Joyce Chen Cooks and the Upscaling of Chinese Food in America in the 1960s
The astounding renown that GBH had had by the mid-1960s achieved with Julia The French Chef is now well known and has been studied in depth from a variety of angles. But much less known, and much less attended to in many histories of television cooking, is the fact that Julia Child's success spurred GBH to look to program more works of instructional television and even of instructional cooking television. In particular, in 1966, the station worked with renowned cookbook author and Cambridge restaurateur Joyce Chen to develop a series on Chinese cooking. Eventually, 26 episodes of Joyce Chen Cooks were shot and aired between 1966 and 1967. Significantly, for a series that was intended both to extend the impact of The French Chef and yet move in cultural directions all its own, Joyce Chen Cooks employed the exact same studio set as The French Chef but with French motifs swapped out for stereotypical Asian ones (for example, wind chimes that opened and closed each episode). The use of the same set for two different shows allows us to discern carefully how two women, very different in dynamics of personality, both set out to mediate foreign foods for American palates and enables us to pinpoint both the regularities in cooking pedagogy at the time as well as the distinctiveness of any one personality as it engaged with its mission of culinary instruction. Joyce Chen belonged to a demographic of Chinese who had been well-off before the Communist take-over and became emigrés to the new world of America where they often employed the practices of high living and high-level socializing in service and hospitality industries such as the restaurant business. Where Chinese food in America had often seemed plebian and even low-class (the chop suey joint as a cheap source of bountiful food for clerks and downtown workers), the new Chinese entrepreneurs often set out to render Chinese cuisine in upscale terms that would attract well-off customers. Chen's fancy Cambridge restaurant was, for instance, a favored venue of such notable professionals as John Kenneth Galbraith, former Harvard President Nathan Pusey, and President Medal of Freedom recipient Paul Dudley White, a noted cardiologist who would in fact pen the foreword to Joyce Chen's 1962 cookbook. My essay situates Joyce Chen within the context of this emigré culture and its attempts to craft a version of Chinese cuisine that would appeal to urban professionals in the U.S. context. In particular, we see how Chen simultaneously extended the values and virtues Chinese food held for those Americans who were deemed to be open to a seemingly more upscale and more adventurous experience than middlebrow Americanized Cantonese cuisine alone (in fact, she touched on Peking, Shanghai, and Szechuan cuisines, along with more familiar Cantonese favorites), while she also translated exotic, even challenging fare into acceptable, even comforting, Americanizing terms. Above all, she felt that one defining characteristic of American lifestyle was the pressure of time, and she tried to teach shortcuts and tricks by which seemingly ambitious (and therefore, to guests, impressive) dishes could be crafted in expeditious, effective manner. Unfortunately, Joyce Chen Cooks never had a corporate sponsor behind it, and the show didn't last beyond its one season. Chen did return to GBH in the 1970s for a generally well-reviewed special, Joyce Chen's China, but soon after accident and illness led her to retreat from the public scene. Nonetheless, the episodes of her series survive to instruct us today on a lesser-known yet meaningful moment in the history of televisual culinary art.
"Joyce Chen operates in the classical Pavlovian manner: she cooks, mouths water. . . Remember, you can watch Joyce Chen and still be faithful to Julia."—from a publicity release for Joyce Chen Cooks, 1967
In February of 1966, GBH station manager Dave Davis wrote to David Leonard at ETS (Educational Television Stations) in Bloomington, Indiana, to talk about the pilot the Boston educational station had made for a new series it was planning to air that fall. ETS handled national distribution and promotion of shows from local educational channels, and Leonard had as one of his duties to collate nominations for an educational-TV award from Reader's Digest. The program that Davis was nominating from GBH was a new venture in TV cooking instruction, and his letter is revealing of some of the ways his station was defining and distinguishing this newest culinary offering. By this time, GBH had already made educational television history with its smash hit The French Chef starring witty, wacky host Julia Child, and it would seem that the station hoped for another success in the realm of television cookery even as it intended to insist on the particular merits of the new show it would now offer. As Davis put it in his letter of February 18, "After The French Chef, it must begin to look like we're trying to specialize in cooking shows. We feel this one is quite different, and should actually appeal to a larger audience — especially in the lower socio-economic classes where we currently have not much audience."1
The new series that Davis was touting bore the name Joyce Chen Cooks (although at some moments, it seems to have been called Joyce Chen Cook), and it is perhaps worth noting that it did end up being one of the six winners nationwide of the Reader's Digest educational television award, an honor that brought $1000 to the station. Extending over twenty-six episodes from late 1966 into 1967 (with, it would appear, some reruns in the early 1970s), Joyce Chen Cooks is now somewhat forgotten in the history of television cooking, and there is no doubt that it was overshadowed by the very series, The French Chef, it sought distinction from. However, the ambitions behind Joyce Chen Cooks — such as to continue the venture of GBH into the realm of culinary instruction and to build on success there even while venturing in new directions — are worth studying for what they reveal both about particularities of individual cooking series as well as about the regularities of the genre overall.2
Given how major a place culinary programming has assumed on the landscape of television today, from pure instruction to infotainment in the form of games, competitions, adventure narratives, autobiography and visual memoir and so on, it is compelling to try to fill in the development of the form over the decades even as so much of that history comes to us as incomplete or fragmentary. For the media historian, this task of reconstruction and evaluation of Joyce Chen Cooks in and of itself — as well as necessarily and inevitably in relation to the earlier model of The French Chef — is made all the more enticing and all the more easy by one striking fact in the day-to-day production of Joyce Chen Cooks. Specifically, the show had the same producer (Ruth Lockwood) and, strikingly, used the same set as The French Chef but with the French countryside motifs and props that defined Julia Child's offering swapped out for what in the period of the 1960s would have no doubt been referred to as "Oriental" motifs: lattice-work, mysterious background shadows, Chinese figurines, gongs and so on. Simultaneously, the viewer sees a show similar to Child's and yet unlike it in ways, and this play of resemblance and divergence enables us to both grasp the specificity of Chen's offering as well as its fit within culinary instruction overall as a genre of popular TV.
