Cocinera Mejicano

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Here are results from our Collector’s Corner for Chinese Cooking: https://www.wonderbk.com/shop/collectors-corner/search?s=cooking%20chinese&sort=received_at

Thursday morning

The dawn symphony begins slowly.

Allegro ma non troppo.

It is dark when the first voice sings out.

Soon another pipes in. Then a couple. A few.

When the light begins, the chorus expands.

I can rise and savor this. Or put pillows over my head and return to a different dreamland.

Because it happens every day in the spring—actually all year—but the full orchestra is only in residence in spring.

If you listen closely to the birdsongs above, you hear an undercurrent. An ostinato?

A couple days ago a “north fork” neighbor texted me and another “south forker” that he thought he was hearing the sound of an alarm from our direction.

There are six homes on the mountain. About a half mile up the private lane from the county road, the gravel drive splits. Bear to the left, and my house is another half mile up the mountain past my two neighbors. Each of us is about a quarter mile apart. We are the “south forkers.”

He wrote: “There is a continual sound from beyond…[in the direction of the three of us who live on the ‘south fork’]. Started about 4 am and has been uninterrupted…I just wondered if there was any problem (like a house alarm…”

I replied: “I thought it was cicadas. Started a day or so ago. At first faint and far below. Now getting closer. I’ve just seen the first ones in the yard in the last couple days…”

Thursday morning after showering and getting the dogs set, I wandered into the woods. The birds had finished their Sunrise Symphony by then.

Yes, they are moving up the mountain—closing in on me.

My first memory of these creatures was as a 15-year-old on the sports fields below Robert E. Peary High School (may it resquiat in pacem.) We were playing softball in gym class, and a plague of these things began flying around the diamond. Some of the kids were batting them out of the air—with bats.

So, this my fourth “brood.” The fourth cicada plague of my life. I don’t recall much about the 2nd and 3rd. Maybe I was busy growing the family and the book business.

It is yet another “calendar”—another way to measure time—17-year gaps and then the big bugs appear.

In 17 years…I don’t want to think about it.

How long does this last? Will they get louder? So far, I’ve only seen a few specimens up here.

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervour,
heavenly being, your sanctuary!
Your magic brings together
what fashion has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover

Schiller “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven’s 9th


Rainy and cool.

Last week’s heat wave has broken. It was a nice novelty for a day or two to be warm and have the hot sun on your skin. Then day after day at 90+—too much.

And dry… I had to carry water to recent transplants that are too remote to run a hose to.

Travis is driving one of the Ford Transit vans down I-270. We are going to swap out whatever full one they have there.

We have a problem there. The buying has not bounced back from COVID. Pre-COVID we would almost always have 2 full vans down there on Mondays. Sometimes I’d even need to make a run down there to do an urgent swap on weekends.

It is a mystery as that county has finally begun to open up. The restrictions there were very strict—along with Baltimore city—the strictest in the state—among the strictest in the country. That store remained closed a full month longer than the other two Wonder Books.

There was decidedly a greater aura of fear there. Once busy streets were very quiet for much of the past year. Nature or nurture? Why were they so frightened?

The impact of the disease was similar to other suburban counties. A larger population. 1,050,000. 1497 deaths. Death rate due to COVID—0.0014%. Over 1100 over 60. 788 of those over 80. All but 70 deaths were people over 50 years old.

Frederick County. 328 deaths. Population 268,000. 0.0012%.

Essentially, identical per capita.

Why aren’t we back to two full vanloads every weekend?

I asked the staff there, “Are people saying anything?”

They had no idea. But then 4 of the 6 people who work there are very new.

Maybe they are running out of old books near the big city…LOL.

A mystery.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

Until then, I’ll blame COVID.

We aren’t running low though. Don’t worry. The warehouse is PACKED. Front-to-back and side-to-side.

There is more space in our future. The permit signs have gone up for the two new 52,000 square warehouse buildings in the 7-acre field that has lain fallow all these years.

Permit Signs

Michael Dirda emailed me this week. It has been a while since I’d heard from him. He liked the New Orleans story. He mentioned he had been visiting sons and grandkids in Portland. His Washington Post column was about that. AND his visit to the legendary Powells Bookstore. He is a champion of the physical book—especially used books. He has been a hero of mine for many years. Here’s a link to that story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/an-afternoon-inside-a-bookstore-was-as-glorious-as-ever-heres-what-i-bought/2021/05/19/98c5fb88-b7f0-11eb-a6b1-81296da0339b_story.html

I hope The Washington Post lets you in. Sometimes I can’t get to a story I want to see. Ha! I should just subscribe. I already spend thousands there each month in advertising.


