T. Susan Chang Interview

We've hijacked Susie's blog and we're interviewing her.  Susie (T. Susan Chang) has been T-Susan-Chang-Book-Launchreviewing cookbooks for years for NPR and the Boston Globe - there aren't many people around who know as much about cookbooks as Susie. Now she's become an author with the release this month of her own beautiful collection of stories, A Spoonful of Promises, about food and love, with 49 recipes.  At one of her recent book launch parties we asked Susie how she first became interested in food and what it's been like making the transition from reviewer to author.

What inspired you to write the stories in A Spoonful of Promises?

The very first food story of this kind I ever wrote was the one called "The Chanterelles of Second Avenue" - it's the first story in the book, and it's about some mushrooms I stole when I was around 22.  I wrote it for myself, because I wanted to explore that memory and find a way to consider the power of food, and the things it can make us do.  (Well, and at some level I think I needed to confess!)  For me, food and feeling travel hand in hand, and whether it's a question of desire, penitence, hope, despair, or anything else, I feel I have a food story somewhere in my mind.

After writing that first one, I knew I wanted to be able to write more stories like that, but I didn't think I'd find a way to publish them.  So I was excited when NPR's Kitchen Window series first gave me the freedom to share a little bit of this kind of writing with the wider public.  Later, finding a book editor who understood my sensibility and getting to do an entire book of them--that was almost too good to be true.

What kind of food household did you grow up in and how did it influence you as a cook?

My mom was a talented visual artist, but she really put that aside to throw herself into being our mom.  She cooked about half Chinese food and half Western dishes like roast chicken and hamburgers and pasta; boeuf bourgignon was her party dish.  She was a really good cook, but she didn't define herself by it or try to teach us.  For a while she made dinner for us right after we got home from school around 3, so we'd have the whole afternoon to practice our instruments and do homework--that was the priority. 

By the time I became interested in cooking myself, my mom had passed away; it was her Chinese food I really missed, especially Kung pao chicken and wonton soup and steamed eggs and noodles with pork. So a number of the recipes in the book came from me trying to find my way back to those dishes from my childhood.

When did you first really fall in love with food?

As a young urban professional, I often felt very confused and insecure about work.  But I understood food, and I loved all kinds.  I'd eat out all over Manhattan, and since I couldn't afford to keep that up, I learned to cook. I still remember how happy I would be to come home from work and have a little wine, some good olives and bread and then start to cook--it was the highlight of my day.  Food turned out to be the first thing I loved enough not to be afraid of being bad at it--if I failed, I just ate it anyway and tried again the next day! and for that reason, food really also became my path to wisdom.

What are some of the challenges you faced writing this memoir?

The limits of memory!  I remember feelings and food vividly, but sometimes the surrounding details are not as clear--the when, the where, sometimes even the who.  In fact, my sister says that one of the pictures in the book which I describe as being of me is actually of her! 

So my stories are like impressionistic snapshots, taken through food-tinted glasses.  I describe the few things I can remember clearly, and then reconstruct the rest of the picture by staring at the fuzzy parts of the memory with an imaginary magnifying glass.  I can vouch for the feeling, the food, and the governing metaphor in each story.  The rest is kind of up for grabs.

From a writing point of view, what's it like describing food every day?

Our language is pretty impoverished when it comes to food terms.  Apart from the taste descriptors like salty and sweet, we have about twelve words, and they all basically mean "Tasty!"  Every time I write, I work my language engine very hard to find new words to bring the food to life--I borrow from the languages of other senses, I use buzzwords from other disciplines, I rely on slang, motion-filled verbs, metaphors, whatever it takes. 

What do you hope readers will remember from your book?

I hope readers come away with a friendly, real feeling about food.  It's not just: does it taste good or does it not taste good?   It's about what you were doing when you made it, who you ate it with, the mood you were in before and how it made you feel after.  It's a way to remember and a way to forget.  It's a way to make mistakes and forgive yourself for them.  It's a way to remind yourself to actually live your life, because there's nothing more immediate than the taste in your mouth.

Oh-and if my readers are word people, I hope they come away with some phrases that they like, because I think some of my coinages are saturated with character.  Sometimes I just chant "Zombie Servants of the Noodle God!" over and over, because I like the way it sounds.

After being a book reviewer for so many years, what's it like writing your own book?

A little nerve-wracking!  I don't think I could write a straight-ahead cookbook like the ones I review.  I don't see A Spoonful of Promises  as a cookbook - I don't even try to compete on that front.  I can see what some people might not like about it if they approach it as a cookbook; they might want more recipes, or fewer, or a more focused selection.  That said, every time I dip into the book, there's this wonderful feeling of Ah yes! that is exactly what I meant to say.  I could get used to that feeling.

Do you have future book projects in mind?

Yes, definitely.  I'd like to write another book of stories, perhaps one a little more focused or thematic. I have a bunch of other back burner ideas for books, but that's what I'd like to do next. Writing a book was so much more fun than anything else I've ever done in my life that I really hope I get to keep doing it.

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