Chinese-Japanese Cookbook (1914): Vintage Cookbook Review

Chinese-Japanese Cookbook is a 1914 recipe collection prepared by sisters Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna.   Print copies are hard to come by – I own a digital copy purchased from Vintage Cookbooks,  which has a small but varied collection of old cookbooks available for download.  The site seems dormant these days, but what’s there is worth checking out.   I have family in Asia and saw the cookbook initially as a historical curiosity.  What I’ve seen of mid-century cookbooks seems to equate Asian food with adding canned bean sprouts to a casserole, and I was curious to see whether early twentieth century Americans had a different perception.  But there’s more here than meets the eye.  It looks like a cookbook and reads like a cookbook, but it’s not clear that the recipes are anything resembling authentic.  They may not even be real recipes.

For some context it’s worth understanding what the Asian-American community looked like in 1914 America.  Chinese immigrants began coming to America in significant numbers in the early nineteenth century, primarily as laborers.  Their involvement in the mining and railroad industries is well-known, and many of them settled permanently in the American West in the late nineteenth century.  At one time Chinese Americans may have comprised as much as ten percent of California’s population and Chinatowns popped up in towns large and small along the West Coast.  The 1880s saw the enactment of harsh anti-Chinese immigration laws and a series of high-profile massacres of Chinese Americans.  External violence only added to internal violence between rival Chinese businessmen and gang members.  

The story of Japanese Americans is somewhat different.  Japanese immigrants began to arrive in the late 1860s, concurrent with the Meiji Restoration, but did not arrive in significant numbers until the turn of the century.  Japanese immigrants faced significant restrictions, but laws still allowed businessmen and family members to come to the United States.  By 1910 the Chinese-American population was in decline while the Japanese-American population was growing in both size and social standing.

Against this cultural backdrop enter sisters Winnifred and Sara Eaton.  They were two of some fourteen children in the Eaton family, born to and English-born father and Chinese-born mother.  Their parents met while Mr. Eaton was on business in China, and settled there for a short time.  They later moved to England, then New York, before finally settling in Montreal, Canada to raise their family.  The family lost their fortune somewhere along the line, and the Eaton sisters grew up quite poor. 

Winnifred began working to supplement the family income and gained some skill and experience as a writer.  In 1899, she published her first novel Miss Nume of Japan under the decidedly Japanese pen name Onoto Watanna.   She achieved some measure of success as a novelist and, later, as a screenwriter writing almost exclusively about Japan and forbidden interracial romance.  She bound and decorated her books with Japanese themes and motifs.  The books contained illustrations and full color photos of Japan, a country which she never had nor would visit.  In the public square she adopted a Japanese public persona, claiming descent from Japanese nobility.

Onoto Watanna, undated
The cookbook

The cookbook was born from a series of articles published in Harper’s Bazaar and the Ladies’ Home Journal focused on Chinese and Japanese cuisine.  Winnifred/Watanna framed the cookbook as a collaboration with her sister Sara, who likely contributed very little to the final cookbook.  The reasons for this are not particularly clear.    The preface suggests that the Japanese recipes are from Watanna’s own family.  The Chinese recipes have a separate, but equally specious origin story:

No cookbooks, so far as the authors know, have ever been published in China.  Recipes descend like heirlooms from one generation of cooks to another.  The recipes included in this book (the Chinese ones, that is) have been handed down from Vo Ling, a worthy descendant of a long line of noted Chinese cooks, and himself head cook to Gow Gai, one time highest mandarin of Shanghai.  They are all genuine, and were given as an especial expression of respect by a near relative of the famous family of Chinese cooks.

I’m not buying it, and once you start thumbing through the recipes you probably won’t buy it either.  At first I figured they were just old recipes, reflecting older traditions.  I assumed that modern Japanese and Chinese cuisine predated Ms. Watanna’s book.  I’ve traveled extensively in Japan and know that many of my favorite dishes originated after World War II.  I was open to the idea that early twentieth century Japanese food just kind of sucked.

Winnifred/Watanna biographer Diana Birchall is convinced that the whole cookbook is a ruse.  By her account Watanna was a terrible cook, prone to boiling food into oblivion.  She had some experience in Chinese kitchens but would have known nothing of Japanese cooking.  There’s a veneer of authenticity to the recipes in Chinese-Japanese Cookbook that make them just that little bit believable. 

But it quickly becomes clear that Ms. Watanna tested few, if any, of these recipes.    Recipes call for obscure but legitimate Japanese or Chinese ingredients, and recipe names use proper Japanese terms (usually).    They range from bland to bizarre to just plain impossible.

For example, a recipe entitled “Bäk Toy Gun” claims to be a “Chinese soup of white vegetables”.   The recipe begins by boiling water chestnuts, bean sprouts, and onions with a couple of tablespoons of Syou (soy) sauce.  At the end of the recipe the cook adds mushrooms and celery, while adding a thin stream of beaten eggs.  The recipe seems plausible and superficially resembles a familiar egg drop soup, down to the precise directions for creating the threads of egg protein.   It’s also mushy and flavorless, except for the mushrooms and celery which are functionally raw.   It will not kill you, but this doesn’t seem like an heirloom recipe for the highest mandarin of Shanghai.

I typically end my cookbook reviews by sharing a recipe that captures the “spirit” of the cookbook.  But the spirit of Chinese-Japanese Cookbook is nonsense.  Internet readers may well “Jump to Recipe” without realizing that these recipes aren’t meant for cooking.   I’ve preserved a couple of them here as a historical curiosity, and if you’re interested further a scanned digital copy is available from and elsewhere.

a life re-invented

Moving past the cookbook, Winnifred Eaton’s life is a fascinating illustration of the turn-of-the-century Asian American experience.  In a climate hostile to Chinese Americans she crafted a new public persona and made a career out of it.  Sure, the recipes in Chinese-Japanese Cookbook are garbage, but one can sympathize with her desire to reinvent herself.  In the words of one commentator:

Eaton indeed possessed the strength, energy and prolifigacy to make the most of her ruse; using the vapid language of commercialism embraced today, one would say Eaton’s deceit was the honest work of a good marketer.

For the rest of Onoto Wattana’s story, see the thorough (and anonymous) biographical sketch at Michigan State University’s Feeding America Project and Diana Birchall’s full-length biography, which can be purchased from Amazon and elsewhere. 

For authentic “vintage” East Asian recipes I don’t have a good resource.  Buwei Yang Chao’s 1963 cookbook How to Cook and Eat in Chinese seems to be the seminal work in early American Chinese cookery.  It remains tantalizingly unavailable.


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