The roots of America's fascination with Chinese food can be traced back as far as the late 1700s, when the United States was the youngest country in the world and China one of the oldest. In Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Andrew Coe chronicles the on and off again love affair between Americans and Chinese cuisine.
The book opens with American ginseng traders being introduced to China’s culinary traditions in Gangzhou (while confined within a twelve acre compound specifically built to house foreigners), and ends with President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China. Along the way, Coe chronicles how Chinese cuisine gained a toehold on both coasts in the 19th century, and the gradual acceptance of Chinese food in Middle America, with the accompanying Americanization of popular dishes.
Americans and Chinese Cuisine – An On-Again, Off-Again Love Affair
The history of Chinese cuisine as related by Coe has both its high and low points. The Gold Rush meant that San Francisco was populated with single men without wives to cook for them and a ready supply of cash. Chinese restaurants met their needs by providing both Chinese and western dishes at low prices. Meanwhile, the more culinarily adventurous among San Francisco's elite were organizing elaborate banquets, where guests sampled everything from stewed chicken with watercress to bird’s nest soup. Later, Coe relates, economic competition among miners brought underlying racial tensions to the surface, including culinary prejudice against food with "the same taste of nut oil sicklied over all…" (p. 126). Nonetheless, the toehold the Chinese had gained in San Francisco and California did not disappear – Chinese restaurants, farms, and grocery stores flourished. Later, many Chinese who worked on the railroads settled in the Midwest, bringing their culinary traditions with them. On the East Coast, by the mid-1880s, more adventurous members of New York's Bohemian set were venturing onto Mott Street in Chinatown to sample authentic Chinese dishes.
From these early days, Coe chronicles the gradual acceptance of Chinese food – adapted to suit western tastes – in Middle America. He explores how Chinese food went from being a national fad in its heyday, to its declining popularity as what had once seemed exotic became commonplace, and finally the resurrection of Chinese restaurants as a new wave of immigrants encouraged customers to look beyond popular Chinese-American dishes.
Along the way, Coe provides interesting tidbits, such as the origin of Jewish Americans' love of Chinese food, and how a young socialite scandalized upper class Californians by making nightly forays into Chinatown to satisfy a craving for noodles. And, given the title of the book, it's not surprising that Coe includes a recipe for this quintessential comfort dish, published in 1910 and made with hamburger steak and tomatoes.
What About Chop Suey?
We’ve all heard the story of how chop suey was invented in the 1890s by the chef of a visiting Chinese dignitary. But Coe points out that chop suey was probably introduced to North America during the Gold Rush Era, as Chinese immigrants from the Pearl River Delta area in South China were lured to California (along with thousands the world over) by the promise of easy wealth. The earthy dish served to early settlers bears little resemblance to Chop Suey as we know it today - a rather bland mixture of overcooked vegetables with meat or chicken in a starchy sauce. Coe quotes an 1884 article by a Chinese newspaper editor, Wong Ching Foo, describing a typical dish of Chop Suey available to discriminating customers who knew which restaurants to frequent in New York’s Chinatown:
"The main features of it are pork, bacon, chickens, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, onion and pepper…accidental ingredients are duck, beef, perfumed turnip, salted black beans, sliced yam, peas and string beans." (Chop Suey, pp. 154 – 155).
By the time Chop Suey's popularity reached its height in the early to mid-1900s, it had been transformed to appeal to suburban tastes. It inevitably fell out of favor as American palates became more sophisticated and diners turned to Szechuan and other Chinese regional cuisines.
The Bottom Line
The book's title says it all. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States is a serious anthropological work. Readers looking for a collection of recipes, with interesting anecdotes about the origins of each dish, will be disappointed. Instead, the book provides a serious look at the history of America's love affair with one of the world’s oldest cuisines, and how we've adapted it to western tastes with our demand for Chinese food that is "cheap, familiar, filling and bland." (p. 251).