Chop Suey, USA

Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America

YONG CHEN
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/chen16892
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Chop Suey, USA
    Book Description:

    American diners began to flock to Chinese restaurants more than a century ago, making Chinese food the first mass-consumed cuisine in the United States. By 1980, it had become the country's most popular ethnic cuisine.Chop Suey, USAoffers the first comprehensive interpretation of the rise of Chinese food, revealing the forces that made it ubiquitous in the American gastronomic landscape and turned the country into an empire of consumption.

    Engineered by a politically disenfranchised, numerically small, and economically exploited group, Chinese food's tour de America is an epic story of global cultural encounter. It reflects not only changes in taste but also a growing appetite for a more leisurely lifestyle. Americans fell in love with Chinese food not because of its gastronomic excellence but because of its affordability and convenience, which is why they preferred the quick and simple dishes of China while shunning its haute cuisine. Epitomized by chop suey, American Chinese food was a forerunner of McDonald's, democratizing the once-exclusive dining-out experience for such groups as marginalized Anglos, African Americans, and Jews.

    The rise of Chinese food is also a classic American story of immigrant entrepreneurship and perseverance. Barred from many occupations, Chinese Americans successfully turned Chinese food from a despised cuisine into a dominant force in the restaurant market, creating a critical lifeline for their community. Chinese American restaurant workers developed the concept of the open kitchen and popularized the practice of home delivery. They streamlined certain Chinese dishes, such as chop suey and egg foo young, turning them into nationally recognized brand names.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53816-9
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Business, Asian Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface: THE GENESIS OF THE BOOK
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Introduction: CHOP SUEY, THE BIG MAC OF THE PRE-MCDONALD’S ERA
    (pp. 1-7)

    The rise of Chinese food in America’s gastronomical landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is one of the greatest epic stories of cultural exchange in world history. The arrival of Chinese food on American shores injected a refreshing air of diversity to a country long dominated by Anglo culinary monotony that many have lamented since the nineteenth century.¹ By 1980, Chinese food had become the country’s most popular ethnic cuisine. The spread of Chinese restaurants facilitated a quiet but revolutionary change that enriched America’s palate. More important, it marked the country’s socioeconomic transformation, turning dining out into...

  6. 1 WHY IS CHINESE FOOD SO POPULAR?
    (pp. 8-20)

    This is the question that unavoidably arises from the ubiquity of Chinese food in the United States, but it is not a question that can be answered purely in gastronomical terms. Rather, the reasons for the migration of Chinese food from China to Chinatown to non-Chinese neighborhoods and eventually to the suburbs are found not in the merits of Chinese food as a cuisine but in the conditions of global labor and capital markets, changes in the American economy and consumption patterns, and demographic and occupational transformation of Chinese America.

    The pervasiveness of Chinese food in American public consumption has...

  7. 2 THE EMPIRE AND EMPIRE FOOD
    (pp. 21-43)

    “The Chinese are here by the order of Providence, the principles of the Declaration, and the provisions of treaty,” proclaimed the Reverend M. C. Briggs in 1876.¹ So was Chinese food—it was carried to the American shores and palate by the same forces that generated Chinese immigration and transformed the United States into an empire.

    The spread of Chinese food was inseparably connected to the geographic and socioeconomic expansion of the United States. This connection is best captured by the notion of “empire food,” which was created in the process of empire building for the pleasures of its citizens....

  8. 3 CHINESE COOKS AS STEWARDS OF EMPIRE
    (pp. 44-70)

    These lines are from the diary of Ah Quin on March 12, 1878, when he worked as a cook for a mining company on a small island in Alaska. For Ah Quin, thirty years old, nearly six feet tall and skinny, weighing no more than 130 pounds, this was a fairly typical day during his time in Alaska from 1877 to 1878. The hardworking man got up very early in the morning, and no matter how tired he was, he would always fi nd time to read the Bible and write a diary entry every day—a habit he kept...