It is not absolutely clear who hit initially on the idea of Joyce Chen doing a cooking show for GBH although she clearly had made an important culinary reputation for herself by the mid-1960s with cookbooks and classes and, even more important, a series of restaurants that were well-regarded by the intellectual and professional elite of Cambridge. Even the master, Julia Child herself, lauded Joyce Chen's flagship restaurant as one of the very few she enjoyed going out to in the Cambridge area.3
Joyce Chen had emigrated with her husband to the U.S. in 1949 and he soon had a seemingly lucrative import business. In the 1960s, the Chens divorced and Joyce Chen raised her three children, Henry, Stephen, and Helen, as a single mother. By 1973, Chen's success would attain such a level (for example, she was said to be worth over a million dollars) that Time devoted a profile to her, with the punning title "Fortune's Cookie": one claim the piece makes is that her restaurant was being regularly frequented by Cambridge elite such as John Kenneth Galbraith, former Harvard president Nathan Pusey (quoted as calling the venue "not merely a restaurant, but a cultural exchange center"), and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dr. Paul Dudley White, a noted cardiologist who had penned a foreword to Chen's cookbook, extolling its emphasis on low-fat preparations.4
Early on in her sojourn in the United States, Chen decided to make one of her domestic talents, cooking, into a career path. According to a story she offered up in her cookbook and thereafter often cited in newspaper articles and interviews with her, Chen had made egg rolls for some event at daughter Helen's school and when she returned later, she discovered that her somewhat exotic fare had been gobbled up much before the more commonplace Anglo offerings. People clamored for more of her distinctive cuisine. Chen began offering cooking classes, opened her first restaurant in 1958, and then published her successful cookbook, The Joyce Chen Cookbook, in 1962. She also had started regularly offering Chinese cooking classes, first to small groups of friends and then to a broader constituency at the Cambridge and Boston Adult Education Centers.
In developing a new cooking series that would follow on The French Chef, GBH clearly had to both distinguish it (otherwise, why the need for new programming?) as well as connect it back to Julia Child's offering (otherwise, how to make the new show promise a culinary excellence of the sort that Child's program had already mastered?). The balance is well on display in a press announcement for Joyce Chen Cooks from Sylvia Davis in Promotion and Publicity at GBH: "If the petite Peking-born restaurateur is concerned about the inevitable comparisons of her Chinese cooking show with her friend's French one, she conceals it with aplomb and conviction— shared by the Boston station that they are entirely different productions. But the careers of both women have parallels that go beyond the same TV studio and the same TV producer . . . Both had published cookbooks before turning to TV. And they share a down-to-earth attitude toward preparing what probably are the world's most complex and exciting cuisines."
Looking in depth at Joyce Chen Cooks then can teach us about: GBH programming strategies in the 1960s, and especially strategies that play on continuity as well as differentiation; about the role of personality in the relative success or not of this or that bit of instructional television (what did Julia Child have that made her such a hit? what might Joyce Chen herself have needed to stand out and make a difference?); and about the relative meanings that Chinese cuisine, compared to the French gastronomy that Julia Child offered, held for Americans by the middle of the 1960s.
Let's start with this latter question and address Dave Davis's suggestion that Chen's show might appeal to socio-economic classes lower than the ones The French Chef had been reaching. However we think of the relative place of Chinese or French cuisine in gustatory hierarchies in the period, there certainly was no fixed cultural capital for either. To be sure, there is no doubt that for America in the decades following the Second World War (and, in their own way, decades before), French cuisine meant distinction, of a particularly elite, if not at times snobbish, sort. Frenchness signaled cultural accomplishment, and this mattered to a postwar America that was often given over to its own forms of rung-climbing not only in economic realms but in allied cultural ones of image, reputation, and status-seeking presentation of self.
At the same time, though, The French Chef is far from snobbish in its appeal or its tone, and it enacts a sort of democratization of French culinary achievement. Boeuf Bourguignon, Child would say for instance, is just the same thing as good, old American beef stew, and much of her mission was to translate and rewrite seemingly exotic fare in commonplace terms.5
Even as it looked back to a romance of Paris, Child's democratic vision and version of French cuisine also fit well with bohemian or liberatory impulses of the 1960s: the Frenchness not of the snobby restaurant, then, but of the little espresso bar or bistro near this or that college campus and participating thereby in culinary vanguardism.
This was the period, generally, of a forward-looking investment in foreign cuisines as cutting-edge conduits to new conduct of life. As food historian, Neta Davis, puts it, "[I]n the 1960s, ethnic cuisine was being held up as a superior form. . . . the inexpensive choice as well as the healthy and hip choice. Politically and spiritually hip ethnic foodways were the most often acquired and emulated. . . . Chinese and other Asian foods invoked Buddhism and Mao. Peasant foods were borrowed from most international culinary traditions."6
In fact, Joyce Chen Cooks would air within the midst of consequential culinary transformation of the foreign cuisine it worked to promote. The show came out a year after onerous immigration restrictions that had been in place for decades were lifted for Chinese entry into America, and just a half-decade before President Nixon would famously open up to China in ways that expanded U.S. conceptions of it (including an openness to new food tastes beyond stereotypical Cantonese fare as when, notably, Nixon dined on Peking duck). There was a new investment by Anglos in Chinese byways, yet these were not always about a mainstreaming of exotic culture for middle-brow, let alone democratic tastes.
