Andrew CoeChop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

Oxford University Press, 2009

by Valerie Saint-Rossy on June 13, 2014

Andrew Coe

View on Amazon

Through some quirk of fate, the Hobbesian tag “filling, cheap, and familiar” is probably the defining phrase used when Americans think of Chinese food. Yet what could be less accurate a description of this cuisine, born halfway around the world, which had been evolving for well over a millennium before it was brought to California in the 1840s?

The events that brought the Chinese and their food to our shores, to become so important a strand in the fabric of American eating, is the story Andrew Coe tells in his fascinating book, Chop Suey: The Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2009). It takes the reader by ship and railroad from 1784, when the fledgling United States first focused its sights on China as a market, to the present day.

Why the Chinese came, what reception they received, what they did, and what happened when their work ran out is part of the story. After arriving in 1848 for the California Gold Rush, the Chinese created ancillary businesses, first feeding themselves, then feeding Americans, both in prospecting camps and in the village of Yerba Buena (which would grow into a port called San Francisco).

The Chinese were “other.” Their story as an ethnic group is not a familiar one to most Americans. The West Coast has a dark history regarding its treatment of residents of Far Eastern origin, and it begins with the Chinese in nineteenth-century California. Coe opens our eyes.

And what is chop suey? Is it even Chinese? Will Americans ever graduate to authentic Chinese food? These questions, and many more, with be answered by some unlikely professors: Louis Armstrong, Richard Nixon, and a Peking duck.

National Geographic interviewed Coe in May 2014 for their upcoming television documentary, “Eat: The Story of Food,” scheduled to air in November 2014.

{ 1 comment }

Rawia BisharaOlives, Lemons and Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking

June 5, 2014

Does olive oil these days still taste as good as it did in decades past? That’s one of the topics Rawia Bishara and I discuss on the occasion of the publication of her cookbook Olives, Lemons and Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking (Kyle Books, 2014). Ms. Bishara is the owner of the beloved Bay [...]

Read the full article →

Alison PearlmanSmart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America

May 29, 2014

When you imagine a gourmet experience, what comes to mind? An elegant restaurant, perhaps, with a single candle flickering at the center of a luminous white tablecloth? Maybe a quartet plays somewhere in the romantic distance, as the waiter slips a perfectly plated appetizer of escargot before you, and you proceed to nuzzle them out [...]

Read the full article →

Meghan Turbitt#FoodPorn

May 14, 2014

Don’t worry. Or do. The most graphic page of Meghan Turbitt’s new comic book, #FoodPorn (2014) has sushi covering all the risky parts. Turbitt says she was inspired to ink the 32-page comic by her dining experiences around her neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A taco vendor’s apron, resplendent with bits of spicy food, looks too good not to [...]

Read the full article →

Ruth ReichlDelicious!

May 6, 2014

A real treat here. Probably the most famous living American food writer, Ruth Reichl joins Allen Salkin for a conversation partly about her new novel Delicious! (Random House, 2014), but also about New York City hot dogs, her writing process and the arguments she had with David Foster Wallace when editing his piece “Consider the [...]

Read the full article →

Laura SilverKnish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food

April 26, 2014

Something nice and filling for you here! Laura Silver‘s book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food (Brandeis University Press, 2014) concerns itself not only with the round — or is it square? — savory pastry brought to America from somewhere in Europe to fill the working bellies of not well-to-do immigrants. The tale of the [...]

Read the full article →

Leona Rittner, W. Scott Haine, and Jeffrey H. Jackson, eds.The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna

March 27, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in History] Believe it or not, the origins of this podcast and the entire New Books Network can be traced to a conversation I had in a café in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Sweetwaters in Kerrytown, as it happens) in 2004. I was sitting there minding my own business when I overheard Ed Vielmetti and Lou [...]

Read the full article →

Allen SalkinFrom Scratch: Inside the Food Network

October 5, 2013

When I was growing up the only cooking show on TV I remember was Julia Child. I sometimes watched “The French Chef,” not so much to learn anything about cooking, but rather just to watch Julia. She was a hoot. When I saw the famous “Saturday Night Live” in 1978, I wasn’t sure which was [...]

Read the full article →

Aaron Bobrow-StrainWhite Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

June 14, 2013

When we think of the stuff that dreams are made on, we might think of the spirits that Shakespeare’s Prospero conjures up in “The Tempest”; we might think of stars, rainbows, maybe even wishing wells, but what probably doesn’t leap to mind is a loaf of Wonder Bread. And yet, ever since the invention of [...]

Read the full article →

Marlene ZukPaleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live

April 22, 2013

[Cross-posted from New Books in Big Ideas] The Hebrews called it “Eden.” The Greeks and Romans called it the “Golden Age.” The philosophes–or Rousseau at least–called it the “State of Nature.” Marx and Engels called it “Primitive Communism.” The underlying notion, however, is the same: there was a time, long ago, when things were much better [...]

Read the full article →