Weight Watchers' "Fried" Chinese Chicken, the Sacred, and the Profane

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger's picture

A What is a Recipe? contribution by Aubrey Thamann, PhD (American Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis)

“’Fried’ Chinese Chicken,” from Weight Watchers Quick Start Plus Program Cookbook (1986) by Jean Nidetch.

This recipe is from the section called “The Protein Exchange,” and makes 2 servings. 

[“good” is written at the top of the page in pencil, and underlined]

1 tablespoon each cornstarch and rice vinegar
2 ½ teaspoons teriyaki sauce, divided
1 ½ teaspoons minced pared ginger root
1 teaspoon dry sherry
½ teaspoon firmly packed brown sugar
12 ounces chicken breasts, skinned and cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon peanut oil
½ cup each Chinese snow peas (stem ends and strings removed),* red bell pepper strips, and scallions (green onions), cut into 2-inch pieces

In small bowl combine cornstarch, vinegar, 1 ½ teaspoons teriyaki sauce, and the ginger, sherry, and brown sugar; stir well to dissolve cornstarch. Rinse chicken pieces and, using paper towels, pat dry; dip chicken in teriyaki mixture, turning to coat. Place on sheet of wax paper and let stand for about 1 hour to dry.

Brush any liquid that has exuded from chicken over skinned side and let dry. In 12-inch nonstick skillet heat oil; add chicken, 1 piece at a time, and sauté, turning frequently until browned on all sides and, when pierced with fork, juices run clear. Remove chicken to serving plate and keep warm.

In same skillet combine vegetables and stir-fry until tender-crisp; sprinkle with remaining teaspoon teriyaki sauce and stir to combine. Serve with chicken.

Each serving provides: 3 Protein Exchanges; 1 ½ Vegetable Exchanges; 1 ½ Fat Exchanges; 25 calories Optional Exchange

Per serving: 330 calories; 42 g protein; 10 g fat; 17 g carbohydrate; 59 mg calcium; 475 mg sodium; 99 mg cholesterol

*Frozen snow peas may be substituted for the fresh.

I’ve recently begun researching sacred food, and I am defining the term “sacred” broadly, as I am interested in consumption from religious ceremony, such as a wafer at a Communion service, to the “food of choice” for a food addict. I also like the idea of contrasting this with profane foods, also broadly defined. For example, different eras villainize different foods—fat, general calories, cholesterol, carbs, and now gluten. For this discussion, then, I’ve chosen an often-used recipe from one of my mother’s Weight Watchers cookbooks. I grew up with the influence of Weight Watchers in my life. My mother was an on-again, off-again member of the organization, and we regularly ate meals from her various WW cookbooks; I’ve even tried the program myself.

This particular recipe was from their food exchange program in the ‘80s. The program grouped foods into categories such as breads, proteins, vegetables, fats, etc., and within a food group, a member could exchange a serving of one for something else within the same category. The servings were also called “exchanges.” This recipe includes information about what exchanges are provided for by the recipe, specifically protein, vegetable, and fat exchanges. It also lists caloric information, fat, carbs, sodium, and, of course, cholesterol, as this book was published during the height of the low-cholesterol era. In this context, then, the profane includes cholesterol and fat. I’ve chosen this recipe specifically because it was—and still is—a family favorite. The first time I cooked it for my husband, it became a favorite of his as well. The spine of the book is broken at this recipe, the pages are stained from teriyaki sauce and sherry, and my mother marked this one “good” in pencil at the top of the page. I even used this recipe my freshman year of high school, in speech class—the theme was instructional speeches, and, as a food addict myself, I of course chose to make a meal.

I also spent some time in grad school working at Whole Foods, and I saw all kinds of diets swell into popularity—gluten-free, raw foods, cleansing diets, various levels of vegetarianism, and the one that I find most intriguing as an anthropologist, the Paleo Diet. It all seems to boil down to more bang for your buck—how can we get the most flavorful, the most closely resembling the food we actually want to eat, but without consuming all the stuff we see as bad for us (in the context of this recipe, calories, fat, and cholesterol)? Indeed, I’m swept up in it as well—I try to eat organic whenever I can, and I avoid ingredients I see as unnatural. I’m also an ovo-lacto vegetarian, and I use a mycoprotein substitute for the chicken in this recipe. At the same time that I recognize the cultural constructedness and historical variability of nutrition, I still believe that the way I eat is a healthier—nay; more right—option than, say, a low-cal/low-fat/low-sugar food with aspartame, maltodextrin, and Yellow No. 6. Humans are funny that way.

The question is asked: “what can we learn about the history of nutrition from [this recipe]?” The answer is certainly more nuanced than a short discussion post can uncover, but I believe it does demonstrate the cultural constructedness of nutrition, just like what counts as food and what doesn’t, alongside health and wellness. A similar recipe rewritten today would likely include references to gluten, soy, and other food allergens (such as a possible substitute for the peanut oil), and would probably offer a lower sodium option. I suspect I wouldn’t like it as much—as far as this food addict is concerned, this recipe borders on the sacred.