In its earliest U.S. versions, Chinese food had primarily been working class food — that, for instance, of the Chinese laborers who worked on the railways and of the Anglo miners and prospectors who found themselves in Western cities like San Francisco that laborers moved to when railway work was finished.7 In this respect, it's revealing how, as a number of food historians have made clear, the U.S. working-class context gave rise to a highly Americanized version of Chinese peasant food. In particular, there now exists an important critical literature on the history of American chop suey which, although vaguely based on an indigenous Chinese preparation (innards chopped up and sautéed with whatever vegetables are available locally), is all about its transformation into something more attuned seemingly to plebian American tastes (leave entrails out of the mix, for instance).8 By the 1910s and 20s, chop suey's appeal has little to do with exoticism but with its anodyne everydayness: it's worked up with whatever's around, it's cheap to make and easy to make, it's bountiful and hearty (and, by extension, ostensibly healthy), and so on. It's what the new feminized world of clerical workers (secretaries, salesgirls, filing clerks, etc.) turn to as a quick, inexpensive lunch. It's good for lower-class couples with not much in the way of funds. It's, for instance, in a scene from the early sound film Applause (1929), what a sailor, predictably, offers a young woman fresh to the big city when he takes her out on a cheap date to introduce her to metropolitan life. (As predictably, perhaps, it's where a hard-on-her-luck Anglo waitress [played by Ida Lupino] ends up working in the 1953 exploitation film The Bigamist; there's ultimately not much that's romantic about the chop suey joint in this rendition and it simply serves as confirmation of the dead-endedness of the American dream for average Anglos.) Simupltaneously, chop suey was commonplace but it also signaled fast-moving urban modernity in a way that other food choices might not. It was a food that bohemians slumming in the lower reaches of Chinatown could seek out to seem hip. Louis Armstrong sang of "coronet chop suey" and Edward Hopper in 1929 offered one of his perhaps less foreboding paintings in the form of Chop Suey, a fairly luminescent work in which two 1920s young "New Women" face each other across a restaurant table (on their lunch break, perhaps?).
To be sure, within the period, some enterprising entrepreneurs (both Chinese and not) sought to produce a more upscale version of Chinese cuisine: they opened restaurants near theatre districts and away from areas of ordinary commerce. Some of these more upscale venues, revealingly, were open only in the evening (and thus signaling a desire to not cater to the working-class lunch crowd). Chinese food became part of a dynamic night-life in which democratization and exoticism intermingled (in a 1939 B-movie Nancy Drew Reporter, a Chinese restaurant/nightclub is where a gangster meets a bad-buy society playboy but is also followed there by a group of kids, led by intrepid teenager Nancy Drew, who order chop suey while overhearing the criminals' nefarious plans). Clearly, a number of the more upscale venues were excuses for drinking culture (by the 1950s, some Asian restaurants would be about exotic drinks with miniature umbrellas in them more than about the food) and some in the first wave of them didn't survive the Depression and the end of Prohibition (which allowed all restaurants to compete in non-alcoholic drinks).
In the 1950s into the 60s, several trends in Chinese cuisine in America exist side by side (and sometimes intermingle in curious ways). On the one hand, the image of Chinese food as cheap and plebian got a new push from such mass institutions as those school cafeterias that turned to chop suey or, even more often, chow mein as a dish that could be made in large quantities, that mixed meats and vegetables (and therefore had the appearance of a balanced meal), and that helped diversify standard fare. This democratization of a certain kind of Chinese food in the schools (and elsewhere where large numbers of people needed to be fed: during the Second World War, the US military often served chow mein and chop suey to soldiers, so much so that GIs went looking for this fare in Chinese and Japanese restaurants at war's end) was matched by a comparable entry of mass-produced Chinese food into the suburban and urban home through companies like Chun King (and, from an earlier moment, La Choy) which offered simplified, unchallenging versions of Chinese food for the Yankee home palate.
At the same time, there was a refreshed push to promote a new sort of night-clubby, upscale culture of Chinese food. What scholar Christina Klein has termed "Cold War Orientalism" (the perceived need in the U.S. to fight Communism in the East by courting non-Communist cultures and conveying capitalist lifestyle to them) manifested itself in a newfound fascination from the 1940s into the 50s with Japan (for example, Jerry Lewis's The Geisha Boy from 1958), Hong Kong (The World of Suzie Wong from 1960), Polynesia and so on.9 This was the age of Trader Vic's and other pan-Oriental restaurants that mashed diverse Asian cuisines together and repackaged them as kitschy fun. Many such venues simply served as another option for middle Americans dining out (there is, for instance, an interesting social science literature just on the phenomenon of postwar Jews and their fascination, even fetish, of Chinese food for their regular Sunday meals — Sunday being, among other things, a day Jews and non-Christian Chinese can do business). But some elegantly appointed Chinese restaurants in big cities became the place-to-be for those either already possessing of cultural privilege or those just seeking after it. For instance, upscale Chinese restaurants were key to the Hollywood scene and the jockeying of stars and high creative workers for status. There, such restaurants were not necessarily more adventurous or authentic in their Americanized versions of Chinese fare — it is well known that the rich and famous of Hollywood in the 1950s ate notoriously unexciting cuisine for the most part (which is why Wolfgang Puck's more challenging Asian spin at Spago would come as such a revolution later on, in the 1980s). One way the fancier Chinese restaurants tried to make the experience more distinctive was often less at the level at cuisine than decor: this was the era of Chinese restaurants redolent with indoor goldfish ponds, pagodas, Buddhas, rock and darkened sand gardens, decorative bridges, bamboo, and so on.
