People love to talk about 1970s fashion, music, and décor but few savor the flavors of the disco era. A few weeks ago, I spent 24 hours cooking from and perusing James Beard’s American Cookery, originally published in 1972 and recently re-released with a foreword by Tom Colicchio. The classic cookbook is among my favorites, full of no-nonsense instructions, history, wisdom, and wit. Whenever I open the book, I learn something new.
On this last occasion, I was curious about Beard’s coverage of Asian recipes and ingredients. He was into recording and expanding the diversity of the American table. American Cookery contained a handful of curry (ied) dishes but they were “mild as May” as Beard described Fanny Farmer’s ‘early version of lamb curry’ on page 390.
What was identifiably Asian was indexed as Chinese. Beard was raised on the food of a cantankerous Chinese cook named Let, who was deft in both Eastern and Western fare. Regarding “Mrs. Rorer’s Chinese Lamb,” Beard wrote: “Mrs. Rorer probably calls this Chinese lamb because someone’s Chinese cook prepared it…Otherwise it has little relation to Chinese cookery.” Fanny Farmer and Mrs. Rorer were icon figures in American cooking. Beard's tepid comments were balanced with encouragement to try new things.
For example, Chinese cabbage (Napa cabbage) along with arugula, corn salad (lamb’s lettuce, mache) and iceberg lettuce were all potential salad greens. Cooks should treat “Snow Peas, Mangetout, or Chinese Peas” like other peas but not shell them; keep them crisp and serve them with butter or toasted almonds or peanuts. In the Chinese almond cookie recipe, Beard informed readers that they’d been a favorite West Coast sweet for nearly 100 years, as if to say, “Try them out!”
Understanding Egg Foo Yung
What caught my attention was the “eggs [SIC] foo yung” recipe. I had never eaten that dish before because most versions are large flat omelets smothered by thick brown sauce. But upon reading Beard’s egg foo yung recipe (page 110), I realized that it was originally made as small fried egg pancakes with slightly crisp, frilled edges. I grew up on a Vietnamese rendition called trung chien tom (egg, shrimp, and scallion pancakes) and ate it with fish sauce. (There's a recipe for it in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.)
Beard explained that egg foo yung was a Chinese dish that had been “pretty thoroughly Americanized.” Chinese chefs cooking for logging camps and railroad gangs during the 19th and early 20th centuries were likely responsible for introducing egg foo yung to America.
I tried Beard’s recipe, doubling the bean sprouts as he was likely using canned stuff. The egg pancakes were terrific tasting and held together well with Beard’s unusual technique of cooking the vegetables and seafood first with flour.
The sauce, however, was just like the stuff I saw at the restaurants. It was serviceable but not great. Beard must have used very mild soy sauce as he called for 1/2 cup; I only used 2 tablespoons. At the end of the recipe, he suggested varying the protein and seasonings, as if to hedge his bets on the recipe’s outcome.
When Beard wrote American Cookery, there were plenty of egg foo yung recipes around. Between Time Life’s The Cooking of China (1968), Jim Lee’s Chinese Cookbook (Harper and Row, 1968), and An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking (Crown, 1970), I counted thirteen (13). Some were sauced while others not.
Denver (Western) Omelet or Sandwich
Beard’s recipe stood out because he took a multicultural stance, saying that egg foo yung may have inspired the Western (Denver) omelet or sandwich. Sliding fried eggs between bread slices wasn’t too farfetched for Chinese cooks trying to hastily feed hungry workers.
When I used the leftover egg foo yung (without sauce) to make a Western (Denver) sandwich, I followed Beard’s suggestions on page 109 and took liberties with the recipe, lavishly spreading mayonnaise instead of butter on the toasted bread. It was super tasty.
Later that week, I met two retired anthropologists from Michigan. They recounted how in 1970, when they’d moved from the Bay Area to the Midwest, they were greatly disappointed at the Chinese restaurants. It was mostly egg foo yung, they said, adding that the eggs were sometimes oddly served with bread. It still goes on somewhere in the South, they told me.
It turns out that when a sandwich features a Denver omelet, it’s called a Denver or Western sandwich. But when egg foo yung is between the slices of white bread, the concoction is a St. Paul Sandwich. It is not related to Minnesota. In American Gastronomy, culinary historian Evan Jones wrote that the original Denver/Western sandwich likely contained egg foo yung. The sandwich’s origin remains murky but you can order it at Chinese-American chop suey-type restaurants in the St. Louis, Missouri, area.
Making these sorts of discoveries is why I love American Cookery. Beard knew America and his readership well. Nearly forty years later, his prescient work still leads us on amazing culinary journeys.
If you don't own a copy of American Cookery, add it to your collection! If you have it already , what were your experiences like? Or perhaps you'd care to share your experience with eating Asian food in the 1970s?!