Serious Reads: Chop Suey, by Andrew Coe
"It is fascinating to read about the origins of ubiquitous dishes—and to learn that we may not know as much about this familiar cuisine as our consumption habits would suggest."
Food historians often bicker over which food items make up "American cuisine." Some even go so far as to say that American cuisine doesn't exist—that our culinary concoctions are just adaptations of other cultures' foods. However, I would argue that we do have some culinary habits that unite us as a nation, that form the very foundation of our sense of patriotism (cue national anthem), that bind opposing political parties and forge peace between rival sports teams. One such habit, seen far and wide across the United States, is eating Americanized Chinese food.
Hyperbolic language aside (as fun as it is), Chinese food has existed in the U.S. for nearly two centuries. The ubiquitous cuisine seen today took generations to develop, and the food went through continuous change before being accepted by the American population. Andrew Coe takes us through the politically charged and culturally significant journey of Chinese food in the U.S. in his book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Though short, the book highlights all the major turning points that brought us to a time when every small town has at least one local Chinese restaurant.
So how did it all begin? The first American presence in China was seen in the early 1800s. American ambassadors travelled to the foreign land, while their peers state-side remained in ignorance of Oriental culture. At this time, stereotypes about Chinese foods (such as the insistence that the Chinese ate rats) were commonplace, and travelers to the country were reluctant to partake of even the most formal ceremonial meals. These were not worldly men by today's standards, and certainly did not have experimental palates.
The 1840's saw the Gold Rush in San Francisco, which brought over thousands of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. Almost immediately, a strong prejudice against the immigrants took hold across the nation, often manifesting in open disgust at the foods consumed by the Chinese. By the late 1800s, however, the Chinese had begun working side-by-side with American laborers on the trans-continental railroad, most often serving as cooks for the laborers. Not yet ready to embrace Chinese foods, the Americans demanded that the assimilating workers use their woks to prepare traditional steak-and-potatoes meals.
The Chinese were also among the thousands of immigrants streaming into New York City during this time. Cultural groups settled within certain neighborhoods, and Chinatown was soon the hub for Chinese dining in the city. A heightened awareness of immigrant groups and their foods led to a more experimental New York cultural elite, who soon began seeking out the "tasty, exotic, and cheap" fare available at the family-owned Chinese restaurants. The influence of this cosmopolitan center cannot be underestimated; before long, Chinese food had taken hold across the East Coast. And since the upper class approved the consumption of novel foods, "eating a bowl of chop suey... meant that you had achieved a state of worldly, urban sophistication." This startlingly fast transition from discrimination to appreciation soon began to be realized across the country.
One interesting relationship that Coe pursues is the affinity that American Jews have for Chinese food. The children of Jewish immigrants, especially in New York, started to seek out means of avoiding traditional rules of kosher during the 1920s and 30s. Chinese cooks used pork and shellfish, both forbidden by Jewish law, but "disguised" them in sauces and by chopping the meat finely. Jews began dubbing this sort of dish "safe treyf"—treyf being the Yiddish word for "unclean." Essentially the rule was if the un-kosher meat was out of sight, it was out of mind. While discussed with a sense of humor, the idea of safe treyf brought masses of American Jews to Chinese restaurants. The two groups developed a longstanding symbiotic relationship that is manifested in Jewish cultural tradition to this day.
Once big cities accepted Chinese food as palatable (and realized that no rats were harmed in the preparation of their dinner), the cuisine took hold nationally. The food was only heightened in appeal when President Nixon made his famous trip to China in 1972. His wary but determined consumption of a traditional Chinese feast—chopsticks and all—was viewed by millions of Americans. This was the final push necessary for the general populace to understand the appealing nature of Chinese cuisine. And Nixon's visit was a turning point in American-Chinese political relations. By heartily enjoying his dim sum, the President changed the face of the culinary and economic landscape of the country.
Coe does a good job of detailing the compromises and changes made by the Chinese to their food upon arrival in the States. American tastes never did quite adjust to the unusual ingredients and spices used in some Chinese dishes, and Coe notes in his conclusion that to this day "if you don't see any immigrants or their descendants at the tables [of an ethnic restaurant], then you know that American tastes will rule the meal." But today's adaptation of Chinese cuisine, specifically in big cities, is much closer to traditional fare than anything that would have been available at the turn of the last century.
This book is definitely a historical work. It is full of delicious tidbits about political tension, and quotes from the journals of the first travelers to China. I have read other works that have focused more on the cultural struggles experienced by this oppressed population, and on the restaurant culture of the Chinese. But this book provides valuable insight into the intricacies of global politics, and how food can build bridges between even the most staunchly opposed world leaders. And it is always fascinating to read about the origins of dishes seen on menus across the country—and to learn that we may not know as much about this familiar cuisine as our consumption habits would suggest.