In some cases, some of the restaurants were survivors from the 1920s and 1930s. But quite a number were newcomers to the 1950s and early 1960s and were opened by the new, often more bourgeois or even upper-class stratum of Chinese that emigrated to the US in the wake of 1940s Chinese Communism. Some of this new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs had been aided in their emigration by well-placed contacts in the state department or by well-to-do sponsors, and when they opened their restaurants, they served as welcoming hosts to an American professional-managerial elite. They were former gentry now in the service of a New World gentry (or its would-be acolytes). As Asian studies scholar Madeline Hsu explains, in a study of two such postwar restaurant openers, "Rather than attempting to blend into the mainstream by erasing their racial and ethnic distinctiveness, Chinese American entrepreneurs such as Kan and Chiang became increasingly skilled at selectively marketing versions of Chineseness so that the ethnic restaurant industry could become an extremely profitable niche rather than a dead-end career path imposed by discrimination."10
As noted, what was actually offered up on the bill of fare might not have been all that different from the Chinese food that mass Americans were used to (thus, when President Eisenhower famously noted that he regularly had Chinese food from a favorite restaurant brought into the White House, his typical order appears fairly commonplace and unadventurous: chicken chop suey, fried rice, egg fu yung, and almond cookies11) but decor and special efforts in hospitality could make it seem as if the experience were somehow special. At the best restaurants, for instance, the host would greet regular customers by name and give them preferential treatment, and amenities like hot towels at the end of the meal (a postwar invention of American Chinese restaurants) could signify a coddling of the diner as valued guest.
Of course, Chinese cuisine could never be upscale in the way French gastronomy was: the former just had too many associations with mass taste, with an ethnic minority in America that did not have the same cultural capital as high culture Europe, and with food preparations that however now Americanized still spoke of earlier times when the ingredients were thought to be unhealthy or distasteful (the slur that Chinese cooked rats persisted into the 1950s at the very least). But Chinese food may also have had the advantages of relative inexpensiveness even at the high end, of a shareable bounteousness (making it perfect for special family occasions), of exoticism and difference, and so on. A French restaurant is something you go to for romance or with immediate family, but a Chinese restaurant is where you go to for a banquet. It would be unseemly to share tastes at a French restaurant (each plate is a shrine unto itself and fabricated for quite personalized delectation), but the platters of Chinese food, spinning around on a lazy susan, are made to be communalized.
To take just one anecdotal example of the function of the upscale Chinese restaurant, one that bears directly on our immediate subject matter, it was at one of Joyce Chen's restaurants in Cambridge that the sister of one of my closest friends chose to have her family take her for graduation from law school in the 1970s. As she recounts, "I remember eating at two of Joyce Chen's places in Cambridge. The first one . . . was near MIT. We ate there the day before my law school graduation. We had ordered Peking duck ahead of time and they made soup out of the duck bones. They also served it the traditional way, in which you brushed hoisin on the pancake with a scallion brush and then put the skin in it and ate the meat separately. Joyce came around and she and Dad got into a conversation about China and ducks. (In the army Dad never had Peking duck.)"
The details in such recollection can suggest the degree to which when Joyce Chen assumed the role of restaurateur, she well fit certain patterns of service and hospitality work in the upscale dining realm: thus, the anecdote offers a picture of the sort of establishment that one might choose for a graduation meal, the special dish that had to be ordered in advance, the emphasis on a traditional preparation and on instruction for Anglos in traditional ways to consume it, the host who makes the rounds and chats up the customers, and so on.
For all of Dave Davis's emphasis on a show whose subject matter might go beyond The French Chef in terms of socio-economic appeal, it would seem that Joyce Chen was no mere apostle for massified versions of Chinese cuisine. Born in 1917, Chen appears to have well enjoyed in China that sort of life of privilege that many of the postwar emigrés left behind to come to the new world and that they turned into talent in service and hospitality industries such as the restaurant business. As Chen clarifies her background in the opening pages of her 1962 cookbook, "My grandfather was a governor and two of this brothers were of the cabinet rank in the late Chin Dynasty. My father, for many years, had been a railroad administrator and city executive."12
No doubt, it could be a come-down for many exiles from this well-off way of life to find themselves having to perform deferential labor for a professional-managerial class all its own in the New World (and, for all the emphasis on "service," we still need to note that what the Chinese restaurateurs were engaging in was very much labor, including often the hard and grubby work back-of-the-house, since restaurant ownership and stewardship typically requires much more physical effort than just front-of-house hospitality). In Chen's case, perhaps one tactic in the emotional management of the move from status as member of a privileged elite to service provider for a new world elite was to imagine that entrepreneurship is somehow not about self-salesmanship (turning one's self into a "servant" of others) but about simply honing an ostensibly non-mercantile pluck and determination. Specifically, in continuing her description of the well-off life she had been living in China, Chen tries to suggest it was not a life of being pampered but, in here case, of choosing to build character: "In old-time China high ranking government officials used to employ a number of servants and housemaids. Their children did not need to do any housekeeping. But my family was one of the rare exceptions. When I was a young girl, my parents always encouraged me to stand on my own feet. They trained me to do things myself. Whenever I entered the kitchen, my mother never forgot to remind me that I should learn how to cook so I wouldn't eat rice raw in case I couldn't afford a family cook in the future" (ibid.). In other words, even though there was a support staff to enable a life of ease for the well-off family, Chen was made, so she says, to develop a resourceful character all her own and to prepare for any eventuality in life, including loss of the privileged life-style one once had luxuriated in.
It is noteworthy, then, that this image of a plucky, determined girl who is born into ease but learns how to do potentially without it gets nuanced on the very next page of the cookbook — which goes back to suggesting much more intently the life of privilege that Chen does seem to have had available to her in China. If the Dedication page had Chen discovering the talent to cook and to housekeep as character-building virtues she could hone on her own, the next page, the first page of the body of the book, clarifies: "When I was a young girl in Peking, where I was born, the most interesting thing to me was making miniature pastries for myself while our family chef was making others. . . . Of my childhood all I remember are parties, guests and foods. . . When I was eighteen I once cooked a banquet for a party. Cooking was such fun in China because the maids did all the washing and cutting. All I did was give the orders and cook" (p. 1). (In this respect, it might be worth noting that Joyce Chen Cooks seems to carry on this aversion to clean-up: on the show, Chen is constantly promoting dishes that don't mess up the kitchen too much and worrying about cleaning up before guests arrive.)
