What happens when you bring together an iconic 1960s-era Chinese cookbook, a small Sonoma County farm specializing in Asian produce; and a dozen ambitious home cooks? Hopefully, a Chinese meal that’s as delicious as it is culturally resonant.
That’s the idea, anyway, behind the virtual cook-off that Sebastopol-based Radical Family Farms is spearheading on its Instagram page on Tuesday, November 17. The farm’s founders, Leslie Wiser and Sarah Deragon, challenged their followers to cook a dish from Fu Pei-mei’s legendary cookbook, Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book, Volume 1 — easily one of the most influential Chinese cookbooks of all time. At least a dozen people will participate in the first edition of what Wiser hopes will become a monthly or bimonthly tradition.
What relevance does a cookbook written some 50 years ago by the woman widely known as “the Julia Child of Taiwan” have for Bay Area readers today? As it turns out, through a quirk of family history, Wiser, who is of part Chinese-Taiwanese descent, owns 1,000 copies of the out-of-print book (available for purchase on the farm’s website). For Wiser, Fu’s book is deeply entwined with her farm’s mission: Cooking out of it is just one more way for Wiser and other members of the Chinese diaspora in the Bay Area to reconnect with, or stay connected to, their heritage.
Located on a 1.5-acre plot of land in Sebastopol, Radical Family Farms focuses mostly on Asian produce — on using what Wiser describes as “climate-friendly” techniques to grow vegetables like bitter melon, chrysanthemum greens, and Korean radishes. It’s an approach that Wiser calls “identity farming”: a means to reconnect with her own ethnic heritage and, by extension, provide a local source for that produce. The farm supplies Bay Area restaurants like Besharam and the pop-up Good to Eat Dumplings, for instance, with specific vegetables they’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the Bay.
Wiser explains that back in the early ‘80s, when her family lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, it was almost impossible to procure the specialty ingredients needed to execute many traditional Chinese recipes. Even something that’s as common, now, as napa cabbage wasn’t readily available in many parts of the Midwest, she says.
So when Wiser’s father came across the first volume of Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book, and then figured out a way to have 1,000 copies shipped from Taiwan to Minnesota at $5 a pop, he hatched a plan: He’d sell the books to fellow Midwesterners, and then, more crucially, he would become a supplier for the specialty items they’d need to get a hold of if they actually wanted to make any of the dishes: the star anise, the dried dates and shiitakes, and all of the other assorted spices and dry goods.
The whole enterprise fell apart when her father realized how expensive it was to run magazine ads to get the business off the ground, and so, for decades now, Wiser has lugged the cookbooks from state to state, only occasionally selling a handful off on eBay. They’re collectors’ items at this point, and she’s convinced that she has what’s probably the last sizable stash of new, unopened copies of the book.
Wiser recalls that when she was a kid, the copies of the cookbook that they had around the house were essentially “a picture book that [she] would flip through,” poring over both the original Chinese text and the English translation, which lay side by side on the page. As a multiracial kid — first-generation immigrant Chinese-Taiwanese on her mother’s side; German and Polish Jewish on her father’s side — Wise recalls that the book was one of a handful of real connections she had to Chinese culture during a time when her identity was often a source of pain, as she was often made fun of for being Chinese.
“One of the things I wanted to do with the farm was, for me and my kids, to really take back that shame of being Chinese and othered and made fun of in very white Midwestern middle America — and, you know, pass on that pride and that reclamation to my children,” she says.
Wiser’s mother didn’t really know how to cook Chinese food at the time, so, like many immigrants from Taiwan during the 1970s and ‘80s, she taught herself using Pei Mei’s as a primer. Now that she’s an adult, Wiser says she’s come to understand more of Fu’s influence: For decades, the three volumes of her book were the probably the most accessible cookbooks on regional Chinese cuisine that were available in English. They were a source of nostalgic comfort for new immigrants in the U.S., as well as a point of cultural connection for those immigrants’ children, who were growing up thousands of miles away from their parents’ roots in Taiwan and China. In many ways, it’s the same point of connection Wiser hopes the Asian vegetables she grows on the farm can provide.
After decades of simply admiring Fu’s book as a sort of cultural artifact, this week’s cook-off will be Wiser’s first attempt to actually cook out of it. She’s picked an ambitious recipe to mark the occasion: a winter melon (dong gua) soup wherein the soup gets cooked inside the melon itself — the ideal dish to make right now since the farm has just harvested its own crop of winter melons, Wiser says.
And, as a way to force herself to continue cooking Chinese food — passing those traditions on to her own children, Wiser says she plans to continue to have these Fu Pei-mei cook-offs, perhaps as often as once a month.
“So much of my culture and history has been [lost] through immigration and through white assimilation,” Wiser says. “The vegetables we’re growing and the recipes in the book are the last links I can hold onto.”