I often like to research old cookbooks. From an academic standpoint, it allows me to trace the history of food and cooking in a particular part of the world, and put various discovered works together to chronicle the gradual evolution of the culinary perspective. One of my previous cookbook reviews dealt with the emergence of Chinese cooking in early 1960s America. I've discovered another volume, from the late 70s (1977, specifically), that both shows how far Asian influence had come, and also how far it had yet to go.
The book in question is "Madame Wong's Long-life Chinese Cookbook", and the huge societal change is clearly visible right under that title- "Recipes specifically designed for the West Bend Electric Wok". Fifteen years before, such a thing didn't exist *anywhere* in America, let alone in an English-language printed cookbook. Since many households had electric ranges that would make a wok a less than viable option, a simple and versatile tool that plugs into an outlet seems like it would have sold readily. (The fact that this book is still easy to find also speaks to the popularity) And on top of that, the draw of simple and exotic meals is strong- particularly those that could be prepared with only one vessel.
The author was a delightful old Szechuan lady who taught Chinese cooking in Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York, and California, heading the department at UCLA at the time this book came out. A sprightly 71 at the time, she attributed her good health and long life to following Chinese cooking principles. And judging by her thousands of students over her forty years of teaching, and the fact that she herself lived to be 103, I suspected her skills and understanding might have held water. My reading and recipe testing within her book proved me very much right, and I hold this woman in highest regard.
Regarding the recipes, they're divided into sections by type and/or major ingredient. For example, there is a section 'Soups', but there are also sections such as 'Eggs', 'Pork and Lamb', and 'Sauces and Dips'. Each is full to the brim with recipes of varying types and difficulties, and many are found in some form on Chinese-American restaurant menus today. I noticed many duplicates from earlier Chinese cookbooks as well, and after a little recipe comparison, I found very little change. Some ingredients were altered as more authentic items became available in American supermarkets, but for the most part the dishes remained the same over the fifteen-odd years between the last major publication.
Some of the directions in the recipes that may have been perfectly adequate at the time come across as vague. On a similar note, a number of the ingredients have the same problem: "Szechuan Prezerved Vegetable"? "Soybean Pudding"? Even I was a little lost trying to figure out what some of the dishes had in mind. I thought I might have to knock this book a few steps down for being out of date and confusing, even to someone of my relatively high level of relevant skills.
Fortunately, that worry is deftly remedied in Chapter 16: Pantry Shelf and Storing Information. All the nonstandard ingredients are listed alphabetically in English, with the matching Chinese characters. After each name comes a thorough description, often including places they can be found and what the containers might look like when put up for sale, as well as an estimated shelf life. For those buying an exotic ingredient for a first time, this is an exceedingly valuable bit of information.
I can comfortably endorse this book as a worthy companion to Dr. Lee Su Jan's 1963 volume (my review will be linked below), and while I may not use the West Bend Electric Wok, I'll happily reference this book for as long as it holds together.