The 2000 Census showed that Asian Americans currently comprise about 3% of the total US population; one would logically assume that fewer than 3% of Americans would identify themselves as Chinese American. The relatively low percentage of Chinese Americans in the entire US population, however, belies the degree that China and Chinese culture has been made part of this nation, most significantly through food. A 1995 study on Chinese restaurants reported that there are an estimated 30,000 Chinese restaurants in this country, accounting for nearly one third of all ethnic restaurants, and bringing in revenues of $9 billion (Lu and Fine 1995). A recent search on for “Chinese cookbooks” results in a list of 261 books, and these are only the books that are still in print and widely available. Obviously, Chinese food is one of the major ways that Americans (both Chinese and non-Chinese Americans) encounter China.

In this paper I examine how English-language Chinese cookbooks have used the concept of “authenticity” to frame this encounter. It is my contention that “authenticity,” used uncritically by the authors of these cookbooks to refer to a mythic China[1], constructed a dichotomy between authentic “Chineseness” [2] and inauthentic “Americanness.” In effect, by using the word “authentic” to describe particular foods, methods of preparation, and ways of eating, these cookbook authors were submitting themselves to what Foucault (1978) has termed a “regulatory ideal.” Although he was using the phrase to describe sexuality, the concept of a regulatory ideal clarifies the instrumentality of “authenticity.” In a description of sex as a regulatory ideal, Judith Butler draws on Foucault to explain that “‘sex’ not only functions as a norm, but is part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs, that is, whose regulatory force is made clear as a kind of productive power, the power to produce—demarcate, circulate, differentiate—the bodies it controls” (1993, 1). In terms of this paper, the “authentic,” acting as a trope for a mythic China, functions as a norm or ideal against which cultural practices having to do with food are compared. The idea of the “authentic” thus produces foods, practices, and people who are constrained by that ideal. It demarcates those who fit within the regulated space of the authentic from those who do not; it separates the “authentic” Chinese from the “inauthentic” (Chinese) American.

Cookbooks, which may seem to be an odd place in which to address issues of ethnic identity, are actually a rich space in which to uncover these problems. Jessamyn Neuhaus argues that “Cookbooks offer vivid examples of what we might appropriately term a cultural text: recipes are loaded with meaning particular to their time and place” (1999, 536). That is not to say that cookbooks present “reality” in an accurate way; they are not records of agricultural conditions or food sales, and we can probably never be sure that the recipes included in a particular cookbook were ever followed as directed. Erika Endrijonas states, “While it may not be clear how individual cookbooks are actually utilized, the ideals they project reveal much about their historical and cultural context” (qtd. in Neuhaus 1999, 536). Twentieth century Chinese cookbooks are a site in which immigrant ideals have been articulated, and in which ethnic identity has been constructed by Chinese Americans through their representation of Chinese cuisine. Because one of the major ways that an individual’s ethnic authenticity is assessed is through his or her familiarity with ethnic foods, I believe that cookbooks—which self-consciously strive for authenticity—are particularly useful in engaging with the issue of what constitutes an authentic ethnic identity[3].

My research into Chinese cookbooks involved the reading of dozens of cookbooks housed in the extensive culinary collection at the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute; I have also consulted Jacqueline Newman’s (1987) comprehensive annotated bibliography of Chinese cookbooks. About 60% of the authors are of Chinese descent, and I have largely limited my analysis to these cookbooks. Before I examine the ways that the culinary and cultural “authentic” was negotiated within Chinese American cookbooks, I will first outline some of the ways that “authenticity” is defined and used by philosophers and anthropologists. Second, I will highlight some of the key issues in the anthropology of food and the social history of cookbooks. This will be followed by my examination of authenticity within Chinese cookbooks in America. Finally, I will return to the issue of authenticity as a regulatory ideal, and consider the effects of this ideal on the ways that life is lived by Asian Americans.

In About Face Dorinne Kondo writes, “We write about what moves us. As positioned subjects with particular stakes in our work, this is both inevitable and necessary” (1997, xi). I undertook this project on Chinese cookbooks partly on a whim, but slowly came to a realization that these books encoded much more than Chinese recipes. As a Chinese American who immigrated to this country at the age of three, I have shared these authors’ experiences of puzzling over a parent’s inaccurate directions, in numerous attempts to recreate the taste of home. Although I find the texts of these cookbooks to be deeply problematic, I cannot deny that while reading them, I do feel the pull of the “authentic.” In negotiating real life, we are all to some degree caught in that bind: finding a way to experience the “authentic” without compromising our politics, our selves.

Defining the Authentic

Authenticity. The quality of being authentic, or entitled to acceptance,
1. as being authoritative or duly authorized.
2. as being in accordance with fact, as being true in substance.
3. as being what it professes in origin or authorship, as being genuine; genuineness.
4. as being real, actual; reality

—Oxford English Dictionary Online

According to the definitions listed above in the Oxford English Dictionary, “authenticity” is associated with the concepts of authority, factuality or “truth,” genuineness, and reality. These varying qualities of the “authentic” are often confused and intermingled by academics and non-academics alike, and belie the apparently concrete nature of the term itself. In fact, “authenticity” is a slippery subject that can never be fully grasped; it is arguable that if one actually does grasp the “authentic,” then the authentic has already vanished. This is at the basis of much of existential philosophy’s grappling with the concept of an authentic self, and although it is impossible to do justice to the depth of the philosophical debate on authenticity in this paper, I will highlight a few of the key issues below [4]. Those issues inform the ways that authenticity is used in the discipline of anthropology and in related fields such as folklore studies. The poststructuralist concept of authenticity as a construction has informed much of the recent work on the “authentic,” and I will briefly highlight some of the ways that authenticity has been deconstructed by studies of tourism and in Asian American studies.

