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A Trove of Chinese Cookbooks

by Andrew Coe


Fall Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(3) page(s): 15 and 16

The world's largest collection of Chinese cookbooks in the English language is housed on the bland and sprawling campus of the State University at Stony Brook (SBSU), about sixty miles east of New York City. Amassed over decades by Jacqueline M. Newman, one of the founders of and the editor of Flavor and Fortune, this collection is an essential resource for anyone interested in the history and culture of Chinese cookery. It continues to expand as Dr. Newman, a retired Queens College professor, plans to donate another five hundred titles by summer 2007.

SBSU is a New York State public university, so both its Melville Library and its Special Collections room--home of the Chinese cookbook collection--are open to all readers. By car, the campus lies a little less than two hours east of New York City not too far from the Long Island Expressway (LIE). Take the LIE to Exit 62 which is Nicolls Road north, then follow the signs to Stony Brook University. The Long Island Railroad also has regular train service to a station at the edge of the campus. That is a short walk to the library; or take the university's shuttle bus service, which stops at the train station and goes to the Melville Library.

Before you visit, the Special Collections librarians request that you select which materials you would like to see. The Jacqueline M. Newman Collection is searchable through their web page at http://www.sunysb.edu/library/ so they suggest you begin by perusing it first. Once on their web site, press the library catalogue's STARS button. On the next screen, select the blue 'Advanced Search' button near the top, and on the next page, click on the 'Multi-base Search' button. Then check the box 'Chinese Cookbook Collection' on the following page. Now you are ready to enter your search terms in the 'type word or phrase' box.

This collection is searchable by word, author, title, subject, ISBN or ISSN, also by keyword. After you make your selections, send the list of titles and authors to the Special Collections office along with the date on which you wish to visit. That way, they can have the titles ready for your perusal.

Copying from this collection is at the discretion of the Special Collections office. Kristen Nyitray can be reached at www.Kristen.Nyitray@stonybrook.edu She is the head librarian in charge of Special Collections. She can also be reached by phone at (631) 632-7119. Copying titles and annotated information from the SUNY library’s computer listing can be done before visiting, it is photocopying from the actual volumes you need their permission for.

The collection’s two thousand six hundred-plus volumes of Chinese cookery materials are stored in the Special Collections stacks, which unfortunately, are off-limits to visitors. To a researcher, the dozens of feet of colorful spines, many an intense Chinese red, including every important title and numerous rarities, are an alluring sight.

The earliest item in the collection is a United States government pamphlet on Chinese vegetable foods dated 1899. The era of English-language Chinese cookbooks follows in 1914 with items such as Sara Bosse's Chinese-Japanese Cookbook and the pamphlet titled Reliable Recipes for Many Chinese Dishes by William Garner. For a food historian, it is always helpful to see in one place all the editions of important works such as Buwei Yang Chao's How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. Many are in this collection. Requesting them all is possible, and an education. A large number of cookbooks in the collection were published in Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Japan for a bilingual market, so many of the cookbooks are in English and another language; and many are in no other location we know of.

Cookbooks only tell so much about the Chinese food that was actually served on American or other nationality plates. For a number of reasons, the primary venue for sampling this cuisine has always been restaurants, not the home. Therefore, we believe cookbooks more often reflect aspiration than actual practice.

Luckily, this Newman Collection also contains a number of hard-to-find works that give insight into important eras of Chinese restaurant cooking. For example, The Chinatown Handy Guide: New York City dated 1958, gives a local restaurateurs' perspective on the 'Ten Chinese Dishes Americans Like Best.' Interestingly, a chow mein dish is first, while chop suey does not even appear. That item also tells us that dim sum was offered in many Chinatown restaurants at a time when very few non-Chinese knew what it was.

The very rare 1970 Insider's Guide to Chinese Restaurants in New York by William Clifford provides a window on an era when Sichuan restaurants started to make an impression on western palates--and westerners were just learning how to be discriminating. A Guide to the Chinese Food and Restaurants of Taiwan from 1977 shows us the origin of those Sichuanese and also Hunanese dishes in Taiwan. General Tso's Chicken, originally called 'Duke Tso Chicken,' was invented by the Hunanese chef, Peng Chang-kuei, who opened a famous restaurant in Taipei. Many of his dishes were 'borrowed' by disciples including one who opened the first Hunan-style restaurants in New York. Chef Peng started his own restaurant in Manhattan called Peng's, but it never achieved the success he hoped for. Nevertheless, many of his dishes dominate Chinese restaurant menus today. The Long Island Chinese Restaurant Recipes and Guide from 1980, which I was able to find here and in no other research library, shows us how quickly Sichuan and Hunan dishes spread to this suburbia. Of the forty-one restaurants listed in this book, twenty-seven claimed they serve Hunan or Sichuan food; eight served Polynesian dishes; and only one offered dim sum lunches.

The Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese cookbook collection does additionally contain a few hundred books on Chinese herbal medicine which have yet to be catalogued, and bound copies of important food magazines. It also has a wide array of audio-visual materials relating to China, Chinese cooking, and the food industry.

Every year, the Special Collections office in conjunction with, and at the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook, hosts a special event relating to this cookbook collection. In 2006, the theme was 'Banquets and the Chinese Philosophy of Eating.' In 2007, on May 2nd, it was about Chinese herbals and Herbal Cookbooks. The topic for 2008 has yet to be decided. This event is usually held just before or during Asian Heritage month. Ms. Nyitray can be queried about this and other library-sponsored events, and about this very special collection.

She tells us that culinary historians, restauranteurs, and Chinese chefs are discovering it. She welcomes your doing likewise.
Andrew Coe is a food historian obsessed with the history of Chinese food in America. He wrote about searching this collection from his home using search capabilities on-line. That appeared in this magazine's Volume 13(3) on pages 19 and 28. He has written about chop suey for the American Heritage magazine, and is researching the history of dim sum and General Tso's Chicken, among other topics. In addition, he is hard at work on a comprehensive book about Chinese foods in America.

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