 100 wedding guests. He loved the rhythm of a professional kitchen, the pressure of incoming orders, the relief when the meal service ended without disaster. Now he was graduating from university with a degree in philosophy, quite sure he never wanted to spend another day in a classroom. Like so many millennials, he was moving home while he figured out his next step. Unlike so many millennials, who felt entitled to a well-paying, stress-free job, Sam wanted a low-paying, high-stress job. He wanted to be a cook.

To be honest, the real reason for the whole project, the cooking and the travelling, was so I could spend more time with Sam. When he was a toddler, he would literally jump for joy when I got home from work. As I watched him grow into an independent adult, I sensed our mother-son bond evolving, stretching, even thinning out. Each summer when he came home from university, I noticed he spent less and less time with me. He was currently unattached, without a job or romantic partner. Who knew how long that would last? Perhaps I was overwrought, but it seemed possible that this trip might be my last chance to cook with Sam, to ride next to him on planes, trains, and automobiles, to eat 267 consecutive meals together. The last time we travelled together, just the two of us, he was 13, and his hockey team was playing in Finland and Sweden. I was clinically depressed. Let’s just say it wasn’t a dream vacation.

Sam’s initial lack of enthusiasm for my latest proposal might have been grounded in that Scandinavian trip — or in his childhood memories of helping me report stories. For instance, I was assigned to write about an extramarital affair the premier of Ontario was having with a neighbour. Now, neither my newspaper nor I cared much about politicians’ sex lives, but this particular one had refused to march in that year’s Gay Pride parade in Toronto. He declared that his definition of marriage was between a man and a woman. A man and two women in his own marriage was news.

Sam was only six, but he had a child’s sense of fairness and justice and understood the story’s essence: cheating and being mean to gays. I figured he could provide cover while I lurked in a suburban cul-de-sac to observe the houses of the premier and his paramour. A few months earlier, Sam had proudly shed his training wheels, but he agreed to pretend he was still learning to ride a bike. As he faked fall after fall, I got the details I needed for the story. Once I called the premier’s office for comment, he issued a press release announcing he was separating from his wife of 25 years.

In 2003, when Sam was 10, SARS hit Toronto. I was officially quarantined after spending time in one of the infected hospitals while searching for the first patients, and my editor asked me to write a public-service column about what someone quarantined with kids and a partner should do: stop eating together, use separate bathrooms and bedrooms, wear a mask at all times. “Does this mean we don’t have to go to school?” Ben, then 13, asked hopefully. When he saw me writing down his quote, he yelped, “That’s off the record.” (Some journalists have a self-imposed rule about not writing about their children. But, as Nora Ephron famously said, “Everything is copy.” Of course, she avoided writing about her kids.)

When Sam was 12, I was assigned to write about a minuscule hike in the provincial minimum wage. I decided the most vivid way to describe the 30-cent hourly raise was to work undercover for a month as an agency maid and replicate the life of a single mother with two kids living below the poverty line. While Norman stayed happily at home, I persuaded Ben and Sam to move into a dingy basement apartment. I believe I billed it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My boys say I didn’t give them a choice. Ben, then 15, refused to share a room with either Sam or me, relegating us to the double bed in the only other room. My editor asked each boy to write a first-person piece to accompany the series. In his, Sam told readers he was unused to having his own bed, anyway — a year earlier I had given his bunk bed away to a family of needy immigrants and hadn’t gotten around to buying him a new bed. Although I stretched our food budget with beans and pasta, we were chronically hungry. When a parent at Ben’s private school heard that he was living in a basement apartment, he opened the trunk of his Mercedes-Benz to offer some canned food.

Given this history, it’s easy to understand why Sam hesitated to sign on for this trip. He agreed only after various friends, including our next-door neighbour, told him he was crazy to turn it down. Norman promised to visit us twice, in Bologna after we finished our Italy segment, and later in China after we left Shanghai.

Then something shocking happened. At least, it shocked me, and it accentuated how little time I might have left with Sam. While the book was still in the planning stage, Ben phoned to say he was thinking of getting married.

“To who?” I blurted, so shocked I momentarily misplaced my grammar.

