By Felix Poon, AsAmNews Staff writer
In 1937, Life Magazine published a black and white World War II era photograph of a crying baby in a bombed Shanghai train station. What happened to the baby?—many wondered. That mystery is at the center of a children’s book based on a true story by Tiffany Foo, Ruby Foo and the Traveling Kitchen: Finding the Foo Identity.
Ruby, the teenage protagonist of the book, sees the photo one day in history class. “The black and white photograph on the screen…struck me hard. It was of a little baby crying amidst wreckage and rubble. It was haunting,” Ruby narrates. Then she thinks to herself, “Where have I seen that before? Why is it so eerily familiar?”
It turns out that her grandfather, Gong Gong, is the key to solving the mystery of the photo. But he’s tight-lipped. Ruby describes him as “one of the most disagreeable people you’ll ever meet. His words can be hotter than the gas flame on a cooking range.”
“[Gong Gong] is a blend of real life and fiction,” Foo told AsAmNews. The character is based on Foo’s father, Ronald Foo.
“I found that most children, including my own…really love a character that is gruff, but really a teddy bear underneath,…that’s more or less my father.”
“When I first started cooking with him,” Ruby continues, “it was like trial by fire—one mistake, and I knew I’d never set foot in his kitchen again. Gong Gong’s a diehard Red Sox fan, but he doesn’t give anyone three strikes.”
In real life, Ronald Foo was adopted in 1938 by famous Boston restauranteur Ruby Foo. Foo ’s grandmother was one of the earliest female Chinese restaurant owners in the country, according to the Chinese Historical Society of New England. Her restaurant Ruby Foo’s Den successfully catered to non-Chinese and celebrity clientele.
The book is interspersed with recipes of classic Cantonese dishes like pan-fried noodles and soy sauce chicken, recipes that Ronald Foo passed on to Foo from her grandmother.
“My father’s very proud of me with the book and the idea…he was so moved and grateful when he heard about the archaeological dig in Boston,” Foo said, referring to an archaeological dig in Boston’s Chinatown this summer on the site of the restaurant’s former location. Foo spoke at the dig’s opening ceremony about her grandmother.
“It was just a chance to recognize and remember his mom. [Ruby Foo] was an extraordinary female minority, [she] was such a successful entrepreneur during such a difficult time period,” Foo said.
Foo explained that her book is the first in a series chronicling her protagonist traveling the world learning about different foods and cultures.
“Empathy is so important right now, and I just feel like it’s just a very small thing that I can do to promote heritage and embrace all cultures, similar to what my grandmother did,” Foo said.
“She embraced cultures and diversity…welcoming those different ethnicities into her restaurant and mentoring aspiring chefs in the Boston area, it’s just inspiring to me.”
In addition to the Spain installment of Ruby Foo’s Traveling Kitchen series, Foo is also working on a historical fiction novel about her grandmother. She plans to include more details about Ronald Foo’s adoption in the novel.
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff or submitting a story