One rainy January day Dan Shafer and I collaborated on a photo shoot with photographer Josh Samson. I requested that the shoot capture a cover photo, as well as document letters, slides, and ephemera for Dan to add to the visual mix of the book. It was a day of gratitude for my pack rat sensibilities. Dan would add these new images to his growing collection of my sketchbooks and personal photos I’d already provided.
Josh’s home studio linked his camera to his laptop, so we could immediately see each image in greater detail. After staging my cover shot, we moved through my life one item at a time: old passports, party favors (photographed above), and a stiff section of Wisconsin birch bark were put under the lights. Dan frontloaded the process so that the most difficult shots were tackled first, with the easiest ones left for the end of the day.
Outside of a lunch break, we worked steadily. Dan and I arranged the items; Josh manipulated his camera and the lighting. Josh took multiple shots of each item until we all agreed we had a winner. Josh’s biggest coup was capturing slides illuminated through a light box he’d devised at my request. This required three exposures that he would later overlay in Photoshop. Huzzah!
I walked away that day with a new batch of memories in digital form and a cover. These visuals made the book feel more tangible and I was motivated for the homestretch of final drafts and layout.
If asked the question, “If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be?” I’d forgo my obvious answers (Stephin Merritt, Gandhi, and Rose Wilder Lane) and immediately choose Fuschia Dunlop. Her writing leads me to believe her conversational skills sparkle, but more to the point, I’d insist we meet in China.
Her memoir, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” has been happily added to my running list of books I recommend to people who want a window into the Middle Kingdom. It doesn’t hurt that China stole my heart with its culinary offerings, so I’m partial to Dunlop’s prose in Shark’s, which takes the reader on an unforgettable gastro-tour of her first year in the country. There were times I swore she’d snuck a peek at my journals from the early 90s in Kunming.
Dunlop continues to write on all things edible and China, and she recently popped up in the Financial Times, covering the emergence of upper-middle class demand in China for “green food products,” such as camellia nut oil or black sesame paste. These products often involve small batches, traditional methods of production, and greater control of quality.
As China continues to hurtle forward with industrialization and ever-taller sky-scrapers (they just passed Germany as the largest exporting economy), this reconsideration of traditional methods, or “artisan” foods, may be a welcome counterbalance to the sometimes blind fascination with all things modern and new. Furthermore, demand needs to grow to maintain these traditions, which are often passed down generation to generation and demand a craftsmanship and commitment on the part of the producer.