Ben paused. He said he wanted to marry his girlfriend, Puck, a Dutch mathematician at the University of California, Los Angeles. I’d met her. She was very nice, very smart, and very beautiful, but I’d had no inkling she was the One. In fact, I had no idea Ben was even ready for the One.

I stammered something about not rushing into anything. I asked, What about the children? Mixed marriages worried me. No, not that kind. His beloved is a gluten-intolerant vegan, and I am a vegan-intolerant omnivore. Ben said they weren’t planning an absolute prohibition on meat for their offspring — at least, not outside the home.

If I’m honest with myself, the problem wasn’t meatlessness; I was psychologically unprepared for mother-in-lawhood. What goes around, comes around. Forty years earlier, when I told my parents I was marrying a white guy from New York, they jumped on a plane to Beijing to try to stop me, asking, "What about the children?"

To calm down, I reminded myself that my goal as a mother had been to guide Ben into adulthood without him turning into a serial killer. He was 25, a year older than I was when I married. And, as a fully funded doctoral student at UCLA, he was financially independent. I should be happy. But have I mentioned she’s a vegan?

One day later, Ben phoned back. He informed me, nicely, that he had made up his mind. I did a pivot. I told him Norman and I would fly 5,000 kilometres to be there, and when was the date? He replied that he and Puck were only signing paperwork. I told Ben I loved watching people sign paperwork. Then he told me he didn’t want us showing up. Puck’s mother couldn’t make it from the Netherlands, and my presence would remind Puck of her own mother’s absence, and she would feel sad. Her? Sad? What about me? In an instant, I realized I had just lost my ranking as Number One Female in the Life of My First-Born Son. Second place was a distant spot, somewhere so remote, so far back in the boonies that I barely registered on Ben’s radar.

Of course, I know the definition of a healthy mother-son relationship is one in which the son goes on to a happy, productive life — and puts his romantic partner first. As the second-century satirical poet Juvenal wrote, “Domestic accord is impossible as long as the mother-in-law lives.” I wasn’t ready to volunteer for the ice floes, and, certainly, no one wants a mama’s boy. But what about the mama?

I was shocked by how bereft I felt. I had not anticipated being unceremoniously relegated to the sidelines. Who was to say Sam wouldn’t meet someone tomorrow and tell me I wasn’t invited to his paperwork? To unburden myself, I called him. Would he promise to invite me?

“Oops,” he said. “I forgot to tell you — I got married last week.”

That cheered me. In no time at all, Ben and Puck did the deed, dashing to Beverly Hills City Hall between lectures. Nora, their lovely and generous landlady, was official witness, photographer, and sole invitee. Norman was fine with that, but I found it very hard to be supplanted by a landlady.

Over the Christmas holidays, the newlyweds flew to Toronto for a celebratory dinner to which Ben restricted invitations to six guests (besides my sister’s family, Norman, Sam, and me). Out of solidarity with his bride, the groom ordered a vegan meal, but I hardly noticed because I was fretting about my impending trip. I still hadn’t found a family in France, and my sabbatical was about to start. Staring at Ben across the banquet table, inspiration flashed. Five years earlier, while studying in France at Université Lumière Lyon 2, he had stayed with a French family for one term. Maybe they would know someone who might teach cooking to Sam and me.

Ben was reluctant to impose, but I shamelessly leveraged my still-bruised feelings over paperwork deprivation. Ben then said he had been out of touch. He’d heard they’d left Lyon. He had no idea where they were. Well, thank goodness for Facebook. A day later, he’d found their email. As I lurked behind him, he wrote the Jeanselmes a polite, formal note in French explaining the book project and asking for their help in finding a family.

Forty minutes later, a reply arrived.

“Cher Ben, Quelle belle surprise!” Madame Jeanselme emailed back. She said she had retired from her nursing job and the family had moved from Lyon to southeast France. She was busy taking care of their two handicapped children and her bedridden 93-year-old mother. Her husband had retired as headmaster of the lycée and was helping to rescue refugees from the Middle East.

“Quant à ta maman et ton frère, soit avec nous, soit avec une famille qu’on trouvera, le projet est tout à fait realisable … et sans chercher un hôtel.”

And then she added the magic words: “Ils pourront loger chez nous.” They can stay with us.

Excerpted from Apron Strings, published by Goose Lane Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Jan Wong.

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