Introducing The Chinese Cook Book by Wallace Yee Hong from 1952 as part of Crown Publishers International Cook Book Series.
When the New York based company Crown Publishers launched the International Cook Book Series in 1949 with Jewish Cookery, they were truly at the vanguard of America’s burgeoning culinary transformation (pre-dating Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking by over a decade).
This new direction for Crown Publishers was foreshadowed by their 1941 English translation of Auguste Escoffier’s famous turn of the century cook book La Guide Culinaire (1903), which eschewed the archaic culinary traditions of the Victorian era in favour of a modernized approach.
Crown quickly followed up Jewish Cookery with a translation of the Italian 1928 bestseller The Talisman Italian Cook Book by Ada Boni in 1950 as well as the turn of the century Wiener Küche (Viennese Cooking) by Olga and Adolf Hess in 1952.
Throughout the following decades, Crown would periodically release a new instalment in the series, either in the form of a translated classic or (as in Jewish Cookery) in the form of an original production. I am a huge fan of this entire series and find both the translations and the original commissions fascinating artifacts. However, it can’t be denied that the novel cook books necessarily offer a better insight into mid-century America.
Enter: Wallace Yee Hong’s The Chinese Cook Book, published in 1952. A long standing restaurateur, Hong was the owner of the Ho Lee Garden Restaurant located in Boston’s historic Chinatown. Much ado is made in our millennial culture about the bastardization of ethnic cuisines during the crass melting pot era of mid-century America, with specific attention paid towards the Americanization of Chinese cuisine. However, this could not be said for Hong’s The Chinese Cook Book. As Jane Nickerson wrote back in 1952 in a New York Times review:
The Chinese Cookbook, by Wallace Yee Hong, was published a few days ago by Crown. This book more nearly approaches the real cooking of China, and more specifically of Canton, than any such book written for Americans.Jane Nickerson, New York Times. June 7th, 1952
Indeed, the professionalism and dignity that went into The Chinese Cook Book reveals a secondary agenda that extends beyond the simple transcription of recipes, elevating the social status of a marginalized community. As Yong Chen remarks:
Cookbook writing was not simply about food. It also gave Chinese Americans the first consistently high-profile platform to speak to non-Chinese audiences. It was a platform under their own control. They spoke not as marginalized minorities but as experts with authority, which came from their Chinese-ness. In advancing Chinese food, therefore, they also promoted Chinese culture and affirmed their ethnic identity, frequently invoking Chinese historical figures.“Recreating the Chinese American Home through Cookbook Writing,” by Yong Chen.
Hong validates this hypothesis in the opening lines of his Introduction:
For thousands of years cooking has been regarded as a fine art in China–almost a science. The Chinese kitchen is, in effect, a kitchen laboratory–in which the weights and measures, the order in which the ingredients are put together, and the timing are exact. Chinese cookery is something that cannot be learned from reading a recipe–which should be used as a guide only–but must be practiced with patient and painstaking care.“Introduction,” The Chinese Cook Book by Wallace Yee Hong
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Crown publishers solicited an expert and intellectual for the Chinese instalment of their International Cook Book Series. From my experience, the books in this series were consistently executed with the utmost care and respect (see my review of Polish Cookery as an example). In this case we apparently have a local book store owner to thank for the existence of The Chinese Cook Book:
Carl Shapiro of Shapiro’s Book Shop, located near the Chinatown district, convinced Wallace Yee Hong, a chef in a small Chinese eatery, to translate his recipes into English. Shapiro took them to Crown Publishers in New York and the recipes were published in what has become the largest-selling Chinese cookbook in the world.Jim Morse, Boston Herald Sept 22, 1967
Unfortunately, by 1967 the Ho Lee Garden restaurant had long since closed its doors along with many other well known restaurants in Chinatown. The glamour and excitement that had typified Boston’s Chinatown throughout the 1940s and 50s giving way to the encroaching influence of The Combat Zone, Boston’s red light district.
