Review: The Cultural Revolution Cookbook

By Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman

2011: Earnshaw Books Ltd. – ISBN13: 978-988-19984-6-0

I had this book on pre-order at Amazon and finally received it just before Christmas. I have an interest in Chinese history in general and the Mao years in particular so this book promised to dovetail nicely with my love for Chinese cuisine. One of the co-authors, Sasha Gong, lived through the Cultural Revolution and is an accomplished cook, so I was expecting to really enjoy what she has to say. Unfortunately, I was ultimately a little disappointed…

Content and Organization

In this 157-page volume, there are sixty recipes provided in nine basic food categories. This is preceded by some very brief chapters that attempt to relate Ms. Gong’s personal experiences and then provide an overview of recent Chinese history. The emphasis, as the book title suggests, is on the Cultural Revolution and its culinary impact.

The layout of the book is very straightforward and consistent. Each dish discussed takes up two pages. There is a full-page illustration of the food on one page and the recipe itself on the other. Also, on each recipe page there is a separate text box that provides some supplementary topical information. Occasionally, this material relates to the current dish in some way but more frequently it is just some little tidbit of general anecdotal interest.

Critique

The illustrations and organization make for a visually appealing result and the recipes are generally clear and well written, but those positive features do not really make up for the negatives.

As a history, or even an interesting overview of the Cultural Revolution, the book falls short in that it provides far too little material. The brief biography of Ms. Gong is somewhat interesting but in the end it is no more than a thumbnail sketch and cannot really engage the reader. Moreover, for anybody who has read anything at all about the Mao years, this book adds nothing at all of interest and for others who have little familiarity, it doesn’t provide anything like enough information to give much of an idea of that whole tumultuous era.

The more serious problem is that the book is ultimately not very interesting from a culinary standpoint either. Certainly, the idea seems to have been to show what meals were like during the Cultural Revolution, but other than providing a couple of recipes for some very Spartan dishes, the rest really just seem to have been thrown together to fill out an otherwise uninspired collection. In a number of biographies from the Mao years I have seen references to a certain type of cornmeal cake that was commonly served in factory meal halls and the like and which was, I gather, not very popular. There is no mention of these in this book and it also seems particularly odd that there isn’t a single recipe for the rice gruel known in English as Congee and which is still a staple even now.

Overall

I won’t go so far as to say that I am sorry I bought this book but it certainly fell short of expectations. It was a good concept for a book but the execution failed in my opinion.

 

Available Here...

3 thoughts on “Review: The Cultural Revolution Cookbook”

  1. My In-Laws lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, it was a pretty sad time with regards to Chinese cuisine unless you were one of those “in power”. I believe the corn cake you refer to is wo-wo-tou which was a staple in Northern China. My in-laws still hate it. My wife who really never ate it as a child likes it. You can find out what I think here:

    http://mmm-yoso.typepad.com/mmmyoso/2009/03/road-trip-tianjin-bistro-san-gabriel-la.html

    I was looking at possibly purchasing this cookbook so thanks for the review!

  2. AH … THANK YOU!! …. I was fairly sure that was the name after I did a search for cornmeal cakes on the web but I couldn’t recall the name of the biography I read mentioning them (although I know I have the book somewhere). Thanks for the link …. I may try making them just for fun sometime 🙂

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