Rob Hardy: Translations and mistranslations of Chinese food history in the U.S.


Rob Hardy



In 1784, the Empress of China, an American ship bearing American ginseng, sailed to China for trade. It was the first time the new nation had tried such trade, and the Americans did not know what to expect, for instance, in what they might be served at dinners. It was all well if they ate with the British or Portuguese who were already trading there, but dining with the Chinese would have been a problem.  


"They not only use the same kind of flesh, fish, and fowl that we do, but even horse flesh is esteemed proper food," wrote a previous visitor to China. The sailors would have been puzzled by all the rice, and especially by the use of chopsticks, and they would have been astonished that any meat brought to the table was already cut up into bite-sized bits, since there was no tradition of carving at table. (The Chinese, in their turn, would have been disgusted by the slabs of American meat floating in gravy.) We don''t have an account of the ship''s dining encounters, but it would have marked the start of culinary exchanges and misunderstandings that have continued to our day. In "Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States" (Oxford University Press), food writer Andrew Coe has written about Chinese food traditions and their translations and mistranslations into America, their acceptance into both respective American coasts, and their adoption as the take out food of choice for middle America. It''s an odd history, told with humor and many anecdotes, and it may make you long for something more than General Tso''s famous chicken. 


For centuries, cooking had been considered one of the most important arts in China, and the Chinese thought that mastering the art made people civilized rather than barbarian. The overall impression westerners got, however, was that the Chinese subsisted on oily, garlicky stews. There was also the suspicion that anything might go into that stewpot: rats, mice, snails, kittens and puppies. It did not matter that the same pigs westerners favor were overwhelmingly the most popular meat on the Chinese table, nor that the Chinese had refined tastes for animals that were not pets or vermin, like jellyfish or sea cucumber. The strongly xenophobic reaction of visitors eating in China was horror of what the Chinese thought of as acceptable sources of meat.  


If that wasn''t enough, they could assume a horror of the way the Chinese cultivated their vegetables, a way "which is filthy and disgusting in the extreme," wrote one observer in 1866, "... and the soil is stimulated to rank productiveness by the application of the most offensive manures."  


Even visitors who appreciated the cuisine got to express disapproval somehow; the author Bayard Taylor in 1851 wrote that dishes at a Chinese banquet were "numerous and palatable, but hardly substantial enough for a civilized taste." (Perhaps this was the original "It''s delicious, but an hour later you''re hungry again" complaint.)  


In his section on the history of food in China, Coe notes many practices that we would recognize now. Restaurants in China have a long history of serving gourmet food, since the time when in Europe fine food could only be found in courts and monasteries. Further down the line were cook shops and street vendors. There were dim sum restaurants, where the bill was totaled by adding up the number and size of the empty plates on the diner''s table. 


By the mid-19th century, Chinese were coming to America and bringing their notions of food with them. There are famous stories that a particular cook or a particular visiting Chinese official invented chop suey and bestowed upon America its recipe, but it was really too general a meal to be invented by one person. More probably something very much like it was eaten in Chinese regions that contributed most to the immigration. It was simple fare (the Cantonese words from which the name comes mean something like "odds and ends"), but once the Chinese were here, at least some of them were prosperous enough to want to have banquets like they had had back home. Every now and then whites would "slum" to the novelty of such a banquet, like the one held in the Hong Heong Restaurant in San Francisco in 1865, where there was stewed pigeon, fried shark''s fin, bird''s nest soup and maybe a 100 other courses. A guest at the banquet was glad to be rescued by being called away by a banker he knew with the greeting, "I knew you were hungry -- let us go get something to eat..." and they crossed over to an American restaurant, with relief. The organizer of a similar feast in New York in 1884 found that when things were supposed to start, "half the party went missing, giving excuses that ''were more ingenious than satisfactory.''"  


This all changed when chop suey became a fad in the early 20th century. Bohemians liked the dish, which was filling and cheap, and customers "liked the cut-rate, exotic d├ęcor of red lanterns and prints of pretty Chinese girls and landscapes." Restaurants took on the synecdochic name; you would meet someone at the chop suey on the corner. The dish was "the food of the moment, both sophisticated and enjoyed by everyman." The fad peaked in mid-century, when Chinese restaurants everywhere served it and it had been transformed to something suburban. Coe is too severe when he says, "Today, chop suey is a relic in most parts of the United States, another food fad that has ended up on the trash heap of culinary history." There are too many Chinese restaurants still serving it for this to be true, and some of us still find it pretty tasty. But those who had enjoyed the fad (along with the accompanying chow mein and egg foo young) aged, and new immigrants came in with their own ideas about home cuisine; there was more to eating Chinese than just a standard set of Cantonese American dishes. There was plenty of spice and flare in the new way of Chinese dining, and that''s not just General Tso''s chicken. This was a dish that actually was invented, by a chef named Peng Chang-kuei. The name came because Peng admired General Tso, who was a real military hero but was not, as the story goes, a chef after he retired from the battlefield. It isn''t, therefore, a "real" Chinese dish, but an American expression of the spicy Hunan and Sichuan traditions.  


Then there are authentic Chinese banqueting halls. Having started with the first American traders to China, Coe winds up with Nixon''s visit to China and the preparations for it. Henry Kissinger, we learn, was a chopstick klutz, and was a sucker for duck dishes that probably got him to agree to a concession or two. The sort of banqueting food they ate might not be as readily available as the chop suey standards that can be found in any American town, but top scale Chinese dishes can be found easily in metropolitan areas. Coe''s delightful book is a bit of "odds and ends" itself, with pages on the use of pidgin, Chinese-kosher cuisine, the new look of San Francisco''s Chinatown after the earthquake, the connection of Chinatowns with white slavery, and the Kon-Tiki craze for Cantonese food. The Chinese food we get is mostly a hybrid; Coe has documented a cuisine that may not always be authentic Chinese, but is a genuine American success story. 



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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