by Alexandra Bowie
According to birth order theorists, oldest children tend to be cautious; their younger siblings are the creative risk-takers in the family (surround that statement with a lot of caveats, of course). There are some exceptions, one of them being the oldest daughters of two-daughter families. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, the author of the engrossing memoir “The Tiger in the Kitchen” is one of this special group.
Tan grew up in Singapore, a descendant of emigrant Chinese. She worked hard at school, consciously avoiding learning domestic skills as she studied. She went to the US for college and didn’t look back for 15 years. After graduation, Tan forged a career as a reporter, first at the Baltimore Sun, later at the Wall Street Journal, covering fashion and the related business. She married an American, and settled in Brooklyn. But at some point she realized she was missing something – the food. A couple of years ago a lay-off gave her an opportunity, and Tan took it: over the course of a year she made several long visits to her family in Singapore and, eventually, to the village her great-grandfather had left behind in China.
Tan spent most of her visits with her divorced mother and extended family on both her father’s and mother’s sides, learning her culture through its cooking. Tan describes one signal clash of cultures that was evident immediately: the only plausible explanation she could give her Singapore relatives for her extended visits away from her husband was that she was learning to cook so she could make him “good Singaporean dinners.” Tan brought the same skills she needed as a reporter to her cooking quest, and immediately found another place her several cultures refused to mesh in the approach to details. Having trained herself to be a successful free-lancer, Tan was interested in the minutiae: when? How much? Could her aunties and granny let her measure an ingredient before they added it to a pot? They laughed at her, saying “Agak-agak,” which Tan translates as “just guess.” As Tan let go of her need to know the details, she slowly learned to cook.
More important, as she ably demonstrates, over the course of the year Tan grew up. Tan writes her own brand of UK-inflected American English, and speaks her mind. She describes her mistakes, including a delightful story about second-guessing her forgetful grandmother. The comparison of the final products proved, that, contrary to Tan’s assumption, her granny had not omitted some important instructions. Tan also describes her cooking failures, most memorably a ciabatta that filled her apartment with smoke. Tan is braver than I am: she describes serving many of what she considers failures to her friends and family. As Tan learns through the course of the year, it’s not always a choice between career and cooking. Some lucky people combine them, as Tan now has – in addition to the book, her blog is a great source of recipes and food information. Her lengthy visits home taught her something fundamental. Over the course of that year, she more than came to terms with herself; in the words of one of her relatives, she learned to cook with her heart.
Cheryl Tan will be appearing at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 18, as part of the panel “Food From All Sides” to be held at 12 noon on the North Stage. Here’s the description from the Festival’s website: Three panelists use the lens of food to write about family, poverty and war—Annia Ciezadlo (Day of Honey) looks at food and politics in the Middle East, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (A Tiger In the Kitchen) follows a Chinese-American woman back to Singapore in search of her family’s culinary history, and Tracie McMillan (forthcoming The American Way of Eating: Undercover on the Front Lines of Our Nation’s Meals) deals with poverty and food issues. Moderated by food writer Christy Harrison.
Who taught you to cook? What’s your favorite family meal memory? Join the discussion in the comments.
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