In strata that are all about status and creating favorable self-images in the presence of others (such as house guests, visiting relatives, people from one's social world or work world, and so on), well-positioned entrepreneurs in professions of service and hospitality, and close-up experience of hosting, could flourish. Certainly, Chen's 1962 cookbook had already suggested her capability at introducing the means and ways of a cuisine that was still a mystery to many Americans. And in fact she explained Chinese cuisine in a manner that directly made it palatable to American life-style. Much of the cookbook is geared not only to explaining what various Chinese ingredients and kitchen utensils are and how to locate U.S. equivalents for them when the original item is not to be found. Even more, Chen suggests that Chinese cuisine needs to be translated and revisited for the particular nature of American lifestyle. Not for nothing is the very first recipe in The Joyce Chen Cook Book, in a section on that most important of impression-makers, the Appetizer, a recipe for "Bacon-wrapped Water Chestnuts." Chen advises that "This is a very good Hors d'Oeuvre and is especially suitable for cocktail parties or unexpected friends" (65). Made with three ingredients alone, water chestnuts, light brown sugar, and bacon, and and constructed around that most ubiquitous of postwar U.S. implements, the toothpick, the recipe is redolent of a world of standing-up parties rich in drink and chitchat. Revealingly — and confirming how her goal is one of mediation between food cultures — Chen admits that "Although bacon is not Chinese, the water chestnut can give you a feeling that this is indeed Chinese." Most importantly, she notes that "canned water chestnuts and bacon are easily kept on hand," making one ready for those unexpected drop-ins that seem so much a stereotype of postwar American life. Think, for instance, Bewitched with its constant motif of Darren bringing boss Larry and perhaps a prospective client home for dinner at the last minute and Samantha, the put-upon housewife, having to decide whether to use magic or not to pull the evening off and help her husband's career. The conceit of the unexpected guest whose displeasure can mean anything from losing an account to missing out on a promotion to even getting fired is no doubt an exaggerated motif in the postwar American landscape, but its very ubiquity in so much popular culture of the period suggests it tapped into some very real anxieties about the degrees of stability and security within white collar employment.
The reference in Chen's cookbook to items being kept on hand already hints at a quality she discerns in American life and that she takes to be one of the traits that distinguishes it from the world she knew in China: certainly, both the Chinese and U.S. host has to build status through socializing (and then has to anticipate the "unexpected" by resourceful planning) but in the American context this management of impression has to be done while one is caught up in the hustle-bustle of life in the fast lane. In her cookbook, but even more so as a constant refrain on her television series, Chen presents America as a land of people who are always busy, always rushed, always under the pressure of the ticking clock, and she offers much of her instruction in the spirit of time management: she is all about shortcuts, planning and organization, and doing things ahead of time so they are around and available when necessity comes knocking (literally so, for instance, in the case of the unexpected guest).
Certainly, like Julia Child, Chen wished to acknowledge the fun and the art of cooking. But more than Child — who if she devoted one entire episode of The French Chef to a clock ticking (in anticipation of an unexpected guest that husband Paul had announced he was bringing home) did so in cheerful confidence that she could buoyantly rise to the challenge — enjoyment in Chen's cooking demonstration seems tempered always by a pragmatic recognition of, and even resignation to, the pressures of time and the ways this transforms cooking from pure pleasure into an activity tinged with weighty responsibility. Ironically, then, what Joyce Chen may herself have been experiencing as someone who had once tasted a life of ease but was now forced to work hard to get by (in her case, in hospitality services by teaching, writing, running restaurants, hosting a television show, all the while also performing the domestic labor of raising a family alone) was something she also imputed to her Yankee audience members: lifestyle — and indeed life per se — needed to be worked at, needed to be managed, needed to be rendered an exercise in rationality and (self-)discipline.
Interestingly, then, what might seem in her television appearance an act of stereotyped Asian self-effacement and restraint on Joyce Chen's part may be more her response to the challenges of the American dream than an original adherence to some cliché of "Oriental modesty." In fact, Chen herself seems aware of the stereotypes of the Chinese as inherently deferential and modest, and she sometimes plays with them as when in Episode 5, "Sweet and Sour," she notes that an Asian hostess typically would downplay for guests the quality of her food but that she, Chen, can confide in her American viewers that the dish she's made is really good. At the same time, though, she offers up models of restrained professionalism and self-management that are all about steeling one's self to the necessities of the American go-getter way of life.
Noteworthy, for instance, is the recurrent admonition in both Chen's cookbook and episodes of her television series that her reader/viewer must follow her instructions to the letter (even as she admits she likes being imprecise about exact measures of ingredients and condiments in recipes). As she puts in the cookbook, "When you use my recipes in this book, you should read the opening chapter first; then read each recipe two or three times before you start to cook it. . . . if you use my recipes, it is my duty to provide you the right information and steps in a new way of cooking. If you follow my instruction carefully, the dishes should come out all right. You are the one to make the dishes successful. If anything goes wrong or right there must be a reason. In some things the reason for failure is beyond our control, but in cooking success is always under our control" (27).
There were in fact direct links from Chen's cookbook to her televised cooking show. On the one hand, many of the recipes on Joyce Chen Cooks could be found in the original cookbook and while there were specially prepared mimeographs that the station sent out to viewers who wrote in for recipes and made a donation to the station, these letter writers were advised that they could also get the recipes from the cookbook itself. On the other hand, it's not just that the television series picks up on recipes from the book but that it bases its entire approach to Chinese cooking on it. Both the book and the series are rich in very practical details (for example, one can jerryrig a steamer by cutting both ends off a tin can and then putting it with a plate on top of it inside a big steaming pot), and these are generally the same details. The Joyce Chen Cook Book comes off as a veritable introduction to, and encyclopedia of, Chinese cooking, so much so that it doesn't even begin offering recipes until 65 pages in (one quarter of the way through): previous sections deal with "Chinese Ingredients" (what they are, where to get them, what an acceptable American substitute might be), "Chinese Seasonings and Spices" (Ditto), "Utensils for Chinese Cooking," "Preparations for Chinese Cooking" (i.e., methods of cutting, washing, and prepping foodstuffs in Chinese style), "Chinese Cooking Methods," "Cornstarch in Chinese Cooking," "Important Elements of Good Dishes" (a discussion of traditional Chinese food virtues — color, aroma, flavor — to which a specifically fourth, more modern, more American one — nutrition — is added), "How to Cook Perfect Rice," "Using Chopsticks the Proper Way," "Tea," "Differences Between Home and Restaurant Cooking" (including a discussion of regional cuisines: Peking or Mandarin, Shanghai, Canton, and Szechuan), "How to Grow Bean Sprouts at Home," "Chinese Table Dipping Sauces," and "Measurements." Some of the episodes of Joyce Chen Cooks build directly out of these topics (for instance, Episode 13 devotes its first part to the cultivation of bean sprouts while the initial segment of Episode 4 is all about how to pre-wash and then effectively cook rice) but virtually all of them go beyond the recipe at hand to engage with broader instruction in Chinese food lore and cooking tips that the book also covers — and in quite similar fashion.