Modern philosophy first began to seriously ponder the question of the authentic following the Enlightenment, when much of the West was embroiled in widespread social and religious change. The secularization of Christianity and the “death of God” resulted in a massive shift in social values that left a gap to be filled by one’s own self, rather than by God. This void was “the cultural and intellectual background for the emergence of the search for authenticity” (Golomb 1995, 13). Although philosophers of this period disagreed on numerous issues, in general they agree that the concept of authenticity refers to something that does not denote objective qualities such as “sincerity” or “honesty,” but rather signifies something beyond objective language. Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, characterizes authenticity as something we only become aware of when “we flee it” (qtd. in Golomb 1995, 7). In this sense, authenticity is only known through its negative—the presence or absence of inauthenticity. A positive definition of authenticity is self-defeating because in defining it, that quality that is the authentic would slip away.

Therefore, in terms of existential philosophy the “authentic” is a quality that requires an ever-present searching or seeking; it is a process of coming to knowledge of oneself that cannot be defined. Golomb writes, “Authenticity defines itself as lacking any definition. It is a pathos of incessant change, as opposed to a passive subordination to one particular ethic” (1995, 12). Although Rousseau and some other philosophers argued that an authentic self could only be found by withdrawing from society, Golomb contends that existential philosophy claims that authenticity can only be achieved within a social context. Meaningful actions—which can only take place within society—shape an individual’s authentic being; and authenticity is best forged in “boundary” or extreme situations. It is important, however, to separate this existential notion of authenticity from the definition that is used in other areas, such as art or tourism. The existentialists’ “authenticity” cannot be concretely manifested in society, or become an objective value. If authenticity were to become an objective value—implying that it could be measured—it would collapse as a philosophical concept and become merely a “regulative ideal” (Golomb 1995, 202). I believe that most popular conceptions of authenticity—including those represented in these cookbooks—fall into this trap. By viewing the authentic as an objective value to strive for (e.g., eating an “authentic” Chinese meal), we become enmeshed in the regulatory nature of authenticity, simply reproducing what is actually inauthentic.

In Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling writes that authenticity is “a word of ominous import” that has pervaded our society beyond the realm of the art world, where a work of art is judged for its genuineness and whether it is “worth the admiration” it is being given. He notes, “That the word has become part of the moral slang of our day points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, over anxiety over the credibility of existence and of our individual existences” (1972, 93). Thus, authenticity is related to anxiety, and can be conceived of as emerging out of anxiety—the previously mentioned death of God, for example. In an examination of the way that anthropology has used authenticity, Richard Handler (1986) follows Trilling’s lead in relating authenticity to anxiety, particularly the anxiety of nationalism and cultural boundary-making. Handler contends that authenticity is rooted in the idea of an “individual asserting itself against the rest of the world,” and that anthropology has constructed the cultures it studies as bounded individual cultures: “an independently existing entity, asserting itself…against all other cultures” (1986, 3-4).

Regina Bendix’s In Search of Authenticity (1997) outlines the way that authenticity was used to legitimate the discipline of folklore; her analysis is applicable to anthropology and related disciplines as well. She explains that declaring something “authentic” legitimates it, and in turn, the declaration can legitimate the authenticator. The desire to authenticate, then, is based in a need for legitimation. She writes, “Behind the assiduous documentation and defense of the authentic lies an unarticulated anxiety of losing the subject” (Bendix 1997, 10). For Bendix this “subject” is the discipline of folklore studies, but the “subject” can easily be the idea of Chineseness. For Bendix the motivating question is not “What is authenticity?” but rather “Who needs authenticity and why?” As I will show below, in relation to the narratives in Chinese cookbooks, the unarticulated anxiety of loss that emerges from these texts refers to a diffuse fear of losing touch with the mythic China.

Turning to the practical application of authenticity, studies of tourism have often focused on the ways the authentic is created. In a critique of Handler and others’ work on tourism, Bruner (1994) argues that the dichotomy of authentic/inauthentic that runs through must of tourism studies is problematic, because it implies an original and assumes that the original (authentic) is better than the copy (inauthentic). This dichotomy largely ignores the fact that culture and tradition are continually reinvented (cf., Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983), and taking a constructivist view, Bruner contends that every copy is an original. In his analysis of the “authentic reproduction” of New Salem Historic Site in Illinois, Bruner delineates several different ways to understand the idea of authenticity, which he interprets to mean verisimilitude, genuineness, originality, or—most significantly—authority. This begs the question of who has the authority to authenticate. Bruner explains that raising this question changes the nature of the discussion: “No longer is authenticity a property inherent in an object, forever fixed in time; it is seen as a struggle, a social process, in which competing interests argue for their own interpretations of history” (1994, 408). These Chinese cookbooks are an alternate, and previously overlooked, site in which Chinese Americans staged their own interpretations of their own history.

