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America's Forgotten Television Chef

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Joyce Chen on her show in 1967. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
Joyce Chen on her show in 1967. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

One afternoon in 2013, Stephen Chen got a call from the United States Postal Service. The man on the other end of the line couldn’t reveal why he was calling. All he could say was that he needed photographs of Stephen’s mother, Joyce, because he hadn’t been able to find many online.

Stephen would later learn that the agency was developing a “Celebrity Chefs Forever” line of limited-edition commemorative stamps. Set to be released the following year, the collection would be dedicated to five American icons of food, some well-known (Julia Child, James Beard), others less so (Edna Lewis, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi). The fifth, and final, would be of Joyce.

A Chinese immigrant who’d moved from Shanghai to Massachusetts in 1949, Joyce died in August of 1994 at the age of 76, succumbing to dementia. She left behind three adult children who would assume the different arms of the family business. These were remnants of an empire that, at its peak, encompassed four restaurants in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a cookware company that sold flat-bottomed woks, which she patented, and bamboo spatulas; a line of sauces and frozen foods; a retail store; a cookbook; and a television show.

Joyce Chen Cooks wasn’t just any television show. The half-hour program aired on WGBH for 26 episodes between late 1966 and early 1967, the first nationally-syndicated cooking show hosted by a woman of color. America had never seen a face like hers cooking on television.

Start with the egg roll. In the early 1950s, Joyce’s children—Stephen, now 65; Helen, now 71; and their late brother Henry, who died in 2007 at the age of 63—were all students at what was then known as the Buckingham School, where an annual scholarship event called the Buckingham Circus took place.

Mothers would bring baked goods to the event, and Joyce, the mother of the only Asian-Americans in a predominantly Caucasian school, made egg rolls and pumpkin cookies. She dropped the foods off and returned home. When she came back to the school later that day, she noticed the egg rolls had gone missing. She feared that no one had even dared to touch them, that other mothers had put them under the table to hide from view, or, worse, had simply thrown them out.

(L-R): Thomas, Stephen, and Joyce Chen in Cambridge in 1962. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
(L-R): Thomas, Stephen, and Joyce Chen in Cambridge in 1962. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

She was wrong. Later that day at the supermarket, one of the mothers came up to her and told her that the egg rolls had sold out within an hour. She begged Joyce to make more. Joyce rushed home, prepared more, and brought them over to the school. The students devoured them.

"This is not authentic," Joyce warns in the headnotes for her egg roll recipe in her 1962 cookbook, The Joyce Chen Cook Book. Her egg roll is a peculiar invention that calls for half a pound of a “good hamburger” you’ll mix with sherry, cornstarch, pepper, sugar, and brown gravy with syrup. This may sound like a hacky, Pinterest-friendly Frankenfood were someone to conceive of it today.

But here, in this recipe, lies Joyce Chen’s philosophy of Chinese cooking: She had little interest in purism. Joyce’s conception of authenticity was rather loose and freewheeling by modern standards. She understood the fickle nature of American cravings, experimentative only within boundaries, so it resulted in adulteration when necessary. Her justification for the inclusion of hamburger beef was simple: She’d encountered many American friends who’d tried to master Chinese cooking and come up short because they found it too difficult to procure ingredients.

“That’s the way she was at the restaurant, too,” Helen remembers of her mother’s approach to cooking for American tastes. “Patrons would come and look at some of these dishes they’d never seen before, like hot and sour soup, and she really wanted to introduce it gently to people. She wanted to share the culture of China.” (Nowadays, Joyce’s modifications could look like pandering to American incuriousness. "The ambitious Chen was beyond her depth as a manual-writer and recipe-scenarist," Anne Mendelson judged of Joyce’s cookbook in 2016’s Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey, scoffing at the notion of Joyce’s cooking as “authentic.”)

