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China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West

by: J.A.G. Roberts

London UK: Reaktion Books Ltd. 2002, Hardbound
ISBN: 1-86189-133-4

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 20 and 21

"Did you read about globalization of Chinese foods, in Robert’s new book," I was asked by a British journalist? After responding negatively and jotting down needed information, knew I had to get this book. Shortly thereafter, contacted Reaction Books requesting a review copy. Could hardly wait for my own reactions after reading it. Checked out the author on the web and learned some of his credits. They include Lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Huddersfield in the UK, and that he had written a three-volume tome in the early 90's called China Through Western Eyes, which I do not own but do need to acquire. Elsewhere, noted A History of China (1999) that was his and sitting nearby on a shelf, one of many books I sometimes use to check items for accuracy. Had forgotten that he was its author.

The publisher’s website informs that Jack Goody, who writes about food and culture and more calls this latest Roberts book a “fascinating study of the way attitudes of Westerners to Chinese food in China changed in relation to the nature of political situations and to the role of Western commentators, missionaries, and aesthetes.” Could hardly wait to read his interpretation of this adapting/assimilating culture as seen through its food.

The website further informs that Roberts discusses the extent to which Chinese food, a facet of Chinese culture overseas, has remained differentiated. It also mentions that it is written in a lively style, and I agree. Finished it in one night. Says this book will appeal to food historians, that is why I wanted to read and review it. It continues that its appeal is for a wider audience interested in Chinese cuisine. It is.

The first part of the volume, called West to East, looks at Chinese food in China through the eyes of many westerners who lived there and those that visit. The second part, East to West, explores globalization of Chinese food. These are followed by thirteen pages of references, by chapter, and two of suggested readings. Both of these items are important to trust the information gleaned in a historical tome.

The second part of the book views globalization and change separately reporting about that in Britain and the United States. The introduction begins with: “We the Chinese Conquered the world–through our food.” Hope other generalizations are less on political sympathies and more about facts; but all are not. The book states that "Pearl Buck’s father, John Lossing Buck, was a Presbyterian minister who had made an important survey of the income of Chinese farm households." Not so. John Lossing Buck was her husband.

You may recall, that Pearl S. Buck, A Cultural Biog1raphy was reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 5(1) on pages 21 and 22. There and elsewhere, one reads that this prolific author and Nobel and Pulitzer prize winner was born Pearl Sydenstricker, daughter of Absalon and Carrie Sydentstricker. Her father was a missionary who journeyed to China, as she said, to "tell the Chinese about Jesus." John Lossing Buck was a Cornell graduate in rural economics. He went to China and ultimately established himself as one of the preeminent scholars in the field of agricultural economics. He authored two books, Chinese Farm Economy in 1930, and Land Utilization in 1937. He was well known for at least two generations for his pioneering statistical studies about Chinese farms. Since then, even though the subject of scholarly dispute, his research altered studies about Chinese agriculture. He was not an ordained minister. Perhaps Roberts misunderstood, because Lossing, as he was known to his friends, did apply to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions for, and received an appointment as an agricultural missionary.

Recipe books, as cookbooks are indexed in China to Chinatown. Discussed is the 1935 Corrine Lamb book, The Chinese Festive Board, as 'one of the first Chinese cookbooks directed at a Western readership.' In the section about Western admirers of Chinese food in China, and later, under globalization, Roberts says, "the first recipe books for Chinese food written in English appeared in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s."

Chinese Cookbooks, An Annotated English Language Compendium/Bibliography (1987) by this magazine's editor and numerous other articles, including one in Flavor and Fortune called 'Chinese English-Language Cookbooks: 100 Years of Content and Context' that appeared in Volume 6(1) on pages 21 and 28 indicate there were Chinese cookbooks published in the United States years earlier. For example, a United Stated Department of Agriculture pamphlet written by Walter Blasdale was written in 1899. It has cooking instructions for Chinese vegetables; planting them, too. There are some half dozen Chinese cookbooks published before 1920. One dated 1911 by Nolton published in Detroit MI can be found at the New York Academy of Medicine. Look for the others in the above bibliography, and listed on the State University of Stony Brook's website and in their Special Collections library. There are good Chinese cookbook listings in many libraries including the Library of Congress; and they are on its website. No matter where you live, this type of error can and should be corrected.

In spite of these few minor flaws, conceptualizations are valuable and needed as is every investigation of Chinese food in the west. This book fascinates as do the resources provided in it. They help see where author information comes from. Most fascinating in this volume is data and dialogue reported about Chinese restaurants in New York and the UK, and in the Far East; hope they are more accurate.

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