My point in noting this is not at all to tax Joyce Chen with some sort of lack of originality in which she repeats herself from book to television program. Rather, it is to suggest that she had honed a basic pedagogy of Chinese cuisine centered on an understanding of fairly objective fundaments and that she took it as her duty to communicate this as directly and unambiguously to her American audience. Like French cuisine — which, famously, classically builds on basic sauces out of which a set of calculable variants are built (for example, chicken in white wine versus chicken in red wine versus other meats in both types of wine sauce, and so on) — Chinese cuisine here becomes a set of basic operations that can be codified, regularized, and therefore reliably transmitted. (Interestingly, though, when Julia Child collected many of the recipes from her own television show into the 1968 book, The French Chef, the volume offers them up in fairly straightforward fashion with none of the humor, digression, shtick, and sheer wackiness that accompanied their demonstration during the course of the television episodes. As I argue in my book on The French Chef, Child's personality was a fundamental, irreducible aspect of her appeal and it meant that no verbal summary would ever be adequate to her bodily demonstration of the cooking practice. In her hands, evident, visible presence becomes spectacle, rather than transparent vehicle for a set of objective lessons about food. In contrast, Joyce Chen's on-screen persona seems much closer to the professional chronicler of method implied in the pages of her cookbook.)
For all its supposed exoticism (wind chimes, a studio set that bleeds off into ineffable shadows, untranslated lettering, and so on) and for all Chen's own demonstrative hospitableness, there is something very matter-of-fact, if not downright dry, to many of the moments of Joyce Chen Cooks. Overall, certainly, there often is something fairly regularized, even formulaic, about the temporal structure of television cooking instruction shows per se, whatever the cuisine they might center on: after all, this is a genre whose narratives are about demonstrating the controlled transformation of fundamental ingredients into predictable results. But the regularity of Joyce Chen Cooks seems even more intently than many other such shows to be about reason and control, the assumption of a fundamentally pragmatic attitude that there is a job to be done and a proper way to do it. It may be noteworthy, for instance, how Chen will crack a joke or break out into a smile only to snap back into a more restrained, more seemingly professionalized pose and poise, as if affability can only go so far and needs to be kept within practical limits. (This would certainly have been the sort of hosting skill to be learned at the upscale restaurant: be chummy but only to a degree that one can pull back from when the call of professionalism requires.)
To be sure, Chen was not above adding a bit of shtick to her performance, especially, it would seem, in later episodes where she may have gained more confidence in her self presentation. Exceptional in this respect is the second-to-last episode of the series, the first installment in a two-parter on "Peking Lobster": here, Chen moves to a part of the kitchen she's rarely been in in previous episodes (the space between the kitchen counter and the fridge) to get down on the floor to inflate a duck with a bicycle pump. For the most part, though, such instances pop up as mere passing moments in a pedagogy that is rigorous and measured — affable, to be sure, but also subservient to the tasks at hand. Thus, to take another example, when Episode 9 begins unlike others with the standard dolly-in to Chen at the kitchen counter only for it to stop unexpectedly before it's gotten all the way to her, the moment stands out for its variation from the norm which is all about expeditiously and smoothly getting in close to Chen. But Chen then conspiratorially whispers to the cameraman to come closer, and the movement in to her resumes as usual and Chen gets down to the pressing culinary mission.
Given the reason and regularity of her instruction, one can look to the very first episode, "Egg Foo Yung," as a veritable model, even generative matrix, for the structure and style of all subsequent episodes of Joyce Chen Cooks. (I refer the reader to the "Extended description" I have provided of this episode in the Metadata.) There is, for instance, that standardized, slow dolly in to Chen at the outset to situate her in her professional milieu as she begins her presentation to the viewer. Typically, the first cut — here, it's to her pouring chicken broth into a pot — will occur relatively late in the scene and tends, predictably, to focus on close-up of her hands as Chen either demonstrates a cooking technique or shows off an exotic food product likely to be unfamiliar to viewers. (This is a standard visual rhetoric in classic cooking shows: alternating between full-body shots of the instructor and close-ups of his/her hands going about manual business.) Such demonstration will often be accompanied by extended verbal presentation by Chen of lore about the culinary process or product at hand. For instance, in "Egg Foo Yung," Chen recounts how in China, hard-boiled, red-dyed eggs are sent out to announce birth of a child (the red symbolizing luck and the number of eggs, odd or even, indicating boy or girl newborn). Even more importantly, she spends no small amount of time toward the end of the episode clarifying something she will return to here and there in later episodes: namely, how the vastness of China coupled with a geographic topography that separated areas often dramatically from one another led to a pronounced regionalism in Chinese cuisine. Notably, such geography lesson will be invoked again in the second-to-last episode of the series where Chen distinguishes diverse preparation methods for duck in Peking, Shanghai, Canton, and the Szechuan region and suggests the quality of each. From start to finish, then, Joyce Chen Cooks insists on certain fundaments of Chinese cooking even as it expands these far beyond the emphasis on Cantonese alone that for so many middle-Americans would still have summed up the country's cooking by this moment in time.
