Chinese Cooking for American Kitchens by Calvin Lee of Lee's Restaurant - NYC's Chinatown circa 1958
Founded in 1892, this cookbook shares the recipes of Lee's Restaurant, New York City's oldest family-run restaurant in Chinatown...
If you lived in New York City during the early to mid-1960s you might have been familiar with Lee's Restaurant on the corner of Mott and Pell Streets in Chinatown. Reputed to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in NYC, first opened in 1892 by Hong Lee, it was continuously run by generations of the Lee family until it closed in the mid-1960s.
In 1958, Calvin Lee, the grandson of Hong Lee and the third-generation proprietor of Lee's Restaurant published this cookbook centering around easily and authentically recreating Chinese food in an American kitchen. Although Calvin grew up in a restaurant family, he had his sights firmly set on a career as a dentist. But a short time into beginning his studies at Columbia University in 1952, his father died. And so at the age of 18, Calvin inherited the family business becoming the youngest restaurant owner in the city.
Garnering media attention for both his age and his interest in discussing the culture of Chinatown and its relevance in the American food landscape, Lee's Restaurant when it first opened in 1892 was first called Uie Ye Kwen (which translates to At Your Pleasure) and was a refuge for Chinese sailors, merchants and visitors who were homesick for the traditional foods of China. In 1932, the name was changed to Lee's - a more easily pronounceable name.
Calvin explains all this in his book which is not just a cookbook but also an introduction to the world of Chinese cuisine and culture as seen through the lens of Chinatown. It opens with the symbolism of Joh-quon, the kitchen god and takes readers on a fascinating journey through the history of Chinese food, the Lee family tree, the dietary transitions of Chinese families in America, the colorful life of Chinatown, and a midcentury tour of a Mott street market in search of Chinese ingredients.
Recipes are tucked in between histories and personal stories, making this cookbook much like a memoir, a historical retrospective, and a recipe book all in one.
The final chapter of Calvin's cookbook focuses on a brief history of tea, and pairings for various activities. There are recommendations of drinking Keemun while playing chess, Dragon Beard for listening to music, Eyebrows of Longevity for spending time in the garden in Spring, etc. This chapter in particular is especially engaging full of lyrical and poetical nods to the art of drinking tea and the ceremony behind it.
This is really an incredible book when it comes to culinary history and how traditional recipes evolve through immigration and assimilation into American culture. It's also a fascinating look at Chinatown as it was in its early 20th-century self - a distinct culture that is vanishing in our modern society.
Photograph of Lee's Restaurant (c.1930s) courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Archives
- 1958 Book Club Edition
- 190 pages
- Illustrated throughout by Mabel Wong Lilienstein
- All recipes are accompanied by both their traditional Chinese name and American translation.
- Interesting recipes include Spinach with Chinese Cheese, Thanksgiving Turkey Cantonese, Egg Roll with Roast Pork and Shrimp, Steamed Sponge Cake, Sliced Chicken with Pineapple, Steamed Beef with Salted Cabbage, Barbecue Spare Ribs, Sweet and Sour Pork Cubes, Chicken Egg Foo Young, Fried Rice with Bacon, Lettuce, Tomatoes and Onions, Beef Congee, Chicken Chow Mein, and Roast Pork Lo Mein
- A note to readers and cooks... Many recipes in this book call for MSG, a popular flavor enhancer in the mid-20th century kitchen. MSG came under scrutiny in the 1980s due to health concerns, but recently, it has been back in the news again with research proving that it no longer poses the health threat experts once thought it did. While there are still differing opinions on the health value of MSG now, if you haven't made up your own mind, you can substitute sea salt in a 1-to-1 ratio for all recipes containing MSG.
This book is in lovely vintage condition. Clean and bright throughout, it contains its original dust jacket and decorative cover boards. The dust jacket is completely intact but bears one small paper scuff on the lower edge of the spine. A previous gift inscription dated 1965 is written in pen on the inside front cover, There are two very minor, light cooking spots on the front foredge. The spine is tight and all pages are intact.
Measures 8.5" inches (length) x 5.75" inches (width) x .75" inches (thickness) and weighs 1.7 lbs.