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Anne Mendelson Learns About and Loves Chinese Food

by Michael Gray

Personal Perspectives

Spring Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(1) page(s): 36-37

Anne Mendelson is a culinary historian and author of Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America the Joy of Cooking, and Milk: The Surprising History of Milk Through the Ages. Her writings have appeared in Gourmet, Saveur, and in the New York Times. Her love and learning of Chinese food recently bore academic fruit. She is a 2010 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the Chinese diaspora, most importantly, those hyphenated Chinese in the United States. Flavor and Fortune caught up with her recently in New York.

F&F: What are you working on for this Guggenheim Fellowship?

AM: It is a book about the Chinese diaspora in America, how they got settled here, and the effects and influences on American Chinese (or Chinese-American) food since 1965. I am fascinated by hybrid Chinese cooking that has evolved be it Indian-Chinese, Japanese-Chinese, Cuban-Chinese, Korean-Chinese and all the others in New York and New Jersey. We have lots of Korean-Chinese now. I am interested in how these hybrid cuisines developed as well as the ethnic Chinese enclaves found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, and elsewhere.

F&F: What about other immigrant experiences?

AM: I think it is the same pattern as with other immigrants such as the Poles, Russians, and Jews. The first generation arrives with their language, customs, and foods. The second generation learns English and perhaps becomes bi-lingual. In trying to fit in with their peers they begin to adopt more Americanized food habits. Then the third generation, feeling nostalgic seeks out the grandparents for their original recipes.

F&F: With this interest specifically in the Chinese diaspora and their foods, what were your first experiences with Chinese food?

AM: I think my experiences are more typical of American brushes with Chinese food fifty or sixty years ago than the love affair with Chinese food enjoyed by other adventurous Jews in New York or maybe those in a few other places. Setting aside people of Chinese descent, I think it is fair to say that if you were not a New York Jew, or a kid born into one of the more rarefied academic communities like Harvard or Yale, Chinese food was not going to come into your little corner of the solar system. That happened only a decade or two later.

F&F: And your first Chinese meal then?

AM: Well Chinese, meaning Chinese-American food, was completely alien to me as a kid. My first exposure would have to have been in Philadelphia's Chinatown in the early 1950's. It was a tiny neighborhood then, occupying a couple of blocks along Arch Street. We lived in the semi-rural Montgomery County suburbs, about twenty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia. I have no idea why or specifically where we went and I do not remember much about the restaurant except that the food was foreign to me. There were some Chinese style decorative touches and I recall that at the end of the meal there were almond cookies and small egg custard tarts. Both were utterly new to me, but not as bewildering as were the savory courses.

F&F: And after that?

AM: I would have been in my twenties and was introduced to a new kind of Chinese called 'Mandarin food.' I remember eating lichees and I am sure they were canned. Later, my husband, Marty Iger, enthusiastically dragged me to New York City's Chinatown to sing the praises of dishes I had never heard of before, like fish head casserole.

F&F: Where did Marty's interest in Chinese come from?

AM: Well, Marty was from one of those New York Jewish families that loved Chinese food. From going to Chinatown with his family as a small kid, he graduated to going on his own as an older kid and a grownup. Meanwhile, he started working as a photographer and became good friends with one of the original staff photographers at Life Magazine, Bernie Hoffman. Bernie's wife, Inez, was a real fan of Chinese food and at one point took cooking classes with Grace Zia Chu. She did a lot of shopping for ingredients in Chinatown and Marty would often team up with the two of them at restaurants.

F&F: How would you order?

AM: After 1965, the Chinatown restaurant scene slowly became more diverse. When you went into some new place, you were likely to see stuff that had not been around a few years earlier. Marty would always look at what the Chinese family at the next table was eagerly devouring and say, "I'll have some of that!" That is how he came to be a big fan of Shanghai-style fish head casserole. In his opinion, it was "Chinese bouillabaisse." Any place he found fish head casserole on the menu, it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to order it. To this day, I also like to see what other Chinese diners in restaurants are eating.

F&F: Where were some of these restaurants?

AM: Oh there was a Sichuan place called Hwa Yuan on East Broadway, and Hee Seong Fong (HSF) at 46 Bowery. They introduced Hongkong style dim sum from cart-service in the mid-1970's. Then there was 456, a Shanghai restaurant on Chatham Square (with a chef from Ning Po). I have heard that they eventually morphed into Nice New Green Bo on Bayard Street. We usually would get to Chinatown once or twice a week.

F&F: Any favorite Chinese restaurants or dishes you would like to mention?

AM: No. Actually, it would end up being more than thirty restaurants with thirty dishes, and probably my favorites would be the last places visited and the last things I ate!
Michael Gray is a licensed NYC Department of Consumer Affairs tour guide specializing in Chinatown. He lived in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan for ten years, studied Chinese for three of them at the Taiwan National Normal University's Mandarin Training Center, has a BA from the U. of Minnesota and an MA from Columbia. He has three years of experience as a cook in a Chinese restaurant.

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