Sunday, December 20, 2009

Chop Suey

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States Andrew Coe

Coe attempts to explain how Chinese food in the States evolved over time from what was solely eaten by Chinese immigrants to what we know today from our local take-out place.

Coe is a food guy, not a China guy, and there are some China-things that he just gets wrong that drove me up a wall. Such as inconsistent transliteration. I'm also not sure he realizes that Nanjing and Nanking are two different transliterations of the same city (南京) instead of two different cities. More disturbing is the fact that some of the history is off. Most glaringly, on page 232, "After Mao's death, they [Shanghai party leaders] would become key members of the radical Communist group known as the Gang of Four." The Gang of Four were blamed for most the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and they were all arrested within a month of Mao's death, so I'm not entirely sure how you could become a key member after the death of Mao.

There are other odd inconsistencies. Coe attributes the acceptance of the Chinese restaurant by "main stream" America on Prohibition, because Chinese restaurants often had player pianos and dance floors but had never served alcohol so weren't affected by the loss of sales like many other establishments, but two pages later (1/2 of which is taken up by a picture) he says, "These restaurant owners were all two aware that they weren't selling caviar and champagne, but chop suey, ham and cheese sandwiches, and the like--food everybody liked by nobody wanted to spend much money on. The real profits were in volume and in liquor; the businessmen rented the largest possible spaces and featured a wide array of exotic cocktails on their menus." (191)

Such errors throw the rest of the book into doubt, especially as Coe makes some big claims in the history of Chinese food, such as the history of Chop Suey. The story I always heard was that it was invented in San Fransisco's China town. Coe claims that the main urban legend is that visiting dignitary Li Hongzhang introduced it to the US on his 1896 visit. Coe asserts that in fact Chop Suey was common peasant food in Toishan and brought to the States by gold rush immigrants. Because it was southern peasant food, it wasn't recognized as authentically Chinese by later immigrants who came from better off backgrounds and points further north. It's an interesting theory that I would like to explore more, but Coe did not convince me. The history-of-Chop Suey section came before the errors I mention above, but I remained unconvinced, a feeling that was thrown into sharper relief as the book wore on.

If you're interested in the history of American Chinese food, read The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8 Lee. If you want to know more about Chinese immigration to the US and the issues surrounding that, read Iris Chang's The Chinese in America: A Narrative History.

Book Provided by... my local library

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