The astounding renown that
WGBH 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 WGBH 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 WGBH 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.
Copyright © WGBH Educational Foundation
Additional Credits: Adviser Consulted During the Creation of this Collection: William Boddy is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics and New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and New Media in the United States.