The recently released Secrets of the Red Lantern is a beautiful book. The photography is warm, despite a muted palette. Decorative patterns add a great deal to the appeal of every recipe page. The fabric cover of the book reproduces a silk image of a tree's branches and blossoms in the upper half, and the handwritten name of the author (and family) on a red background in the lower half.
I had seen pre-release promotional materials for Secrets of the Red Lantern and was more than a little enthusiastic about seeing the final product. When I finally saw the real thing I grabbed it immediately. Beautiful.
I've spent the last few days reading it; I'm sad and frustrated. Despite the visual attraction and the promise of delicious food, Secrets of the Red Lantern has some profound flaws which could greatly mar the experience for some readers.
More about that below, but first a brief description of the content.
The blurb on the back of the book says:
Secrets of the Red Lantern overflows with sumptuous, traditional recipes, perfected and passed down from Pauline Nguyen's parents and presented night after night to great acclaim at the successful Vietnamese restaurant Red Lantern.
Much more than a cookbook, it is the honest, revealing story of the Nguyen family – starting with their escape from Vietnam during the war and their eventual settlement in Australia.
At the heart of this book is a love for food – it helped to ease homesickness, became central to their early success in Australia and, in the end, reconciled the family and helped create Red Lantern's success.
Lavishly illustrated with personal and food photography, Secrets of the Red Lantern now unlocks the Nguyen's secret recipes so that we can understand their creation and share the family's passion.
A large part of the book is devoted to Pauline Nguyen's personal narrative of her family's experience, with many interesting photos to add life and colour. Each section of the book begins with a number of pages of text and photos, and is then followed by a handful of recipes. The story is not a pleasant one. Few Australians have much understanding of the refugee experience or, more to the point, the Australian Vietnamese experience. It is good to see an attempt to recount the conditions under which people escaped Vietnam to seek a new life, how they were treated as refugees in camps and then in Australia, and how they and their community have struggled and changed over the last thirty years here.
Combining this narrative with the theme of food is logical for this family, and many of the most evocative books on food combine personal adventure, experience, or suffering with the web of memory and emotion sustained by food. However, the story of this family involves so much suffering — much of it in Australia and at the hands of the writer's father — that I found it uncomfortable to be reading their story in the context of what is clearly meant to be a cookbook. By 'uncomfortable' I don't mean confronting or disquieting to my sensibilities; instead, I felt that the narrative was out of place for the type of work that this volume represents. This should quite possibly have been two entirely separate books: the family story, and a cookbook. A raw, unhappy description of — in part — a group of children's experiences at the hands of a tyrannical father is difficult to squeeze comfortably between the covers of a cookbook.
Naturally, this is a subjective issue and others might not mind it. However, there are other significant objective issues that spoilt it for me, but I think the human interest focus will leave many readers reluctant to criticise the story and tolerant of the flaws.
The publishers know their marketing requirements and created a package that would sell itself. You are, after all, pretty much guaranteed a winner in the soft lifestyle market if you bundle (1) excellent production values, (2) beautiful pictures of food, (3) a strong human interest story, and (4) a cuisine that many people like but few know much about.
If you just want a book that looks great, has interesting recipes and delicious photography, then this is certainly a good book. The food is a modern, personal perspective on Vietnamese cuisine, as served at the Red Lantern restaurant, and the book successfully communicates the concept of Vietnamese food being about individual tastes and preferences.
If, on the other hand, you expect some fairly basic standards of writing and editing in something that aims to be much more than an unpretentious recipe book, then reader beware!
My commentary below is fairly unflattering (but don't doubt my enthusiasm about the food). In criticising Secrets of the Red Lantern, I run the risk that some readers who focus on the symbolic value of the book will be unaccepting of the analysis that follows. They have the choice of not reading further, or of reading and then commenting at the end if they so wish (but please keep it reasoned and civil).
[UPDATE: In an email from Murdoch Books received as I was finalising this review, they confirmed that sales had been excellent and that my views weren't 'widely shared' among the media reactions so far.]
Recipes and food
If you want to skip the detail about the editorial flaws in the recipes, click here to go to the next section.
Attractive and tasty, the range of recipes is interesting and promising. Many start with comments from chefs Luke Nguyen or Matthew Hansen. If you cook from this book I think you will enjoy many pleasurable meals.
The recipes have been written/edited with an international audience in mind, meaning that many amounts appear in metric, Imperial and cups. Many ingredients also have alternative names in parentheses. This is thoughtful, though at times makes for cumbersome text. There are also some inconsistencies and omissions.
Yields for soups and stocks are stated in litres, fluid ounces and cups, and here things give a clue to the strange approach to this book.
250 ML (9 FL OZ/1 CUP)
15 LITRES (525 FL OZ/60 CUPS)
It would seem that the Imperial measures are for a UK audience, despite the USA being the place that is most clearly unmetricated. This matters only a little bit if converting small amounts, as a 'US customary unit' fluid ounce is 29.6 ml, while the old Imperial fluid ounce is 28.4 ml, but is nonetheless a curious choice.
Restating 15 litres of stock as 525 fl oz is more than a little idiosyncratic (not to mention incorrect). Never heard of pints? The cup measures are Australian (though this is never mentioned) rather than American, contrary to what you might expect from the mention of ounces immediately preceding them.
It's odd, again, to choose UK Imperial measures when the majority of the parenthetic renaming of ingredients is for an American audience (e.g., shrimp, cilantro), though with the occasional UK accommodation (aubergines, mangetout).
