Phyllis Louise Harris
She was born in China during the era of women’s bound feet and male dominated households, but went on to become one of the greatest influences in the understanding and appreciation of Chinese cooking in the United States. She also changed my life.
It was 1974 and I had just moved to New York City where I now had the time and resources to explore whatever peaked my interest. I had long been a fan of Chinese food and looked for classes in cooking this classic cuisine. I found one in the basement of a pasta store in my neighborhood and was soon learning the wonders of stir-frying. The teacher, Millie Chan, was a delight and extremely patient with some of the “students” who used the time to chat with each other in their native language. Turns out they were gathering recipes to give to their cooks at home to replicate. They had no intention of cooking it themselves. But, Millie could see I was serious about learning and after the sessions ended suggested I continue classes at the China Institute in America where her teacher and mentor was teaching.
The first day in class about 20 of us sat on folding chairs at long tables in the Institute’s teaching kitchen and heard Florence Lin say, “When you finish this class, you will be able to make Chinese dishes out of whatever is in your refrigerator.” I thought about the odd variety of things in my refrigerator and very much doubted her promise. Now, 42 years later I know she was right!
For the next 14 years I made Chinese dumplings, noodles, sir-fries, deep-fries, sauces, salads and whatever else she was teaching. Today, I still have my recipes and class notes – about 300 of them. We cooked everything! Even things I did not know were edible. Pigs’ ears, chicken feet, broccoli stems, pig snouts - all were made very tasty and while I may not have liked some of them, they were certainly edible. When my daughter and I travelled through China with Florence, we had the privilege of taking classes with master chefs and to taste hundreds of Chinese dishes that are not served in the U.S. My love of Chinese food and Florence’s training led me to create a company dedicated to Asian food, to becoming food editor of Asian Pages for 20 years writing more than 500 columns, to writing a history of Asian food in Minnesota published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and to create an EMMY® award-winning television show that tpt produced and still broadcasts today. None of this would have happened without Florence Lin.
Florence is one of those exceptional teachers who really likes what she does and understands the subject completely. Initially she learned to cook by following her family’s chef around the kitchen and then learned more from her aunt and grandmothers. She learned even more when she went with her father on his silk merchant business trips throughout China, something unheard of in the 1930s pre-war China when daughters were never involved in the family business. At each stop she could sample local cuisine and expand her knowledge of Chinese food. Combined with her own creative skills Florence Lin’s Chinese cooking is like none other.
When Florence came to America in 1949 to marry her fiancé K.Y. she did not speak English. While she had a college education, without the language skills she could not get work. While K.Y. pursued his career in finance and she raised their two children, Florence concentrated on her mastery of English and went on to become one of the most influential cookbook authors and food writers in the U.S. Julia Child and James Beard were among her friends and students. Paul Newman was a fan of her cooking. National food companies consulted her on Chinese culinary issues. She taught cooking classes in New York, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, New Jersey, Georgia, and throughout the country. She taught at the China Institute for more than 25 years and in 2014 was given a lifetime achievement award by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
But that is only part of Florence’s story. As a teenager she joined Chiang Kai-shek’s Youth Army to fight the Japanese invasion of China where she taught new recruits how to handle their rifles. Later in life she would also fight other wars against cancer and her husband’s Parkinson’s disease. The first book she wrote was turned down by 18 publishers, but she went on to publish five cookbooks and was primary consultant and recipe creator for another. She also wrote dozens of articles for the New York Times and a variety of national publications. Current cookbook authors and celebrity chefs refer to her work as an inspiration for their own efforts.
This month Florence will be 96 years old. She is retired and lives in New York near one of her daughters whose family is delighted to have grandmother nearby to make their favorite dishes, or at least supervise their renditions. I am happy to say she is still my friend and mentor who continues to work with me even long distance on culinary issues. I wish everyone would have had the privilege of attending her classes but everyone can still learn from this great teacher through her cookbooks. While they are out of print, used copies are available on various websites. Pick up one or all and read them from cover to cover. You will begin to understand the flavors and complexity of Chinese cooking and the basics of making it properly.
Start with her first book Florence Lin’s Regional Cooking of China, published in 1975 when it was named Best Cookbook of 1975 and was a Book-of-the-Month selection. Florence Lin’s Chinese Vegetarian Cookbook followed in 1976 and makes every vegetable a treat. That was followed in 1978 with Florence Lin’s Chinese One-Dish Meals, and in 1979 with Florence Lin’s Cooking with Fire Pots. In 1984, William Morrow Publishers convinced her to write Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads that was reprinted in several sold out editions including paperback.
By the way, while she was writing each book she tested the recipes in many of her classes and I got to be part of that process as well. Also pick up a copy of Time Life Foods of the World: The Cooking of China (1968) where you will find her first publishing effort and the first book in the U.S. to truly explore in depth the cooking of China. She tells the story of providing the editors with a recipe for Egg Foo Yung at their request. They came back to her with the complaint there was no “gravy” on the Egg Foo Yung. When she explained she created the dish as it is served in China they insisted on adding gravy for the American audience and she did.
Happy birthday Florence and thanks for so many delicious memories!
Read more about Asian food in Minnesota and try more than 160 recipes in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, in bookstores and on amazon.com.
Watch the EMMY® award winning “Asian Flavors” television show based on the book on tpt MN. Check local TV listings for broadcast times or view the show streaming online at:http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=24552&select_index=0&popup=yes#0