Joyce (center) and her in-laws in China in the 1940s. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
Joyce (center) and her in-laws in China in the 1940s. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

Eating a people’s food, Joyce believed, could be a person's first encounter with the culture that shaped it. Born Liao Jia-ai in what was then known as Peking in 1917, Joyce led a pampered life as a kid. Cooking was a passing hobby of hers, and she enjoyed making pastries alongside her family’s chef. Once she came to the United States from Shanghai with her husband Thomas, who worked as an importer of fine art, she fell into the role of a housewife. It was a far cry from her past life as an insurance broker, a rather uncommon vocation for women in China at the time. As a housewife in Cambridge, Joyce suddenly had a lot of time on her hands, so she spent a lot of it cooking.

Helen remembers afternoons of her mother steaming and stir-frying, stewing and pickling. She made zongzi, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, and suan cai, pickled Chinese cabbage. Before salting them, Joyce used to dry chicken gizzards outside, hanging them on strings as if they were items of laundry.

Joyce opened her first Cambridge restaurant in May of 1958, simply calling it the Joyce Chen Restaurant; she began teaching cooking classes at the Cambridge and Boston Centers for Adult Education two years later. She and her husband ran the restaurant together until divorcing in 1966, after which she divided responsibilities between herself and her children. Over those years, she amassed a steady and devoted following. Her restaurant drew a high-minded and erudite crowd, from Henry Kissinger to James Beard.

The facade of the Joyce Chen Restaurant in 1958. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
The facade of the Joyce Chen Restaurant in 1958. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

One of her frequent patrons was Julia Child, a fellow Cantabrigian whose show, The French Chef, had premiered in 1963 on WGBH to rave reviews: Viewers were taken with this woman whose on-screen persona was one of broad, whimsical appeal. She made French cooking look easy, and she looked awfully playful while doing it, too.

Child visited the Joyce Chen Restaurant often and was a fan, and the producers of Child’s show wanted to capitalize on her show’s successes with Chinese food. So Ruth Lockwood, Child’s producer, asked Joyce if she'd be interested in hosting her own show.

In hindsight, the project was doomed from the start. Joyce’s show, the producers believed, would iterate on the successes of The French Chef while simultaneously appealing to a wider swath of Americans than Child’s show. French food carried an air of rigor and sophistication; Chinese food was synonymous with working-class food.

Joyce and her sister-in-law, Lucy, with Henry and Helen in 1948. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
Joyce and her sister-in-law, Lucy, with Henry and Helen in 1948. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

Or so WGBH thought. It’s a directive that now seems like a somewhat impossible set of parameters for Joyce to succeed within, for it’s inevitable that a show like hers would exist in the shadow of its antecedent. Joyce Chen Cooks had the same studio set as The French Chef, Child’s original set draped in furnishings coded as “Oriental” within the public imaginary; each episode opened with the sound of wind chimes. You could read this as a cruel metaphor for Joyce and the burdens placed upon her: At its core, Joyce’s show was meant to be a carbon copy of Child’s with a gloss of non-threatening, foreign allure. The two women even had the same initials as one another.

Joyce's recipes were labored and multi-pronged. A particularly memorable segment involved Joyce laying a duck carcass flat on the floor of the studio and stabbing it with a bicycle pump to inflate and remove the skin. In another episode, she walked viewers through how to make her chiao-tzu (dumplings), which she'd dubbed Peking Ravioli. It was a name that acknowledged, or perhaps anticipated, American squeamishness to foods they perceived as too peculiar. Over the course of half an hour, she kneaded dough, periodically looking away from the camera to make sure she was following script. She prepared a filling of ground pork, soy, sherry, and sesame oil, sprinkling it with a dust of MSG. She folded the mixture into the skins, pleating their ends like the edges of a skirt. She showed viewers how to cook them two different ways, boiling them in a glass pot and arranging them on an oil-coated pan as if they were flowers.

On television, Joyce, whose mother tongue wasn’t English, came across as coached, sometimes stammering through sentences. Her diction was a matter of sustained effort. WGBH, understanding these handicaps, sought to both work around Joyce’s limitations by hiring a vocal coach and sprinkling the show with subtle nods to her deficiencies in the English language, like illustrated cards that’d spell out words she couldn’t pronounce.

