Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chop Suey and Chinese History

"On a frigid morning in February 1784, the Empress of China set sail from New York harbor." So begins Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States by Andrew Coe. Although the title stresses Chinese food as the book's subject matter, this becomes the dominant theme only in the second half of the book.

The first half of Chop Suey gives a fascinating account of the interaction between the US and China during the early years of our country, beginning with the commercial voyage of the ship Empress of China. After a six-month trip, the ship reached the Pearl River and sailed past Chinese villages to the city of Guangzhou, also known as Canton. Thus began trade relations between representatives of the brand-new country (still goverened by the Articles of Confederation) and the world's oldest (governed by an Emperor who never gave audiences to foreigners).

Coe continues by documenting both American adventures in China (mainly by merchants and missionaries) and Chinese immigrant experiences in the ever-expanding USA and its western territories. Chinese labor contributed to gold mining, silver mining, railroad building, and many other activities in the West, and then Chinese joined the stream of immigrants coming into New York and other cities of the East and the Midwest. All kinds of prejudice, bigotry, and sometimes outright violence victimized Chinese workers and businessmen.

American fears of the foreign elements of Chinese culture often were expressed as conviction that Chinese people ate horrifying foods: rats, frogs, mice, cats, dogs and so on. Despite all the fears, some Americans began to try the food available in Chinatowns and Chinese neighborhoods. After the fascinating account of the early days of Chinese-American interaction, Coe gets to the point: Chop Suey was a type of Chinese dish that Americans began to try in the middle years of the nineteenth century; it became popular with Americans, and also became somewhat Americanized to please the less adventurous among them. It was frequently mentioned (with varying spelling) in stories about Chinese restaurants of the era -- for example, Coe cites a story in the Boston Daily Globe from 1891 calling one restaurant's "chop sui" very palatable.

KEY POINT: The later impression Chop Suey it was invented in American restaurants or by Americanized chefs for the visit of a particular Chinese diplomat named Li Hongzhang in 1896 is no more than an urban legend!
The idea that chop suey was either completely not Chinese or that it was based on a "beggars' hash" made from odds and ends was part of what Coe calls the "chop suey hoax."

The popularity of chop suey lasted a long time, and made its way into American home cooking with canned and instant ingredients from La Choy company and other agribusiness sources. Coe traces the rise of more varied Chinese restaurants with wider roots in the many cuisines of China. The book is rich with a variety of information on both Chinese and American food history, as well as other history -- notably a detailed account of Nixon's trip to China and how Chinese state banquets played a role in the historic reconciliation of America and China.

Just as I felt when I read my favorite Chinese food book -- The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee -- I feel as if I'd really like some Chinese food. Especially duck!

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