In their study of Chinese restaurants in Georgia, Lu and Fine (1995) showed that when applied to real life, authenticity is always constrained by factors as mundane as economics. Lu and Fine discovered that restaurant owners were not primarily concerned with creating “authentic” cuisine; they were concerned with creating Chinese food that customers enjoyed. “While American customers explained that they selected Chinese food for its difference from American cuisine—its otherness—this display of otherness had to remain within the context of American foodstuffs and presentation” (Lu and Fine 1995, 540). Therefore, authenticity was constrained by American cultural standards of food aesthetics—even though Chinese may love to eat tripe, Americans do not and therefore it is not offered. Authenticity is also limited by marketability: in a Chinese restaurant, the food has to sell and so it is not advisable to purchase expensive “authentic” ingredients that Americans would be wary of eating. Similarly, Chinese cookbooks temper their concern for the authentic by omitting recipes that Americans might not find appetizing, or that contain too many hard-to-find, unfamiliar ingredients that Americans might be afraid to use. Thus, “Just as tradition is mutable and contingent, so is authenticity” (Lu and Fine 1995, 538).

In About Face, Dorinne Kondo (1997) examines the production of authenticity in the Asian American play Doughboy. Noting that she was so personally affected by the play because she recognized a sense of “home” within it, she deconstructs the performative practices that created that sense of authenticity. The “home” that she recognized was a particularly Japanese American one, located in the recognizable suburb of Venice, California. For Kondo, the play’s sense of home was authentic because “there was no exoticism”; in other words, there were no fake Japanese accents or “Oriental” girls. This highlighted the fact that most popular portrayals of Asian Americans rely on Orientalizing fetishes to transmit a sense of the Western view of the Oriental authentic. Kondo also notes that “the sensuousness of the language” contributed to the authentic home portrayed in Doughboy: using Japanese American slang without explanation was one linguistic practice that created a sense of “recognition and authenticity” (Kondo 1997, 197). Finally, sensory memory and its evocation of a particularly Japanese American world also contributed to the authentic experience of ethnic identity: “In particular, foods, sounds, and smells serve as symbolic vehicles of ethnic identity” (198).

Meanings: The Significance of Food and Cookbooks

The cultural significance of food and foodways has long been acknowledged by anthropologists, and research into food has tended to go in two directions: Malinowski, for example, was interested in the role that food played in social organization; Levi-Strauss, on the other hand, sought to understand food as a symbolic cultural system (Appadurai 1981, 494). Mary Douglas has argued that food is more than physical nourishment; it is a code or language for social events that delivers messages about “different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across the boundaries” (1975, 249). Arjun Appadurai’s research into “gastro-politics” in South Asia has shown that food can serve opposite semiotic functions: it can indicate and construct social relations of equality, intimacy, or solidarity; but it can also sustain relations of rank and difference (1981, 496). Pierre Bourdieu (1984) has shown that all food choices, no matter how apparently innocuous, indicate class origin, class identity, and class aspiration. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (1993) has argued that rice is a metaphor for the Japanese self: it is not only a boundary maintenance mechanism that separates Japan from the Other; through its important role in commensality, it symbolizes the communal “we” and is a metaphor for the social group.

The symbolic, semiotic, and metaphorical nature of food is encoded in the McDonald’s menu, in social events such as wedding banquets, in the ritual preparation and presentation of funerary foods, and in the cultural texts of cookbooks. Arjun Appadurai’s (1988) study of cookbooks in contemporary India has shown how cookbooks construct a national cuisine for a rising middle class. Anne Bower’s (1997a; 1997b) research on community cookbooks has demonstrated that cookbooks reveal class anxiety on the part of immigrants, and that cookbooks can be read as autobiographies. Jessamyn Neuhaus’s examination of 1950s American cookbooks shows how cookbooks revealed deep ambivalence about gender roles and “the tenuousness of the domestic ideal” (1999, 531). Finally, Steve Siporin’s (1994) account of Jewish cookbooks in Italy shows how one immigrant community (Jews) struggled with cultural assimilation through modifying traditional menus to suit their new cultural environment.

All of these studies highlight a subtextual theme that runs through most cookbooks: anxiety. I do not mean to imply that all cookbooks evoke anxious emotions, but that each carefully delineated recipe is informed to some degree by a single desire: to enable a cook to recreate that particular dish. Cookbooks are essentially the voice of reassurance, telling the nervous cook that she can be successful—if she only follows the recipe. Nicola Humble explains,

The cookery book in its twentieth-century form has always been about contemporary anxieties and aspirations. As a popular, topical genre it has responded quickly to shifts in economic and social conditions, to factors influencing domestic work, to changing gender roles, and to newly available nutritional and health information. It has invariably spoken to the middle classes; in fact, its rise to cultural prominence is intimately tied up with the changing patterns of middle-class life and identity. (qtd. in Neuhaus 1999, 537)

In her research into the expression of gender ideology in 1950s American cookbooks, Neuhaus showed that the language of cookbooks revealed “postwar uncertainties” about the viability of the ideology of American freedom (1999, 536). Similarly, Marling (1994) contends that “In an atmosphere of uncertainty and change, Betty Crocker’s pictorial evocation of womanhood and history provided a welcome sense of reassurance” (209). The figure of Betty Crocker acted as a surrogate mother for women who had recently moved into the newly-created middle-class suburbs, away from their own mothers. Through intimately-constructed close-up photographic instructions, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book assured women that they could create a family meal suitable for the middle class of the 1950s. In 1981, Betty Crocker took on the task of teaching Americans how to cook Chinese food with the publication of Betty Crocker’s Chinese Cookbook. The recipes, written by Leann Chin, were designed to offer a similar kind of reassurance to the novice cook: you can understand and master this unfamiliar cuisine.

