Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America

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American diners began to flock to Chinese restaurants more than a century ago, making Chinese food the first mass-consumed cuisine in the United States. By 1980, it had become the country's most popular ethnic cuisine. Chop Suey, USA offers the first comprehensive interpretation of the rise of Chinese food, revealing the forces that made it ubiquitous in the American gastronomic landscape and turned the country into an empire of consumption.

Engineered by a politically ...

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Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America

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American diners began to flock to Chinese restaurants more than a century ago, making Chinese food the first mass-consumed cuisine in the United States. By 1980, it had become the country's most popular ethnic cuisine. Chop Suey, USA offers the first comprehensive interpretation of the rise of Chinese food, revealing the forces that made it ubiquitous in the American gastronomic landscape and turned the country into an empire of consumption.

Engineered by a politically disenfranchised, numerically small, and economically exploited group, Chinese food's tour de America is an epic story of global cultural encounter. It reflects not only changes in taste but also a growing appetite for a more leisurely lifestyle. Americans fell in love with Chinese food not because of its gastronomic excellence but because of its affordability and convenience, which is why they preferred the quick and simple dishes of China while shunning its haute cuisine. Epitomized by chop suey, American Chinese food was a forerunner of McDonald's, democratizing the once-exclusive dining-out experience for such groups as marginalized Anglos, African Americans, and Jews.

The rise of Chinese food is also a classic American story of immigrant entrepreneurship and perseverance. Barred from many occupations, Chinese Americans successfully turned Chinese food from a despised cuisine into a dominant force in the restaurant market, creating a critical lifeline for their community. Chinese American restaurant workers developed the concept of the open kitchen and popularized the practice of home delivery. They streamlined certain Chinese dishes, such as chop suey and egg foo young, turning them into nationally recognized brand names.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Chen's decades-in-the-making sociological history of Chinese food in the U.S. is both a thoroughly researched and reported academic work and an engaging popular history. An associate professor of history at UC-Irvine, Chen vividly recounts the Western adoption of Chinese food; the Chinese "mastery of Western cooking" with dishes like gumbo (recipe also provided); the emergence of Chinese-American communities; and the arrival of Chinese food in the 1850s. "Their experience was not simply a food story but a highly political one that intersected with the cultural and socioeconomic currents in the fast changing city," he writes, using the food narrative, as he does throughout, to raise larger questions about community, identity, class, and globalization. As Chen points out:"Chinese restaurants rose to serve cheap food largely to underprivileged American consumers. Coming to China a century later, however, American fast food became an important part of the lifestyle of young and affluent consumers." His overall aim, to make the study of food an "exciting intellectual endeavor," adds up to a excellent cultural history. (Oct.)
Gordon H. Chang
Food is not just about sustenance and taste. It is also about culture, economics, race, and identity. This is made abundantly clear in this fascinating account of the history of Chinese food in America. Chop Suey, USA is a wonderful American story, and a tasty one at that!
Reading Yong Chen's new book… is an education. In some ways, it seems more like an encyclopedia or a peak into the brain of a man who has read and retained an almost overwhelming number of books… Readers can learn much from Chen's in depth analysis and framing.
This well-researched book comes with seventy-eight pages of notes and a thirty-one page bibliography. It is seasoned with interested recipes, most of them chosen for their personal significance… An exciting intellectual endeavor.
Jeffrey Pilcher
A thoroughly researched, highly readable account of the development of Chinese American food, this book fills important gaps in the literature of ethnic and food studies, while incorporating an appealing personal memoir into the narrative.
Hasia Diner
Well organized and breathtakingly broad in its geographic scope, Chop Suey, USA is an utterly original and significant contribution to the field. Yong Chen has done a superb job. No one has attempted anything like this.
Library Journal
Chen (A Gift) documents Chinese cuisine in American culture, considering such themes as cultural identity, entrepreneurship, adaptation, integration, and "the homeland." The author weaves his own story of immigration, including memories of food and family, and his experience of American Chinese cuisine, with a historical narrative pursuing a concept of United States as empire and the role of Chinese food as "Empire food." He explains that consumption is "a significant goal and consequence of empire building," and combined with ubiquity and economic accessibility has furthered the popularity of Chinese food in the United States. Chen further contrasts the 1800s, when Chinese cooks and domestic servants commonly prepared "American" foods, to the present, when Chinese restaurants offer an array of traditional dishes as well as consciously American adaptations—General Tso's chicken, for example. Recipes are interspersed throughout the text, which has extensive notes together with an index and bibliography. VERDICT This thoroughly researched, yet personal, volume will be of interest to food historians and anyone with a deep interest in Chinese American culture.—Courtney Greene McDonald, Indiana Univ. Libs., Bloomington
Kirkus Reviews
Chen (History/Univ. of California, Irvine; Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community, 2000) shows how enterprising immigrants turned Chinese food, reviled by 19th-century Americans, into one of the country's favorite ethnic meals.Although there are a few recipes included, the book is more a socioeconomic/cultural study than a culinary one. The author, who grew up in China and came to America in the mid-1980s, shows how the intersection of Chinese immigration and America's habits of consumption incubated a thriving restaurant culture. When Chinese men came without their families to seek their fortunes during the mid-19th-century gold rush, they faced racism and isolation. Driven out of mining and railroad jobs by hostile white workers, many became cooks and servants. Paradoxically, white middle-class families sought Chinese domestic workers for their work ethic, reliability and loyalty. Even low-income households could afford a Chinese servant, who learned to cook American fare, relieving the housewife of kitchen duties. Ostracized by white society, Chinese men lived in enclaves, forerunners of Chinatowns in large cities, and restaurants emerged to serve these communities and others on the margins of society. With cheap, plentiful, good food, these establishments "played a vital role in the democratization of consumption," making eating out an affordable experience for all. In one of the most arresting sections of the book, Chen explains the unique social history connecting Chinese food and African-American and Jewish cultures. The author's prose style is more slow cooking than spicy stir-fry, but his passion for the subject carries readers through the dry spots. Dipping into culinary concerns with chapters on "authentic" Chinese cuisine and cookbooks, he also delivers a perceptive view of an America built on abundance and consumption. A well-researched study of Chinese-American food, the people who brought it to our neighborhoods and how Americans grew to love it.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Yong Chen, raised by his food-loving mother in China, is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and served as the institution's associate dean of graduate studies. Among his numerous publications are Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community. He co-curated a museum exhibit on the history of Chinese restaurants in the United States, and his commentaries on food, immigration, and Sino-American relations appear frequently in the media in four languages.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Preface: The Genesis of the BookAcknowledgmentsIntroduction: Chop Suey, the Big Mac of the Pre-McDonald's Era1. Why Is Chinese Food So Popular? 2. The Empire and Empire Food3. Chinese Cooks as Stewards of Empire4. The Cradle of Chinese Food5. The Rise of Chinese Restaurants6. The Makers of American Chinese Food7. "Chinese-American Cuisine" and the Authenticity of Chop Suey8. The Chinese Brillat-SavarinConclusion: The Home of No ReturnAfterword: Why Study Food? Notes Bibliography Index

Columbia University Press

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