Joyce in Beijing, 1972. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
Joyce in Beijing, 1972. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

“She made a very big effort to speak clearly,” Helen tells me. “She would spend hours with Ruth Lockwood, and they would go over each show and go over pronunciation of certain words. She would have trouble saying oil. That was a sort of little joke. That she couldn’t quite the 'L' right.”

Depending on who you ask, Joyce’s show was either a short-lived success or a missed opportunity. Joyce Chen Cooks won a Reader’s Digest educational television award, no small feat. It also didn’t last beyond one season. Her family was in the dark about what factors killed the show, and Joyce herself didn’t speak about it too much.

Helen still wonders if the show died because her mother had a business and WGBH foresaw tensions between those competing interests, citing Bob Vila’s swift departure from This Old House decades later. Perhaps, Helen believes, the end of her mother’s show was due to the fact that WGBH felt Child was the more profitable personality of the two. “I think that she would have liked to have that show continue,” Helen tells me. “It’s something that my mother would have liked to have done more. She certainly had a lot more to offer.”

In a 2014 article written for WGBH’s Open Vault archives, media scholar Dana Polan, author of 2011’s Julia Child’s The French Chef, attributes the show’s demise to a lack of sponsorship in a burgeoning color era for television. For a show to live on in that era, it needed a corporate sponsor. The imminent shift from black and white to color would’ve necessitated a source of capital that Joyce, whose show was in black and white, just couldn’t find.

When I speak to him, though, Polan chalks the show’s demise up to Chen’s personality, and what she projected on screen. “Chen didn’t have the same charisma as Child,” Polan argues to me. He’s quick to note that charisma is more nebulous than quantifiable, and she’d operated under certain constraints that a surfeit of charisma couldn’t necessarily overcome. “Much of this is probably cultural. She falls into the role of the modest Asian [woman]. And women’s cultural work is denigrated in general.”

The bias persists: The very genre of instructional culinary television like Child and Joyce’s shows still aren't quite taken seriously as meaningful artifacts rather than innocuous fluff. “Her shows are just cooking shows for most Americans, and not really important culture,” Polan says of this genre. It is feminized and thus easily dismissed.

Joyce in her restaurant's dining room, 1973. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
Joyce in her restaurant's dining room, 1973. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

There is then the unavoidable fact that Joyce was a foreigner with a heavy accent. Child was not. “I’m sure part of her being eclipsed is due to implicit racism and sexism, and also perhaps xenophobia,” Kathleen Collins, author of 2009’s Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows, writes me over email. In her book, Collins posits that the face of television chefs did not begin to reflect much diversity until the 1980s, in spite of the opportunity that Joyce’s visibility presented. When I ask Collins to name other women of color who’d hosted their own cooking shows broadcast nationally after Joyce, she comes up dry, citing only LaDeva Davis, the buoyant personality behind What’s Cooking in the 1970s, and Kathy Hoshijo, the Hawaiian American host of Kathy’s Kitchen in the 1980s.

“It doesn't mean there weren't any, and perhaps there were local hosts,” Collins tells me. “But the fact that none come to mind as far as national distribution goes is telling in and of itself.”

Ater the last episode of Joyce Chen Cooks aired in 1967, the show survived in the form occasional reruns until 1976. In this interim period, she pitched a documentary to WGBH in 1972, a travelogue in which she, Helen, and Stephen would become some of the first Americans to visit China following then-President Nixon’s 1972 visit. The special, Joyce Chen’s China, aired in May 1973, chronicling the family’s visit to the country in the summer of 1972.

But Joyce’s life was beset with tragedy after the documentary aired: She and Stephen were the victims of a home invasion. In 1976, she suffered a terrible accident in which she dropped a gallon-sized glass jar of her restaurant’s stir-fry sauce on her hand, injuring it so badly that the incident required surgery to rejoin the nerves.

Courtesy Stephen Chen.
Courtesy Stephen Chen.

Life wasn’t the same after that incident, Stephen tells me. Joyce would forget certain phone numbers for food vendors she relied on to run her restaurants, which she’d stepped away from entirely by 1983. She blamed her hand.

