She spoke, read, and wrote Chinese fluently and was the chef/owner of China Moon, an internationally acclaimed Chinese restaurant for 11 years. Barbara wrote two definitive Chinese cookbooks, “The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking” and “China Moon Cookbook.”
Falling in love with Chinese culture due to an art class in high school, she studied Chinese in college, graduating in 1970 from Barnard College of Columbia University with honors in Oriental Studies. She received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to continue doctoral work at Princeton University in Chinese literature and art history, during which she studied for two years at the University of Taipei.
While in Taiwan, she lived with two Chinese food obsessed host families, each headed by superb traditional cooks where she learned to eat. This resulted in her immersion in the intricacies of Chinese cuisine. During this time she studied poetry and made many visits to the national art museum. Her burgeoning understanding of Chinese culture reinforced her studies of Chinese cuisine.
Upon returning to Princeton in 1973, she taught herself how to cook, out of hunger and homesickness for Asia. She subsequently received a master’s in Chinese literature and art from Princeton University; but in 1978, decided to stop work on her thesis (a helplessly obscure topic in Tang dynasty poetics] and started work on a cookbook, “The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking.” She started teaching cooking classes, since with her esoteric specialty, she was essentially unemployable.
She subsequently moved to San Francisco to be closer to a vibrant Chinese community and food markets. Freshness, seasonality and authenticity were the hallmark of Ms. Tropp’s cooking at a time when much U.S. Chinese cooking relied on canned staples and hackneyed pseudo-Cantonese dishes.
When first published in 1982, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking brought Barbara international acclaim as it served as a guide for non-Chinese speakers into the subtle delicacies of an elaborate and highly refined cuisine.
From 1986 to 1996, Barbara Tropp ran a very successful Chinese restaurant named China Moon Cafe in a 1930s era coffee shop in San Francisco. Similar to Chez Panisse in Berkeley, it attracted patrons from around the world for its unique combination of California cuisine with a deep knowledge of Chinese traditional food culture. It hummed with precision, flavorful smells and vibrant colors.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she sold the restaurant in 1996. She fought the cancer for seven years, first with Chinese herbs and acupuncture, later abandoning them for chemotherapy, before her death at the age of 53.
In addition to Bart Rhoades, her husband of nearly 10 years, she was survived by stepchildren Andrew, Matthew and Elizabeth Rhoades; and her sister, Nhumey Tropp of Seattle, a medical assistant and owner of a martial arts school.
- “Reaching for the Moon at China Moon Cafe,” by Michael Bauer, May 26, 2011; San Francisco Chronicle