Then we have a few instances of brand-specified products – something that makes life difficult for anyone who doesn't have access to that particular product:
red curry powder ('Ayam' brand)
crabmeat paste with soya bean oil ('Pork Wan' brand)
And there's the curious choice of specifying 'makrut (kaffir lime) leaves' in a recipe. The number of Australian readers who will recognise the term makrut is miniscule. So why prefer it over the common one (kaffir lime)?
Here, in the ingredients, is where the book fails to live up to a cook's expectations: a gorgeous volume about Vietnamese food, one of the few available anywhere, yet it fails to explain less familiar ingredients (no glossary or explanation for rice paddy herb, sawtooth coriander, perilla, 'Vietnamese basil', rau kinh gioi, 'nem powder' and more) or to provide a coherent picture of how everything should come together in Vietnamese cuisine.
The recipes seem, thank goodness, to work.
The narrative and the lack of an editor
Pauline Nguyen has a sad, valuable, and at times fascinating story to tell. Like the majority of authors, her prose would normally have gone through an editorial filter to produce something fairly tight, reasonably well expressed and mostly interesting. It's a pity, then, that this work is modern Australian English, blog style, ranging from stylish description to jarring officialese to clichéed emptiness to rambling diarising and back again. I wrote to Murdoch Books to ask if there is a new philosophy of 'raw author's voice' taking hold.
I doubt — without even a pinch of exaggeration — that a copy editor laid eyes on the manuscript, as the problems in the text are consistent throughout. And not just trifling matters that an uptight editor might carp on about (split infinitives, starting sentences with 'and', misplaced commas, etc). No, this is undisciplined text which needed help. At times it looks like someone writing a bit above the linguistic 'register' they are comfortable with, and sometimes it's just modern ignorance about language (malapropisms, agonised metaphors, etc). And there's almost certainly a good dose of non-native speaker in the prose as well. I don't mean that patronisingly — many of the register problems, mismatching tenses and malapropism/confusion phenomena can be found in non-native speaker writers and weak native speaker writers alike. Making editing decisions about this kind of text is important and sensitive. (I won't go into the linguistic background to this, as I think that's probably a distraction.)
Editors are meant to iron out these bumps whilst retaining the author's underlying voice. Perhaps because this is such a skilfully packaged cookbook, Murdoch Books couldn't be bothered doing the extra work?
[UPDATE: The email from Murdoch Books indicated that there had indeed been editors and proofreaders involved. I bite my tongue.]
I also feel there is a lack of depth to the food theme. It's fine to use gastronomic metaphors and to recount meals or dishes and their occasional symbolism, but there is little explanation, cultural history or context for the food — the narrative will leave the uninitiated only a little wiser as to what most Vietnamese food is.
Meanwhile, statements like the following are bland and dismissive:
There is great fondness and respect dedicated by food writers and pho obsessives alike to the national soup of Vietnam. … Pho has integrated so completely into Australian society that there is no longer the need to refer to it as 'beef noodle soup' – everyone knows what pho is. p191
Sure, as long as they live in a major metropolitan area and have actually been to a Vietnamese restaurant.
I started reading this book with enthusiasm. At first I was irritated by the poor quality of the prose. Then I gradually found myself angry with the publishers for mistreating an author in this manner. I've criticised Pauline Nguyen's writing here, but the important point is that it's probably not her fault that it made it into a book in this way. The publishers seem to have let down both the author and the readers.
I haven't included examples in most of this critique. Some can be found below, without any commentary from me. If you don't find anything jarring in them, then you will probably find the narrative less distracting than I did, in which case I encourage you to enjoy the book and its recipes.
In the mornings, Lewis, Luke and I would wake up weary-eyed to the smell of old alcohol, dirty dishes and stale cigarettes, and knowing a big job laid waiting for us. p76
The United Nations representatives gave him the occasional job of translating menial documents. p107
He had received such a beating that blood poured freely from his nose and his once slanted eyes swelled like two bloated goose livers. Then the soldiers declared that Linh be thrown into the gaol cell, the Vietnamese surged forward in uproar, only to be stopped dead in their tracks by ten heated rifles. p110
The soldiers lowered their arms when Paul Jones, the program director of the camp, summonsed my father for a private meeting. p110
She was an American who spoke the Queen's English and liked to elongate her words by curling her 'r's and rounding her 'o's as though her mouth and lips were permanently wrapped around a tight cumquat. p113
In the kitchen, I helped my mother set up the mis en plus while my father greeted his regular breakfast customers. p182 [original emphasis]
Over time, the wounds healed and the bruises faded as the entire community banded together, determined to fix the issues affecting it. Residents walked the streets with members of the local government, pointing out areas that needed attention. The state government's participation saw the installation of closed circuit security cameras, improved street lighting, widening of footpaths, removal of vegetation and the increase in pedestrian police. p189
I can still recall the stench of my fear when I stepped onto the wrong train going home from school one day. It was overcast – the claustrophobic clouds had already descended with an air of nervous anxiety. In a flutter of lateness, I had mistakenly caught the express train … p223f
How it aches my heart that your tears are dry. How my body trembles that you cry only deep inside. p225
The Parisian daylight had yet to become night, even at the late hour of half past eleven in the evening. An unnatural stillness filled the air as the city waited for darkness to truly fall before the night-owl activities commenced. The sun, in its mysterious glory, had cast a warm majestic hue over the city's beige limestone walls, setting her aglow in magical pink-orange luminosity. p285