The essence of life is change.
But what happens to the old ways as we shuffle madly to cater to the latest fashion? Or to meet the dictates of the most recent political turnover?
Do we lose the old ways forever?
That, in a sentence, is the question asked by Portland author Nicole Mones (pronounced Moan-us), whose novel “The Last Chinese Chef” is the October read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Mones, a Chicago native raised in Baltimore, tells a story that blends grief with the potential for cultural disintegration. Her protagonist, a woman feeling the loss of her husband – killed in a sudden car accident – is faced by the prospect that her late spouse may have been unfaithful.
So she travels to China, there to investigate claims made that her husband had sired a child with a Chinese woman. In the process, she continues her own career as a food writer and seeks out a chef who has culinary ties dating back to the last Imperial dynasty.
Mones writes about what she knows. For one thing, though her two previous novels had nothing to do with food, she has been writing for Gourmet magazine since 1999.
For another, she was just 24 when, in 1977, she decided to move to post-Cultural Revolution China and pursue a business career. She did so, even though she didn’t speak a word of Mandarin.
“As I always say when people remind me of that, ‘Sometimes you’re just too young to know better,’ ” Mones said in a recent phone interview. “I think it would be harder to take that risk at this age. What did I have to lose?”
Mones lived and worked in China for much of the next two decades, ultimately learning the language, connecting with the culture and watching the overall country change from a socialist construction into today’s epitome of free-market capitalism.
It was the negative side of that change that spurred her to write “The Last Chinese Chef.”
“A couple of days ago, somebody asked me at an event: ‘What have you learned about China from Chinese food,’ ” Mones said. “The first thing that popped into my mind was, in over 30 years of hanging around China, I have seen firsthand the migration patterns of undocumented labor through food – which is exactly the same thing that happened in this country.”
American Southwest cuisine, heavily influenced by Mexican dishes, has spread throughout the U.S. along with the labor force. And in much the same way, Hunan-style Chinese food permeated America – mainly, Mones says, because many of the Chinese laborers who came to the U.S. during the late 19th century hailed from China’s Hunan province.
“It’s really interesting to me to see how food culture spreads,” Mones said.
But what about the struggle to keep the old ways alive? Mones says that was an idea that came to her only gradually.
“Sometimes you have an idea, and even though you know you love it and are going to stick with it, sometimes you have to write a whole novel before you realize how deep that idea really is,” she said. “For me, that happened with that very phrase ‘The Last Chinese Chef.’ ”
In fact, a character whom Mones’ protagonist meets carries the emotional heaviness of that very phrase. He reflects the experience of a family that Mones met whose patriarch worked in the Imperial kitchens of Beijing’s Forbidden City.
The old man retired in 1909, having memorized more than 100 Imperial recipes. When the last Chinese dynasty fell two years later, he inherited the feeling – “I am the last Chinese chef,” Mones says – that carries with it a certain obligation.
“ ‘What is going to happen to our cuisine?’ ” Mones asked? “ ‘What’s going to happen to the skills, the graces, the customs, all the culture that surrounds our cuisine?’ And I realized that many, many times throughout Chinese history, whenever there’s been a big upheaval, there has been ample reason for people to have this same feeling.”
The old man’s family passed the recipes down, watched them get stolen and burned by a member of the Red Guard, and sat down immediately and rewrote them from memory. Further, it fell to the family of the old man’s great-granddaughter to open their own small eatery.
“And every night, still to this day, they seat about 40 people and re-create an Imperial meal,” Mones said.
Their duty, they believe, is as much to the past as it is to anything happening today. And if in the process of change they can actually combine the past with the present, so much the better.
“This family is still living out this drive, to carry the culture forward, to preserve the cuisine,” Mones said. “And underneath it, there’s this feeling of ‘I’m the last Chinese chef.’ ”
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