Just accept it — writing is a messy, arduous enterprise, but it can be done.
What that book is about: “To the People, Food is Heaven” by Audra Ang
To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China by Audra Ang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Yes, food – and the role it plays in the life of China – has a prominent place in “To the People, Food is Heaven,” a nonfiction book by a former AP reporter based in Beijing who spent more than seven years covering the biggest news in China from 2002 to 2009, including SARS, earthquakes, protests in Tibet, and the Olympics. And yes, any foodie will appreciate the salivating descriptions and details that its author, Audra Ang, gives to the smells, the textures, the tastes of the meals she experienced and she shared during her time reporting there. But like any good hot pot, the book has so many ingredients and dimensions that you can’t appreciate one component without the complements of another.
Food is just the start. Ang also addresses issues related to food, from food regulation, to organic farming, to the history of famous Chinese dishes (i.e. Peking duck). And Ang doesn’t just explore these issues, she provides the context by taking you inside the culture, the conditions, the practices, and the historical influences of modern China. Augmenting this is the voices that Ang supplies – the voices of the present China, of the common residents whom Ang seeks out and finds, whom Ang asks questions of, and whom Ang listens to. These are voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard without the skill of a reporter and the heart of a person like Ang.
Hence, this book is also a how-to-guide: a how-to-be a journalist in search of the facts and the voices that allow one to tell honest, truthful, factually-accurate, and authentic stories, especially of how to do this as a foreign journalist in a tightly government-controlled country. Even more basic than that, “To the People, Food is Heaven” showcases the power of storytelling – about why we need it, and why others, like an entire government, can be determined to control it. Ang doesn’t shy away from including how the Chinese government manages the press and how journalists, domestic and ex-pats, deal with it.
Ang is writing from her perspective, of course, and her experiences shape that perspective. But she offers just-enough personal revelation and reflection that you trust her to lead you on this well-paced journey through the meals and the news, and you appreciate how she must have earned the trust of others to successfully solicit their stories.
This brings us back to food. As Ang writes, she got many of the voices she needed to inform her reporting over meals, and she often made it to the next story because of meals. As a native-born Singaporean, Ang writes, she naturally loves food, which becomes her comfort and even her resolve when the news she reports on become almost too intolerable or disturbing. Such a haloed emphasis on food is a trait she shares with many of those in China she reports on, and in many cases, it becomes their common ground.
Why food? Ang lets others she spoke to in China answer that in their own way. But let’s not contain the power of food to just China. As I read Ang’s “To the People, Food is Heaven,” I kept thinking of a reference that Norman Wirzba made in talks about his book, “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.”
A commentary on the gospel of Luke noted that “Jesus is always either on his way to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal,” suggesting the unmatched significance that food plays in ministry and in fellowship. I don’t mention this to introduce theology into the discussion of food or to distract from or obscure Ang’s work. Instead, I think Ang provides a present, relevant example of just how much food connects us — all of us — to one another, and the potential it has to be the commonality that brings disparate groups together or that can be the first manageable step that hurting people take to heal. Food, it turns out, is our base.
Of course, too many ingredients can lead to an overwrought meal or drown out the basic flavors that give dishes the beginnings they need to form a rich, distinct, complete product. But Ang pulls off a book-length narrative and report that only a skilled and talented AP writer like she can manage. She doesn’t provide us with a memoir, an autobiography, a cookbook, a book about food, or a historical account. And she doesn’t offer a sentimental look at her time in China. Rather, she serves us a journalese portrait of modern China and a detailed example of how food girds humanity. How savoring.
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