My thanks to Soo Lon Moy and Bennett Bronson for a very thought-provoking presentation, and to Mr. Moy for his helpful comments. Thanks also go to C2 and the Chicago Foodways Roundtable for organizing the event, which was surprisingly well-attended in spite of the cold day. The lively discussion of the topic by passionate foodies certainly raised the temperature in the room.
Several questions were raised by the discussion of the origins of Americanized Chinese Food that are perhaps better addressed in the context of the history of Chinese immigration to the United States. While this cuisine may indeed be the invention of men living in bachelor communities, it was unclear to me how the Chinese communities grew and thrived while Chinese women were banned from immigrating. This seems an important matter to address in the discussion of the development of this style of cooking. In addition, it would be interesting to know more about what dishes were prepared by the Chinese men for themselves.
According to the presenters, the first appearance of Americanized Chinese food offered to the public was at the Columbian Exhibition. However, a slide showing the menu from the "Chinese" restaurant offered nothing even remotely Chinese other than teas and preserved ginger. Still, two gentlemen who were pillars of the Chinese-American community were credited on the menu (perhaps to authenticate the offerings?). Similarly, Chinese restaurants in the teens tended to be ornate dining palaces with grand staircases and orchestras targeted at European-Americans. The menus were heavy on steak and champagne, but also offered chop suey. Rather than an affordable meal, chop suey was a pricey dish for the day.
What was not addressed by the presenters was the socio-economic context of the democratization of chop suey, which grew in popularity throughout the 20's and 30's. (This was charmingly illustrated by vintage photos of Chicago signage and an Edward Hopper piece, "Chop Suey.") Perhaps someone on the board can comment on the growth (?) of restaurants after WWI. Was there a general democratization of the restaurant experience during the 20's? What was the impact of the Depression on restaurants in general? If, as one might guess, the new economic realities were devastating to restaurants in general, how did the Chinese American restauranteurs adapt, and what permitted the growth of numbers of Chinese-American restaurants during the 30's? It seems clear that Americanized Chinese food was widely available throughout the 30's in small family-run places. My father remembers that years before he ever tasted his first pizza (Boston, 1950) or his first bagel (New York, 1958), his family used to eat chop suey on outings to town in the 30's and 40's (Minneapolis, John's #1 Son). It would also be interesting to know more about the impact of WWII on Chinese restauranteurs -- rationing, xenophobia, etc.
I'd like to pass along to peripatetic LTH'ers and to those with huge data-bases from deep restaurant experience the current quest of the presenters: To find a Chinese American Restaurant dating from the 1930's that has its original decor and is run by the same family that owned it in the 30's. They suspect this may exist somewhere in a small town in the Midwest. Prizes offered: A Chop Suey dinner, membership to the Chinese-American Museum, and a year's supply of Fortune Cookies!
Thanks to the presenters for a fascinating presentation that provoked many questions, along with a couple of answers of use to Chicago Foodies:
1) Best-Preserved Chinese-American Restaurant in Chicago: Orange Garden (decor original)
2) Chicago Restaurant with the best "Breath of the Wok" : Emperor's Choice (per Mr. & Mrs. Moy)
3) Most Innovative Chinese Cuisine preserving authenticity: Ed's Potsticker House (per Bennett Bronson)
Chinese-American Museum of Chicago
238 West 23rd Street
Chicago, IL 60616
Friday 9:30 AM -- 1:30 PM
Sat & Sun 10:00 AM -- 5:00 PM
1942 W. Irving Park Rd.
2238 S. Wentworth
Ed's Potsticker House
3139 S. Halsted
Man : I can't understand how a poet like you can eat that stuff.
T. S. Eliot: Ah, but you're not a poet.