The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, is one of my favorite books of all time.
This book is not ABOUT food, but food plays an important part in the book--actual food, occasions for food, food as metaphor and simile, and food as symbol.
The Joy Luck Club is a group of four women from China who meet after they immigrate to America. They get together once a month to play mah jong, eat, and tell stories. The original Joy Luck Club was formed in China, by one of the current members, Suyuan Woo.
The story begins when Suyuan Woo's grown daughter, June, is drafted to sit in for her mother after her mother's death. She already knows that her mother was forced to abandon twin baby girls in 1944, when the Japanese invaded China. The night she sits in for her mother, she learns that her mother never stopped trying to find those girls again, and that a letter had finally come from them. The other members of the Joy Luck Club "aunties" and "uncles" have bought June a ticket to fly to China to meet her sisters and tell them all about their mother.
That's what I think the heart of this book really is: the connections between generation and generation, particularly as it is passed from mother to daughter. It's about communication that doesn't work through words, but is absorbed and assimilated like food.
The book is broken into four sections, and each section is broken into four chapters. Each of the sections is prefaced by a short piece like the one about the woman with the swan, with nothing to say what woman and what daughter is being written about. The way the storylines are chopped and mixed, too, make it a little difficult to keep them straight. Amy Tan is such a good writer, though, I think she did that on purpose, to show that all the mothers and all the daughters--all US mothers and all US daughters--are almost the same, as well as not the same thing at all.
The first section, Feathers From a Thousand Li Away, tells stories of the Joy Luck aunties' childhoods, except for the first chapter I just told you about, which is told from June Woo's point of view. In the second section, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, the oldest daughter of each auntie tells stories of her own childhood, and how her mother doesn't know anything, doesn't understand how things work in America, how her mother is old-fashioned, embarassing, and just plain hateful. The third section, American Translation, is also from the daughters' points of view, but now they finally begin to understand.
As I said, food is mentioned in some way or another in every chapter. Sometimes it's pivotal, it's just in passing, sometimes its meaning is subtle, and sometimes it's used as a reference that anyone will understand.
Before she has to run from the Japanese, Suyuan hides in one of the thousands of caves outside the town of Kwelin. She says that after a while in the dark cave, "you become like a starving person, crazy-hungry for light." She says that in Kwelin there were refugees from all parts of China, all statuses and all occupations: "We were a city of leftovers mixed together."
When Waverly Jong's brother is given a chess set with two pieces missing, she bribes him to let her play by offering to let him use two of her Lifesaver candies as the missing men, with the winner getting to eat the candy after the game. She becomes a national chess prodigy.
Lena St. Claire's mother encourages her to eat all her rice by telling her that every grain of rice she leaves in her bowl will be a pockmark on her future husband's face. Lena decides immediately that this future husband is Arnold, the meanest boy she knows. Then she sees a film about leprosy, and she knows what she has to do: she has to leave so much food that Arnold will get leprosy.
When Lena gets chicken pox, her mother feeds her porridge flavored with chicken broth "because one chicken knew how to fight another."
But my favorite part of the book, and it's about food from start to finish, is the final chapter of the third section, Best Quality, from June Woo's point of view. June remembers the last New Year's dinner her mother cooked.
Suyuan Woo bought and cooked eleven crabs, one for each person she had invited plus one extra. One of the crabs was missing a leg, which was bad luck, but it didn't matter, because it was the extra one.
She hadn't counted on Waverly Jong giving her little girl one of the crabs, but Waverly did. She picked the best quality crab for her little girl, the next best for her fiance, and the next best for herself. Finally, the only crabs left are the one with a missing leg and an odd-colored one. June takes the one with the missing leg, leaving her mother with the last one, which Suyuan doesn't eat. In the kitchen later, where June is hurting from Waverly's put-downs and posturing, she asks her mother why she didn't eat her crab. Her mother says the crab was dead before she cooked it, but she had to cook it and serve it so there would be an abundance. June asks what would have happened if somebody else had taken that crab, and her mother says,
"Only you pick that crab. Nobody else take it. I aslready know this. Everybody else want best quality. You thinking different." She said it in a way as if this were proof--proof of something good.
In the final chapter, June Woo and her father fly to China to meet the "babies" Suyuan had to leave behind. On the way, June's father tells her more about what happened. Suyuan left Kwelin carrying her babies, two suitcases, a bag of clothes and a bag of rice, with some money and jewelry sewn into the lining of her skirt. Gradually, like all the other refugees, she had to drop everything she was carrying until all she had left were her babies and some family photographs. Finally, she was certain she and her babies were going to die. She put the babies a little way off the road and tucked money and jewelry into their blankets. She left the photographs, the babies' names, her and her husband's names, where their families could be contacted, and a note promising a reward to anyone who would see that the babies were returned to their family safely. Then she went off out of sight to die where her babies couldn't see. She lost consciousness. When she came around, she had been "rescued" by American missionaries who didn't speak Chinese. She never saw her babies again, but she never gave up writing to anyone she remembered from China whose address she could find, asking them to help. Finally, an old school friend two women together who looked just like Suyuan in a department store. She had found the "babies."
Everything from the meaning of the Christian communion service to our own family experience makes this a true book, not just for Chinese mothers and daughters but for everyone.