At the same time, even as she hopes for her American viewers to expand their knowledge of a country still understood quite inadequately — just as in Episode 9, "Chinese Delicacies," she will present herself as a veritable goodwill ambassador who is concerned to help peoples "understand each other better" — Chen also functions as a translator of Chinese practices into American ones. Here, it's not just a matter of explaining how the Chinese do things (although there is certainly quite a lot of that in Chen's presentation of lore) but how Americans might also learn to do them in their own indigenous, necessary way. Thus, her "Egg foo yung" will include ketchup and the sauce that results will look, as she says, "like the gravy you are served with your roasted turkey or roasted beef." Likewise, while she promises to teach later on how to grow bean sprouts at home (and does indeed, as noted, dedicate part of a later episode to that activity, something she notes the kids in the house will like doing), she also explains in the "Egg Foo Yung" episode that easily attainable lettuce can, when chopped up, be substituted. The appeal here seems to be both about taste (American palates may be more used to lettuce than bean sprouts) and convenience (who, in the time-managed U.S. context has the luxury of waiting for bean sprouts to grow?).
Finally, to conclude the enumeration of key elements from Episode 1 that tend to recur across the range of episodes, there is the typicality of the episode's last moments where Chen moves with her finished dish to the dining room. On the one hand, the bowl of rice waiting on the table reiterates just how much planning and preparation goes into an effective meal (it's best to have certain elements of the meal done in advance and ready for the moment when they need to come on-stage). On the other hand, that bowl — and the move overall from kitchen, place of production, to dining room, place of consumption — reminds the viewer of the communality and conviviality that Chen asserts needs to be insisted upon as the raison d'être of all this reasoned effort: Chinese cooking, as well as American, is often necessarily about socializing, sharing, and being with others (even if, in pragmatic cases, for purposes of status-seeking). "I hope some day you will come here to eat with us," Chen offers, and the "here" might mean her restaurant but as likely refers to the television experience of her show itself, which works to offer viewers a vicarious and mock-collective participation in the social event of dining (as domestic medium, television is all about spectators isolated in private spaces but, hopefully for the broadcasters, doing so in collective simultaneity).
Of course, for episodes like this of Joyce Chen Cooks to work as effective instruction, Chen had to be effective in her own right, and here the production of the show faced one major challenge from the start: Chen spoke English haltingly and with a heavy accent and was not always the best communicator of her admittedly far-reaching knowledge of Asian cuisine. GBH tried to deal with this in two ways. On the one hand, they had her consult a speech instructor and receive lessons in effective public address. On the other hand, they tried on-air explicitly to admit and play with Chen's deficiencies in English: for certain words, she would stop and spell out the letters one-by-one; for the all important ingredients, she would repeat the entire list toward the end of each episode while the camera panned over Chinese figurines each bearing a small card with the ingredient (and amount) written out on it. Nonetheless, it must be said that through the 26 episodes of Joyce Chen Cooks, Chen never fully masters public speaking in English, and there are moments where she becomes hard to follow. Some viewers were said to have found her grappling with the language endearing, but one can wonder if the sheer difficulties in communication didn't factor into her show not being renewed for additional seasons.
But perhaps even more of a challenge for Joyce Chen Cooks's survival was the issue of sponsorship. The 26 episodes that ran in 1966-67 had no specific sponsor and it is likely that GBH felt it couldn't continue the show without corporate sponsorship of some sort. (In 1966 dollars, the budget for the 26 episodes of the first year of Joyce Chen Cooks appears to have been around $107,000. Using on-line programs that calculate current value for the dollar in past years, this would convert to over a half million dollars today.) And an additional factor in facing the high cost of a program lacking in sponsorship may have been the coming of color production to GBH. As I note in my book on The French Chef (a series that from the start notably had had sponsorship, initially local and then national as the series took off in popularity and visibility), it was just around the moment of 1967 that GBH sought to introduce color production as a way of embracing the hip new aesthetics of the decade. The GBH administration, along with Julia Child herself, enthusiastically embraced color for The French Chef, and it can readily be imagined that Joyce Chen Cooks would have been caught in a Catch-22: no sponsorship meant no budgeting available for the increased expense that color shooting would entail, but without color the series would not be able to keep up with the times and have a chance to attract astute sponsors who would have wanted to tap into the aesthetically progressive structures of feeling of the times.
Chen herself did try to find sponsors for possible new seasons of her show and had fabricated a delicate box with her picture on the outside and opening up to plush lining, elegant chopsticks, and prettily printed promotional material about the series (including fan mail: for instance, here's one from a young boy: "CONGRATULATIONS!! I think your show is FABULOUS. Even though I'm a boy I enjoy your program an awful lot. I'm going to spread the news quickly. Keep up the good work. Your loyal fan, Brian Hussey. P.S. My little sister also likes you. (She's 7.) Gretchen Hussey.")
But the efforts to find a sponsor didn't pan out, and the show wasn't renewed. At most, through the 1970s, GBH and, it seems, some other PBS stations ran reruns of Joyce Chen Cooks. (For instance, starting in July 1976, GBH ran it on its regular VHF channel at 2PM on Saturdays, and then on UHF on Wednesdays at 8, but when a fan wrote in to wonder about further seasons he was told pointedly that these were reruns and that no new episodes were envisioned.)
However, Chen herself would return to GBH for one more production in 1973, the one-off special Joyce Chen's China which first aired on May 20 of that year and, in the days after, got a fair amount of play from PBS stations around the country. The special came at a moment when the American public's interest in China was strong, due to President Nixon's trip there in 1972. Television stations, both commercial and public, were avidly questing after documentaries about China: for example, at the beginning of 1973, the ABC network ran the much acclaimed work, Michelangelo Antonioni's China, by the celebrated art-cinema director.
