James Beard's Recipe Box: Eggs Foo Yung
December 14, 2010
Welcome to our latest guest post about recipes from James Beard’s American Cookery. Today we hear from Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. (You can read the guest post archives here.) A few weeks ago, I spent 24 hours cooking from James Beard’s American Cookery, originally published in 1972 and recently re-released with a foreword by Tom Colicchio. The classic cookbook is among my favorites, full of no-nonsense instructions, history, wisdom, and wit. Whenever I open the book, I learn something new. I was curious about Beard’s coverage of Asian recipes and ingredients. Raised on food prepared by a cantankerous Chinese cook named Let, Beard was certainly versed in the cuisine’s more authentic fare, but he focuses on Americanized dishes in American Cookery, an illustration of our country’s reluctant adoption of China’s food. What caught my attention was the curiously pluralized Eggs Foo Yung on page 110. I had never eaten it before: most versions are large, flat omelets smothered in an unappealing thick brown sauce. But upon reading Beard’s recipe, I learned that it was originally a dish of fried, egg-based pancakes with slightly crispy and frilled edges. He explained that egg foo yung was a Chinese dish that had been “pretty thoroughly Americanized,” and suspected that Chinese chefs who worked for logging camps and railroad gangs during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were responsible for introducing the food to the United States. I tried Beard’s recipe, substituting a cup a bean sprouts for the half cup of canned stuff he was likely using. The egg pancakes tasted terrific, and Beard’s unusual technique of cooking the vegetables and seafood with flour before adding the eggs helped them hold together nicely. The sauce, however, was only serviceable; it was close to how I had always imagined the stuff to taste. Beard must have used very mild soy sauce, as he called for a half cup; I only used two tablespoons. At the end of the recipe, he suggested varying the protein and seasonings, as if to hedge his bets on the outcome of the dish. When Beard wrote American Cookery, there were plenty of egg foo yung recipes around. Among Time-Life’s The Cooking of China & Recipes (1968), Jim Lee’s Chinese Cookbook (Harper and Row, 1968), and An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking (Crown, 1970), I counted 13. Only Beard’s version included an unexpected bit of history: egg foo yung inspired the western, or Denver, sandwich. It’s not far-fetched to imagine those frontier Chinese cooks hastily sliding fried eggs between slices of bread to give to hungry workers, but I needed more evidence. In the respected American Food, culinary historian Evan Jones writes that the original Denver/western sandwich likely contained egg foo yung. The exact origin of the sandwich remains murky, but you can order it at Chinese–American chop suey joints in the St. Louis area. Then I met two retired anthropologists from Michigan. They recounted how, in 1970, when they had moved from the Bay Area to the Midwest, they were greatly disappointed with the Chinese restaurants. These establishments mostly served egg foo yung, they said, adding that the eggs sometimes oddly appeared on top of bread. James Beard’s American Cookery teems with discoveries like these. Even forty years later, the cook’s prescient work leads us on surprising culinary journeys. Andrea Nguyen is a celebrated author, food journalist, and teacher with a unique ability to interpret traditional Asian cooking styles for modern cooks. She is a contributing editor to Saveur. Her work has also been featured in the Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, and MarkBittman.com. Andrea’s debut publication, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, received three prestigious 2007 James Beard and IACP cookbook award nominations. Her second work, Asian Dumplings, was a 2010 IACP award finalist. She is researching a new cookbook due out in 2012 from Ten Speed Press. Andrea lives in Santa Cruz, CA, where she publishes Vietworldkitchen.com.