“Authentic” Chinese Food in America

These issues of class aspiration, anxiety over assimilation, and authenticity are embedded in Chinese cookbooks in America. These cookbooks show that Chinese food in America was first treated as a strange and exotic commodity, and then went through several phases of acculturation: limitation and simplification, adaptation of ingredients, gradual diversification, and nostalgic reconstruction. Authenticity is a concern from the very beginning, but its tenor has changed over time from an identification with the geographically bounded space of China to an ideal of ethnic Chineseness. The targeted audience for these cookbooks is mostly Americans who have little knowledge of Chinese cooking, although several recent cookbooks have been directed specifically at Chinese Americans. The first collection of Chinese recipes in cookbook form was published in 1911, but few Chinese cookbooks were published in the United States until the 1930s, when China became increasingly a part of the international political arena. Early cookbooks focused on Americanized dishes such as chop suey, sometimes offering multiple versions of this dish, and recipes were tailored for American kitchens that did not have access to traditional Chinese ingredients.

In these early Chinese cookbooks, China is the exotic Other that is both strange and enticing, and cookbook authors make sure to reassure the American cook that eating this food is not harmful. One of the earliest Chinese cookbooks in America was Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna’s Chinese-Japanese Cook Book, published in 1914 [5]. The preface emphasizes the simplicity of the recipes and the cleanliness of ingredients: “When it is known how simple and clean are the ingredients used to makeup these Oriental dishes, the Westerner will cease to feel that natural repugnance which assails one when about to taste a strange dish of a new and strange land” (1). Soy sauce, a largely unknown item in America at this time, is referred to as “syou,” apparently a transliteration of the Cantonese pronunciation. The recipes, although tersely written and sometimes with poor instructions, seem to be very westernized: they include five kinds of chop sueys, three kinds of “chow mains,” and three kinds of fried rice. “Gravy” is suggested as an additive to dishes that are too dry for American tastes, and most recipes call for large amounts of “sweet lard.” Obviously, this first cookbook aimed to make an unfamiliar food familiar.

Similarly, Chinese Recipes: Letters from Alice Moore to Ethel Moore Rook (1923) attempts to allay Americans’ fears about trying a new type of food. The author writes in the preface, “No one need be afraid of Chinese cooking. It is perfectly balanced and very wholesome and, we think, delicious” (x). Each recipe is presented in the form of a letter, prefaced by a short description of Alice Moore’s life in China. Chinese Recipes is almost more of a travelogue than a cookbook, but it does include a large number of dishes which later become part of the typical American Chinese cookbook, including a recipe called “Chu Pao Pa” which seems to be dumplings (jiaozi), and a dessert called “Peking Dust.” Moore admits that “Peking Dust” is “not strictly Chinese because whipped cream is used,” (55) but this recipe appears in many Chinese cookbooks that follow, in much the same form. Moore also includes a recipe for chop suey, but notes that “chop suey is not really a native Chinese dish. It is known chiefly among tourists and foreigners” (113). In Moore’s letters, soy sauce is referred to as “Chinese sauce.”

Other cookbooks published before World War II also heavily rely on chop suey dishes and simplification for American kitchens. The Mandarin Chop Suey Cook Book, published by the Pacific Trading Company of Chicago in 1928, claims to contain “authentic translations of the best recipes of leading Chinese chefs and directions for preparing various popular and healthful Chinese dishes exactly as they are prepared in the Orient.” The cookbook offers eight kinds of chop suey, ten egg dishes (including another American favorite, egg foo young), and three kinds of chow mein. Again, soy sauce is referred to as “Chinese sauce.” Nellie Wong’s Chinese Dishes for Foreign Homes (1933) includes five chop sueys, three chow meins (including one “American style” and one “Chinese style”), and Peking Dust. It also contains some unusual instructions such as the use of “four large thin membranes from the fat of lard” to wrap spring rolls. Wong includes some dishes that are obviously not Chinese, such as “Rice Au Gratin,” a dish containing cheese; and “Choi Shang Choi,” a salad of tropical fruits combined with celery, carrots, and mayonnaise.

Before World War II, authenticity was not prominently featured in Chinese cookbooks. I believe the lack of focus on the authentic is due to the fact that during this time China and Chinese food was unquestionably foreign and exotic—even to the point of evoking “natural repugnance.” This food is so unfamiliar to Americans that its authenticity is taken for granted; this points to an association of the authentic with the unfamiliar. As China became more prominent politically in the 1930s and Americans grew more accustomed to Chinese food, they became better able to judge the genuineness of the food, and “authenticity” fully entered the vocabulary of Chinese cookbooks.

