Chinese food is one of the most popular cuisines, if not the favorite, in the United States today. It would surprise many, however, to learn that thisChinese food is one of the most popular cuisines, if not the favorite, in the United States today. It would surprise many, however, to learn that this high acceptance did not occur until sometime after the 1960s. From the mid 19th century, Chinese immigrants, and their foods, were viewed with scorn and ridicule for many decades. In “Chop Suey, USA,” Yong Chen, a historian with interests in the relationship of food and culture, examines the factors responsible for this amazing transformation over the past century and a half.
As with chop suey, the iconic yet lowly dish that was once the most popular restaurant item of non-Chinese patrons, Chen’s book is a delicious stir-fry that blends many ingredients, historical, cultural, economic, and socio-political seasoned with some intriguing personal observations. Chen’s account of the growth and changes in the Chinese restaurant business involves a more nuanced view than the assumption that gastronomy, or superior taste, of Chinese food was the primary cause. On the contrary, Chen notes that relatively simple and inexpensive dishes such as chop suey and chow mein, not the haute cuisine of shark fins and other delicacies, fueled the growth of Chinese restaurants. Throughout the book, Chen explains how factors other than taste of Chinese food played important roles in the success of Chinese restaurants.
Relegated initially to feminized or domestic work by racial prejudices, early Chinese immigrants, almost all men, made their living running laundries and then small restaurants. As Chen pointed out, many Chinese who opened restaurants did not actually know how to cook before leaving China, but once here they quickly acquired minimal skills to survive by running a restaurant. Before opening restaurants, some had learned to cook while working as a house servant for white families. Even though their repertoire would have consisted of American dishes, this experience was invaluable as the menu of Chinese restaurants in areas where there were few Chinese actually contained mostly American and only a few Chinese dishes.
The earliest Chinese restaurants located in the Chinatowns of America were not intended to serve the appetites of non-Chinese customers. They served dishes which were unappealing to non-Chinese but were popular with Chinese immigrants who lived in or frequented Chinatowns. These cafes not only served their need for familiar foods but also facilitated cultural ties and social contact among Chinese. When Chinese eventually moved into regions with non-Chinese patrons, mostly from underprivileged groups than from the upper echelons of society, success of their restaurants involved a combination of factors.
Growth of the middle class which had a consumption-oriented outlook, especially as the nation moved from a rural to an urban society, led to an increased demand for restaurants where people who could afford it could pay others to prepare their meals. Chinese restaurants succeeded in places across the country where there were few, if any, Chinese residents because they had low prices, adapted their recipes to satisfy the palates of non-Chinese, offered delivery and takeout service, had kitchens visible to customers, provided dance floors in the dining room, and promoted their food with good public relations by inviting white civic leaders to banquets. Further promotion of awareness and interest in Chinese food among the general population since the 1960s occurred with the proliferation of Chinese cookbooks.
Chop Suey, USA, offers a lively and informed discussion of the role of numerous factors that fostered the development of the Chinese restaurant in America that is thoroughly documented with extensive footnotes and bibliographic citations of popular and scholarly sources. it is a welcome and valuable resource for learning more about the complex interplay between food, culture, society, and history....more