Culinary Biography for Two

One of my stated purposes of this blog (which I need to review from time to time because I’m easily distracted) is to form an outline of my culinary biography.

What are the foods and food occasions that I remember and shaped me ever so many different ways?

My fascination and delight with cookbooks is part of my foodways story.

Because it’s the Chinese New Year, there’s one cookbook in particular that I associate with this time of year. I actually bought it September, according to my note in the flyleaf, and probably read it then. It’s been read several times since as well.

Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking

Helen Chan Chinese Home Cooking

Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking

I remember that I was going through Kingston Mall,(which properly was called something else, and is something else yet again now, but it’s proper alias is ‘Kingston Mall’ and eventually the people who make all the fancy signs and naming decisions will just name it what it is called) on my way from one place to another, and there was a display of books where there usually wasn’t a display of books.

With a sign.

40_off_peIn my memory this was in Lechmerelogo, which I believe was never actually in Kingston…but it was also 1995….and the sticker on the book says “Provisions” which was a great little fancy kitchen shop. But in my memory there were large appliances and a basket of books where there were usually none. I would have sworn this basket was near dishwashers or washing machines….but probably not.

The real point, and the one I can document, is that the books were already marked 1/2 off – Chinese Home Cooking was regularly $25 and a red line was drawn through that number and a  $12.50 was written in by hand. It all seems so quaint now…..and they were additional 40% off.

I’m not good at math, but I even can figure out Under ten bucks at this time……and that put it right in my cheap thrills budget.

Now Helen Chen happens to be Joyce Chen’s daughter….

Joyce Chen from Channel 2, WGBH who had a cooking show Joyce Chen Cooks in the 1960’s.

Julia (Child) and Joyce (Chen)

Ironically, although they shared studio space, the only image I could find of the two of them together was when their commemorative postage stamps were released in 2014.

Ironically, although they shared studio space, the only image I could find of the two of them together was when their commemorative postage stamps were released in 2014.


Here’s Joyce cooking up a storm.

So my purchase, and my use, is part of my culinary biography.

The book is also part of Helen Chen’s culinary biography.

This book is lovingly dedicated to my mother, Joyce Chen.

“….my mother used to talk to me about her wish that one day we would write a mother-daughter cookbook. As the weeks became months, and the months became years, our busy lives never brought us together in the kitchen to accomplish this collaboration. With the advance of my mother’s illness and dementia I thought that dream was gone forever.

I was wrong. One morning I awoke with the realization that my book was the collaborative effort my mother wished for after all. Instead of having my mother beside me, I had her thoughts, her philosophy, her recipes, and her stories to guide me.

….I can’t recapture our past or change our destiny, but with my mother’s recipes I truly feel that she has actually been with me, leading me through the maze of her recollections, stories, traditions, experiences, and food that she once prepared. Once in a while I’d be working on a recipe and think of her so much I would have to drive over to the nursing home to be with her.

In my mind I see her now as she used to be – smiling, talking, spatula in hand, apron on, warm fragrant aromas wafting from our little kitchen in Cambridge. That’s how I remember my mother.”

Helen and Joyce

Helen and Joyce

Here’s one recipe from the book:

Smashing Radishes Salad

20 radishes or 2 bunches or in times of desperation, a grocery store prepacked bag

½ teaspsoon salt

2 Tablespoons light brown sugar

2 Tablespoons cider vinegar

1/3 teaspoon sesame seed oil

  1. Trim both ends of the radishes. Wash them well and drain well. Scrape away any discolored bits.
  2. Crush each radish with the broad side of a Chinese cleaver. If they’re large, cut them in half first. You want them crushed enough to soak up the dressing. Lacking a broadsided Chinese cleaver find something else handy (and clean) to thwack a mighty blow. A can-na something, a marble pestle, a handy rolling pin. More than a bruise, less than a buncha broken bits.
  3. Crushed radishes into a bowl, sprinkle with the salt, toss….let them rest for 15 minutes. Then drain. Transfer to the serving dish.
  4. Mix the sugar and vinegar together in a small bowl (I actually use a small jar and shake it all up).Pour over the radishes, drizzle it all with the sesame oil and toss to blend.
  5. Serves 4 as a side.

NOTES: I have used both dark sesame oil and light sesame oil depending on carefully I read the directions or the labels on the bottles – both are good.

Also – a little hot sauce – and I’ve tried them all, my favorite is Rooster sauce – is hardly ever amiss. ½ teaspoon or to your taste.

Helen also mentions that her mother would buy extra radishes that they would snack on with peanut butter….also very good; any sort of peanut dressing is also good on smashed radishes.

Adapted from Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking, p. 285.



Filed under 1990's, Chinese New Year, Influencers, Recipe

5 responses to “Culinary Biography for Two

  1. H0w very funny. T0day I had three bags 0f radishes that were 19p a piece, and I b0ught them and sliced them and 0nly wish Ic0uld rinse off the salad dressing and remake them as a tribute t0 J0yce and Helen and Y0u. (scuze my 0’s)

  2. I really like the premise of your blog as outlined in this post. I find it so interesting to think about the multiple experiences that have influenced my food preferences/style/identity – the term “food biography” is very apt. I look forward to reading more of your fascinating posts.

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