The Chinese Cookbook Project VII: Not a Cookbook, But…

A minority of the books I am gathering in my Chinese cookbook collection are not actually cookbooks, but touch on some aspect of Chinese food culture. I have historical treatises, translations of old Chinese works on the subject, books about learning to read Chinese characters that involve food, and pictorial reference works on ingredients and dim sum.

However, the most important book I have picked up for this collection that isn’t specifically a cookbook is Jacqueline M. Newman’s Chinese Cookbooks: An Annotated English Language Compendium/Bibliography. Published in 1987, this work is sadly not only out of print, but exceedingly rare on the used book market, in large part because it was put out by Garland Publishing as a social science reference book. Most copies of it are thus to be found in libraries and private reference collections, and so when they do appear on the market, it is rare to find a copy for less than seventy-five dollars or so.

I lucked out when I found a copy of it on ebay about a month and a half ago–signed by the author–for under twenty dollars. Needless to say, it is sitting on my desk as I type.

What is so special about this book?

Well, Jacqueline Newman, herself a collector of Chinese cookbooks, and a professor of Family, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences at Queens College, CUNY, and as such, she recognized the emerging importance of the study of cookery in the social sciences. She put this compendium together as a tool for anyone undertaking to study the history and development of the Chinese cookbook in English. This study is important for many reasons: for one thing, it shows how food traditions change over time among an immigrant population, it shows how immigrant cultural identity is often influenced by and affects food culture in general, and it can trace the amount of acceptance of Chinese foodways among the larger culture and how it changes over time.

Cookbooks do not just teach us how to cook. Even if they are confined to a bare description of dishes and cooking techniques (which is not true of most cookbooks), these details can teach a careful scholar a great deal about the author of the book and the cultural milieu from whence it was written. When the author gives cultural details and personal stories as backgrounds for the recipes, the amount of information the cookbook conveys rises exponentially.

In compiling her compendium and annotated bibliography, Newman recognized the importance of cookbooks, and essentially put together a valuable research tool.

Newman has been a scholar of Chinese cookery for many years and has written other books on the subject as well; most recently, she penned the excellent reference work, Food Culture in China, a volume of the Greenwood Press’ “Food Culture Around the World” series. She also has edited the critically acclaimed and always interesting magazine on Chinese food and culture, “Flavor and Fortune.” In the pages of that magazine and many others, including professional journals, she has published a plethora of works on the subject of Chinese food with topics ranging from history, cookery and culture, to cookbooks and medicine.

In addition to being an author, Newman has served on the board of directors of several national and international organizations related to food and cookery, including The James Beard Foundation and the American Institute of Food and Wine. She has also served as a judge on the Chinese Restaurant News’ committee to rank the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the United States in 2004.

But back to the book itself–while it isn’t a cookbook, I have found it to be quite useful in my pursuit of a my goal of collecting the important works of Chinese cookbooks written in English; Newman’s insights have been quite useful, particularly as they pertain to the earlier works, many of which are rare and difficult to find. It is also good to have an idea of the exact contents of a book before deciding whether to purchase it or bid on it sight unseen; while ebay sellers provide photographs of the covers of books, they are often quite sketchy as to the contents. In the sense that I can get a mental picture fixed in my mind of the contents of a book, I can better judge whether I wish to aquire it or not, or if it is likely to contain useful information in my never-ending quest to understand the complexities and subtleties of Chinese cuisine.

9 Comments

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  1. This was a very interesting read, thank you for enlightening me! Do you only take an interest in Chinese cookery book or cookery books in general? I’m into old cookery books myself and I collect (very modestly) the real ones of facsimile editions, the oldest I have is a French one from 1695. Actually I should say collected because I can’t afford it at the moment with all these children I have produces, but I have still hope for the future! Anyway, I’m looking forward to more posts like this!!

    Comment by Ilva-Lucullian delights — November 10, 2005 #

  2. The book sounds like a great find.

    Farmgirl and I are joint hosting WCB this weekend – a special get well edition for Clare and Kiri. Hope the kitties will all join in and please bring something to cheer them up with.

