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Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography
by: Peter Conn
Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge 1996, $30.00, Hardbound
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Spring Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(1) page(s): 21 and 22
This is a book about a woman whose books about China and the life of its women influenced so many of us. To read it is to spend time probing the political aspirations and inspirations of a great woman; but it is not a book about Pearl Buck's knowledge of or interest in Chinese food and food culture.
People often ask what were the major influences in my love and learning about Chinese cuisine and culture. Cuisine came from my Aunt Lil and Uncle Jack and their and my Mom's dear friend, Lily Chu. She and her husband Kang Chu and their many friends all educated, fed, and delighted my taste buds. Culture came from reading and rereading, some thirty times each, Pearl Buck's more than eighty works of fiction and non-fiction. While researching for my PhD thesis, I also read lots by and about John Loessing Buck and his agricultural efforts and his reports from China. Only near the end, when I went to look up the dates of his life, did I connect that he was Pearl Buck's first husband, a spectacularly gifted economist and a recorder of food and agriculture in that country. He was known there and worldwide for hundreds upon hundreds of pages written about the agricultural economics of China.
When Conn's cultural biography was published, I rushed to buy and read it, then reread it, and now have reread it again. This third time through was to learn how I tied food and culture together. To do so required my reading and listening to tapes of The Good Earth and four other novels and this biography, and to specifically count and consider mentions of food.
Must confess disappointment at how few times food was tangentially dealt with or even mentioned in the novels. It was mentioned a few times, but almost never in a way one could taste or smell its presence. In this cultural biography, a well written and well-researched look at this great woman who won both the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, food fared less well. In the three hundred and eight-two pages, food is discussed only half dozen times. Among the dozens of photographs, only two are food-related. One is of farmers threshing wheat, the other of Buck's Welcome House where children, parents, and friends are at a table, cookies and tea clearly present.
In a country surrounded by need for and interest in food, why is this so? In this volume one learns that Pearl Buck spent hours with her Amah in China, and there Conn tells us that she bought peanuts, hot sweet potatoes, or watermelons from street carts. Two times there is reference to her husband, the agricultural economist, John Loessing Buck, and his work. Another time Pearl Buck saw wealthy Chinese spend fabulous sums on food, what she saw we know not. Yet another time there is talk about the less than glamorous daily lives of the women...and that they ate Chinese food consistently; which foods, we do not learn. The last mention of food is in a discussion of a menu eaten in the White House with Eleanor Roosevelt. That consisted of corn soup, pork chops, applesauce, cauliflower, string beans, lettuce and tomato salad, and floating island for dessert.
Did Pearl Buck and her biographer reject food because of her political interests, her distaste for her life with this first husband, her concern about foods making people smell, or her need to reject womanly issues? I learned that in Pearl Buck's books. In them, and in this one by Peter Conn, food that this culture so values seems rejected.