Monday, November 18, 2019

The Art of Escapism Cooking by Mandy Lee

Look, the only thing I'd like to cook at seven in the morning -- as I lie in bed with residual resentments from the day before and looming despair about the day ahead --is the people who say they love cooking breakfast. Who are these people? I imagine their breakfasts taste like denial buttered up with overcompensating enthusiasm.

Cookbooks are so much more than lists of recipes anymore. Some are really just about the pretty pictures or the personality of their author. Many are attempts to catch a popular trend, usually of the 'diet' variety.

Mandy Lee's cookbook might have mouthwatering pictures and a strong sense of her acerbic personality, but it's also a travel memoir, a biography, a Dear John; or, as the subtitle succinctly summarizes: a survival story.

I'm not sure I've ever really found myself thinking about how well a cookbook meets a political moment, however, until this one. (Which is a shame, because food is so much a part of culture, identity, class, economics, history...) In particular, Lee's comments and thoughts on her experience in China feel prescient given the unfolding protests in Hong Kong. I've never found a cookbook that has perfect matched a revolutionary moment. (Bettina Makalintal's piece in Vice says this all waaaaaay better than I.)

The Art of Escapism Cooking: A Survival Story, with Intensely Good Flavors by Mandy Lee
William Morrow Cookbooks, 2019
Copy from publisher for blog tour

Of Taiwanese heritage, Lee leaves New York City for Hong Kong, and then mainland China, because of her husband's job. The increasing culture shock and change was the catalyst for Lee's blog from which this cookbook was drawn. The recipes are a mix of nostalgic tastes Lee was trying to recreate as well as attempts at particular meals she was craving. As such, it's not an easy cookbook to summarize, but it is one that held my wife and I in thrall. In between her recipes, where many cookbook authors wax about their farms or airy kitchens or the colors of the produce that inspire them, Lee instead shares slices of her frustration, anger, inspiration, and delight of her life in Shanghai.

We're huge cookbook fans, with friends who love cookbooks. We purchase new releases for each other and spend time searching out-of-print ones that seem intriguing or have legendary promise.The usefulness of a cookbook really varies; I don't mind one that's mostly food porn -- great light and dramatic styling -- but my wife and our friends value a cookbook that helps a home cook recreate the specific meals shared. Especially when it comes to dishes and cuisines that depend on technique and unique ingredients.

Lee's cookbook is mouthwatering and slightly terrifying. Her recipes are not a home cook adaptation of a complicated meal; her recipe is the complicated meal. Gorgeous, detailed ramen and other noodle dishes. The pork and crackling burger pictured on the cover. A variety of condiments and sauces that are electrifying and absolutely crucial (garlic confit, yes; her orange chile sambal, yes; fried shallots, dry and wet, yes). In attempting them, we discovered they are worth the effort and the time, as much as any other complicated, delicious meal; the flavors were surprising, intense, and very, very good.

This isn't to say that Lee's cookbook is unapproachable to novice cooks; in fact, Lee's opening breaks down -- with images -- her pantry necessities, the ingredients that some US home cooks might not be completely familiar with. The entire opening section of condiments is a gold mine, as are her egg-based recipes. There's really something for everyone here (even dog lovers: Lee shares her recipes for beloved dogs).

This cookbook is unforgettable, intimidating, and so real. It's really set the bar for future cookbooks, honestly: I want more cookbooks that are honest about the world we're in and the way food is part of that.


  1. You've piqued my interest - I need to check this out.

    1. Yesssssssssssss! I hope you love it. I can't wait to try one of the more complicated recipes -- the ramen and other noodle dishes seem like they'll be perfect for a snow day.

  2. I really love your review! As someone who cooks a fair amount, and who feels the need to talk about what's going on politically, I could totally see myself falling into a similar hole that the author did.

    Thank you for being on this tour!

    1. !! Once again, wishing we were neighbors so we could have political dinner club. Also, you'll love this book -- it really has me wishing for more cookbooks of resistance. xo