Food by VICE

Mandy Lee's Food Is Pretty, But the Emotions Behind It Aren't Always

Feeling isolated in Beijing, cooking became a dark obsession for Mandy Lee, the blogger known as Lady and Pups and author of the cookbook 'The Art of Escapism Cooking.'

by Bettina Makalintal
Oct 15 2019, 11:00am

Buffalo Fried Chicken Ramen from 'The Art of Escapism Cooking,' Photo Courtesy Mandy Lee

What most food bloggers sell is a fantasy: something curated and aspirational, the rough edges of emotion smoothed into something more palatable, and the food served alongside sentimental stories. Mandy Lee of Lady and Pups, a self-described "angry food blog," wants to talk about the uglier side of cooking: the obsessive side that kept her housebound for days at a time, forgoing new friends in a new city and ordering groceries online instead of going to the store. And yet, it's also the side that helped her escape an unhappy reality.

Started in 2012, Lady and Pups is now so established that it has spun-off into a book; Lee's moody cookbook-memoir, The Art of Escapism Cooking, was released by William Morrow today. But food blogging and cookbook writing wasn't always in the plans for Lee, who had trained as an architect, until an unexpected move to Beijing forced her hand. With hindsight on her side, Lee can now call it all a "survival story," as the book is billed (one with "intensely good flavors," at that). It didn't always seem like her life would end up this way.

Born in Taiwan, Lee had developed cooking as a hobby during her previous lives in Vancouver and New York City. It wasn't just a form of sustenance, but also a form of casual catharsis and, briefly, also a job. As a teenager, Lee had worked as a line cook in Vancouver's busy Chinatown, and although she studied architecture, she didn't like the reality of practicing so she left and started a small, home-cooked dog food delivery business.

With the 2008 recession looming, Lee, her husband, and their dogs followed his career out of the United States, first to Hong Kong and then to Beijing a year and a half later. Under the watch of the Chinese government, the tacit acceptance of the political system by people around her, and the heavy pollution, Lee was miserable. She told VICE, "And then [cooking] became something else."

In China, Lee didn't want to leave the house. "I've always enjoyed cooking, but in more of a mentally healthy way. I used to cook just like, you know, other college students, or like people who are too lazy to go out to eat. But it was never an obsessive thing," she said.

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Mandy Lee, Photo Courtesy Mandy Lee

"In Beijing, it was more like I didn't want to do anything else. I was cornered in a way. I didn't want to go outside, and I didn't have any friends. It was sort of this vacuum where I had nothing to do. I just took this hobby, and that's all I did, like 24/7," Lee explained. She cooked and cooked, less in order to feed herself and more to perfect recipes or keep herself occupied. After, she pawned the food off onto her husband, for whom Beijing presented an important work opportunity, and cooked more. "I don't think that I was aware at the time, but then, in hindsight, I was probably in a little bit of a depression."

Since she was constantly creating recipes, her husband suggested she put them online. Lee had never really considered blogging a job (she still doesn't, she said), and in a way, she found it pathetic, but she'd hit bottom anyway and had nothing to lose. "I was like, 'Fine, you know, my life is over. Let me be pathetic—I'll be a fucking blogger.' And so I started the blog," she said. Using a VPN to bypass the government's firewall, Lee started Lady and Pups, and because she was writing in English and on Wordpress, she said, most of her readers were from the Western world.

The blog became a way of keeping in touch with the world outside China and a journal for saying what was really on her mind. Beyond recipes and photography, the unexpected Lady and Pups became the raw and honest "misery outlet" for her new life. With her chicken rice, Lee grappled with transnationalism: "I think it’s safe to say that I’m a product of the environment of a shrinking globe. That I’m suffering from [an] identity crisis." With a recipe for festive mochi babka, she wrote, "It’s war, and the enemy must be eliminated. But the enemy in this case—is myself."

Lee didn't just feel at odds with herself, but with her environment and the people in it. Given her cultural background, she always knew that mainland China and Taiwan had a "very, very complicated political situation," but she wanted to approach the move to Beijing with an open mind. "I was kind of optimistic about it, because I'm like, propaganda is propaganda. I know some stuff I read about in our textbooks growing up is not true, so you know, I'm going to see for myself."

In Beijing, she found the political climate stifling. "I love to talk about politics and things that are not just small talk, you know, like controversial stuff. In China, it's impossible to do that. [...] People in China, their information is heavily controlled. All the information that they have—that they get from the internet, from education, from people—it's heavily manipulated," she said. When she brought up her political concerns, she offended people, and even the Americans she encountered seemed to have accepted the authoritarian regime. Feeling as though she was complicit in the system by choosing to live in Beijing herself added another level of confusion.

Cooking, however, was a solitary sport.

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Photo Courtesy William Morrow

Lee shared her experiences with a dose of caution. While those might be her recollections of the political climate around her in Beijing, she said, what she experienced was just that: her experience. "The reality of it was that it was really hard for me personally. Maybe not for other people," she said. "I feel like, in order to be happy there, you kind of have to self hypnotize a little bit. You can be too honest with yourself. [...] I'm incapable of doing that, so it was hard."

While the book is described as "escapism," it isn't meant to be prescriptive. Escape can come in many forms, after all, many of which might not actually be "good." The heaviest of Lee's stories are used to separate chapters, but the recipes themselves lean towards lighter anecdotes; in any case, she's not telling you to spend all day in your kitchen, unless you feel the occasional whirlwind of inspiration. She explained, "I tried to not paint it as a healthy way, like saying, 'Oh, this will help you.' I tried to paint it as honestly as I can. I don't think I did it in a healthy way, but it is how I coped."

After exactly six years and 179 days, Lee, her husband, and their dogs left Beijing. There were no farewell parties and no goodbyes. "We just left because there was nobody to call," she said. They moved back to Hong Kong, where they've lived since 2016. Having found a community of people with similar backgrounds and values, they now have a broad network of friends in Hong Kong, Lee said. As she waits to see where the blog and the book will take her next, she renovates the apartment, trains the dogs, and yes, still cooks. "I don't think that I cook in an unhealthy way anymore."

Happiness remains relative. Though her husband's job keeps them overseas, she doesn't feel like she fits in in Asia, and New York is still the place where she wants to scatter her ashes. "Overall happier? Yes, happier," she said. "Am I happy? No." For now, however, the chances of returning to New York seem slim.

Until Lee, her husband, and the dogs make it back stateside, Lady and Pups remains her most reliable outlet—where no matter what part of the world she lives in, she can serve whatever makes her happy, and better yet, say whatever she wants.