Monday, March 11, 2013

The next big thing in books, aka getting tagged in a nice way

And now for something completely different... 

I've been tagged in the ongoing blog meme called "The Next Big Thing in Books," which is a way to promote, describe, and dream about the things we write. I feel honored since I'm in such good company, so here goes...

First off, thanks to Jocelyn Eikenberg, the mastermind/webmaster/hostess behind the truly unusual and yet intensely popular blog for Western women who happen to love Chinese men called “Speaking of China.” She is writing a book about her life so far – Red All Over – that promises to be a great read, as she (like me) married into a Chinese family, which pretty much means that she married into the Chinese culture. She has a lovely style of writing, so be on the lookout for it after she finishes her journey up the fascinating, grueling, disheartening, strenuous, and finally deliriously delightful path toward getting her life distilled into a book.

The following questions were drawn up by whoever started this thread:

What is your working title of your book (or story)? Don’t have one yet. I've graciously suggested a number of them – my favorite is Simple Recipes from a Chinese Kitchen – but my editor at McSweeney’s remains firmly unconvinced of my marketing savvy.

Where did the idea come from for the book? It’s been brewing over the decades.  I have collected shelves upon shelves of cookbooks on the many cuisines of China in both Chinese and English, and yet have been left longing for someone to tell me about all of its fascinating cooking styles. (At last count, I was up to over 30 main cuisines.) As someone once said – or at least should have said – “If you can’t find the book you want, write it yourself.” 

Another huge problem has been the total lack of reliability in the majority of Chinese-language cookbooks. They seem to set people up for utter frustration because so many of them were obviously never tested, and the rest are often studies in absolute vagueness, with instructions advising that "the proper amount" of water or whatever be added, the mixture stirred until it looks right, and then cooked until done. And then we have the problem of our ingredients being so different from what is on the grocery shelves of Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.

And so, I've suffered considerably on your behalf. 

You're welcome.

What genre does your book fall under? Chinese cookbook, with a whole lotta cultural history and memoirish (is that a word?) things in there about my eight years in Taiwan and 35 years hanging around with a Chinese guy, plus it will have illustrations by yours truly.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Oh, I think Pam Grier would do nicely for me. She doesn't look or talk or act anything like me, but she’s a great actress and I’m sure she could pull it off. If she were cast to play the part of a young white girl wandering around East Asia, perhaps we could have George Clooney play the part of my husband. Again, the two are nothing alike, but who wouldn't want to gaze at George Clooney and Pam Grier for two hours?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? All the cuisines of China for the first time between two covers.

That's me after writing all day
Did you sell your own book or were you represented by an agency? I went through (I think at last count) five agents who all threw up their hands in despair over ever finding a publisher who would take my book. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that they unsuccessfully approached just about every single publisher in America.

As I was set free yet once again, an agent said to me, “No one wants another Chinese cookbook… they don’t sell. Why don’t you write about Italian cuisine?” So a word of advice to all you would-be cookbook writers out there: break out the pasta and learn l’italiano

Anyway, after that, as I started to scout around for some other field that would fit my meager talents, pay the rent, and keep the wolves at bay, a lovely young editor at McSweeney’s happened to mention that she would like to read my proposal. 

I got that glorious call from McSweeney’s about three months later. And the funny thing is that it happened not long after I made some silly promises about my soul in backward Latin to this slick guy in a goatee and a red three-piece suit.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? Hahahahahaha. Now I’m going to start sobbing.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? There’s nothing exactly like it, but the late Barbara Tropp’s epic Modern Art of Chinese Cooking was very influential, as it showed that a white girl could go to Taiwan and come back with an ancient cuisine so firmly wedged under her belt that she could turn herself into an authority if she put her mind to it. I owe a lot to her and the path she blazed. 

Another shining star has been Florence Lin, who (along with Grace Zia Chu and Virginia Lee) wrote about China's cuisines back when being a cookbook writer was no big deal and the image most Americans carried around about the foods of this intensely vibrant land consisted mainly of Day-Glo sweet-and-sour pork. She gave us all notice that we were missing a treasure trove, and her Chinese Regional Cookbook is still worth its weight in gold.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? In addition to Florence Lin and Chef Tropp, it would have to be my food-loving husband. He likes nothing better than good Chinese food, and the restaurants on this side of the Pacific are completely shabby when compared to even the cheapest alley shops in Taipei, so he has always been 100% supportive of any cause that would lead to authentic Chinese dishes being placed in front of him on a daily basis.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?  I am going to do all of the illustrations, which will be quite different from what you usually would expect from a Chinese cookbook. Be on the lookout for line drawings, maps, oil paintings, and whatever else McSweeney's will let me get away with on this magical mystery tour.

Another thing that sets this book apart is that since this is the first time that just about all of China’s many, many cuisines are introduced, I have grouped them according to their characteristic ingredients, geography, and climate. This will help make sense of this relatively unknown yet fascinating food culture. China is – at least in my opinion – the home of the best food in the world, and it is about time that it was appraised in a new light.


  1. I know that most US cookbook publishers prefer volume measurements, but it would be great if you could have both volume AND weight measurements. If your goal is to recreate a recipe, weight is by far the best approach. Thanks and I've been looking forward to your book for ages! Hurry up!

    1. You sound like my editor...

      The decision on volume and weight measurements is up to the folks at McSweeney's, but I'll run the request by them. Thanks!

    2. I've had a few conversations with cookbook authors. They tell me that cookbook publishers are under the impression that Americans are disinterested in weight measurements. Seems to me that we need cookbooks with weights to drum up that interest! Fight the good fight! :)

    3. You're preaching to the choir, Mike. I will do my best, that I can assure you... thanks!

  2. I'll look for this when it comes out! I have a hard time finding real Chinese cuisine books. My husband had to teach me that "stir fry" is a way of cooking and not a specific dish, and that it should not include a packet of "stir fry sauce." I've made a lot of headway with the help of my mother-in-law, but instructions can get so hard to follow. I'm so excited for your book!

    I agree with Jocelyn. I like "Madame Huang's Kitchen."

    1. Heh, you do have to be on the lookout for those supermarket packets! I totally understand, as I served the most awful Chinese mashups to my husband early on, but somehow we survived.

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Yay, I have TWO votes for "Madame Huang's Kitchen"!

      While you are waiting for my work to slide out of McSweeney's book chute, here are a couple other books I heartily recommend; you most likely can check them out at the library first to see whether you like them, too:

      "Modern Art of Chinese Cooking" and "China Moon Cookbook" by Barbara Tropp
      "Land of Plenty" by Fuchsia Dunlop (her other books are great, as well)
      "Regional Chinese Cookbook" and "Florence Lin's Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads" by Florence Lin
      "The Key to Chinese Cooking" by Irene Kuo
      "The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking" and "Madame Chu's Chinese Cooking School" by Grace Zia Chu

      Of course, there are many other wonderful writers on China's cuisine out there whom you should check out: Grace Young, Martin Yan, Ken Hom, Kenneth Lo, Nina Simonds. And this is just a tiny fraction... I like them all, but you have to see what fits your tastes and needs.

    2. I second the Fuchsia Dunlop recommendation. Everything I've ever made from her cookbooks have been delicious.

      To Carolyn's list, I would like to add "Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking" by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. The recipes are (sorta) organized from basic to more difficult, so you can start making a few condiments/flavored oils, cook a few dishes and start building your repertoire. Well written and everything I've made has been great. Good headnotes, interesting sidebars and articles, some good (not great) info on Chinese ingredients. I think it's a must have for the aspiring Chinese cuisine cook.

    3. Can't argue with that! Excellent suggestion.