I replied to his email. It is important to evangelize the joys of hunting old books. If you’re reading this, you probably “know.” It is all the poor folks who don’t that we need to convert.

Dear Michael,
Some day I will get to Powells.
I hope your break got you reset and energized.
It is good to be out and about more and more each week.
Thank you for bringing awareness to the joys, serendipity, the “book rescue and recycling”, discovery and rediscovery attendant with browsing in used bookstores.
Online shopping is fine—but it is the surprise find caught by the corner of your eye which is something that can only happen with physical books on shelves in real bookstores.

The week was a blur.

I spent way too much time trying to figure out a July trip to Iceland. It is one of the few foreign destinations open now. I went many years ago. It is an otherworldly place. That trip was on the way back from Germany. It was only a couple days, and the kids were young. I rented a Land Rover and just set out to places not too far from Reykjavik.

This time I want to do the Ring Road. That is the path that takes you all around the island’s perimeter. You can see glaciers to volcanos. You can step across the border of the tectonic plates of Europe and North America. I enjoyed straddling the continents years ago. Astounding waterfalls…

Do I want to drive it alone? No navigator. No one to point and say, “Look at that!

I’ve never taken a guided tour. I like to be in charge. And they are incredibly expensive.

But maybe you get your money’s worth because it never gets dark this time of year.

And I’m planning what to do in California in mid June. Two days will be devoted to family stuff. A ceremony for my brother Tony. The next day we will take a boat out beyond the Golden Gate and put his ashes in the sea off Marin.

Tony Obituary

I’m staying in San Jose this time. San Francisco was just to dystopian.

But then, I’ve been around that area a few times not too long ago when my elder son was at Stanford…

I don’t mind driving there. But Iceland… it is another world.

The week was also eaten up by replacing my battered iPhone. That’s always an adventure. It was odd being unable to use it for just overnight. No news. No music. (Well, I played Roy Buchanan on the dusty CD player.) No texts—well, almost no one texts me anymore regardless.

And I had a dentist appointment—the first in two years. (COVID.) My dentist is in Pennsylvania just over an hour away.

Chores that ate up 2 “half” days.

Last weekend…

It was books and carts as usual.

On Saturday, Ridgley and Travis were in.

Sunday—just Travis.

We had picked up a record collection from my lawyer. He is downsizing in preparation for a move to Florida and retirement. We have spent hours alone in a fancy conference room where Francis Scott Key once had a law office. We’ve been in mediation twice in recent weeks. There is a lot of down time while the mediator works with the other side. I learned a lot about him I didn’t know. One doesn’t chat idly with one’s attorney. It is too expensive. More expensive than Iceland! But we were stuck in a room together so… I wonder how much I paid chatting about his old records?

He had a very terrifying health scare but is better now. He told me that prompted his move.

I asked him to send pictures of his record collection. I warned him that collections don’t bring much. Especially if we have to send two guys and van out to get them. There are usually 9 bad LPs for every good one. And our policy is to take everything. I’ve found that’s almost what all people want. “Make these all disappear. Please!”

The pictures were not inspiring…

I offered him less than 1 hour of his time costs me.

Clif and a helper went and got them early one morning last week.

I’ve turned most of the record sorting over to Ridgley. He is an old friend and competitor. When we were young, we would often do battle at country auctions.

His modus was to go in with “both guns blazing” (his words) and intimidate the competition—to scare them off knowing he wouldn’t stop bidding. He always looked like a cowboy with his long hair and long droopy mustache. Still does. Only more grizzled.

Like me—grizzled, that is.

Now he is mostly retired but comes in Saturdays to play with the LPs we get in. He works on the loading dock with the huge rolloff dumpster set at its threshold. This saves handling as so many LPs have no audience—even for a buck—even for nothing. He tosses all the extra Mantovani and Rod McKuen and Time Life Box Sets… right out the door.

That is at Dock 11 (of 21)—so he is about halfway across the building from the south end where I work on weekends.

I moseyed up that way to check in.

“Chuck, there’s some great records here!”

Indeed there were.

The pictures my lawyer had sent only showed spines. Some of them were heavily abraded. And there were a lot of old box sets (probably his parents’.)

After what Ridgley showed me, I emailed my lawyer, doubling my offer. I told him his collection looked a lot like mine.

I’d been a huge audiophile. I spent a fortune on turntables (Bang and Olufsen, Garrard Zero-100) and cartridges and speakers… I had several thousand and would seek out rare LPs the way I seek out books now.

I vividly recall the night I hooked up my first CD player. I sat on the ancient yellow pine floor in the early 19th century Pennsylvania limestone farmhouse out in the country south of Gettysburg. I slipped the Koss headphones over my head and pushed play.

