"Chairman Mao adored red-braised pork," Fuchsia Dunlop learned from the dictator's distant relative -- also named Mao. She found Chairman Mao's native village of Shaoshan to be full of such relatives. They still profit, she observed, from a lively tourist industry of Chinese visitors who revere the one-time leader.
Mao's family home was carefully preserved: "no opportunity for communist propaganda is missed." Throughout Shaoshan's province of Hunan and the rest of China, Dunlop found a surprising view of Mao as "the last great leader of China.. ..They smile a little sadly when they reflect on his 'mistake,' the Cultural Revolution, but they forgive him: after all, doesn't everybody make mistakes?"
Dunlop's book Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China combines her experiences traveling, learning Chinese, discovering a wide range of Chinese regional cooking, and exploring villages and cities where Westerners rarely travel. In visiting Mao's home in Shaoshan, she focused on the kitchen with meat-smoking racks over an old wood-burning range and an open fire with a blackened kettle suspended above it. Dunlop talked to a local official about Maoist cookery and collected the red-braised pork recipe with its seasoning of star anise, ginger, and chili. Another tourist might have had a different focus. Hers is always on food.
To the end of his life, she found, Mao's eating habits were those of a Hunanese peasant. He told a Soviet envoy "that you couldn't be a revolutionary if you didn't eat chillies." He disliked Chinese haute cuisine, and preferred rustic dishes such as steamed bacon, smoked fish with chilli, bean curd, cabbage, wild vegetables, and "the coarse grains that were normally the last resort of the rural poor."
Above all, Mao despised those who ate well and wasted food to show off their wealth or power while others went hungry. Throughout the book, Dunlop documents the destruction of Chinese traditional court and restaurant cooking during the Cultural Revolution. She also frequently mentions the mass starvation caused in 1958 by the Great Leap Forward. Peasants were forced into collectives and their cooking pots were melted down to make steel. A mass wave of self-deception and bad faith resulted in a famine during which at least thirty million people died. She often remarked on the lasting impact of these events on the food preferences and habits of people she met.
Dunlop's ability to create a vivid image of history through her own experiences is amazing. Her tour of Mao's home town is only one of many chapters. As she apprenticed in restaurant kitchens, ate at home or in restaurants with many common and not-so-common people, and learned several regional languages, she learned food and culinary customs of China. The combination of food history, political and social history, and personal experience makes her book extremely readable.
(Quotes about Mao: p. 175-179)