In many ways, Hong’s The Chinese Cook Book is one of those right time, right place artifacts. A book that catalogs and documents Boston’s Chinese culinary history still at its peak, not yet anticipating the decline. I have to imagine that if either Crown or Hong realized how vital every small piece of information was for posterity, they might have expanded on the introduction to the book. As it stands, it is clear that this book was written specifically for a contemporaneous American readership, without perhaps the historical remove to realize what information might be relevant in the generations to follow. Nevertheless, this book acts as an excellent portrait and compendium of East Coast Chinese-American cuisine in the 1950s.
One of the most exciting ‘easter egg’s’ of Hong’s book is the inclusion of a short list of notable Chinese restaurants at the time. Such a simple thing and yet it provides a tantalizing bread crumb trail to follow. As the years carry on, the historical landmarks and records of mid-century American restaurants are fading away. Although, I’m sure somewhere in municipal archives there is a record that each of these restaurants existed however, trying to dig up information about these landmarks online can be difficult, next to impossible. For example, although there is ample information and archival documents for Boston’s famous Ruby Foo’s Den, in regards to Ho Lee Garden, the restaurant Hong owned, there is a frustrating dearth of information. For me, this one page is an invaluable tool to de-code and unravel the mystery of Chinese-American restaurants during the 1950s. Perhaps, in the future I will track down and create an article specifically exploring what I can find out about each of these restaurants. For the time being however, I will focus specifically on the history Boston’s Chinatown where Hong operated Ho Lee Garden.
Hong provides 5 recommendations for Chinese restaurants in Boston: Cathay House, China House, Gamsun Restaurant, Ho Lee Garden, and Ruby Foo’s Den.
Let’s get the big one off our list first: Ruby Foo’s Den at 6 Hudson Street. Established in 1929, Ruby Foo’s Den quickly became one of the hottest restaurant and nightclub’s in town. Ruby Foo created a brand name that expanded out into cities across the east coast. I highly recommend checking out The Passionate Foodie‘s article on Ruby Foo as well as his entire series on Boston’s Chinatown.
Next up, the Cathay House at 70 Beach Street, a street which intersects Hudson. Established in 1945, Cathay House quickly became a rival in popularity and mystique to Ruby Foo’s Den. Once more, I direct you to The Passionate Foodie‘s superlative journalism on the subject.
The Gamsun Restaurant was established in 1944 just down the road from Ruby Foo’s Den at 21 Hudson Street. It’s painted sign exists to this day.
The China House at 146 Boylston Street was established in 1946 by a group of Chinese-American war veterans. The Passionate Foodie tracked down some information on this establishment as well: you can find it here if you are interested.
So that leaves only Hong’s own Ho Lee Garden on the list. Very little is known about this restaurant. It operated only a few doors down from the famous Ruby Foo’s Den during the 1940s and seemingly closed down in 1955. Who knows? Maybe that was a good thing for Hong. Perhaps publishing The Chinese Cook Book allowed him a certain amount of financial independence. I hope so, at least. As previously mentioned, the book was, by all accounts, a massive success, going through 7 different print editions between 1952 and 1963 with a final 8th printing released in 1979. However, despite all this there is very little literature on the internet regarding the efficacy of the recipes. This is not so surprising, generally speaking the greater majority of vintage cook books pre-dating the internet have fallen into obscurity. That’s what makes working on a blog like this so exciting. One of the biggest selling cook books of its era, no doubt used by potentially millions of people at some point or another throughout the past 70 or so years and yet there is virtually no historical account of that simply because the apparatus of online food blogging did not exist during the book’s heyday. That’s where I come in. Here are my Top 10 main dish recipes from The Chinese Cookbook. Stay tuned for a follow up of an additional 10 recipes featuring appetizers, dim sum, desserts and more.
1. Fried Chicken Bites wrapped in Bacon
2. Fried Chicken with Sticky Rice
3. Chinese Style Fried Chicken
4. Soy Sauce Chicken
5. Pekinese Duck
6. Sweet and Sour Pork
7. Pork with Pickled Mustard Greens
8. Northern Style Braised Beef
9. Beef with Broccoli
10. Beef Curry