Mark Swislocki

 

On his book Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai

Cover Interview of April 02, 2010

A close-up

One very important point I try to make in my book is that the Communist Party did not set out to destroy Chinese food, as many Western visitors to China concluded in the 1970s, when the country began receiving visitors from outside the socialist world, and when the food was, indeed, often terrible.

There is no denying that the party was deeply troubled by the political and moral economy of Shanghai’s pre-1949 food culture: by the presence of beggars and orphans starving in the street outside of extravagant restaurants; by apparent links among restaurants, seedy cabarets, crime lords, and brothels; and even by the possibility that that restaurants might become dens of counterrevolutionary activity.

It is also clear that, in its efforts to nationalize the food supply and the service industry, the Party introduced new kinds of inefficiencies that led to massive food shortages and distribution problems, especially in the case of the deadly famine following the Great Leap Forward.  Indeed, there is little evidence of nostalgia for the food prepared in communal kitchens or government owned restaurants, and the anecdotal evidence of bad service in those restaurants is overwhelmingly convincing.

But alongside this history of bad food, hunger, and surly waiters, I also found ample evidence of a political party deeply concerned with the deterioration of the quality of cuisine.  Government units thus established cooking schools to train new generations of chefs.  Officials in these units wrote glowingly of chef talents in chef personnel files.  Party representatives, moreover, supported, and even prided themselves on supporting, local initiatives to restore cultivation of local special crops, such as the Shanghai honey nectar peach.  Party officials even sought to ennoble the cooking profession, so that chefs, who historically occupied a low social status, might enjoy the same social recognition as the food they prepared.

Few passages of my book better illustrate the investment of Communist Party authorities in saving Chinese cuisine than the brief section (page 209) on the remarkable “memory discussion sessions,” which Party officials conducted with professional chefs from the neighborhood of the City God Temple, long home to some of the city’s most famous and popular local snack foods.  Authorities in Shanghai had recently become aware that many of the city’s most treasured specialty snack foods were no longer being served, and also that the city’s corps of professional chefs was aging.

These memory discussion sessions gathered together the leading chefs of the City God Temple neighborhood, so that through dialogue, mutual memory stimulation, and exchange, they might be able to remember collectively how to cook the specialty foodstuffs that had faded from the marketplace, and also help guarantee that the recipes would be passed on to a younger generation of chefs.  Readers familiar with the wider history of such memory sessions will be struck by the difference from their conventional uses, which more typically involved inciting peasants to criticize the past abuses of their landlords, or pressuring participants into remembering and disclosing the life histories and past social relationships of alleged counterrevolutionaries.

Revolution, as the saying puts it, was not a dinner party, but the Communist Party wasn’t necessarily opposed either to cuisine or to celebrating cuisine as a key aspect of China’s cultural heritage.