Pachelbel’s Canon.

Tears poured down my cheeks. The sound was so pure. No hisses or pops. No undertone of the friction of the diamond needle dragging in the groove of the vinyl disc.

I began selling off my LPs at Wonder Book. I have kept a hundred or so for sentimental reasons. I haven’t played one for decades.

My lawyer was pleased.

Now he is getting even more of my money.

Last week while planning renovations in the “media” section of the Frederick store, I saw we had a copy of It’s a Beautiful Day.

It's a Beautiful Day

I recalled how elusive that record had been when I was a kid.

As I was sorting Saturday, I kept coming across books with tiny bookplates of a Mr. Feng.

Pearl Buck, Lin Yutang, Chiang Kai Shek, Sun Yat Sen, Formosa, Taiwan…

He had clearly spent a lot of years in San Francisco, as that was penciled onto the endpapers of many of the books.

Nothing valuable, but intriguing enough for me to finally Google his name. About all that came up was that he had been the Ambassador of Nationalist China to Mexico.

Then I began noticing books inscribed to him by “Doreen.” I pieced together she was his daughter. Then I remembered coming across some cookbooks from the mid-20th century. There were some unusual Asian cookbooks. Other cookbooks had been inscribed to “Doreen” by the authors. Nothing really exciting.

I Googled her name.


For some reason, I scrolled down to images.

Joy of Chinese Cooking

Well! That’s different! That changes everything.

I tried to find the rather uninspiring books that I’d already set into tubs or on carts in order to have a closer look at them. But once a collection is broken, it is hard to put the pieces back together again.

These books came in from… I have no idea…

The weekend wore on, and I stopped finding books with the Ambassador’s tiny bookplate or Doreen’s ownership inscription.

Late on Sunday, I got around to a cart Ernest had made up for me earlier in the week. He had tried to draw my attention to couple things, but I had only given them a cursory look.

But now that I knew some of the genealogy, the two Covarrubias’ inscribed to the Ambassador and the two James Beard’s inscribed to Doreen took on more context.

I put everything I could find from either of them on a cart for Annika to look into Monday.

I wrapped up my weekend’s work.


None of these books would still be around if it wasn’t for what we do…

On Monday, Annika emailed me.

She hadn’t been able to find more on the Ambassador, but she had found this on his daughter:


Doreen Yen Hung Feng, was author of “The Joy of Chinese Cooking” (1966.) She was also a fisheries and acquaculture expert, and she worked with well-known muralist Miguel Covarrubias on three government-sponsored murals. She was also a member of the Mexican Equestrian team, and she fought bulls in Mexico and Spain. Died 1980 in a plane crash at the age of 57.

Wow! Accomplished woman. An Asian woman bullfighter in Mexico in the 50s?!

Wow! Just wow!

The week has been so busy I haven’t gotten to look at what Annika has done with the cart yet.

I did find another little treasure.

I don’t think this was from the Fengs. It was amongst a collection of mostly battered junk leather.

Still, I can fantasize if it was a gift from father to an expert chef daughter or maybe something Doreen found in Mexico in an old bookstore. I don’t think so though. They were pretty particular putting their names in the books that meant something to them.

And now I wonder what Mexican cuisine was like in the 1830s. Tacos? Enchiladas? Burritos?

LOL… Guacamole and refried beans…


8 Comments on Article

  1. Gregory commented on

    I have heard news reports that police departments are getting more phantom calls for car alarms in the past week or so, which they attribute to cicadas. The fundamental frequency of their buzzing must be the same as a car alarm’s at a distance.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I noticed that the sound can seem like a distant car alarm.
      Thanks for reading and writing Gregory!

  2. Lauren Baker commented on

    I will definitely need to investigate ‘Its a Beautiful Day’, thank you. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them. Off topic – Found something you might enjoy, in a 1975 Ballantine Mystery Classic edition of “The Sign of the Four”. An introduction by Wodehouse – “Taken up with Holmes’s finances”, I won’t spoil it.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Very cool!
      I’ll need to track that down!
      Thank you for reading and writing!
      Online no band is very scarce anymore!

  3. Nancy McCollough commented on

    Loved your view accompanied by Bird Song.
    You continue to amaze me.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Nancy!
      Great to hear from you.
      Such a bizarre year…

  4. Debbie Schnibbe commented on

    It’s A Beautiful Day is a band not many people have heard of and I love them. My favorite song White Bird. Thank you for bringing back some wonderful memories.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      They never seemed to break through.
      The albums were always hard to find.
      Thanks for writing Debbie!

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