By Annette Gallagher Weisman
edibleASPEN – Spring 2008

Once thought to be a passing fad, the memoir is here to stay.

Memoirs related to food are particularly evocative. We may forget a face, even an event, but can vividly recall a time and place where we enjoyed an extraordinary meal, discovered the aroma and taste of a beloved ingredient, or took pleasure in simple touches — like the drizzle of a lemon.

With China increasingly in the news, The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco (Ten Speed Press, $35) is a timely, engaging memoir/cookbook by restaurateur Cecelia Chiang, beautifully told with the aid of Lisa Weiss.

Chiang had a fairytale childhood — the seventh daughter of wealthy parents, she lived a privileged, charmed life in a palace
in Beijing.

Upper-class females didn’t cook, but Chiang learned much from her mother’s informed directives to their home chefs: “Old Cook” and “Young Cook.” Chiang also accompanied her mother, whose feet were bound, to the markets “tottering from vendor to vendor in search of Beijing’s best meat, fish, fowl and produce,” a painful exercise as her mother couldn’t walk or stand for long. Chiang moved to San Francisco in the ’60s and opened her now legendary restaurant, The Mandarin. At 87 years old, Chiang regales us with fascinating anecdotes about how she introduced northern Chinese cooking to the Bay Area and what it was like to live in an exotic part of the world many of us have never been to. From her youth in the 1920s through adulthood, including a harrowing walk across the country with her sister to “Free China” during the Japanese invasion, Chiang keeps us riveted.

Seventy-five of The Mandarin’s superb recipes, which showcase the simplicity of Chinese home cooking, are interspersed between chapters filled with attractive color photographs. Most of the ingredients are easy to procure with suggested substitutes for those that are hard to find.

Alice Waters, who wrote the foreword to Chiang’s memoir, calling her “a role model, a mentor and an inspiration,” has been inspiring cooks for years. A culinary icon, Waters, chef/owner of the famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., is a long time proponent of sustainable foods. She recently published her ninth cookbook, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, $35).

Waters latest cookbook is filled with healthy, nutritious information. Among other things, Waters shows us the ease and economy of slow-cooking, how to bake from scratch, and includes recipes for every day meals.

Those familiar with Waters’ cookbooks know that she has been a powerful influence on the way we eat. Apart from buying
from local markets and farmers, Waters advocates that we grow our own vegetable garden or at least have a pot of herbs on the windowsill.

She emphasizes enjoying cooking as a sensory pleasure “. . . touch, listen, watch, smell and above all taste.” She then takes
us through 400 pages of what is, in effect, a concise cooking course with easy steps that teach us how to improve our skills while serving the freshest organic produce in season.

Being a foodie and a Francophile, I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to live in Paris and attend Le Cordon Bleu. At age 36, just fired from an executive position at Microsoft, that’s what Kathleen Flinn did.

In her memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, (Viking Penguin; $24.95), journalist Flinn reveals her experiences in such detail that you feel like you are taking the course with her. Fortunately, the rigors of the training and demands of her instructors are eased for Flinn when her new boyfriend (now husband) joins her in Paris.

Having a hot romance while attending a famous cooking school sounds like an entertaining story — and it is. But while the title has to do with slicing onions, the squeamish should note that the desire for food from land-to-table comes with a variety of body parts that the average diner, even cook, is oblivious to: a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Flinn learns to take it all in stride, cooking everything with panache, from soufflés to sweetbreads. “Sweatbread,” she says, “always struck me as a vastly euphemistic term for a gland.” As with Chiang’s memoir, many recipes are included.

Reading Flinn’s behind the-scenes account will either make you want to attend the school or be grateful she did so for you.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer and a longtime, part-time Aspenite. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Annette has written for many publications including national magazines. She hopes to complete her own memoir during the Year of the Rat.