One of the most interesting cookbooks published during wartime [6] was Buwei Yang Chao’s How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945), containing a foreword by Chinese scholar Hu Shih and a preface by Pearl Buck, author of the best-selling The Good Earth. Hu Shih credits Chao with inventing the term “stir-frying,” which has become one of the most popular cooking methods in America today. Before Chao’s book, this method of cooking was generally referred to as frying, stirring, or sautéing. Chao describes stir-frying as “a big-fire-shallow-fat-continual-stirring-quick-frying of cut-up material with wet seasoning” (xxiv). Her writing style is humorously cross-cultural, written down in English by her daughter, then edited by her husband to make her sound more Chinese. This results in the use of a “colorful” broken English to emphasize her authenticity as a Chinese woman. Recipe titles include “Green Tea Stirs Meat Shreds” and “Ancient Old Meat.” Chao also includes some Sinified American foods such as “Chinese Chicken Salad,” and “Roast Chicken (Chinese Style).” Chao’s dishes strive for authenticity; she provides two recipes for “Egg Fu-yung,” one Chinese and one American. She provides extensive information on Chinese etiquette and customs, and on how to properly use chopsticks.

In order to construct an authentic Chineseness, Buwei Yang Chao employs several tricks that are often used in constructing authenticity. George Hughes’s (1995) analysis of the Scottish Tourist Board’s 1972 “Taste of Scotland” campaign, which aimed to market the food of Scotland to tourists, showed how an authentic Scottishness was asserted by using specific analogies and signifiers. The Tourist Board-issued manual for restaurateurs created Scottishness by associating dishes or ingredients with specific Scottish locations; using Scottish dialects in naming dishes; associating foods with real or fictional Scottish historical persons or events; and using ingredients that had been naturalized as authentically Scottish (i.e., haggis). Chao’s cookbook, and many others, rely on these same methods to authenticate the Chineseness of their recipes—and themselves.

From the end of the war until 1965, Chinese cookbooks reflected the struggles of Chinese Americans to assimilate into mainstream society. Because immigration from China was relatively low during the 1950s, most Chinese in America were second- or even third-generation Chinese Americans dealing with living as minorities in America. Cookbooks written by Chinese Americans purported to contain simplified recipes for American homes, but they also included extensive information on Chinese customs and even the history of Chinese in America. Because traditional Chinese ingredients were increasingly available to the American consumer, more recipes included ingredients such as green onions and ginger. The 1960s were also marked by a growing health consciousness, and many Chinese cookbooks from this era contained information on nutrition and dieting.

Tsuifeng and Hsiangju Lin’s (the wife and daughter of Lin Yutang) 1956 cookbook, Cooking with the Chinese Flavor, reflected many of these trends. The Lins emphasized making do with ingredients on hand, but reflecting the growing availability of Chinese ingredients in America, they also include a section on recipes using Chinese ingredients such as “tree fungus.” The Lins explain, “We eat these for their unique flavors and textures” (150). They spend several pages instructing the American cook on how to avoid overcooking vegetables, and do not include chop suey in their recipes. Most interestingly, the Lins’ cookbook contains an account of the painstaking process of recovering traditional recipes from memory. This is a story that continues to be repeated in cookbooks published today, and it reflects the idea that something that was close to being lost is closer to being authentic.

Christopher Steiner (1995) has demonstrated that African traders manipulate the presentation and description of an art object in order to fit a Western buyer’s notion of “authentic.” This includes positioning the art object in the darkened rear of a shop so that the buyer can “find” this nearly overlooked or lost item on his own: “one of the key factors in the presentation of an art object is to create an illusion of discovery” (Steiner 1995, 154). This underscores an item’s authenticity. The story of the search and recovery of a nearly lost Chinese recipe parallels the presentation of tourist art to the Westerner, but with a twist. It is the author who does the discovering, and in that act she claims some of the authenticity of the lost-and-found food for herself. The Lins’ story of reconstructing their authentic recipes is told by Lin Yutang himself in an introductory essay to the cookbook titled “The Art of Cooking”:

When the book gradually took form and it came to putting down on paper, not so much the names of the ingredients, as the secret of cutting, drenching, straining them, sometimes freezing them overnight to obtain the requisite crispness, I witnessed another curious process. For six months, off and on in the evenings, when the mother and daughter were not otherwise occupied, I heard the conversations going on in the next room. It was like a party recalling a hunting or fishing trip, or a trip to the Arctic. Any authentic firsthand account of a personal experience is interesting, worth eaves-dropping. Not a book was consulted. It was what the psychologists call a total recall. (xii)

This “total recall” stresses the embodied nature of memory: “Not a book was consulted.” This positions the Lins closer to the visceral authentic, and suggests that there was some kind of embodied memory of Chineseness at work: they allowed the hands and the taste buds to lead the way.

