It’s rumored that Shanzu was a little orphaned girl, living among the urban poor in the capital city of Chang’an during Tang Dynasty, which was about 1400 years ago. It seemed that fate had doomed her in the beginning of her life’s journey. What prospect could she have other than being an illiterate servant girl, laboring away somewhere for somebody, to whom she had to be loyal but could expect no loyalty in return.
Indeed, as soon as she could run errands, she became the servant girl, working for the family of the prime minister, Duan Wenchang. It just so happened that in Tang Dynasty everybody was expected to write poems. Not writing poem in Tang Dynasty is as unacceptable as not having a social media page in the 21st century. In the snobby fashionable world of the prime minister and his colleagues, people competed to write poems in messages, holiday greetings, letters, parties, often in impromptu settings. The servants competed with each other too on this front, and often had to step in when their masters were too dim witted. Since there was no public education system available at the time, every government official had to install a little informal school at home to teach servants on words, rhymes, and poems.
Shanzu grew to be a good cook, wrote her recipes in poetry form, and published at least fifty poems of recipes. Paper and printing were invented several hundred years earlier, but the printing press, books, and a reading public did not develop until Tang Dynasty. The prime minister and his son ended up publishing two books, one for each, based on Shanzu’s recipes, but somehow I suspected that Shanzu was the ghost writer for both books. It’s possible that after Shanzu published her fifty recipes, she became the talk of the town. Her master was a generous and respectable man, but still he’s a little jealous that his own servant outshined him. What could he do? He managed to convince Shanzu to cooperate on a book together and published it in his own name. He had a good-for-nothing son who was also in need of achievement. Guess what? Shanzu had to help the son too. At first she wanted to refuse, but the prime minister kept nagging and begging. Also the son wanted to marry the king’s daughter and he was desperately trying to impress the princess, who was known for her love of food–this is an era when chubby women were considered most beautiful and skinniness was a form of illness. How the world evolves.
I think about her today because I was cooking steamed sweet rice with chicken, a recipe rumored to be created by Shanzu. It’s good for people with a weak bowel, and the best way to fight the depression caused by the heavy snow. Look, all the trees and utility poles are two feet shorter outside. And it is still snowing non-stop.