  9. 4 THE CRADLE OF CHINESE FOOD
    (pp. 71-91)

    In 1991, my wife and I moved to southern California. After living for six years in the small town of Ithaca in upstate New York, the first question I asked was how to get to Little Taipei, the nickname of Monterey Park among the Chinese: I had heard so much about the good Chinese food there. A friend offered me a simple instruction. Go north on Interstate 405 to I-710; take I-10 east; roll down your window, and then just follow the smell. We took the advice. As we exited I-10 at Atlantic Boulevard and headed south, a familiar aroma...

  10. 5 THE RISE OF CHINESE RESTAURANTS
    (pp. 92-101)

    “It has taken the American public a long time to swallow its chop suey,” noted a reporter in 1908 on the mounting popularity of Chinese food in America.¹ Indeed, it had been largely shunned by American consumers for almost fifty years after its initial landing in California. This dramatic turn of events for Chinese cooking came as a result of two new developments: (1) a profound demographic and socioeconomic transformation of Chinese America, and (2) the extraordinary expansion of the American economy. At the conjunction of these developments is Chinatown’s metamorphosis from a target of intense racial hatred to a...

  11. 6 THE MAKERS OF AMERICAN CHINESE FOOD
    (pp. 102-125)

    Panda Drive in Huntington Beach was one of the first independently owned drive-through Chinese restaurants in California. After its brief initial success, however, business slid sharply. In the summer of 2004, its owner invited me to work with her to revamp the establishment. But the efforts to bring customers back were too late, and the restaurant eventually folded along with an otherwise refreshing food-business concept. I learned an important lesson firsthand: the creation of a successful restaurant hinges on the negotiations between the restaurateur and the clientele, and small-operation restaurants, in particular, must provide the kind of food and service...

  12. 7 “CHINESE-AMERICAN CUISINE” AND THE AUTHENTICITY OF CHOP SUEY
    (pp. 126-152)

    For contemporary non-Chinese observers and diners, the appeal of Chinese food stemmed from its inexpensive prices and its convenience, due to Chinese restaurants’ long hours of operation and speedy delivery. This type of food was also what non-Chinese consumers expected of Chinese restaurants. Such expectations reflected their clear choice between two kinds of Chinese food that were made available to them: the simple and inexpensive dishes like chop suey, and China’s haute cuisine featuring delicacies like shark’s fins. The prevalence of the former in the multiplying Chinese restaurants reminds us that the rise of Chinese food performed a social service...

  13. 8 THE CHINESE BRILLAT-SAVARIN
    (pp. 153-172)

    Cookbooks tell stories, and so it is fitting to begin this chapter on Chinese cookbooks with a cookbook story.

    A few years ago, after learning about my research, my mother showed me her modest cookbook collection. One, in a blue plastic cover, immediately caught my eye. As I opened the book, a few pieces of paper—handwritten recipes and foodration coupons—slipped out from between the pages, resurfacing from an increasingly distant past.

    It was one of the first few cookbooks I had seen my mother use. She got it in the early 1970s, when we had our first real...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. Conclusion: THE HOME OF NO RETURN
    (pp. 173-181)

    This book began with my first arrival in the New World from China in 1985. Now I fast-forward to 1997, when I returned to my homeland after a twelveyear odyssey in the United States. Reminding us that “home” helps individuals relate to the larger world, the scholar Aviezer Tucker writes: “Home is the reflection of our subjectivity in the world.”¹ Indeed, my long-awaited homecoming not only brought back previous memories but also was a moment of new revelations about the meanings of Chinese food, the “home” that food signified, and the geo-economic order in the modern Pacific world that predicated...

  16. Afterword: WHY STUDY FOOD?
    (pp. 182-188)

    In recent years, studies of food have proliferated and are reaching increasingly large audiences. This is in part because of the participation of popular writers and public intellectuals, who have extensive experience in writing for the general public. Written in lucid prose, their work tends to focus strategically on common individual foodstuffs;¹ some of them provocatively engage with fundamental socioeconomic, cultural, and moral matters that concern the well-being of society and individuals.² Many scholars have also adopted the approach of addressing large issues through the lens of a singular food item or system.³

    There has been a marked increase in...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 189-246)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-276)
  19. Index
    (pp. 277-292)