We're about a month too early with this post - it's not even Thanksgiving yet! But this morning two Saveur-subscribing readers emailed to tell me that they'd just received the December issue. So I thought I'd share a story.
Ten years ago we were living in Shanghai, where Dave was managing the local branch office of his employer, a San Francisco-based trading company, and I was doing research for a dissertation on pre-Revolution rural tax protests (not as dry a topic as it sounds), commuting to Nanjing and its massive Republican-era archives during the week.
One of the meals that I remember best from those years I ate in Anhui province, in a small village where the farmers - like most in China - were dirt poor and ground down from years of excessive taxation visited upon them by rapacious and corrupt cadres (local officials). I'd come to conduct interviews with elderly farmers and to mine the local archives, and as a foreign researcher in need of access to otherwise off-limits documents I was obliged to host those cadres one night at a banquet - and afterwards, at a dank karaoke club, where they availed themselves of the services of the bar girls, on my tab. When I left the club that evening sleaze enveloped me like a wetsuit.
The next day the cadres left me and my Chinese graduate student assistant blissfully alone. After spending the better part of eight hours beating our heads against the brick wall that was the archive bureaucracy (never did get to lay eyes on those documents, by the way - but at least the cadres enjoyed their night out) we wandered through the village in search of something to ease our frustration, eventually finding it in the form of a dirt-floored one-wok eatery with a single wooden table and six short stools.
There wasn't anything particularly special on offer, just simple dishes that my Shanghai friends would have disdainfully labelled 'peasant food': boiled thick-skinned dumplings light on meat and heavy on Chinese chives, cabbage stir-fried with dried chilies, tofu cooked with a spoonful of chopped pork and a fistful of Sichuan peppercorns, translucent-thin slices of pork stir-fried with tomatoes and coins of ginger, potato and green pepper matchsticks pulled from the wok when the potato was still crisp-tender. The cook was an old man who'd somehow or other lost his land (that was never really 'his' to begin with, this being China) and oh my, was he gifted. Everything tasted so good, a hundred times better than all the dolled up, expensive dishes we'd eaten at the previous night's banquet. Honest food cooked by an honest man. This is the kind of Chinese food that I loved then and still do, and though it was getting increasingly hard to find in Shanghai and even Nanjing, it was the sort that most Chinese people still ate. It was also the sort of Chinese food that, back then, you'd never read about in most American food magazines.
At the time I subscribed to a new publication called Saveur. I'd picked up a copy on a trip back to the States and liked it immediately. It distinguished itself from other food magazines by featuring stories about and photographs of the kinds of people and foods that I recognized from China - real people in all sorts of kitchens cooking and eating real dishes (Gourmet wasn't as 'out there' with its food/travel articles as it sometimes is now). No photographs of staged parties with slim models pretending to eat styled food. Just regular food from around the world, in all its often messy glory. I remember thinking that this Anhui cook and his stir-fried pork and tomatoes would make a great Saveur story.
Saigon, 5 years later. By then, after leaving China with a bad taste for political research in my mouth and discovering back at UC Berkeley that I really didn't care for teaching, I'd pretty much abandoned my dissertation, though I hadn't admitted it to myself yet. I finally had admitted to myself, however, that I was obsessed with food and what it means to different people in different places. I knew that I loved writing, and that the best thing about my China research was that it gave me an entree into the lives of ordinary people, an excuse and a means by which to get outside my comfort zone (I'm quite shy) and connect with, well, just about anyone willing to engage. I just didn't know yet what to do with all that.
But I was still reading Saveur. One day Dave, who's been photographing since long before we met, was perusing an issue that included an article on Thai Isaan food by now-Editor-in-Chief James Oseland. 'Hey,' he said, pointing at the piece, 'wouldn't it be great to do something like this, to photograph and write about people and places and food, together?'
Looooong story short, the December issue of Saveur includes our feature article on Christmas in the small town of Arayat, Pampanga, the Philippines. Talk about coming full circle, huh? Or something like that, anyway. The article includes four recipes that should change the mind of any Philippine food skeptic, including one for 'real' adobo and the famous (to some Manilans) Medina ensaimada.
While seeing the article in print will be a rush (15 months is quite a long lead time and it is our first major feature article, after all), it won't match the amazing experience we had last Christmas in Arayat, a tiny town that opened its heart to a couple of Americans who made nuisances of themselves with their cameras and their questions. And it can't match our gratitude to the Medinas, who so graciously opened their Arayat home to us, as well as to Lucia and her family (to know who Lucia is, you'll have to read the story instead of just looking at the photos), who welcomed us with open arms and fed us more deliciously than words can ever describe. I gave it the old college try in the article, though.
Update: Here's a pdf of the article. "Days of Feasting", Saveur December 2008