Food Arts presents the March 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Barbara Tropp for infusing cuisine and food writing with passionate scholarship. A student of Chinese language, literature, and art, the book-wormish Tropp gracefully made a transformational leap from isolated ivory tower to the commercial hub-bub of the food industry. In pursuing a path she never could have imagined, Tropp amazed herself by becoming, in turn, a caterer, a cooking teacher, a road warrior for the Cuisinart, a cookbook author, the chef/owner of the ahead-of-the-curve China Moon bistro in San Francisco, and a founder of Women Chefs& Restaurateurs.
Tropp’s “ardent friend,” the food journalist/cookbook author Barbara Kafka, describes her as “warm, loving, generous, intelligent, funny, and enormously talented. She brings a well-researched point of view to recipes.”
Tropp, 49, grew up in Springfield, New Jersey, an introverted, intellectual kid swept away by the enchanting, distant tides of ancient Chinese poetry and painting. As a girl, she burrowed into libraries and museums to add dimension to her Chinese reveries. At the time, Chinese culture mattered; all food culture didn’t. “My family could have cared less what we ate, and they didn’t know what to cook,” Tropp recalls. Her mother, a doctor and devotee of health-food advocate Adele Davis, sustained her daughter on a diet of wheat-germ milkshakes balanced by TV dinners. She also encouraged her to pursue her academic interest in China.
That Tropp did, first as an undergrad at Barnard, where she was so engrossed in her studies that she’d “skip a mean in order to go to another class. My passion was learning, not food.” Her palate and appetite were awakened, though, once she moved to Taiwan in 1971 to study. There, indulged by the embracing care of the two families she lived with during her two-year stay, Tropp discovered how central food is to the culture she revered. “In New Jersey, food was diet, discipline, the neurotic stuff of the modern suburbs. In Taiwan, as in all of China, food is joy, food is life”
All that joy was gone when Tropp moved back to the United States to being post-graduate studies at Princeton. “I could no longer eat American food, so I started cooking to make a connection with the families I left behind in Taiwan,” she says of her culinary baby steps. “To a large extent, I’m self-taught.” Once her fellowship ended in 1975, Tropp began catering from her dorm room. “In spite of myself, I was turning into a cook,” Tropp says. “I had studied myself into a corner where I could talk to just 10 people on the planet. With cooking, I could now talk to others on a gustatory and social level.”
Tropp crossed the threshold once she declined the opportunity to apply for “the only teaching position that would suit me” and cast her lot with Carl Sontheimer as a traveling Chinese cooking teacher/demonstrator for his newfangled Cuisinart. She left her old life far behind in 1978 by moving to San Francisco and its fervent food scene, where “people were untroubled by the dollars that now rule the culinary world.” Now, instead of a doctoral thesis, she wrote a cookbook, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking (William Morrow, NY, 1982) that “put me on the map.”
After a three-year gestation, her idea to open a small restaurant that would “exclusively use fresh food in the Chinese style” came to life in 1986 as China Moon near Union Square. “I cooked my heart out for the first three years,” she says. “I didn’t know my ass from my elbow about chefing, but I knew what the food should taste like.” Three years in, her partner left, forcing Tropp to learn the restaurant game from the business side. “I had to make payroll instead of pickles,” she laughs. “I was great at pickles, not so great at payroll, and that was hard for me.”
Still, for 11 years, until s he sold China Moon in 1997 “to get my life back,” Tropp ran a restaurant that presaged the fusion furor. “It was successful in that it accomplished what it set out to do—make a statement about Chinese ingredients,” she says of the venture that begat a second book, China Moon Cookbook (Workman Publishing, NY, 1992), which won a Julia Child Award as best international cookbook.
In 1993, Tropp and seven other women founded Women Chefs & Restaurateurs to gain recognition, promote education, and enhance the advancement of women in foodservice. “Women were playing integral parts in the industry, yet they were being denied any professional image,” Tropp says. Today, WCR boasts more than 2,000 active members.
Married to Bart Rhoades in 1991 and a mother to step-daughter Elizabeth, Tropp’s career has reached a fitting coda. In May, she’ll lead the Smithsonian Institution’s first culinary tour of China, a journey that will combine the two sides of her life. “I’m happiest when I’m learning and teaching,” she says. “And I love being an ex-restaurateur. I can travel, teach, and consult—without worrying about someone burning the noodle pillows.”