In Joyce Chen's case, the planning for the China special began early on in 1972. Both for business reasons (to secure and solidify import of goods from China) and to be with family she hadn't seen in decades, Chen was planning a two-month trip back to China and would be bringing two of her children, Stephen and Helen, along. It was decided that Stephen, who was then an undergraduate at Boston University, should film as much of the trip as possible and then his footage would be evaluated for its suitability to television broadcast. Joyce Chen Cooks producer Ruth Lockwood came back as co-producer for this new effort. Just before their departure from Cambridge, it was arranged for Stephen to get a one-day "crash course" in cinematography from staff at GBH, and the training paid off well: when he returned with several hundred rolls of film, it turned out that all but one was deemed not merely useable but quite accomplished in its visual look. Around forty minutes of Stephen's footage made it into the version that aired. The film chronicled such activities as: the Chens' train ride across the country (with food sold to them by track-side vendors along the way), a visit to the Great Wall, daily urban life in cities such as Shanghai (especially a scene, much admired by reviewers, where elders in a park suddenly began in synchrony to do morning exercises), a heart-felt family reunion, a visit to an acupuncturist, tours of arts-and-crafts factories and of an elementary school, and so on. While the Chens had also brought a tape recorder with them and had recorded some sound that could be synched up approximately with the image, most of the sound was non-synchronous and centered on narration from Helen (and a bit from Joyce and Stephen). Talking head shots of all three family members after their return reflecting back on the trip were also included. And, interestingly, to bring the length up to an hour, a last section, filmed in Cambridge, was appended in which Joyce and Helen Chen host a Chinese dinner for John Kenneth Galbraith and Newsweek foreign editor Edward Klein who discussed with the Chens such issues as gender, class hierarchies (and signs of the persistence of old regime privilege), authority and mass obedience, and so on. (But to keep things from getting too serious they also discussed the Chinese penchant for long, long fingernails.)
Reviewers were divided on the fit of this last section to the rest of the documentary which they generally gave acclaim to. Although Joyce Chen's China wasn't just about food, meals and menus were a constant presence in the narrative, and GBH arranged for mimeos of recipes Joyce Chen brought back from China (such as West Lake Sweet and Sour Fish) to be made available to PBS viewers who sent in self-addressed, stamped envelopes.
But even with the general critical success of Joyce Chen's China, Chen began to slip from public visibility. In 1976, she had a major accident that led to loss of function in her right hand. In the 1980s, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and stepped back fully from the public scene. She died in 1994. Yet the survival of episodes from her television series enable us to see close-up the effort she expended in trying to open Americans to Chinese tastes (and the culture behind them) while remaking those tastes in avowedly U.S. fashion.
My deepest gratitude to Stephen Chen for talking with me about his mother and her efforts around Joyce Chen Cooks and for lending me episodes of the series. Major thanks to Allison Pekel at GBH for thinking of me for this project and supervising me expeditiously and judiciously along the way. Food studies scholars Heather Lee and Krishnendu Ray offered invaluable bibliographic reference, and Ph.D. student Tarini Sridharan worked as my Research Assistant to track materials down. William Boddy, Kathleen Collins, Marita Sturken, and Giovanna Di Chiro read the final draft and offered helpful comments. And a quick but heartfelt thanks to my Joyce Chen anecdotal informants, the two Joannes, Joanne Ross and Joanne Lewis, who filled me in on aspects of Joyce Chen products and the Joyce Chen restaurant world.
2There is some discussion of Joyce Chen Cooks in Kathleen Collins's authoritative history of television cooking shows, Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows (New York: Continuum, 2010), 92-94.
3All in all, there were a series of Joyce Chen restaurants, and the chronology seems to go something like this: The first restaurant opened in 1958 on Concord Avenue but an even grander one followed at 500 Memorial Drive, Cambridge in 1965 and, somewhere around 1967-68, Chen sold the Concord Avenue location to her ex-husband (who turned it into a Japanese restaurant, Osaka). In addition to the palatial venue on Memorial Drive, there also appears to have been Joyce Chen's Small Eating Place which could seat 60 people and was located on Massachusetts Avenue (this lasted until around 1989). In 1974, the lease ended on the Memorial Drive address, and Chen moved the center of her operation, the main fine-dining restaurant, to Rindge Avenue where it lasted until 1998. There was in 1975 also an outpost of the Joyce Chen Restaurant on Cape Cod run by son Henry and which lasted about a year and a half. Finally, son Stephen managed a downtown version of the Joyce Chen Restaurant in 1988 and this branch ran until 1994.
4"Fortune's Cookie," Time, January 29, 1973, p. 80. In the same year, in the script for Joyce Chen's China, a travel documentary which I'll discuss at greater length later, daughter Helen noted that while it was generally hard to get visas to go to China from the U.S., her family had gotten them fairly easily, and she speculated that this was because the Joyce Chen restaurant is "a landmark in the Boston area and is a gathering place for scholars, diplomats, and artists who have an appreciation for Chinese cuisine and culture."
7And not just big cities. In Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2010), Lily Cho examines the pervasiveness through modern history of Chinese restaurants in small towns and shows the extent to which they have a grip on people's memories (both good and bad) of provincial life.
8See, among others, Renqiu Yu, "Chop Suey: From Chinese Food to Chinese American Food," Chinese America, 1, no. 1 (1987), 87-99; Samantha Barbas, "'I’ll Take Chop Suey': Restaurants as Agents of Culinary and Cultural Change," Journal of Popular Culture 36, no. 4 (Spring 2003): 669- 86; Haiming Liu, "Chop Suey as Imagined Authentic Chinese Food: The Culinary Identity of Chinese Restaurants in the United States," Journal of Transnational American Studies, 1, no. 1 (2009), accessed at http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/2bc4k55r. The standard overall history is Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
10Madeline Y. Hsu, "From Chop Suey to Mandarin Cuisine: Fine Dining and the Refashioning of Chinese Ethnicity During the Cold War Era," in Sucheng Chan, Madeline Yuan-yin Hsu, eds., Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), p. 173.