Calvin Lee’s Chinese Cooking for American Kitchens (1959) is one of the first—if not the first—cookbook to address the problems of Americanization in Chinese immigrant culture. The third-generation descendent of one of the earliest Chinese restaurant owners in New York City, Calvin Lee became the first in his family to attend college, and went on to obtain a law degree from Columbia University. In the chapter “Chinese Food Comes to America,” Lee writes about the “strange predicament” of third-generation Chinese Americans like himself; they want to be accepted as Americans, yet they don’t want to lose their cultural heritage. They also face the problem that many Americans still see them as “unassimilable aliens” (31-32). Lee’s book includes a selection of Sinicized American recipes such as “Steak à la Lee” and “Thanksgiving Turkey Cantonese,” recording a common practice of adapting American food to Chinese culinary traditions. Mimie Ouei’s 1960 cookbook, The Art of Chinese Cooking, also contains a recipe for a Sinicized turkey: “Turkey à la Chinoise.” In Elizabeth Pleck’s (1999) study of the construction of Thanksgiving, she notes that many immigrants thought of Thanksgiving as a way to demonstrate their Americanness: “Most groups were unconsciously making the statement that they were trying to assimilate by combining a few, selected elements of their culture with fealty to the national holiday and its cuisine” (781). This blending of culinary traditions is an example of the cultural hybridity that occurs when different cultures meet. Calvin Lee’s ambivalence or anxiety over assimilation expresses a fear over losing touch with his ethnic roots. This anxiety over the potential loss of a mythic China is the subtextual tale told by repeated claims of authenticity.

The Chinese culinary authentic took center stage with the 1962 publication of The Joyce Chen Cookbook. Known as the “Chinese Julia Child,” Joyce Chen’s cooking conglomerate—including cookbook, mail order system, restaurant, and television show—highly influenced Chinese cooking in America. Chen claims that “All recipes have been tested by hundreds of Americans,” and that she “simplified the procedure and still kept the authentic flavor” (3). She emphasizes the need for “the right ingredients,” but feels that Chinese cooking utensils such as the wok are not necessary. Her recipes include classic Chinese dishes that Americans were likely to encounter in restaurants: “Chungking Pork,” “Lion’s Head,” and “Shrimp with Lobster Sauce.” Her attitude throughout the book is one of teacher-to-student, and she emphasizes that by following her instructions to the letter, any American can cook authentic Chinese food. “Authenticity” in The Joyce Chen Cookbook is partly used as a marketing tool, but it also positions Joyce Chen, entrepreneur, as the arbiter of the authentic. Some of her introductory notes to particular recipes illustrate the way that she claimed knowledge of what was authentically Chinese:

Many people like to add Hoi Sin sauce instead of black beans to this dish. You may do the same, but it is not authentic. Only soy bean paste can be used and still be authentic. (From the recipe for “Chungking Pork,” 132)

New customers of our restaurant are always surprised about this dish and ask if it is really made from lion’s head. Of course it is not. (From the recipe for “Lion’s Head,” 136)

This is an Americanized Chinese dish. (From the recipe for “Shrimp with Lobster Sauce,” 150)

Her statements leave no room for a difference of opinion. She clearly demarcates the boundaries between authentic (China) and inauthentic (American).

With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 which greatly increased the quota of Chinese allowed to immigrate to the United States, Chinese cookbooks in America were even more overtly concerned with authenticity. Faced with thousands of new Chinese immigrants, Americans were suddenly confronted with the real thing, and cookbooks reflected this development. During this period of ethnic revival and internationalization, two one-thousand recipe Chinese cookbooks were published. The first, Gloria Bley Miller’s One Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook (1966), spends a significant amount of time on the history of Chinese cooking, proper methods and techniques, and ingredients. Miller, a white American, stresses that good Chinese cooking depends on method rather than exotic ingredients: “authentic Chinese dishes can be prepared when the only ingredients available are meat, fish, vegetables, soy sauce and peanut oil” (19). In 1970, another thousand recipe cookbook was published, this time written by two couples (one Chinese and one American). In contrast to Miller’s book, Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking (Chang et al.1970) stresses that slavishly following traditional methods is unnecessary:

Although native-born Chinese in America would prefer to follow the methods of food preparation in just the same way as their forefathers did, even to using the authentic utensils, it is totally impractical. Even the orthodox Chinese compromise with traditional techniques, techniques that are laborious and cumbersome here. (12)

These two different passages about cooking techniques underscores a divergence of opinion over what it takes to make an authentic Chinese dish. The Encyclopedia, written in part by Chinese Americans, authorizes cooks to forego “cumbersome” Chinese tradition and reassures them that changing methods will not compromise authenticity. This could be read as an acknowledgement that Chinese Americans did in face change their practices, and that they were concerned about whether that change was acceptable. If “even the orthodox Chinese” adapted, then it must be all right for the average cook to do so.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, following the renewal of official American relations with the PRC, a spate of cookbooks focusing on regional cuisines began to appear, and a craze for dim sum led to several cookbooks focusing entirely on how to make these specialties. During the 1980s, many more pictorial cookbooks were published, and Chinese food was also adapted to suit the changing needs of the American consumer, who demanded convenient and healthy dishes. The trend toward specialization seems to have continued in the 1990s, although several new trends have emerged. One of these trends is fusion cuisine, in which the authentic is discarded in favor of a distinctly American form of multiculturalism. The other trend is the complete opposite: a reclaiming of the culinary authentic through a nostalgic reconstruction of the Old World, via memory and autobiography in the Amy Tan vein. It is clear that Amy Tan’s best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club, ignited this publishing trend that continues to this year, which has seen the publication of several thick cookbooks draped in red-and-gold dust jackets, claiming to contain stories and recipes of Old China passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter .

