At the Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Public Library you can get books five days a week, storytelling on Tuesday afternoons, and won-ton soup and mu shu pork on certain Mondays.
The unconventional fare is the offering of librarian Janet Woo, who is so accustomed to unconventional living that, for her, cooking Chinese meals in a public library seems reasonable.
She and her mother, Weiling Chien, teach simple Chinese cookery at 10:30 a.m. on the third Monday of each month for anyone who wants to learn. They plug in simple, portable cooking appliances and then chop, mix, fry and advise as if they have been doing this all their lives.
The truth is, they haven't. They grew up on the other side of the world at times and in places where women of refinement stayed removed from kitchens except as overseers, and servants did all the work.
Woo's life was supposed to follow tradition that had been established long before she was born. But the story of the way it worked out is as good as some in the bookshelves that surround her.
As the daughter of a Nationalist Chinese diplomat, she said, she was expected to adapt to living in foreign lands, to learn their languages, study English and art in college, and marry well.
She did all of the above, and she did a lot more.
As she tells it, her family moved from their home in the Sichuan province of China to Thailand when she was a small child, and lived there and in other Far Eastern countries for more than 10 years during the revolution in China. The five Chien children attended missionary schools and their mother gained a reputation in diplomatic circles as a great beauty and hostess, often overseeing her servants' preparation of 12-course dinners. Little Janet disliked the kitchen mess, she recalls now.
When Woo was 19, then in Taiwan and a college graduate, "I wanted to do something besides sitting around, waiting to be married," she said.
She persuaded her father to break with tradition and permit her to attend Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn., where she could study library science under a family friend.
And her life changed again. She married Kenneth Woo, an electrical engineer then in New Jersey. They had three children and she maintained her career.
"If you know the Chinese, you know they believe the center of the universe is Chinese," Woo explained. "But we were a little different because we were always with different kinds of people. We moved and changed so much that it has never been difficult for me."
Sisters and brothers followed Woo to America, and the the parents came 13 years ago. Most of the family settled in and near Pasadena. To preserve their heritage, they learned to cook without servants.
And two of them cook in the Allendale library.
"Being a librarian is the best thing a person can be," Woo said. "And being at Allendale is like being in a large family. We have the same patrons coming for years, and they keep asking me about this food. They don't believe me when I tell them how easy it is to prepare, so I decided to show them. My mother is so much better at this that I need her with me."
Sally Martin, head librarian, said, "This is one of the ways we get people to realize there's more in libraries than old books. This is dissemination of information in its broadest sense."
For those who would try, here is some Woo/Chien advice:
Chinese cooking is not scientific, amounts are approximate, and measurements are allowed to spill over the edges of spoons and cups.
Sesame oil, cornstarch and eggs are as basic as soy sauce in seasoning and holding meat mixtures together.
Dried shrimp soaked for 10 minutes in boiling water is as good--and easier to keep on hand--as fresh shrimp.
Dried mushrooms should be soaked in water and refrigerated for several days before using.
Won ton and egg roll wrappers are noodle-like squares that can be twisted, rolled, fried, boiled and frozen, and they stick to together when a tiny dab of egg is applied.
"Enjoy!" said Woo, her final word of advice.