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Classic Chinese Cookbook

Legendary cookbook editor Judith Jones deserves much of the credit for Irene Kuo’s “The Key to Chinese Cooking.”

What was Jones’ best cookbook — that is, hers by proxy — over a long and brilliant career of nursing various authors’ cookbooks through editorial gestation and into production?

You’ll observe that I said “best,” not “best-known.”

No, my choice is not “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Or Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cookbook.” Or even any of Madhur Jaffrey’s wonderful books. For Jones’ finest editorial contribution to the ranks of modern cookbooks, I unhesitatingly nominate “The Key to Chinese Cooking” by Irene Kuo.

Of course, we all have our different ideas of “best.” But I’d like to think that my opinion is based on something more than prejudice or whim. To make the principles of the Chinese culinary art comprehensible to ordinary American cooks is really, objectively many times more difficult than anything to do with France, Italy or probably even India. Maybe one of Jones’ other projects tackled something equally daunting, but certainly not more daunting. In my estimation, Kuo’s “Key” — published in 1977, now sadly out of print — stands out as the achievement of achievements among all the Knopf cookbooks produced on Jones’ watch.

Of course, huge amounts of credit must go to Kuo herself, a former Manhattan restaurateur from whom Jones (with the aid of the highly regarded freelance editor and copy editor Suzy Arensberg) elicited vivid writing, broad but also minutely detailed knowledge of a cuisine, formidable technical insight and a large, eclectic, illuminating selection of recipes. But as one with firsthand experience of the Jones care-and-feeding-of-authors style, I venture to say that none of these virtues would have fully blossomed without Jones’ very personal blend of friendly persuasion and iron will.

In a way, however, that’s just the beginning. With cooking, great teaching via printed book also requires other crucial elements that usually get less recognition. It’s these that I think set “Key” above Jones’ other accomplishments at Knopf, remarkable though they may be.

First and foremost, a design team (undoubtedly working under Jones’ direction) deployed Kuo’s recipes on the page in a format that visibly emphasizes the intrinsic logic of ingredients and preparation steps. It’s a telling contrast to the intimidating sprawl that handicaps many otherwise valiant English-language efforts to do justice to Chinese cooking. A small but elegant visual cue, resembling an elongated square bracket with slightly enlarged Chinese-looking tips like the flick of the brush that ends some calligraphic strokes, is used to set off clusters of ingredients that will be combined in marinades, cooking sauces, or final seasonings. This simple device does wonders to keep a user’s brain focused on some sort of underlying order — and that’s half the battle in helping novice Chinese cooks find their bearings.

The cause of spatial coherence is also furthered by the actual recipe directions and the effortless-looking way that they materialize on the page. Every cookbook has to strike a balance between telling cooks absolutely everything in massive (not to say forbidding) detail and getting the point across succinctly. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” not only carried the first approach to great lengths but employed an unusually space-consuming format. Just a glance through a few recipes shows considerable page acreage devoted to equipment-and-ingredients lists and minutely broken down instructional steps, usually separated from each other by ruled lines and several spaces, as well as painstaking deployment of italic and boldface type in several point sizes to differentiate various recipe-elements.

By contrast, the Chinese book shows Jones and the design team at quite another level of experience and judgment. The recipe-directions are not only more concise but presented in a typographically simpler format that makes a beginner feel things can’t be all that difficult. The material is certainly as demanding as that in “Mastering,” but somehow it looks more user-friendly.

The typeface, the graceful, unobtrusive Palatino, creates a sense of lucidity. But in a real stroke of genius, Jones and colleagues chose to add recipe titles in a well-matched Chinese typeface — equally attractive to the eye — that’s also used to give the Chinese names of ingredients in the shopping-information section. When “Key” first crossed my path, I didn’t know that I would eventually teach myself to read at least some food-related Chinese words. But this book was one of the inspirations that set me trying to learn. Somehow the strange, elegantly printed characters looked as if they ought to make sense to me. And today they do — though even now I’m still struggling to read more than a word or two of the beautiful, stylistically varied calligraphic “seals” designed as chapter headings by C.C. Kuo, the author’s husband.

The final masterstroke here was the selection of illustrator: Carolyn Moy, of whom I’ve never been able to learn anything other than her name on the title page. Unknown quantity though she may be, the magic of the book owes a great deal to Jones’ instinct in choosing her. The understated spot art that appears throughout (a scallion here, a few shrimp there) is delicately evocative of Chinese pen and ink drawings without being hokey. More crucial, the instructional pictures have clarity and force. These images are an object lesson in how much we’ve lost by today’s obsessive emphasis on color photography. They zero in on essential details with serene economy; those showing hands and implements at work convey a kind of kinetic energy that photographs can never duplicate.

For me, the book resulting from the fusion of all the above elements is one that Jones was born to do: a unified aesthetic statement in almost miraculous harmony with its subject matter. I won’t even try to discuss the excellence and range of Kuo’s recipes, which enabled me to make quantum leaps in “cooking Chinese.” Rather, I want to point out that the pleasure of learning what Kuo had to teach was inseparable from the pleasure of handling and poring over the volume brought to fruition by Jones.

I know now that I was almost unconsciously absorbing the rightness of its lovely pages at the same moment I was getting the feel of a cleaver, recognizing the smell of a properly heated wok, acquiring the rapid-fire cooking rhythms that in future would always be associated in my memory with an unlocking of doors through the Kuo-Moy-Jones “Key to Chinese Cooking.” Thank you, Judith.

Buy Irene Kuo’s “The Key To Chinese Cooking” Now!

Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was  a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.

Photos, from top:

Judith Jones Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer

“The Key to Chinese Cooking.” Courtesy of Knopf

Zester Daily contributor Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer and culinary historian who has written for various newspapers and magazines. She is the author of "Stand Facing the Stove" (a biography of the authors of "The Joy of Cooking"; Holt, 1996) and "Milk" (Knopf, 2008). The past recipient of honors including a fellowship at the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library and the Oxford Symposium's Sophie Coe Prize in Food History, she is currently working on a book about Chinese food in America.

  • Kathleen Courtney 7·13·12

    Miss Mendelson I hope you receive this comment. You mentioned your godmother Martha
    Lehmann in one of your books her brother was my grandfather Conrad she was a wonderful cook in Cedarburg everyone asked for her recipies sometimes she would leave a couple of items out and people wondered why theirs never came out as good as hers my mom and I laughed about this. I was just a little girl when I met her they used to call her the Twinkie lady she always giving children twinkies.My middle name is the same as hers because I was born on her birthday..if only I could cook as well as her. Good wishes to you ..