Several Chinese cookbooks published in the 1990s are heavily dosed with nostalgia for an immigrant or rural Chinese past. In Martin Yan’s Culinary Journey Through China (1995) he writes fondly about his mother’s primitive Cantonese kitchen, and praises her cooking as “more than sustenance. It’s what food is at its best in Chinese families, a nourishing symbol of well-being, harmony and family connection” (11). The recipes are his “interpretation of simple, authentic homestyle recipes, adapted for western home cooks” (12). In Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine (1995), Philadelphia restaurateur Susanna Foo writes lyrically about her childhood in Inner Mongolia and rural Taiwan, her memories of home-grown pomegranates and of shopping for fresh fish and seafood. In the foreword, novelist Amy Tan declares, “To me, Chinese food is an expression of passion. It creates some of the best memories in life. I can’t have enough of them” (9).

One of the most interesting of the cookbooks in this genre of ethnic nostalgia is Ken Hom’s Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood (1997). It is perhaps the first commercial Chinese cookbook clearly targeted at the Chinese American population [7], and is illustrated with black-and-white family photos in the style of an autobiography. Self-consciously searching for ethnic authenticity in the context of America, Hom prefaces the book with a history of Chinese immigration to America, touching on Exclusion, racism, and the importance of maintaining Chinese food traditions in the new world. In words remarkably similar to Martin Yan’s, Hom says, “My mother was a superlative cook. . . . I loved those aromas, tastes, and textures and that they signified, as they do to this day, sustenance laced with the love and warmth of a close family and friends” (3). He goes so far as to extend his experiences to encompass all of Chinese America:

I have discovered that my experiences in growing up are quite similar to almost every other Chinese-American I know. Social isolation tempered by extended family ties, the tenacity of tradition, the central importance of traditional foods and family gatherings—these are part of the common ground shared by all Chinese in America. (13)

Hom’s rosy portrait of Chinese American life breaks down the barrier between Old and New worlds, and provides a glimpse into immigrant traditions. Even as Hom blurs some cultural boundaries, however, he is engaged in building new ones. Easy Family Recipes constructs an idyllic Chinese American identity based on what Hom authorizes as “shared” experiences, but Hom is merely repeating the discourse of Chinese American authenticity. Coming out of a period of greater multicultural awareness fostered by the Asian American movement, affirmative action, and popular consumption of ethnic identity via media products such as The Joy Luck Club, Hom is (perhaps unwittingly) supporting a particular political project: the creation of Asian American ethnic solidarity. While there is room within this movement for diverse immigrant backgrounds, it nonetheless constructs a mythical, authentic ethnic experience against which all others must be compared. This authenticity constrains the expression of alternative experiences, and produces what it restricts—a particular, limited manifestation of “Chinese American” ethnicity.

Conclusion: Negotiating the Real

Although “exotic” is commonly understood to mean something foreign and intriguingly different or unfamiliar, there is a subtextual meaning that reveals issues of power and authority. Edward Said defined Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (1978, 3). Orientalism is intimately connected with exoticism, which Mason (1996) characterizes as “the effect of discriminatory practice whose mode of representation has the effect of emptying, deferring, and deflecting meaning. . . . to render something exotic is deliberately to erase the possibility for the viewer to know this ‘other’ except through his/her own projections” (139). In other words, to label something as exotic is to render it opaque; unknowable. At the same time, Mason points out that an object or subject is not intrinsically “exotic”; rather, this “exotic” appellation is something that can be applied or removed at will: “exoticization and de-exoticization” (148). This is an act of authority; it is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority” over an idea, a people, a place. In many Chinese cookbooks published in America, the word “exotic” is used over and over, resulting in the representation of a cuisine that is unknowable yet simultaneously subject to Western authority. This closely parallels the concept of “China” that has long been in practice in the West. “China” has been seen as the mysterious, inscrutable female, who is nonetheless at the mercy of the powerful, masculine West—be it imperial Britain or the well-intentioned muscle of the US military during World War II. In dozens of Chinese cookbooks, the reader is confronted by the constant, contradictory reiteration of Chinese food as complex and baffling, but which can nonetheless be easily mastered by the Western chef who follows the instructions presented.

If Orientalism is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient,” are these Chinese American cookbook authors merely complicit in the Orientalist enterprise? Their presentations of Chinese cuisine are often overt attempts to dominate and restructure—to authorize—particular versions of Chinese culture. Is there room for resistance, for constructing an alternative discourse on China, or will these authors always be trapped within the discourse of Orientalism? As a way of addressing this problem, Homi Bhabha introduces us to the mimic man: the colonial subject educated to be like the colonizer, but never quite becoming the same. Bhabha argues that mimicry exposes a deep ambivalence in the colonial relationship centered around difference: “in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference” (1997, 153). By exposing this ambivalence—this anxiety, perhaps—mimicry also disrupts the authority of the colonial discourse. Although the mimesis only reveals part of the colonial subject, that partial representation is disruptive of the dominant discourse. Similarly, even though Chinese American cookbook authors do reproduce much of the dominant Orientalist discourse, there is space for subversion, and in that space the Chinese American experience is partially revealed.

