A few months before our manuscript was due, our editor Jean sent us an email. Had we been thinking about a picture for the book cover? Did we already have a travel photo of us that would work? The publishing deadline was creeping up and she needed an image as soon as possible.
The truth was it hadn’t crossed our minds once. Nate and I were living in Beijing at the time . . . researching, writing, re-writing, cooking, traveling, photographing, recipe testing, eating. The cover? Somehow we thought that would just make itself. We looked through every last photo we had of us on the road in China. In every one of them we looked as rough as our travel accommodations had been: bunk-beds on multi-day-long train rides, overnight buses, $4 hostels, tents, village huts, yurts, etc. I eyed the copy of Everyday Italian that I had brought with me (the one where Giada De Laurentiis looks like a boobalicious goddess on the cover) and I knew Nate and I had to at least look presentable if this was going to sell. That would start with both of us leaving Nate’s apartment that we had been cooped up in for weeks cooking and writing like crazy and fueled by zillions of cans of Chinese Red Bull. Out into the sunlight we went.
We location scouted around the city—all the famous spots: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Gulou. But in the end, we settled on a hidden winding hutong alleyway in Anmen, just south of Tiananmen Square. Beijing is a massive city (NYC feels small in comparison!) with skyscrapers and shopping centers going up like erector sets, but its real charm lies in its back roads and off-the-map noodle shops.
The alley on the book cover is actually the narrowest alley in Beijing. We caused quite the scene that day--blocking it mid-day with our bicycles, a photographer and a full lighting set. The tricky part was explaining what we were doing! Two foreigners taking a photograph for a book could mean trouble . . .
What we said instead was that we were taking wedding photos--a very common sight in China. This was completely understandable. So there I was, doing a "wedding photo shoot" with my brother and drawing a huge crowd. "Get closer!" people chided. “Wishing you one-hundred years of good companionship”, went someone’s well wishes. "Why are you posing on bicycles with baskets full of groceries?”another asked.
Thanks to Jonney Leijonhufvud, an amazing photographer and friend who lives in Beijing, the shot we got for the cover captures the chaotic charm and endearing spontaneity of China. The woman on the right next to us on the cover was a confused passerby. I think she’s thinking “That is one ugly wedding outfit.” The woman behind her owns the dumpling shop to the right and she kept bringing out her cat so that he could join us for the photos. Just behind us, but out of sight, a man on a tricycle loaded with recycled plastic bottles is screaming at Nate to move so he can pass through the alley. The bikes we’re on are the same ones we rode all around the 50 square mile city, pedaling groceries home from the market to cook and test for the book. Those are bean thread noodles in my basket and the that’s a bitter melon, radishes, and yard-long green bean in Nate’s.
After beginning our book six years ago, it comes out in stores today. We couldn’t be more thrilled! When we go into a bookstore this afternoon and see it on the shelves, it'll be an amazing thrill. Most of all, we are excited to show you our story of China--its history, delicious foods, friendly people, amazing culture, and adventures down every alley.