I came by my copy of Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook (1968) at a little antique store in Sherwood, Oregon. There was a tiny book section tucked in the back of the store with no real rhyme or reason to it. There certainly wasn’t a cookbook section, but the overall selection was refreshingly eclectic. I picked up a self-published history of the American Communist party and Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook, a small-form hardback with a lightly worn dust jacket. It set me back all of five dollars.
I have a particular interest in vintage “ethnic” cookbooks, which provide a window into past perceptions of international cuisine in American culture. It’s tempting to write this off as ignorance or cultural illiteracy, but it’s not that simple. If anything these snapshots of the past challenge problematic modern conceptions of authenticity. In the 1960s Americans knew Chinese food almost exclusively through restaurants, which little resembled contemporary Chinese home cooking. China itself was only a few years on the other side of a revolution-induced famine, with the average family earning only a few dollars a day. Any traditional, time-honored recipe of interest to the American palate would was a ruling class affair. These dishes are no more “authentic” to Chinese cuisine than a caviar-topped lobster tail would be to modern Americans.
In the twenty-first century China, and most of Asia generally, enjoys a substantially improved standard of living. Traveling food bloggers chasing authenticity will find plenty of street food and traditional meals to wow their American readers, much better than the subsistence and periodic starvation of the mid-1960s. Better yet, if they find a local specialty it is much more likely that American home cooks can recreate it with identical ingredients. Twenty-first century shoppers enjoy unparalleled ingredient availability. My local Safeway now sells a variety of imported cheeses, exotic fruits, and internationally sourced ingredients that weren’t even available stateside twenty-five years ago. I live within fifteen minutes of specialized markets for a dozen different Asian, Central/South American, and Middle Eastern cuisines, and can source nearly anything else I can dream of via the internet. We frankly spoiled rotten in our ability to prepare traditional cuisine from all over the world.
This was not the case in 1968, when Ms. Waldo was compiling her cookbook. A few recipes call for fermented black beans or dried mushrooms, an impressive ask for the 1960s, but most of Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook is soy sauce and sherry. As a consequence, few of the recipes will match modern perceptions of Chinese food or even American Chinese restaurant favorites. The recipes employ traditional Chinese cooking methods and approximate traditional flavors, but many of the dishes end up being neither recognizably Chinese nor American. This is not for a lack of trying or desire, or any sort of disrespect for Chinese cuisine. Ms. Waldo had no Asian heritage, as you might suspect from her surname, but enjoyed a forty year career authoring cookbooks and travel guides. She was both well-educated and well-traveled. The opening chapters of Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook provide a cogent overview of Chinese cuisine and customs, with a brief but nuanced discussion of regional variants and traditions. Ms. Waldo presumably knew much more about Chinese food than she lets on here. But if you can’t find ingredients you can’t cook with them. The 1960s supermarket is the constraint, not Ms. Waldo’s knowledge.
As a consequence, Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook can sometimes feel as though it treats Chinese cooking less as a cuisine and more as a theme for entertaining. Ms. Waldo speaks of preparing a traditional Chinese meal in the in the way that one might talk about preparing for a garden party or picnic. In Ms. Waldo’s estimation a proper meal must have 3-4 dishes minimum, accompanied by rice, and cooked quickly in view of your guests. This dinner party approach makes many of the recipes Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook wholly impractical for everyday home cooking. Individual recipes prepare embarrassingly small portions but don’t stand on their own if you scale them up. Recipes have plain flavor and Ms. Waldo would serve a variety of complementary dishes. You’re either making four or five dishes or you’re making none at all. Or you’re finding one of the exceptions, like Chinese Braised Pork with Spinach.
Chinese Braised Pork and Spinach is an American-style Chinese dish with a strong mid-century vibe. Like many of the recipes in Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook (1968), what makes this dish “Chinese” is a blend of soy sauce, sherry, and honey that add a subtle Asian flair to an otherwise run-of-the-mill pork roast. I say this without judgment for tradition or authenticity. The twenty-first century consumer has access to many more ingredients than Ms. Waldo in the 1960s. Chinese Braised Pork and Spinach represents a best effort to reproduce traditional Chinese cooking within the constraints of ingredient availability.
Ms. Waldo observes that Chinese cooking “often involves several main dishes” and assumes that the reader will prepare a variety of options for a standard dinner. This does indeed align with traditional Chinese meal planning but is not always convenient for the modern home cook. Chinese Braised Pork and Spinach is one of the few recipes in Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook that comprise a meal in a single course. It includes both meat and vegetables in a richly flavored sauce and needs no more accompaniment than a bowl of rice.
Preparation is straightforward. Season a lean pork loin and brown on all sides. Then braise in a thin gravy of beef broth, soy sauce, and honey. When the pork loin is tender, cook a healthy amount of fresh spinach in the remaining gravy. Slice the pork loin thin and serve on the cooked spinach.
While I am quite comfortable cooking with traditional Chinese ingredients, I’ve made no major changes to the recipe in my adaptation. There’s a certain elegance to Americanized Chinese cuisine that is worth remembering and preserving, even if the dish would be unrecognizable to Chinese citizens. The only significant change I’ve made is to substitute for frozen spinach for fresh. Bagged, pre-washed baby spinach is a relatively recent phenomenon, rising to popularity in the 1990s. It offers a crisper and tastier alternative that I suspect Ms. Waldo would approve of.
As mentioned above, the recipe is a meal unto itself served over rice. Protein portions are hearty and approximate an average “meat and potatoes” meal. This would also work as part of a larger Chinese meal, as per Ms. Waldo’s suggestion. Or if you’re in the mood for a down home Western-style meal, serve with ginger-glazed carrots and garlic mashed potatoes. Enjoy!
- Season pork roast with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Brown in a large dutch oven on all sides until fatty bits are crisp and meat is well-browned. It may be necessary to add a small amount of oil to facilitate browning.
- Whisk together honey, soy sauce, sherry, and boiling broth. Pour over the pork roast, scraping any tasty brown bits from the bottom. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for ~90 minutes until pork is cooked through and tender.
- Remove pork and bring "gravy" to a simmer over medium heat. Add spinach and toss in hot liquid until wilted. Remove from heat.
- Serve thinly sliced pork roast over a bed of spinach accompanied by long grain rice.