The Table Of Contents

I know I've been wildly negligent in following up on the teaser cover of Madame Chiang's Chinese Cookbook, but I plan to get back in the swing of things now that I'm back in a more comfortable posting rhythm. So today, let's augment our previous judging of a book by it's cover and move on to judging a book by its table of contents.

What you see here on the left is roughly one third of the total recipes, devoted entirely to chop suey and chow mein. I find it strangely awesome that even as far back as the 1940's, people were enjoying awful Americanized Chinese food so much in restaurants that there was a market for trying to teach them how to recreate these dishes at home. It turns out that this cookbook is roughly concurrent with the rise of canned Asian food giant La Choy, who was, by the time Madame Chiang's was being sold, was already supplying supermarkets with the water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and chow mein noodles they needed.

Jump forward a decade or two, though, and La Choy would be canning entire awful entrees, allowing the American consumer to bypass purchasing mildly offensive cookbooks at laundromats just to get their overcooked vegetable in brown sauce fix. Madame Chiang's Chinese Cookbook is thus an artifact from a simpler time that preceded an even simpler time. 

The list of chop sueys is truly awe-inspiring, especially when compared to the much shorter list of chow meins. There is a Chinese chop suey, and a chicken chop suey, but only a Chinese chicken chow mein. If you're feeling extravagant, you can make lobster chop suey, if you're feeling less inclined to chew, you can make "Extra Fine Cut". Meanwhile we learn that Chicago, culinary rebels that they were, not only developed their own style of chow mein noodles, but actually developed their own style of chow mein to use them in. What, you think Alinea sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus?

Now, if you'd like, please click on the picture so that we can discuss the remainder of the menu, which suddenly gets even more interesting. The rest of the first half of the recipes looks like an array of whitey-white buffet standards, from Egg Foo Young to an array of salads that would not be out of place at your local Applebee's. But then, after the weird week of Chinese dinner menus, things take a turn for the fascinating, and dare I say it, adventurous?

Almond soup? Spareribs with black beans? Tofu soup? Tofu and MELON soup? And then it starts getting really crazy - sweet and sour pig's feet, spiced tongue, and a dish with a name so awesome it's bound to get its own post, "Mandarin Style Kidneys In Creole Sauce". I will admit my knowledge of offal cookery in the 1940s is nonexistent, but if people were regularly cooking pig's feet and tongue back then, I'd be very, very surprised.

So what's going on here? Did the Chinese Cook Book Company of Winona, Minnesota actually hope to entice 40s housewives with basic Americanized Chinese recipes, in the hopes that, out of curiosity or boredom, they'd eventually get to the weirder stuff in the back of the book? Was it just there for freakout value? Padding? The world may never know. But at least we'll eventually find out what the fuck Creole sauce is doing here.



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I'm instantly transported to 1940, with a lonely Chinese-American housewife asked to write a Chinese cookbook by the husband of a neighbor, who happens to run a laundry company but has dreams of publishing riches. She writes night and day - Mama's favorite five-spice chicken! The spareribs Grandmother taught her to cook! - and submits it. But they tell her she needs to make it more like real Chinese food - "You know, the stuff in restaurants," - and so, bowed, she adds a few chop suey and chow mein recipes, and reluctantly takes out a few of the more distinctively-flavored items. But they ask her for still more chop suey and chow mein, and so, in a fit of wounded rebellion, she makes up a bunch of ridiculously specific recipes. "You want chop suey, I'll give you chop suey," she snarls to herself.
Eventually the laundry guy asks a friend how his book looks. "Well, I like the chop suey - that's the bee's knees!" the guy says, "But don't those Japs eat weird stuff? Where's the weird stuff?" And so our housewife is asked to include "weird stuff - like, maybe, isn't jambalaya Chinese?" Hence kidneys in Creole sauce.
One rainy night, she delivers the final draft. As she walks back down the street, the scene changes to find her lying dead on the sidewalk, one shoe pathetically lying a few feet away, with the rain washing her blood into the gutter. And we at home know - soon, in 2009, a kindly nonogenarian will be going to prison.
Damn you, Cold Case!

And Offal

Actually, the offal/feet stuff is standard German farm fare, and was thus, if not perhaps the centerpiece of pre-1950 American cuisine, definitely present. Take a look through The Joy of Cooking - nothing those Northern Europeans won't eat. Lots of sweetbreads. How to cook a turtle. I think there are even some rodents in there. Also, coming out of the Depression, well, people were definitely less picky about food.

Nasty Bits

I figured it'd be more common than it is now, but I probably underestimated how common, at least in rural areas. I'd love to know the target audience for the book though.

I know.

It's very odd - especially the "Your Home Recipes" section, which, if I remember correctly, is several pages' worth of blank space and must be intentional, rather than just one odd sheet that might have been an artifact of the page layout.
Also, for what it's worth, Chicago has a Chinatown - not on the San Francisco scale, and it's probably been diffused and homogenized since I was there in the 70's (and they served me yucky sour Squirt when I asked for 7-Up at Won Kow,) but it was a long-standing, legitimate neighborhood with lots of restaurants and shops then. I imagine that in the 1890s through at least the 1960s it was the place to go in the Midwest for your exotic Chinese experience, La Choy-ized as it may have been.
I need to refresh my memory on major points of cultural contact between the US and China in the early 20th century (after all of the 19th century immigration hysteria) to figure out what might have specifically triggered an interest in Chinese food prior to WWII and the Korean War, when the servicemen brought back a general taste for Asian food - other than the development of a stable, reltively "normalized" Chinese-American population and a general perception, fostered in California and throughout the country by both Chinese and non-Chinese entrepreneurs, that it was sophisticated and exotic in a non-threatening way. All I can think of otherwise is the Rape of Nanking, and, well, no.

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