Dorinne Kondo contends that counter-Orientalisms can exist; Asian American cultural productions can disrupt and/or subvert the Orientalist hegemony. She acknowledges that “the ways power works means that nothing can be pristinely separated from the dominant,” but even if “subaltern peoples reproduce forms of their own oppression through self-Orientalizing” or “autoexoticizing,” this autoexoticizing “is never merely a reinscription of the dominant” (Kondo 1997, 10). Kondo argues that opposition can be “both contestatory and complicit, and yet still constitute a subversion that matters” (11). This “subversion that matters” is revealed in Kondo’s analysis of the play Doughboy, which many critics—who did not understand the Japanese American notion of “home”—dismissed as overly nostalgic and sentimental. Kondo asserts that even if the play was nostalgic, it was a nostalgia that did not pander to the dominant white majority at all: it was a particularly Japanese American form of nostalgia, and thus it supported the political project of writing a Japanese American identity into existence. This kind of nostalgia differs in a significant way from what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia,” in which “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed” (1989, 69). Although it could be argued that the Japanese Americans in Doughboy—and the authors of these Chinese cookbooks—are complicit in the discourse of imperialist nostalgia, they are also constructing a separate discourse. Although they are partially obscured by Orientalism, they are partially revealed; theirs is a subversion that does matter.

On the other hand, participating in the discourse on authenticity is a double-edged sword. Authenticity in these cookbooks is not about a process of searching for one’s own being; it is a regulatory ideal. Authenticity in this case is an ideal to strive for, and thus it constrains and restricts expression of the self. It is about the anxiety of loss, and the desire for legitimation. The texts of these cookbooks, many written by leading Chinese scholars of their time, reveal a personal longing to grasp what they have left behind by coming to America. Some, like Martin Yan and Ken Hom, are able to straddle the gulf between these two worlds, and happily engage in a nostalgia of cultural recovery similar to that in Doughboy. Others, like Calvin Lee, write down their culinary heritage as a process of legitimating their immigrant experience in the face of mainstream pressure to assimilate.

Although my analysis has been limited to Chinese cookbooks, the messages I read in them can be applied to many discourses that rely on creating the “authentic,” whether that authentic is applied to Chineseness, Asian American identity, or a simple family recipe. Until we understand that we are using authenticity as a regulatory ideal, it will be impossible to truly attain the authentic. I believe that the concept of authenticity has been a restrictive tool used by both the dominant and marginal discourses to suppress the expression of cultural difference. If the idea that cultures are pure is a fallacy and hybridity is closer to the norm, the idea of authenticity must be thoroughly reworked: otherwise we are all simply complicit with our oppressors.

Presented at the Association for Asian American Studies, March 2001

End Notes

[1] By “mythic China” I am referring to the concept of “China” that has been produced by the Orientalist discourse over the past several centuries; I am not referring to the geographic boundaries of the People’s Republic of China, or to actual Chinese myths. The “mythic China” is a place that has been rendered Other, exotic, and inscrutable to both Westerners and the Chinese alike.

[2] Although “Chineseness” is a slippery concept that shifts depending on context, in general the idea of Chineseness is based on two spheres of meaning whose peripheries do at times overlap. The first sphere consists of what might be termed “practical” evidence: rituals, traditions, and observable cultural practices. The second sphere consists of less tangible ideas: ideology, Confucianism, nationalism, and the influence of modernity. Elements of the second, conceptual sphere of meaning do inform, change, and result from practices in the first sphere of meaning. 

[3] My analysis is clearly a textual interpretation of what is written in these books, and although it would be very interesting to explore readers’ responses to these recipes, that was beyond the scope of this paper. 

[4] Although it would have been interesting to consider whether the Chinese notion of authenticity differs from that of the West, I was unable to do so in this paper. Because these cookbooks are written by Chinese Americans and intended for an American audience, however, I do not believe that this is a major oversight. However, because Chinese philosophy, particularly the concept of yin and yang, thoroughly informs the construction of Chinese food, a few general points may be helpful in considering the notion of Chineseness in these cookbooks. In contrast to Western philosophy, which is often concerned with the nature of things, Chinese philosophy is more practically concerned with establishing and cultivating harmony in social relationships. The idea that all Chinese philosophy is social philosophy simply because it is concerned with harmony, however, is incorrect. It is a humanistic philosophy, but in a way that differs from Western humanism. Chinese humanism concerns the unity of humanity and nature, and the idea of balance pervades much of everyday social life—including food. It is interesting to note that these philosophies of China are often delineated in Chinese cookbooks, whereas Western philosophies of existence are rarely, if ever, addressed in Western cookbooks.

[5] Onoto Watanna is the pseudonym for Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954), a Chinese American writer of sentimental novels featuring the exotic Orient. Watanna’s sister, Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914) wrote short stories about the Chinese American experience under the penname Sui Sin Far. Sara Bosse was also related to these sisters. Annette White-Park’s Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton is a literary biography of this early Chinese American writer. I am grateful to Gordon Chang for alerting me to this information.

[6] During World War II, Chinese cookbooks often emphasized economy and practicality. Chinese Cookery by M. P. Lee (1945) stated, “Chinese cookery is especially suited to wartime conditions; its nutritive value is high, little meat need be used, and with limited materials great variety can be obtained.”

[7] The Schlesinger Library’s culinary collection also contains several community/fund-raising cookbooks compiled by Chinese American organizations. For an analysis of the way that community cookbooks construct ethnic identity, see Bower 1997a and 1997b. 


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