Jul 20, 2008

By Najib Aminy

 

When Jacqueline Newman was engaged, she was given her very first Chinese cookbook as a gift. Fifty-four years later, Newman has compiled the World’s largest English-language Chinese cookbook collection, continuing over 3,000 books. Her complete collection, reported to be worth $400,000, was generously donated to Stony Brook University, first with the opening of the Wang Center in 2002, and the rest of it, just earlier this year. Newman’s collection provides Stony Brook with a total of 7,000 items, ranging from herbal medicine books, to cuisine magazines, to thousands of slides.

Newman grew up in Manhattan with a single mother who worked as a pharmacist. It was while her mother filled out prescriptions that Newman became exposed to the Chinese way of life, as she spent time with a Chinese friend of her mother’s for the good portion of her childhood. “Because she had two boys, I would always be around the kitchen helping out,” said Newman about her mother’s friend.  Thus Newman slowly acquired a taste for Chinese food. As a student of NYU, Newman was undecided as to what she wanted to study and grew frustrated by her clear lack of direction in her life. “One day the department said to me, you got to decide what it is that you want to do, and I felt pestered by their question.” Newman’s answer to the troubling questions that all college students face was Chinese food. Newman’s thesis, called “Chinese Food: The Nature and Direction of Change,” was based on the study of Chinese immigrants and changes in the style of their traditional foods. In addition to increasing her collection, Newman, a registered dietician, was a professor at CUNY Queens of food science and is the Editor-In-Chief of Flavor & Fortune founded in 1994, the only Chinese recipe magazine in the United States.

Having a Chinese culinary expert for a grandmother was something that did not phase Newman’s family. Leo Wolcott, Newman’s son-in-law, had a southern upbringing, but said, “now I try everything (pointing to a picture of silkworm cocoons) and you’d be surprised a lot of the things taste very good.” For Devin, a college student, and Emily, a senior in high school, their grandmother’s cooking is a treat and allows them to travel the world and try new things. “I mean we are the most atypical Jewish people I know, I mean for example we eat all types of different foods and experience different things than most people would,” said Emily. Devin, who says her grandmother travels the world for the sake of food, also added that, “she knows what she is doing and is an amazing cook. She cooks so many different types and varieties of food, it’s just awesome.” Newman’s spouse, Lenny, appreciates and enjoys the many foods his wife cooks. “Whenever she caters to a large party, she usually chooses recipes she has never tried before, and yet it always comes out excellent,” said Lenny.

After her engagement, Newman was selective about the books she bought, because  “it was financially unreasonable at the time to buy every book I saw,” according to Newman. However, ten years after her marriage, Newman saw her collection growing into an investment. Soon after, her investment had become somewhat of a competition. “It was a game to see who could collect more, but that was when I was younger which was always fun.” Yet as Newman became more professionally involved, she was more interested in donating her collection for the good of culinary, sociology, and anthropology studies.

Newman’s collection, which dwarfs the United States Library of Congress’ collection of related Chinese books and pieces by twice the amount, sparked interest from many universities such as Iowa State, which offered money for Newman’s collection. “They offered me money but I refused. When you sell something you give away your own personal right and they (Iowa State) would have the right to do whatever they wanted and that did not sit well with me.” In addition to the rights, the location of Iowa State was far away from Newman’s native Manhattan and current Long Island sanctuary. Newman also turned down CUNY Queens due to its lack of understanding and inability to house something as valuable as Newman’s collection.

Stony Brook would become home to Newman’s collection because of the growth in the food science department as well as the Asian American Studies programs and the unique addition of the Wang Center. Newman said how the library collection staff has also done an exceptional job making her collection available for free and accessible online. Newman added that she hopes a lot of people will use her collection as guidance whether they are interested in becoming chefs, sociologists, or even anthropologists.

Newman explained how there are three things that are vital to one’s existence in life, “a house to live in, clothing to wear, and food to eat,” and according to Newman, food is not something one just eats, rather it is a lifestyle and a taste of culture that one experiences.