As you may have heard, we’re giving away a copy of Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. We spoke to the author about what drove him to write about Chinese food and our relationship, as Americans, to the cuisine.
The dish that the book gets its title from is hardly still served anywhere in the various Chinatowns of New York. Why did it become so popular in the first place?
Chop suey perfectly fit the tastes of Americans from the 1890s on. First of all, the dish was filling and cheap–you could buy a bowl for 30 cents. It was flavorsome, satisfying Americans’ tastes for rich meat and vegetable stews. Chop suey was exotic.
The United States was then stepping out from the shadow of England, beginning to exert its might around the world. At the same time, foreign immigrants were pouring into this country. Nothing could show that you were up-to-the-minute and worldly-wise like stepping out to the local Chinese restaurant for a late-night bowl of chop suey. And it was safe. Catering to their customers, Chinese chefs removed everything weird and imported from the dish, changing it from an earthy stir-fry to a bland, soggy, and overcooked stew.
When early Americans first tried Chinese food, they were disgusted, but still kept trying it. What do you think that says about us?
We’ve always been fascinated with weird food; witness all the television shows about culinary adventurers trekking once again to Thailand to eat insects. Between 1784 and 1885 or so, Americans liked to try Chinese food, just for the experience, but none of them admits to actually getting a taste for it. But then in 1880s New York City, something happened and we fell in love with Chinese food.
I think that event was incredibly unlikely due to the vast cultural and gustatory differences between the two countries. Why it happened is what my book is about. It was due to a combination of factors, including the perseverance of Chinese immigrants, the daring tastes of a group of 19th-century foodies, and our new interest in the outside world due to American expansionism.
Walking through Chinatown, you still hear occasional expressions of shock (mostly from tourists). What about Chinese food traditions scare us so much?
Despite our supposed sophistication, we still harbor a broad streak of culinary conservatism. We claim to love spicy foods, but the chili peppers in the supermarket are inert, and the wasabi served at many sushi restaurants has as much heat as Gulden’s “Spicy” Brown Mustard.
What disgusts some Americans about Chinese food today are the same things that disgusted us two centuries ago: weird ingredients like sea cucumbers and jelly fish and the possibility that dishes could contain meats from animals we consider pets or vermin, mainly dogs, cats, and rats.
What do you think is the worst bastardization of a Chinese dish?
In the vast majority of American Chinese restaurants, all roads converge on the deep-fried, crust-covered, brown-sauced meat dish. They could call it General Tso’s chicken or orange beef or whatever, but it’s all McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets to me.
You talk about Chinatown back when it had just two restaurants. What do you think New York’s Chinese food scene will look like 20 years from now?
What I hope is that immigrants will keep coming from more different parts of China, and that the best chefs among them will open restaurants serving the foods they know best. To paraphrase the Chairman, let a thousand eateries bloom!
However, world immigration trends are determined by politics and economics. And what’s sure is that if Chinese immigration is cut off due to a decrease in quotas or a worsening world economic slump, then the Chinese restaurant business will stagnate and the quality of the food–at least to my taste–will deteriorate. So write your congressman and senator today!
What’s your favorite Chinese dish?
The thought of confining myself to just one Chinese dish gives me the willies. However, I’d probably have to join the herd and say Peking duck. As they say in professional wrestling, it’s the total package. One surprise I had while researching the book was about chop suey. I’d always hated it, remembering the awful, MSG-drenched versions served in school dining halls. But in the hands of a competent chef, I discovered that chop suey can be… good.
For your chance to win a copy of Chop Suey, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of your favorite Chinese food joint in the city. Contest deadline is July 10 (tomorrow!) at noon. Winners will be chosen at random.