Little by little, Joyce’s memory worsened until she was diagnosed with multi-infarct dementia. (Though most recollections of Chen’s life assume she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she never had a formal diagnosis; these were the days in which you couldn’t diagnose Alzheimer’s without a biopsy.) Stephen was her caretaker until 1992, when she was moved to a nursing home in Lexington, Massachusetts. She died there two years later.

“She failed in her mission,” Allen Salkin, author of 2014’s From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network, says of Joyce. “Julia succeeded in making French cooking accessible or at least giving the impression that it was accessible. Unfortunately, Chinese cooking still does not feel to most Americans like something they can do at home.”

If Salkin’s assessment seems rather harsh, he acknowledges that this perceived failure wasn’t Chen’s fault entirely. He assigns this difficulty, in part, to the fact that Joyce’s show hasn’t entered the same visible rotation on television that Child’s shows enjoy. Reruns are our culture’s way of conferring immortality. Child continues to function as an object of cultural obsession for America. “Joyce Chen has not been rediscovered and celebrated like Julia Child,” Salkin says. “No one has made a movie about her.”

Add to this the fact that there were larger structural biases that prevented her success: a certain tendency to ascribe European cuisines a greater cultural cachet than those of the Global South. He cites food television’s tilt towards Europe and away from Asia.

Joyce on her show. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

“There’s still this idea that fine cuisine is what you get in France and the parts of Italy that Mario Batali has visited,” he says. “It’s amazing how annoying and persistent and untrue this idea is.”

Shortly after Joyce's death, the prognosis of her empire was rather bleak. The last of her four restaurants shuttered in 1998. Helen Chen, who has a career of her own as a cookbook author and cooking instructor, sold her mother’s cookware company in 2003 to Chicago-based giant Columbian Home Products because she needed to make it profitable. The appliances are Joyce Chen’s in name but not in spirit. Helen is careful not to say much about its new proprietors, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Joyce's elder son, Henry, died in 2007, and with it came the shuttering of Joyce Chen Unlimited, his retail shop based in Acton, Massachusetts. What remains of Joyce's business ventures are a cookware company owned by Columbian and Joyce Chen Foods, a line of condiments and frozen foods, run exclusively by Stephen. They both keep her name alive, but they're not necessarily associated with a television show, much less an actual person.

Joyce in 1984. Courtesy Stephen Chen.
Joyce in 1984. Courtesy Stephen Chen.

“The hardest part is convincing people to stock these foods,” Stephen tells me of maintaining Joyce Chen Foods. He still lives in Acton, MA, not far from where he lived with his mother.

Stephen tells me that the recognition his mother received from USPS was a boon for his business, stimulating interest in her anew, particularly among a generation that hadn’t grown up knowing her name. That same year, WGBH digitized a fraction of the episodes of the show, 11 out of 26, putting them back in the public domain after decades.

Joyce Chen Forever stamp, issued September 26, 2014 as part of the U.S. Postal Service Celebrity Chefs Forever stamp series.
Joyce Chen Forever stamp, issued September 26, 2014 as part of the U.S. Postal Service Celebrity Chefs Forever stamp series. Photo by Creative Commons

There are tributes to Joyce that sprout up occasionally. Take an illustrated children’s book, Carrie Clickard’s Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge, released last month, just before Joyce would’ve turned 100. It’s a 48-page biographical sketch of Joyce that documents how she perfected her command of making dumplings: rolling the dough, dabbing it with stuffing, and pinching it closed.

When I ask Clickard how she first heard of Joyce, she tells me she came across an image of the stamp: a picture of a big-cheeked woman smiling, wearing a cheongsam the color of cornflowers. “I was curious at first,” Clickard writes to me over email. “Who was this wonderful Chinese chef I had never heard of? I set out to read everything I could about her. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.”

She’d never seen Joyce’s face before, and she wondered why. She wanted to get to know her, so she started by watching her show.

To watch old episodes of Joyce Chen Cooks, head to the WGBH Open Vault.

Tags: Long Reads, Culture