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Loving Chinese Food, Menus, and Cookbooks

by Harley Spiller

Personal Perspectives

Summer Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(2)

In 1991, I was put in contact with Dr. Jacqueline M. Newman, then a Professor at CUNY’s Queens College. That was by and thanks to Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor at New York University. She had heard about my upcoming exhibition of Chinese restaurant menus at the Franklin Furnace Archive and suggested that Newman’s work with Chinese cookbooks made us kindred souls. It did not take long to realize that Newman’s academic approach to Chinese cuisine would add tremendous scholarship and context to my exhibition.

It was an honor to accept Newman's offer to lend a passel of Chinese-American cookbooks from her holdings. They filled an entire case in the museum and what’s more, in 2002, the Special Collections and University Archives at Stony Brook University acquired her entire collection. Then, they were almost three thousand Chinese cookbooks; and acquired related items about the Chinese food culture, its herbal medicine, and its history. There were also many cuisine magazines; archival materials, and things I would call audio-visual. Her materials, now more than five thousand Chinese cookbooks in English or English and another language and the other materials are in the Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese Cookbook Collection there. They can be found, annotated by Newman herself, at the University Libraries in their Special Collections area. You can go there in person or use the link here to see these online resources and their annotations; they are at the Special Collection and University Archives website.

When Dr. Newman saw the breadth of my collection, she generously gave me her personal collection of Chinese menus, a few hundred hand-dated specimens, the first of many donations which make her the most prolific contributor to this collection. I did try for many years to repay the favor, sending her uncommon Chinese cookbooks acquired from various sources. Invariably, these books were already represented in her comprehensive library.

I am proud to have contributed one cookbook she did not have. It was a tiny square pamphlet that came inside a novelty Pet Wok written by Martin Yan, celebrity chef and early supporter of Flavor and Fortune. This four-page booklet contains one recipe and has the distinction of being the smallest and shortest cookbook in her collection. It is the only book to come with its own miniature steel wok.

Newman introduced me to the librarians at SUNY Stony Brook and they paid a visit to my collection. While they were interested in acquiring the older menus, they were unable to accept the entire archives, which at that time numbered around five thousand. The bulk were contemporary take-out menus from the five boroughs of New York City. Over the ensuing years, I did explore offers from many institutions interested in adding Chinese menus to their holdings including one from the New York Public Library, another from Johnson & Wales University, and still others on the east coast. One did come from Janice Bluestein Longone’s Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan, another from the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum which opened in 2013 in that Chinese city near the birthplace of the famous Beggar’s Chicken dish.

Alas, despite serious negotiations, nothing clicked until 2012 when I was invited to the University of Toronto at Scarborough to present a lecture on Chinese restaurant menus. Invited back several times over the next few years, most notably to present a dumpling-making demonstration which was a fundraiser for the University’s new 'Culinaria Food Studies' initiative. There, I was joined by several professional chefs from China. While my dumplings could not hold a candle to their traditional and succulent varieties, people of all stripes were interested in some of the twists I developed to make it easy for novices to wrap dumplings and create their own unique fillings. One night in early 2013, I did receive a call from the University of Toronto’s dean and vice-principal, Dr. Rick Halpern. He asked if I might ever consider placing my materials in a permanent home? Negotiations proceeded smoothly and I am proud to announce that my entire collection of more than ten thousand artifacts dating back to 1879 are now there. These are from more than one hundred nations, and now are housed in their new permanent home at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s special collections library.

This university is continuing the daunting task of organizing and digitizing thousands and thousands of menus, plus preserved foods, chopsticks, restaurant workers’ clothing, souvenir calendars, books, signs, even a collection of anti-Chinese menu propaganda. A total of fifty-seven boxes weighing more than eleven hundred pounds were packed and shipped across the border in late 2014. Happily, they are continuing to involve me in the daunting task of organizing and digitizing them with the goal of making them accessible online. This will exponentially extending their research value.

It is appropriate that this Harley J. Spiller Chinese Restaurant Archive has found a home in Toronto because that was the city where, in the early 1960s, I had my first taste of exquisite Chinese food. It was at the Bali Hai, one of five restaurants operating at The Ports of Call at 1145 Yonge Street’s ‘International Restaurant Complex.’

Although the Bali Hai menu is not represented in this collection, at least two professors at the University recall eating there in their youth. Together we have begun the quest for a copy of the 1960s menu. Should any reader have one, please contact me, the University, or this magazine’s editor. Together, we will see to it that it gets there. We are hoping it will not be long before a vintage Bali Hai menu is added to these holdings. For me, holding one again would be a blast from the past.

Who knows, scientific testing of such a specimen might reveal my juvenile fingerprints and help reverse-engineer the recipe for my family’s favorite appetizer, skewers of grilled beef called Bora Miki.

While it would have been terrific to see my menus join The Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese cookbook collection and stay in New York where both collections were amassed, it is exciting to know that both of these important repositories will be cared for in perpetuity and be available to all thanks to solace in the border-free technologies of the worldwide web. It provides international access to both collections, both available for current and future researchers interested in exploring the intricacies of Chinese food. This will bridge across cultures, time, and space; and we look forward to your using both of them.
Harley J. Spiller came on board this magazine, just after the publication of “Flavor and Fortune’s “ Volume 1, Number 1. Spiller did serve for eighteen years as associate editor and contributor of dozens of articles published by this magazine. His passion for Chinese culture continues. His first book, “Keep the Change: A Collector’s Tales of Lucky Pennies, Counterfeit C-Notes, and Other Curious Currency” was published by the Princeton Architectural Press in 2015 is on a different topic, but he will happily mail a prize to the first Flavor and Fortune reader to correctly identify his book’s solitary reference to Chinese food.

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