A few days ago I talked with Andrew Coe about his recently published book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. Coe has created a scholarly work with extensive research and fascinating findings, enlivened by entertaining narratives and anecdotes. Yesterday I posted my impressions and reactions to some of the findings in the book, today I’d like to share with you highlights of my conversation with him.
As a food writer you have written about many kinds of food. What inspired you to write a book about Chinese food in America?
I was inspired by the great gulf between the Chinese-American food I tried so hard to avoid during my childhood and the kind of delicious eating experiences that I’ve discovered in New York’s Chinatown. Specifically, I once saw a photo of Chinatown during the 1940s, when all the restaurants had big “CHOP SUEY” signs on them. I asked myself, what happened to chop suey? That turned into an article, which snowballed into this book.
In a February 2008 editorial in the New York Times, Fred Ferretti suggested that one of the reasons Chinese food in America is not more sophisticated is because it was based on “survival” cooking of the male dominated 19th century Chinese laborers. Yet throughout your book you mention great chefs capable of offering authentic Chinese food to the Chinese merchants and traders of the period. Do you agree with Ferretti’s assessment?
I have a slightly different take on why Chinese-American food developed in such a distinctive, and mediocre, manner. While researching my book, I discovered that great Chinese chefs adept in preparing Guangzhou-style Cantonese banquet food did work in the United States, particularly in San Francisco from the 1850s through the early 20th century. White Californians, who had incredible bias against Chinese, shunned these restaurants. Americans fell in love with Chinese food in 1880s and 1890s New York; the restaurants they favored didn’t serve Guangzhou banquet food but the simple dishes of Toishan in the Pearl River Delta. And then Chinese chefs discovered that they could attract even more non-Chinese eaters by adapting their dishes to western tastes. And that process of adaptation I think is at the heart of why dishes like chop suey and chow mein were so bland and, to the Chinese themselves, not representative of the Chinese culinary tradition. During the first half of the 20th century, restaurants were one of the few businesses that the Chinese could own and make a decent living at. Most Chinese chefs cooked not out of their love for food but just to survive.
Just like writers and journalists of the 19th century perpetuated the idea of Chinese eating mostly rats, cats and dogs, our modern media also sensationalized the exotic insects and lizards available at Beijing’s Wangfujing Night Market during the recent Olympic games. What can be done to change this biased media coverage?
That’s a hard one, except to teach in journalism school not to take the obvious course when researching an article. What I found interesting from my work was that cultural bias works in both directions: We thought Chinese cuisine impossible weird and exotic, while Chinese found many western food habits barbaric, like bringing great hunks of rare roast meat to the table and slicing them with sword-like knives. In some ideal world, journalists should acknowledge these biases and then lay them aside to ask: Why do they serve insects and lizards? Do they taste good? And then they should eat them.
Buwei Yang Chao introduced a very different view of cooking Chinese food to America in her book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. Why do you think the American public did not embrace her version of Chinese food but continued to enjoy Americanized chop suey?
I think Buwei Yang Chao’s excellent cookbook came from a little too far out in left field for the American masses to embrace it. But it did have an important influence on gourmets and food writers interested in Chinese food. For the first time, it gave them a vision of a Chinese meal not as a weird jumble of exotic dishes but as a coherent system and even world view, every bit as complicated and integrated as French haute cuisine. It encouraged these tastemakers to become more adventurous in their Chinese restaurant experiences and thus helped open the door to the more ambitious Chinese eateries like Johnny Kan’s in San Francisco and to the first Sichuan and “Northern” restaurants in New York.
General Tso’s Chicken became popular in the 1970’s after Hunan food was introduced to America. Do you think General Tso’s Chicken was an attempt to Americanize Hunan cooking just like Chop Suey was an attempt to Americanizes Toishan cooking?
When General Tso’s chicken first came to the United States in the early 1970s, it was a real Chinese dish, invented in the Hunan style by a Hunanese chef working in Taiwan. As General Tso’s became more popular, it spread from the restaurants of chefs trained in the Hunan style to eateries out in the suburbs and across the country where the staff didn’t have this training. Like chop suey, General Tso’s was adapted to American tastes, which by then were fixated on the same kind of crunchy, spicy, and sweet sensations that you can find in a McDonad’s Chicken McNugget. So yes, the General Tso’s served at tens of thousands of restaurants across the nation today is Americanized Hunan food. But back in Taiwan, you can still order General Tso’s in the original chef’s restaurant, without all that breading and gloppy sauce.
What do you think will it take to change the American dining public’s image of Chinese food as “cheap, filling, familiar and bland?
Short of a culture transplant, I don’t see any hope for much change on the horizon. The great revolutions in the American perception of Chinese food only happen rarely, like in late 19th century New York or in the 1970s after Nixon’s visit. For Americans to truly enjoy Chinese cuisine for what it is, they have to understand a very different attitude toward food, meals, social events, families, etc., etc. Considering that these attitudes go directly to the most basic building blocks of our social life, I think it’s unlikely.
Do you think there will ever be a market for authentic upscale Chinese food among non-Chinese Americans? Will Americans ever eagerly eat items such as shark’s fin, bird’s nest and sea cucumber?
For over a century, Americans have associated Chinese food with cheap food. In order to change that attitude, some restaurateur has to knock the socks off the foodie crowd and the foodie media with his or her outrageous, delicious, and wildly expensive Chinese food. Chefs have been trying ever since the 1850s, and this hasn’t happened yet. If you look at the historical record, Americans have eaten shark’s fin and bird’s nest and occasionally admitted to liking them. However, they have always drawn the line at sea cucumbers. (I like them occasionally, particularly Shanghai style with little shrimp eggs, but I can’t convince anyone else to order them.) One problem with their adoption is that they’re texture foods, eaten more for their consistency than flavor, and Americans don’t understand that as a culinary category. And today, of course, many people are worried about the ecological harm of killing sharks just for their fins and the over-harvesting of bird’s nests. I haven’t heard if sea cucumbers are endangered.
Would you consider yourself an adventurous eater? Are there any ingredients in Chinese cooking you just wouldn’t try?
In most cultures I’d be considered an adventurous eater: I’ve eaten live honey pot ants, loved them (they taste like sweet lime zest), and would try them again in a second. In the world of Chinese cuisine, I don’t like to eat cuttlefish, because I consider them such amazing creatures. I’m not sure what I would do if I were offered bear paw.
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Hi, Kian! What an interesting interview. Coe’s book sounds fascinating.