Sunday, January 13, 2013

Audra Ang’s long journey to digest the cultural power of food

Like Dorothy on her journey to Oz, Audra Ang had an opportunity to travel far from her comfort zone to experience a world in which she had connections but felt like a stranger. The environment she experienced was just as bizarre in its extremes of hospitality and threat, and it took a long journey home to fully understand it.

Audra Ang
Ang chronicles the seven years she spent in China as an Associated Press reporter in her compelling new memoir, To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China (Lyons Press, 2012). She will talk about her experiences - which vary from savoring home cooked meals and reporting about dissidents to spending weeks amid the heartbreaking rubble of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - at Wednesday’s meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC). The free talk gets under way at 7 p.m. at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, where she will sign copies of the book.

For one of her last assignments in China, before she returned to accept a prestigious Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, Ang was asked to write a story that would reflect the span of her tenure. “I came up with a few ideas that were all shot down,” recalls Ang, who recently located to Durham and works at Duke University. “I decided to just write what I wanted to write about, which was food.”

Ang realized that having food, and especially not having food, played a role in most of the reports she filed while abroad. It may have started with the novelty of a foodstuff not often consumed in America, but she quickly came to appreciate the satisfying burn of sweat-inducing spice and, later, the calming aroma of a hot meal amid sickening decay.

“I wrote four vignettes involving food, but I always felt there was so much more to the story,” Ang says. “The article always felt unfinished to me. It was the one thing I felt strongly enough to commit to the need to turn it into a book.”

Ang traveled from Boston to Berkeley to focus on the yearlong project. “It was the most emotionally difficult thing I’ve ever done,” she says, explaining that she retreated to a cottage where she would write all night, sleep from morning to afternoon, then start again.

She did not return to China during this period and instead relied on her reporter’s notebooks and thousands of collected photographs. They were especially valuable in drafting the difficult final chapter about the catastrophic earthquake. The 7.9 temblor provoked global outrage when reporters revealed that thousands of children needlessly died in the wreckage of poorly-built schools.

“The last chapter is my favorite, but I sometimes worry that it’s too intense,” says Ang, who details unfathomable horrors in a restrained tone that nonetheless makes a reader’s heart race. Woven throughout is the importance of food as more than mere nutrient.

“Food is a very central part of life in China. Indirectly, I think cooking and receiving food did help people to heal,” she says. She tells the story of a mother and her critically injured son, who at first refused to eat but eventually asked for his favorite meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “She knew it meant that he was getting better. It fills a bit of the emptiness you feel after so much loss.”

Ang’s own initial connection to the earthquake has a link to food. She and a photographer were having lunch hundreds of miles away when they felt the restaurant suddenly rock. They had been reporting about babies who died from ingesting counterfeit formula, but it turned out they were closer to the epicenter than other colleagues. Ang manages to condense their harrowing journey, and the extraordinary weeks that follow, in 46 mesmerizing pages.

Ang is taking a break from such intense writing and is unsure if she wants to return journalism, though friends predict she will.

“Right now, I’m pretty happy to have a relaxed, stable, boring life,” she says with a laugh. “I have a good job in a wonderful city. I am excited and grateful that’s there is so much great food in one area.”

While glad to have found delicious Chinese and Vietnamese fare close by, Ang says she is especially enjoying her exploration of Southern cuisine. She finds contentment in a place that celebrates both traditional foods and cutting-edge cooks.

“Food is a big part of living in the South, too,” she says. “I’ve found that it usually it takes a year to settle into a place, but I’ve met great such people, including people who are very involved in the local food scene. I can see myself being happy here for a long time.”

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