- Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America by Yong Chen
The taproots of the culinary turn have dug deep into the rich aquifers of Asian American studies. The past decade saw the sprouts, then the fruits, and then the feasts of this emerging field. Scholars and public communicators alike dine together at the table of food studies, problematizing mythologies that are part and parcel of food’s affective and intellectual experience. Hand in hand, critical works on food from all practitioners seek to explain the historical, cultural, and synesthetic dimensions of how, what, and why we eat.
But in some dazzling instances, food scholarship and public writing are wrought from the same hand. In clear, warm prose, Yong Chen offers a broad and welcoming look into the modern history of Chinese food in the United States. Rejecting exclusively sensory claims to the cuisine’s proliferation, he shows how the popularity of Chinese cuisine stems from the growth of the United States as an empire, reaching across histories of nationalism, migration, labor, and enterprise. With scholarly background at the nexus of local and transnational Chinese American studies (particularly on San Francisco’s Chinese American history), Chen’s latest contribution to Asian American studies broadens his transnational and temporal scope to the entire spectrum of the community’s migration across the nation, from the Gold Rush to the present. The fine eye to local studies is, refreshingly, not lost. Local community dynamics are principal characters in Chen’s work, and his object of study is, perhaps, the most locally experienced subject of all: food.
American Chinese food is the product of the interlocution between Chinese cooking and American consumption. In exploring the collusion of these two critical components of the cuisine’s formation, Chen begins with a search for the factors that might account for the “quiet but revolutionary change that enriched America’s palate” (1). In the first two chapters, he deconstructs provisional reasons for Chinese food’s popularity, especially the optimism of Chinese [End Page 431] food’s gastronomic merit and theories of cultural transnationalization (chap. 1, 20). Chen contends that Chinese American food is “empire food,” permeating the fabric of American foodways by means of domestic consumption and imperial expansion, resulting in the cuisine’s ubiquity and affordability (chap. 2, 21). Chinese cooks are then situated as constitutive of America’s empire-making, catering to the “needs of empire” through domestic service (chap. 3, 45). The arrival of Chinese food into the West Coast exemplified what would define the specific cultural node that Chinese cooks occupied: their handiwork glorified and their hands demonized (chap. 4, 85). In explaining the rise of Chinese restaurants, Chen argues that Chinatown tourism—as a site of both abjection and fascination—set the tone for the Orientalist relationship between white consumers and Chinese laborers that would foreground the nature of Chinese restaurants and their popularity (chap. 5, 100).
American Chinese food—as it developed according to the sensory and cultural encounters constitutive of the migrant experience—would take shape from interethnic encounters. Chen provisionally highlights the African American connection through chop suey and mutual racial violence, but indicates that this encounter requires further study (chap. 6, 111). Of the Jewish-Chinese exchange, Chen reflects on his relationship with Jewish Americans through food, in dialogue with a historical survey of the Jewish “love affair” for the cuisine. Chinese food for Jewish Americans was a mode of rebellion against strict kosher rules, and then permeated family dinners and Jewish cookbooks (chap. 6, 112). Chop suey and the foods that would constitute Chinese American cuisine were born from affordability, as opposed to Chinese haute cuisine for which Americans did not develop a taste. From the spirit of chop suey, which has largely disappeared from restaurants in the West Coast as a popular food, other distinctly Chinese American dishes would appear, such as orange chicken, General Tso’s chicken, and sweet and sour dishes (chap. 7, 147).
The book concludes with a...