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Chinese Cookbooks at the New York Public Libary: Fact Not Folklore

by Alison Ryley


Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 15 and 16

At the 'Chinese Cuisine and the American Palate' symposium in September 1994, which launched this publication, I had the pleasure of hearing just a few papers--too few, as I was simultaneously running back and forth to public service duties at The New York Public Library, where I work in the General Research Division. Fortunately, I was present for Jacqueline Newman's talk about English-language Chinese cookbooks, principally from her own first-class collection, and it set me to thinking about the Library's collection.

Myth and folklore are powerful elements in corporate cultures-- nowhere more than in libraries. Long-held misconceptions fed by prevailing New York Public Library (NYPLibrary) mythology had convinced me that the collection of Chinese cookbooks at the Research Libraries was something quite exceptional and impressive--not the rather modest working collection it in fact is.

For one thing, I had incorrectly assumed that cookery as an aspect of culture was collected at a high level in the Library's Oriental Division. There were tales all too familiar to me about a legendary bibliographer of some years back, who reputedly raked in Chinese cookbooks by the cartonload (to the dismay, it was said, of cataloguers). In recent interviews with Dr. John Lundquist, Chief of the Oriental Division, and with Dr. John Ma, one of the Division's leading lights, now retired but still serving as a consultant to the NYPLibrary, I was unceremoniously disabused of both beliefs. In truth, the Oriental Division's collecting level for cookery is very low indeed--though the occasional gift is cheerfully accepted.

It has been at least a minor theme of the NYPLibrary (correct titled is the New York Public Library)'s two-year Centennial celebration that NYPLibrary has, as a matter of policy and conviction, sought out materials that would have been considered trivial by institutions wedded to higher culture.

Indeed, the Library has always taken an interest in the research value of the everyday. And so, since the beginning, we have generally collected at a significant level materials on food, cooking, eating and drinking, subjects whose academic respectability has only recently come into their own.

These subjects in Western languages have been acquired to one degree or another by every division of the Library, but principally--with a brief hiatus in Science--by the General Research Division or its equivalent predecessor, as the bailiwick of the humanities and social sciences. Thus, Chinese cookbooks in English and other Western tongues are the General Research Division's responsibility.

The Oriental Division--formed in 1897 when the term 'Orientalism' was still innocent of its political incorrectness--has its primary strengths in the languages and literatures, archaeology and religions of the regions it represents. The division collects materials in all the literary languages of the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East, as well as scholarly works on Asian topics in various Western languages. Though food and drink are basic constituents of culture, these subjects have been collected in the vernacular at a fairly perfunctory level (in contrast, say, with the Jewish Division's interpretation of its collecting mission). These so-called 'language' divisions retain the old Billings designations for their holdings, the Oriental Division represented by the symbol *O with numerous subdivisions. Vernacular Chinese cookbooks are found primarily under the Billings class *OVL (China, Science and Arts); and a few, along with material related to foodways or food habits, under *OVR (China, Philosophy, Religion and Customs).

The Dictionary Catalog of the Oriental Division (1960) and its Supplement (1977) record the Division's holdings, including those in vernacular alphabets, through 1971. Since that date, acquisitions have been recorded in the Library's online catalogue, called: 'CATNYP,' in transliterated form. The numbers are modest. In 1972, when the division's total holdings were represented as 107,000 volumes (a figure which now exceeds 300,000), about 10,000 of those Chinese, there was only one vernacular-language Chinese cookbook in the Oriental Division catalogues! The rest, a total of 64 altogether, are almost entirely in English. There are three Dutch titles, reflecting historical Dutch connections with the Indies, and one in French (Lecourt's La Cuisine Chinoise issued in Peking/Beijing in 1925).

Of the two hundred five entries in the post-1971 CATNYP catalogue under 'Cookery, Chinese,' some fifty-one are in Chinese, one hundred forty-two in English, and, to complete the picture, six in French, two in German, and one in Italian. (I especially regret that the latter group are so few, because one culture's interpretation of another's cuisine is always of consuming interest.)

Incidentally, if you have an internet account, you can telnet to CATNYP at nyplgate.nypl.org (at the login prompt, type nypl in lower case, and press Enter); or visit the library's website at http:www.nypl.org. In both cases you may also have access to the Branch Libraries catalogue, LEO, in which you'll find an additional five hundred or so titles under 'Cookery, Chinese.'

Comparisons may be odious, and numbers games deplorable, but the contrast between the seven hundred thirty-two entries in Newman's bibliography (Chinese Cookbooks: An Annotated Bibliography and Compendium (Garland Publishers, copyright 1987) and the Research Libraries' own two hundred or so items is humbling. More humbling still is the contrast between these numbers and the two thousand nine hundred seventy-two items, found under 'Cookery, Chinese' in the Research Libraries Information Network, not held at the New York Public Library; or the one thousand one hundred and twenty-eight English-language items, found on the same subject in the same source, also not held at NYPLibrary. Though these RLIN 'hits' probably represent a good deal of duplication, it is not a flattering head count. (To update things, Newman--this journal’s editor--advises that her own collection at last count blossomed to over 1,750 volumes, and that: 1) she'd prefer you send donations to her and she will forward duplicates to the NYPLibrary, and 2) lacking a more appropriate source, she'll eventually donate her collection to the NYPLibrary, if they'll keep it together and in one accessibe room).

