Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in America

By Hsiao, Li-ling | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in America


Hsiao, Li-ling, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xiii + 303 pages.

The search for good, authentic Chinese food is more challenging than ever as Chinese buffets continue to replace more traditional eateries. The restauranteurs whom I know believe that it is easier to run a Chinese restaurant that caters to Americans than one that caters to Chinese-Americans, who represent a smaller and pickier population. The latter naturally disdain Chinese buffet fare, which does not remotely resemble the food they knew in China or remember being served in their mothers' kitchens. The popularity of the Chinese buffet is a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it brings Chinese food to a wide and diverse audience, but on the other, it completely misrepresents Chinese food, one of the oldest, most varied, and most sophisticated culinary traditions in the world.

Andrew Coe's book Chop Suey presents a comprehensive account of American's fond and sometimes nervous relationship with Chinese food and roots this evolving relationship in economic, cultural, and societal developments, as well as in the social history of Chinese immigrants. The book begins with America's first encounter with Chinese food all the way back in the eighteenth century, when American sailors first arrived in China. It then relates the story of the arrival of Chinese food in America in the nineteenth century, its migration from the West to the East coast in the early twentieth century, and its metamorphosis into the popular hybrid cuisine of Chinese-American franchises like P.F. Chang's in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The book is well written, lively, and frequently humorous. Social historians will be interested, but so will travelers stranded in airports. Coe's is a rare book that functions as both serious scholarship and accessible entertainment.

The book opens with the voyage of the Empress of China, which set sail from New York in February 1784, hoping to trade silver and ginseng "for the tea, silks, and porcelain of China" (2). The "canny but narrow-minded New England traders" became, only in a certain sense, the first Americans to taste Chinese food: they primarily ate Western foods prepared by Chinese cooks (8). Samuel Shaw (1754-94), one of the ship's passengers, had a chance to dine at the house of a local merchant, but the European guests wound up bringing their own food because, as Coe says, they "couldn't stomach" the local menu (14). Over the next fifty years, visitors to China grew no more comfortable with the local cuisine. Coe quotes Samuel Wells Williams, a missionary whose remarks on Chinese food were published in the monthly journal Chinese Repository in 1835:

   The universal use of oil, not always the sweetest or purest, and of
   onions, in their dishes, together with the habitual neglect of
   their persons, causes an odor, almost insufferable to a European,
   and which is well characterized by Ellis [whoever he may be], as
   the "repose of putrefied garlic on a much used blanket." The
   dishes, when brought on the table, are almost destitute of
   seasoning, taste, flavor, or anything else by which one can be
   distinguished from another; all are alike insipid and greasy to the
   palate of the foreigner." (35)

These early globe trotters frequently mention, whether accurately or inaccurately, the eating of rats and dogs, which suggests their unease. "Birds nests" also figure largely in accounts, early and late, testifying to the ingredient's endurance as a symbol of everything exotic and weird about Chinese food. Despite their politically incorrect disdain for Chinese food, these early accounts are filled with humor, personality, and detailed observation, and they provide some of the most amusing reading in the book.

Chapter three traces the development of Chinese food and its cultural meaning over a period of some three or four thousand years.

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