Monday, January 1, 2018

Florence Lin

Happy New Year to one and all! I hope that 2018 will bring you luck and love and lots of good things to eat. 

Thank you so much on endless loop for reading my blog, sending me notes, and letting me know I'm not just writing on the wind. You all are the best!

Today there won't be a recipe. Instead, I'd like to tell you a bit about someone very special to me and to the world of Chinese culinary knowledge.

Auntie Shen cooking at her home in Rossmoor
My lovely friend and mentor, Florence Lin, just passed away. I wrote about her last week, in a strange bit of coincidence. This wonderful old lady I called Auntie Shen was as delicate as a bird and not much taller than my ear, but she vibrated with life, had an outsized personality, and ate with a happy passion. Her life was an ode to living large.

Auntie Shen refused to marry the guy her family had selected for her. Instead, she joined the Chinese army during what we call WWII and what the Chinese call the War Against Japanese Aggression--both sound about right, fwiw--and carved out her own path as a modern woman. In peacetime, she went on to have two beautiful daughters and eventually travel with her family to the United States. 
A beauty at 60

But what she is most remembered for are her cookbooks. At a time when few Chinese Americans were taken seriously as food writers, she got published. Again and again. 

In fact, if you want to add some great cookbooks to your collection, please check out her titles. And though it is rarely mentioned (except here--thanks Grace Young!), Auntie Shen was also the genius behind the Chinese cookbook in the Time Life Foods of the World Recipes

This makes me more than a bit upset. Her name doesn't appear on the cover or, for that matter, much of anywhere inside the book. And yet she wrote all of those recipes. 

Let me put that out there for you and let it sink in. 

See her name? I don't...
But in spite of the fact that she received almost no credit, this is another book you should add to your shelves because it really is amazing. 

Back when I was desperately poor and couldn't afford to buy it, I borrowed a copy from the library and photocopied the whole recipe booklet on an office copier at night (hey, it was free), and then studied it from front to back. I've preserved those yellowing, spattered, and dogeared sheets as a reminder of how much she taught me and how much I really and truly loved that book.

True to form, when I showed that sheaf of messy pages to their author, she cracked up at finally finding a new edition for her work.

With Thomas Keller at the IACP awards
I was lucky enough to call her my friend for close to a decade, and I count my lucky stars for that. She was a model and a mentor, as well as a heck of a lot of fun to cook with and eat with and talk with for hours on the phone. You know, everything a great girlfriend should be. 

That photo at the top was taken in San Francisco in 2013, when the IACP gave Auntie Shen their milestone award for her contributions to understanding China's cuisines. I never saw her glow as much as she did that night. The photo to the right with the French Laundry's Thomas Keller is from her niece's blog, which also has a great introduction to her books and her life.

I was able to get Auntie Shen and the great Cecilia Chiang (known around here as Auntie Sun) together for a spectacular lunch and long conversation with a reporter from The San Francisco Chronicle,. Surprisingly, although they are almost the same age and in the same field and lived in the Bay Area, these two masters had never met before. Much of their conversation was preserved in the newspaper account, but my favorite part didn't get recorded...
Two giants of Chinese gastronomy

As soon as they sat down, they sized each other up in a very Chinese way. They soon discovered they were both born in the Year of the Monkey, so the next question was, of course, what month? Auntie Shen won by about a couple of weeks, if memory serves, so she became the elder sister at the table. 

Anyway, the good news is that she was 97 when she left us. That's almost a century old, by my calculations. And so she lived a full life. She passed on with her family and loved ones nearby in upstate New York, and probably ended up with more good friends than I have acquaintances. 

Her beautiful hands

In her memory and also as a favor to yourself, cook from her books. Read them, too, from cover to cover. They are all fantastic. 

Top photo: (c) Flora Lin, 2013

Photo with Thomas Keller: (c) Flora Lin, 2013
Photo with Cecilia Chiang: (c) San Francisco Chronicle, 2013

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