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Culinary Nostalgia

by: Mark Swislocki

Stanford CA: Stanford University Press 2009, Hardbound
ISBN: 978-0-8047-6012-6

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Fall Volume: 2009 Issue: 16(3) page(s): 19

Touted by New York University's Chinese historian, Joanna Waley-Cohen, she calls it a "fascinating and highly original study of Shanghai based upon personal reminiscences and meticulous research into newspapers and magazines, local gazetteers, sociological urban studies, and municipal archives." She and we find this book a great look at food culture and urban eating. It touts the food in Shanghai and focuses on this city as a food-lovers paradise. It examines how tastes change at important moments through the city and the country's history.

Nostalgia it is, as it explores its regional cuisines and restaurants and the way the Shanghainese connect to their past and imagine their future. The author explores the unique significance of how and why Shanghai's people live to eat and eat to live.

Swislocki looks at their food culture in terms of the four great culinary traditions or si da cai xi, the eight great eating regions or ba da cai xi, and Anderson's five-point system; and he matches them all to other Chinese groups of 'fives.' In this book, look at how these categories came about, also when, where, and why, and how they relate to all the foods of and in Shanghai. In reality, this book goes beyond just Shanghai. It looks at how the city's residents make their own relationships to it and to the rest of China.

From a historical perspective, it looks at a market town in 1074, a market city in 1159, and a county seat in 1292. It correctly notes that it is not until the Ming Dynasty, that this city really grows and valuable foods take their symbol-laden roles. These are further enhanced and better understood by the Qing Dynasty.

This fine work of scholarship is, as Waley-Cohen says, "an enjoyable read." However, it is more than that, as it is a real 'love and learn' volume. It helps the reader do as Confucius implies, "Eating choice quality can cultivate the person." We say, 'reading things of this fine quality cultivates him or her even more.'

Do not be bogged down by the thirty pages of endnotes. Instead, be enlightened by the sixteen bibliographic pages, and use the equally wonderful equal number of pages in its index.

This book is an intellectual beauty by this Brown University Assistant Professor who researches well and writes well. You will find that you will read easily and learn well from and about urban experiences in Shanghai. They touch on all of China's regional food cultures; and the book will toughen your intellectual heart.

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