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

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

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

In 1784, passengers on the ship Empress of China became the first Americans to land in China, and the first to eat Chinese food. Today there are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the United States–by far the most plentiful among all our ethnic eateries. Now, in Chop Suey Andrew Coe provides the authoritative history of the American infatuation with Chinese food, telling its fascinating story for the first time.
It’s a tale that moves from curiosity to disgust and then desire. Fr

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3 thoughts on “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States”

  1. 27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Much more informative than I expected, July 20, 2009
    By 
    oldtaku (San Diego, CA United States) –

    Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program (What’s this?)

    I have to admit that from the cover I expected a fluffy but entertaining book in the style of _Eat My Globe_ but I actually got a lot more than that. This is a fact dense book, well researched.

    The book opens with the new country of America sending its first ambassador (actually a merchant, which is very apropos on both sides) to China. It then diverges into a brief history of Chinese food in China – and Coe does a marvelous job of editing here, considering it’s over 10,000 years of history and at least four major regions, each with their own sub-regions with their own culinary traditions.

    Then back to the US, where Chinese restaurants arrived in the 1850s to feed all the Chinese people who’d come over looking for the mountains of gold. Americans never really developed a taste for the food till the 1900s, at which point it had become bland and homogenized enough to appeal to our whitebread tastes. Finally we go through the Jewish-Chinese food boom, the revitalization after WW2, Nixon’s re-opening of China, and the state we’re in today. The book ends with the happy yet sad state of affairs that you can get real Chinese food in the US if you know where to look, but most of it is still neutered to what we find acceptable – but we do that to all cuisines.

    Unfortunately the history of Chinese people in the US is also the history of racism, so you will feel very uncomfortable about some of the quoted newspaper articles and accounts which are sprinkled with racial slurs and provincial attitudes – and not just about Chinese. Coe commendably reprints these without any squeamishness, as they’re crucial to understanding American attitudes towards China.

    Since the facts are so dense and interesting on their own, Coe doesn’t really try to spice them up or breathlessly embroider them. The humor is very dry and low key – such as the tale of the socialite who scandalized society by her night trips to Chinatown to satiate her forbidden lust for… noodles. This means that if you’re looking for something like _Kitchen Confidential_ you won’t find it here. This makes it more informative, but if you need the stream of information rationed out and tarted up you’ll be bored.

    You’ll find several bits of Chinese food trivia (and misinformation) covered here, such as where General Tso’s chicken came from, the persistent notion that Chinese will eat anything (yes but no), and as promised by the title page, the history of Chop Suey.

    All in all, I liked it quite a bit and blew threw it in two nights. This was much denser than I expected – it obviously skips a lot of detail in places, but it still ends up at 320 pages of fascinating overview with selected digressions, and he does give you a list of references if you’re hungry for more.

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  2. 20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    Possibly Mismarketed, October 22, 2009
    By 
    E. A. Montgomery (Florida, USA) –
    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)
      
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    Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program (What’s this?)

    I have often been told that if you have not traveled to China, then (as an American) you have never eaten Chinese food. I expected Chop Suey to be a foodie book about the evolution of the way food is prepared in China to the way it is served in our Chinese eateries. Chop Suey bills itself as “A Cultural History Of Chinese Food In The United States”. It’s really more of a history of how America has viewed the Chinese. It is not until a hundred pages or so in that the details of Chinese cuisine come into play. Prior to that, the book is a history of the China / American trade and a limited look at propaganda produced from those early voyages. There is a report here or there about the Americans being offered a meal they could not appreciate, but the primary focus is on the bigotry between the two.

    From that point Chop Suey moves into the exploitation of early Chinese immigrants, the extreme racism they faced, and how they tried to hold on to their culture and cuisine in the face of it. Along the way many found jobs as cooks or opened fast food counters trying to prepare a food that met the expectations and tastes of their customers. Since those expectations were rooted in post colonial bias, the food that resulted bore little relation to what the Chinese ate at home. Moving into kosher Chinese food and eventually to Nixon’s visit to China, Chop Suey continues to be a history of Chinese American relations with food as the tie and excuse for the journey. The murder of a young woman has little bearing on Chinese food as we know it, but such side trips relate to what seems to have been the author’s real intention, exposing how racism kept our palates from a true cultural exchange.

    There is a wealth of information in Chop Suey. The flaw of the book is that it doesn’t match one’s expectations. After those expectations are adjusted, it’s a somewhat disjointed bundle of information without an overriding point of view to carry the reader along. It’s like listening to someone go on at length about a topic they’ve studied in depth and become and expert on without them engaging your interest as well. This is a heavier read than it appears, and likely to thrill those who want to take a quick course in the topic while losing those just looking for a weekend jaunt.

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  3. 7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Great read as history, good read for a foodie, July 26, 2009
    By 
    T. Simons (Columbia, SC United States) –
    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)
      
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    Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program (What’s this?)

    There are two groups of people I can see wanting to read this book: people interested in history, and people interested in food. This book is a great niche resource for historians or history lovers and a good read for foodies.

    The history side of the book is great because the author manages the difficult trick of presenting richly detailed history in a way that’s accessible to a normal reader — the author has very clearly done his research, and he presents an immense number of excerpts from first-hand accounts of meals eaten by everyone from 1800’s San Francisco workmen to Jazz Age New York socialites “slumming it” in Chinatown. (My personal favorite was his account of a 1950’s-era _Mad Magazine_ comic strip on dinner in a chinese restaurant that I could dimly remember reading myself as a child). It never gets dry or boring, though, perhaps because food is so inextricably tied into so many other issues — culture, race, class; immigration, poverty, and the changing of social mores over time — and the author does a great job of tying all those things into the tale. When he describes the plight of a hostess in Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 novel _Main Street_ who throws a chinese-themed party that none of the guests in her rural Minnesota town can appreciate, or the development of Nixon’s love for chinese food (from secretly packing pepperidge farm bread and frozen hamburgers onto Air Force One during his China visit, to later frequently patronizing select New York chinese restaurants), the reader gets an excellent picture of how America gradually came to accept and appreciate chinese food.

    The author doesn’t just spout an excess of facts; he expertly uses his extensive background research to effectively tell his story. As history, and as cultural history, this book is almost impeccable.

    As a food book, it’s also pretty good, but it’s less compelling, primarily because it includes almost no recipes at all. The author will spend a whole chapter talking about Chop Suey, for example, from its origins to modern versions, but the closest thing to a recipe in the whole chapter was an excerpt from a 1920’s _New York Home Journal_ article. Similarly, I was immensely interested to find out the true history of General Tso’s Chicken, but I would have liked something closer to a detailed recipe than the quick description provided (“dark meat chicken marinated in egg whites and soy sauce . . . quickly deep fried, [then] stir-fried with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, cornstarch, sesame oil, and dried chili peppers.”) Give me proportions and times and temperatures! If I’ve read a whole book on the history of chinese food, there’s decent odds I’d want to try replicating some historical recipes myself; the failure to include more detailed, complete recipes strikes me as a missed opportunity.

    All in all, this is a neat read, and I’d strongly recommend it to both the lover of cultural history and the lover of food; but moreso to the former than to the latter.

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