    Comment by boo_licious — November 10, 2005 #

  3. Boo, I will definately have the kitties there–thanks for telling me.

    Ilva, my general focus is on Chinese cookbooks in English, in large part because I am trying to put together a collection that records the history and development of Chinese and Chinese-American cuisine and culture. When I am finished, I will donate the collection in my will to the culinary college I attended, Johnson & Wales, with the idea of giving future students better resources to study Chinese cookery.

    That said–I am always interested in old cookbooks of any sort, and have been known to check them out of libraries just for the pleasure of reading them. I have learned more about the cultures of different people around the world by studying cookbooks and cooking and eating from them than I have by any other method, and to me old cookbooks are just as important historical documents as any literature of the time period–sometimes even more so.

    One cuisine I have read very few older cookbooks from is Italian–are there any titles in English that you know of that I should seek out?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 10, 2005 #

  4. love the blog. can’t wait to test out the recipes.

    but… aren’t those cats in the picture more… um, Japanese?

    :)

    Comment by George — November 10, 2005 #

  5. Indeed, George, (welcome to my blog!)the cats are maneki neko–the lucky welcoming cats of Japan. I collect them, and they live on the shelves where my Chinese cookbook collection also resides. I do find the combination somewhat ironic, but I will note that quite a few modern Chinese restaurants and markets in the US, at least, often have a maneki neko displayed up front.

    When I went to photograph my first book for the first Chinese Cookbook Project Post, the arrangement was very static and boring and so I needed something to liven the composition up.

    And my eyes fell upon the maneki neko collection. I used a couple of them posed with the book, and quite a few readers responded favorably, so, it has become a tradition.

    Now, I always try to think up new and different ways to pose the maneki with the books and other props. This time, I used a wine jar and tea caddy, both Chinese, along with the Japanese cats.
    A while back, I used bamboo steamer baskets, a cleaver, and a miniature basket of faux dim sum and placed the cats around it like they were about to dive into the plastic siu mai within.

    Who knows what the neko will be up to next time?

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — November 10, 2005 #

  6. Barbara-I don’t know any english editions of early italian cookery books because I read them, as you might guess, in Italian. But I will keep my eyes open and let you know if I see any!!

    Comment by Ilva-Lucullian delights — November 11, 2005 #

  7. Glad my book has been and continues to be of value. Any specific questions about it or other Chinese cookbooks can be addressed direclty to me at http://www.flavorandfortube.com I continue to edit that award-winning English-language Chinese food magazine.

    This day, annotation of my donation of 2,626 Chinese cookbooks in English (with or without another language) can be accessed at the Stony Brook University’s special collections website. It is an interactive site, check out books about tofu, Sichuan food, or whatever other key word you’d like. Bless Stony Brook University for making this available to all.

    For the record, I personally annotated them all; have more than five hundred more still in personal use and not on that listing nor part of that collection/donation; they will eventually join the SUSB collection.

    Hope others join in this type of donation and the effort to apprise the world about the sociological, historical, anthropological, cultural, etc. values in cookery volumes.

    Keep in touch:

    Jacqueline M Newman

    Comment by Jacqueline M Newman — January 11, 2006 #

  8. Excuse my poorly proofed material…the magazine is Flavor & Fortune (PO Box 91 Kings Park, NY 11754); the web address for it is http://www.flavorandfortune.com and my e-mail for questions about Chinese cookbooks is: flavorandfortune@hotmail.com

    Comment by Jacqueline M Newman — January 11, 2006 #

  9. Thank you, Ms. Newman! This collection that I am amassing, will eventually be given to Johnson & Wales University–probably when I have either gotten too old to use them, or I will donate the collection in stages.

    The reason I chose J&W is because it is where I took my formal culinary training and while I was there, I noted that very little of use was in their library when it came to Chinese cooking. Years later, I found myself collecting out of print Chinese cookbooks, because I realized that a good bit of very useful information was contained within them. As I learned more and more about them, the idea of researching the history of Chinese cookbooks in English came to mind. As my collection began to grow (I only have about two hundred volumes currently), I decided I would eventually donate them to J&W, to give a resource to culinary students to learn about Chinese cookery.

    Thank you for posting–and yes, I will definately keep in touch!

    Comment by Barbara — January 11, 2006 #

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