Culinary Nostalgia focuses on Shanghai and identifies the importance of regional food culture at pivotal moments in the city’s history. Taking foodways as a window onto urban change, the book argues that regional food culture mediated and expressed the ways in which city residents connected to the past, lived in the present, and imagined a future. By considering the Shanghai experience as part of a wider history of food in China, the book also draws into relief one of the most remarkable, and yet rarely remarked upon, features of Chinese history during the past two centuries: the enduring appeal of traditional foodways and their regional manifestations during periods of often rapid and drastic social and cultural change.
The significance that Chinese have attached to foodways has of course changed many times, and in many important ways. But regional foodways remain a salient component of cultural identity in China—even in a place as “modern” and cosmopolitan as Shanghai—despite the nationalization of so many other arenas of “Chinese” culture. My book seeks to explain this, by examining the tenacity of regional taste preferences and the almost limitless flexibility that food provides as a vehicle for constructing a sense of home and imagining an ideal society.
Since so much of this constructing and imagining turns out to have been nostalgic, my book is also an inquiry into the history of nostalgia, and of culinary nostalgia in particular. This is a concept that I define broadly as the recollection or purposive evocation of another time and place through food. The broadness of the definition is intentional. I propose that nostalgia not be framed in negative terms, as is most commonly done, for example, as a pathology, or a form of delusion or obfuscation. Instead, the book asks that nostalgia be considered a category for critical reflection upon a changing world. This alternative approach to nostalgia more accurately reflects the historical record of Shanghai, at least in terms of how culinary nostalgia operated.
In more general terms, Culinary Nostalgia is quite simply a book about the joys and delights of eating, remembering, talking about, and writing about favorite hometown foods. It is, therefore, a book about something that might be thought of as a universal human theme, but which in China manifests itself with a remarkable intensity, and which became, in addition, a matter of particular urgency.
“I propose that nostalgia not be framed in negative terms, as is most commonly done, for example, as a pathology, or a form of delusion or obfuscation. Instead, the book asks that nostalgia be considered a category for critical reflection upon a changing world.”
Culinary Nostalgia evolved out of my attempt to make sense of an unexpected turn in my research. I set out looking for the various ways that Shanghai people used food to participate in the “modern” world and act out their cosmopolitan status. While I did find some evidence of this use of food, I found much more of the opposite: food, more often than not, was an assertion of provincial pride and an objection to modernity, or at the very least to the many structural forces and ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: urbanization, industrialization, nationalism, capitalism, socialism, and globalization.
I kept finding, for example, twentieth-century writers on Shanghai foodways alluding to nineteenth-century writers on Shanghai foodways, who were themselves often citing verbatim even earlier writers on Shanghai foodways. This pattern was especially pronounced in writing about regional specialty crops, in particular the Shanghai honey nectar peach, which back in the sixteenth century had helped Shanghai residents distinguish their city as a place of note. The early literature on Shanghai’s peaches even likened the city to the rural idyll described in fourth-century poet Tao Qian’s “Peach Blossom Spring.” Then, later on, came the many complaints about how the taste of the peaches deteriorated in quality as urbanization pushed local peach cultivation beyond city limits and out of native soil.
In addition to the literature on Shanghai peaches, I was struck by the appearance of “Proustian” essays, written by sojourners in Shanghai, about how a chance encounter with their favorite childhood food, such as lotus root, conjured images of a better and more just world. Equally striking was the way that restaurant décor, carefully chronicled in consumer guidebooks to city life, celebrated historical motifs more than Shanghai’s modernity. I was especially surprised to find that even Communist Party authorities in Shanghai, famous for their denigration of the city’s pre-1949 society and culture, participated in culinary nostalgia about Shanghai’s and China’s past.
Lurking in all of this material, I eventually realized, was an enduring culture of remembrance surrounding regional foodways and regional culture. Equally important was recognizing that this culture provided me with a way to study food in a manner suitable for an historian; that is, without divorcing food from social processes and power, since each act of food memory could be closely linked to shifting power relations at key stages in the development of city life. Significantly, these stages now took on a meaning different from that usually ascribed to them, as the most “modern” city in China emerged as a deeply nostalgic place.
In this regard, I like to think that the book succeeds in avoiding some of the pitfalls of earlier forms of culinary history, as well as some of the less productive tendencies evident even in the more recent “food studies” scholarship. One of the dangers of studying “food” is that food as such becomes the subject matter, while social relationships become incidental. This tendency is especially (if not always) evident in work on the history of foodstuffs, which often make a fetish of a particular item of food and seek only to locate its importance in history, and as a result only reify history. We thus learn much about food but little about history.
What I try to show instead was that food wasn’t in history; rather, it made history. A lack of clarity about the differences between these two approaches accounts, in part, for why the field of food studies continues to be belittled as trivial (although I think that there has also been some conflation of books written for distinctly different audiences).
My ongoing reflections about the curious belittlement of food as a topic of academic inquiry certainly primed me to raise questions about the ongoing belittlement of nostalgia, a sentiment derided even by poststructuralists, from whom one might have instead expected more examination of the strategies of belittlement. It thus became important to me to consider the possibility of de-pathologizing nostalgia: not to err by glorifying it, but more simply to listen to it, carefully.
Perhaps Shanghai’s honey nectar peaches really did taste better in the past. But the more pressing historical issue is why people felt compelled to write about the decline of peach cultivation nostalgically by invoking, in particular, the image of the peach blossom spring. This image was originally conceived as an allegory of escape from the corruption and infighting that plagued the Jin (265-420 CE) court. In late nineteenth-century Shanghai, this same image now read as a poignant counterpoint to the rapid development and uncertainty of modern city life, as well as to patterns of corruption exemplified by gluttonous civil officials. To criticize nostalgia, culinary or otherwise, is to miss larger points in play for social and cultural analysis.
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.
“One of the dangers of studying ‘food’ is that food as such becomes the subject matter, while social relationships become incidental.”
Aside from inviting readers to take food and nostalgia seriously, I think that there might be a kind of mirror in Shanghai’s historical record for the evolving set of broader concerns about the state of the world food supply today. The stridently “localist” impulse that animates practices ranging from the Slow Food Movement to the rise of community supported agriculture is not unprecedented. Those who deride localism as elitist or “nostalgic” in the worst sense of the word would thus do well to listen more carefully to what that nostalgia is saying about what people want to eat and why.
The tenacity of regional food culture in China meant that nobody ever seriously considered the possibility of creating a national cuisine, let alone considered that doing so might be desirable. It may be that food just doesn’t lend itself, ultimately, to such a product. The last century and a half of food processing and industrialization has, of course, facilitated the spread of foods across regional boundaries, so that Americans can, if they wish, all eat the same condiments, canned goods, and prepared foods. But the backlash, however long in coming, may be telling us that the attempt to nationalize cuisine, rather than culinary nostalgia, is the true pathology in the history of food.
Mark Swislocki is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University. He received his Ph.D. in History from Stanford University and specializes in the cultural history of China. He is currently involved in research on the history of animals and natural history.