Let me temper all this negative news with some instances of what you will find at the Library. In the Oriental Division collection, examples of recent acquisitions of bilingual (broadly defined) works related to food and cookery include a German bibliography, from the author's Heidelberg doctoral dissertation: Gwinner, Thomas A.P. Essen und Trinken: Die Klassische Kochbuchliteratur Chinas, Frankfurt am Main, 1988. *OVL 95-2144; several bilingual dictionaries, including: Ying Han Shih Pin Kung Yeh Tzu Hui or the English-Chinese Dictionary of Food Industry, Pei-ching, 1983, *OVG 90-5240; and Lai, Che San's Ying Han Yin-shih Tse which translates as English-Chinese Food & Beverage, Hsiang Kang, 1976, *OVL 80-3831; and an illuminating 'how-to' manual addressed to Chinese Cooks Aiming to Please Western Tastes by Huang, Sau-yen. Hsi Yang Ming Ts Ai or Foreign Culinary Arts for Today, Tai-pei, 1978(?), *OVL 81-1016.

The retrospective general collections include such delights as: Chan, Shiu Wong's The Chinese Cook Book...containing more than one hundred recipes for everyday food prepared in the wholesome Chinese way, and many recipes of unique dishes peculiar to the Chinese--including Chinese pastry 'stove parties,' and Chinese candies...New York, 1917. VTI; the How Long & Co., N.Y. How Long Chinese Chop Suey Cook Book, New York, 1924, *Z-588 (microfilm); the Mandarin Chop Suey Cookbook containing authentic translations of the best recipes of leading Chinese chefs and directions for preparing various popular and healthful Chinese dishes exactly as they are prepared in the Orient, Chicago Pacific Trading Co., 1928, VTB p.v. 116; and by Chan, Sow Lin, Cantonese, Shanghai and Peking-Restaurant Dishes, Kuala Lumpur, 1960, C-12 6627.

At the NYPLibrary, with its long and idiosyncratic history, there are many libraries-within-the-Library and many special collections within the general collections. Two of particular interest are the General Research Division's historical menu collection of over twenty thousand pieces, mid-19th century to the present, with greatest strength in the decades around the turn of the century; and the U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy Division's postcard collection, as well as its collection of New York City views.

The menu collection, founded and built by Miss [sic] Frank E. Buttolph, boasts a selection of Chinese restaurant menus, though they are somewhat difficult to ferret out, since the menus are arranged (for now) chronologically only. Miss Buttolph, in keeping with the conventional wisdom of her day, gave only a passing glance at ethnic cuisine, and the card file she devised for the collection reflects this attitude; under "New York City Daily Menus--Chinese Restaurants" there are but five entries. An ingenious researcher who used the collection recently discovered that Miss Buttolph's forays into the Chinese community almost always took place at Chinese New Year. She determined when the lunar New Year had occurred in each of several years, searched those periods, and found the Chinese menus she was looking for.

The number of Chinese restaurant menus in the Buttolph collection can not begin to compare with Harley Spiller's super collection of over six thousand items--take-out menus all--, but there are a few fascinating oldies. Among these are three menus for January 30, 1900 (Chinese New Year) from Mon Far Low, King Hong Lau, and Way Hung Low Chung Kee, located at 14, 16, and 18 Mott Street, respectively. The fare is overwhelmingly Chinese-American, with 'Chop Sooy' or 'Shop Suy,' 'Chu Main' or 'Main with Meat, 'Ly Chee Duck or Chicken,' and--invariably--'Ham and Eggs.' The only illustration among these early examples appears on a February, 1903 menu for the Oriental Restaurant operated by Mann Fang Lowe Co. at 3 Pell Street; it is an inviting view of the restaurant's elaborate interior.

In the postcard collection of the Local History division are views both of Chinatown streets, with their numerous restaurants, and of individual restaurants at various locations. Some of the street views are quite early, but the restaurant views (many undated) appear to date from about the forties on. So...we have seen that the past is not exactly what I, for one, had supposed. What of the future? In the current political and corporate atmosphere of cutbacks and downsizing, it is unproductive to speculate. As selection officer for cookery at the Library, I will do my utmost to acquire materials permitted under my own Division's mandate, and to encourage my colleagues in the Oriental Division to acquire bilingual and vernacular-language culinary materials as representative of Asian culture. Perhaps my favorite fortune, 'For better luck you have to wait till autumn,' provides ground for hope.
Alison Ryley, a member of the New York Culinary Historians, works at the New York Public Library’s general research division where she is the selection officer for cookery materials. Should you have any cookbooks, menus, or other related materials you'd like to donate, drop a note to this magazine’s editorial offices and we'll advise her to contact you. If you want Newman to add your items to her collection, should she not already own them, advise; otherwise all will go to the NYPLibrary.

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