Special Collections holds one of the largest English language Chinese cookbooks collection in the U.S. – second to Stony Brook University’s Dr. Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese Cookbook Collection. The collection at UC Davis, established in 1991, of over 1,100 books was donated by Gardner Pond and Peter Hertzmann. Pond from Santa Cruz and Hertzmann from Palo Alto met while working as docents for Chinatown walking tours in San Francisco.
The reason Pond began gathering cookbooks was to answer tourists’ questions while Hertzmann collected them during his travels. Pond selected UC Davis as the home for his collection due to the fact that one of his favorite authors of Chinese cooking, Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook fame, graduated from Davis in 1977 with a master’s in food science (his thesis was about rice). Hertzmann donated his cookbooks to Davis at Pond’s suggestion.
The oldest cookbook in the Chinese Cookbook Collection is from 1901 and the most recent is from the early 2000s. The collection offers a way to study the history of Chinese cuisine and how it has evolved since Chinese workers provided a significant source of labor in 1849 during the time of the Gold Rush and railroad construction. Interest in Chinese food and culture developed after Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. Previously in the 1970s, it was difficult – if not impossible – to find bean sprouts to add to Chinese dishes since they were mainly available canned rather than fresh in grocery stores.
Chinese cuisine did not gain popularity until the 1980s, so the cookbooks from our collection published in the earlier part of the 20th century do not contain the familiar type of dishes found in Chinese American food today, such as Mongolian Beef and General Tso’s Chicken (there are plenty of chop suey recipes though!). According to Dr. Newman, more authentic Chinese recipes did not start appearing in Chinese cookbooks until around 1940. The recipes in cookbooks published before 1920 contained much simpler recipes. What follows is a recipe for pepper steak from a booklet published in 1924:
Beef tenderloin, 1 cup
Green pepper, 1 cup
Slice meat about 1/8 inch and cut into one inch squares. Slice green pepper same size as meat. Fry meat, to which add a pinch of salt, in a well greased pan not more than a minute; add green pepper and ½ cup of water or meat stock in which are dissolved ½ teaspoon cornstarch, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon chop suey sauce, 4 drops sesame oil; stir thoroughly in all together, let simmer a minute, then serve with hot rice.
Here’s a recipe for one of this blog post’s author’s favorite Chinese dishes, mapo tofu:
How Long & Co. How Long Chinese Chop Suey Cook Book. New York: How Long & Co., 1924.
Jung, Carolyn. “Department of Chinese Cooking: Huge UC-Davis Cookbook collection offers a Feast of Cooking Lore.” San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, CA), Oct. 23, 2002.