Thursday, August 23, 2012

Julia Child in China: Life in Yunnan

(A continuation of the previous post on Julia Child's life in China.)


By the early 1940’s, both Paul and Julia had been transferred out of Ceylon and over to Yunnan province’s capital city of Kunming during the last throes of the war’s Japanese theater.

As the plane shook violently on the flight from Calcutta to Kunming, Julia placidly read a book while others around her sat terrified in the knowledge that hundreds of such flights had never made it to their destination, as the flight over the Hump – the eastern stretch of the Himalayas – eventually took the lives of more than 1,600 people and destroyed 594 Allied airplanes. But that didn’t seem to faze Julia; descending from the plane, she looked around and said with delight, “It looks just like China.”

Kunming, “a beautiful, beautiful town,” was in fact the place where Julia’s palate was first awakened, and with good reason: it was where she became surrounded by fully engaged Westerners, people who loved their work, who had curiosity about languages and foreign foods, and who willingly took up adventurous lives. In other words, it was 180 degrees apart from her quiet life at home among moneyed devotees of golf and parties, and so, as she recalled, “it was fascinating to be there.”

However, not only Allied personnel had converged on Kunming. By the early- and mid-Forties, Chinese either escaping the ravages of war or anxious to defend their homeland had arrived, too, including my husband’s parents. And though the lives of Julia and Paul probably never crossed those of my in-laws -- L.C. and Gloria Chou Huang -- it’s tempting to fantasize all of the “what if’s,” like, “What if Chinese and Americans had actually mingled then and the two couples had ended up sharing a dinner?”

But then again, the times were different in those days, and such things rarely happened. My father-in-law was a young fighter pilot in the China Burma India Theater. He had left his home and very cushy life as the first son in a wealthy Guangdong family to join the Nationalist air force, where he became a hero for his dogfights in biplanes against the much better equipped Japanese Zeros.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, had dressed up as a boy to escape the imminent Japanese invasion of her home town of Tianjin, traveling from that northern port by boat to Vietnam, and then walking hundreds of miles with other evacuees to the relatively safe enclave in Kunming. She was only seventeen when she arrived, but relatively unshaken by her amazing journey, she started attending the prominent Southwest Union University there.

Finding edible food was much harder for the Chinese than for Westerners, of course. This daughter of a warlord recalled how hungry she always was since the few things she could find to eat always had sand in them. But life turned a happy corner for her the following year: because she looked like a young Ava Gardner, she caught the eye of an older relative of her dashing future husband, the two were introduced, and the rest is, well, history as far as our family is concerned.

Even though sand was kept out of the plentiful food on the local American military base, nothing could change the fact that it was so awful that Julia and her friends dined in the local restaurants whenever they could.

This turned out to be opportune for Julia’s hearty appetite, to say the least. During the two years she spent in Kunming, she not only ate with great pleasure from the cuisines of China, but these dishes also started opening up new vistas in her mind and tantalizing her with unique textures and flavors, so much so that, as Julia herself wrote, she and Paul “continued our courtship over delicious Chinese food.”

As Julia began to revel in the flavors that China had to offer, a cultivated palate was created. “There were sophisticated people there who knew a lot about food,” she recalled, and both she and her future husband, Paul Child, made the rounds of local Chinese restaurants in Kunming, Yunnan province, while they worked for the OSS.

Historian Theodore H. White (The Making of a President) turned Paul on to dining in the “best eating places” there, and Julia followed suit, remembering “nuggets of chicken in soy sauce, deep-fried or in paper; always rice, pork, [hot]-and-sour soup. The duck was always good, and everyone had a good time.”

When not enjoying the many cuisines offered in Kunming, Julia was learning the techniques of a variety of cooking styles from every part of China, including the north (Beijing), southern coastal provinces (Guangdong and Fujian), and the central areas (Sichuan), as well as of Vietnam. 

“I am very, very fond of northern, Peking-style Chinese cooking,” she stated. “That’s my second favorite [cuisine]. It’s more related to French; it’s more structured.”

Although there’s no record of what dishes the young couple might have dallied over as they got to know each other better, was is known is the menu of their last meal together in Kunming in the fall of 1945, as Paul described each dish in loving detail to his twin brother, Charlie.

Just before Paul was reassigned to Beijing, and Julia went to Chungking (now Chongqing) for a couple of months to start a file system there, they ate at their favorite local restaurant, the Beijing-style place called Ho-Teh-Foo. The dishes they lingered over as farewells loomed were fried spring rolls, napa cabbage with Yunnan ham, Chinese black mushrooms braised with greens, and Peking Duck Three Ways (which has the crispy skin and then the meat served as the first two courses along with thin crepes, shredded leeks, and sweet wheat paste, and then the bones are turned into a soup with cellophane noodles, spinach, and egg).

Julia Child never returned to China after the war, but her love for Chinese food persisted. Too many obstacles existed then for any Westerner to even attempt to make authentic Chinese food, so it is little wonder that she did not pursue it. In the early 1950’s, few books and certainly fewer teachers would have been able to teach her much after her return to the U.S., as the great Chinese-American triumvirate of Irene Kuo, Florence Lin, and Grace Zia Chu wouldn’t appear on the publishing scene until many years later.

But still, it is fun to imagine what might have been if things had been different, if Julia had found someone like a Chinese Cordon Bleu to show her the way. 

Just think of it: Julia Child whacking ducks to pieces with a giant cleavers on black-and-white television, heaving great bamboo steamers around her tiny studio kitchen, wishing her audience a hearty Manyong! as she signed off, and causing America to fall in love with that other great cuisine, the one that she adored all of her adult life, the one that taught her to eat well: the foods of China.


Illustration by Carolyn Phillips, (c) 2012

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