(An Examination of American Chinese Cuisine In 3 Acts)

My first encounter with Chinese food was at a Tasty Goody in Upland, California, a fast food joint in a treeless strip mall off of Route 66. I must have been around four years old, kicking my light-up sneakers against the legs of the red plastic table and staring down a Styrofoam container of iodine-orange Sesame Chicken. I assessed the glop in front of me and realized that the dish was basically Chicken McNuggets in sweet and sour sauce, except with more sugar than anything I usually got to eat for lunch. Obviously, I decided it was the BEST THING EVER.

Though the Tasty Goody had no ball pit or anthropomorphized hamburgers, they had amazingly sweet, brightly-colored, deep fried chicken bits…and fortune cookies! That temple of MSG used to hit all of my happy places, and while I now take pride in a first-name familiarity with the baotze guy and my list of the Dim Sum joints serving the best chicken feet, there’s an insatiable part of me that craves a grubby Chinese food lunch, down to the fluorescent lights and chafing dishes of Broccoli Beef.

Like any budding gourmand worth her stripes, I became familiar with the basic idea that what we as Americans know as Chinese food is about as Chinese as the Hot Topic next to the food court. In fact, the journey of Chinese food from the heart of the Golden Empire to the mouth of a little, blonde Irish girl in the Golden State reveals how international cultures have been altered, purchased, and devoured by the American palate. Today, Chinese-American restaurants outnumber all McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC restaurants combined – and the story of Americanized Chinese food is the story of America. It’s a story of courageous self-preservation, culinary adaptation, lots of hoodwinking of gullible white people, and the gradual invention of an ethnic tradition – it’s totally fascinating, and I want to tell you all about it.

The first accounts of Americans nomming on Chinese food show up in the early nineteenth century, and they involve a lot of frequent flyer miles (if one could earn frequent flyer miles by traveling to China on tiny trade ships in shitty conditions). Though Western ‘foreigners’ had been exploiting the Chinese markets and getting fabulously rich dealing in tea, silk, and furniture since the earliest years of the American Republic, visitors to China were kept corralled in merchant quarters outside the walls of the Imperial cities. Because visiting traders were lodged and fed à la Americaine in these trading centers (an arrangement which suited everyone – Americans got to eat their well-done steaks and the Chinese didn’t have to cater to their clueless visitors), it was almost forty years after the beginning of trade relations that an American first tasted true Chinese food.

After a trading expedition in Southern China in 1819, Massachusetts merchant Bryant Parrott Tilden got cozy with a Chinese VIP in Guangzhou (Canton), and scored an invitation to a traditional Chinese Banquet. There, he dined on bird nest soup, spicy stews, and “plenty of boiled rice, but Alas! No plates knives or forks!” After twenty courses flavored strongly with ginger and pepper, accompanied by wines, teas, fruits, and pastries, Tilden was no doubt rolled out of the dining room, and had really intense digestive issues for a few days. When he was able to leave the chamber pot, he wrote an account of his meal and provided the American audience with their first vicarious bites of Chinese cuisine – basically a nineteenth century Yelp review bragging about the divine authenticity and total weirdness of the food of China. Because Tilden claimed that he “ate at that Chinese restaurant before it was cool” (before claiming such things was cool), other merchants began recording their harrowing encounters with Chinese food, emphasizing the foreign and dangerous specialties of the Chinese kitchen. By 1830, when Tilden had probably declared Chinese food “over” and moved on to discovering pho and really great Thai street food, Christian missionaries joined the American merchants in China and perpetuated the early American obsession with the food of those godless heathens across the ocean. Because the Chinese weren’t having any of their conversion efforts, missionary accounts of culinary experiences were filled with xenophobic characterizations of the gambling, drug use, licentiousness, and gluttony of the “miserable idolaters” of the native population. Sure, it sounds like a rockin’ good time to you and me, but these early accounts of Chinese culinary traditions prejudiced American palates for much of the 19th century, and informed the initial reception of Chinese cuisine on American soil decades later. Jerks.

Anyroads, the first major wave of Chinese immigration to America can be traced to everyone’s favorite event of 1849, the California Gold rush. Stories of the immeasurable wealth and easy, disease-free girls to be found on “Gold Mountain” drew speculators from China by the thousands. These immigrants were almost exclusively Cantonese, some of the most rebellious and hard-partying Chinese citizens due to their Han ethnicity (and subsequent resentment of the policies of ethnically Manchu rulers). The first waves of speculators returned to China with souvenirs from San Francisco – like sourdough bread and giant gold nuggets – and were followed by large numbers of transient bachelors seeking similar success. As the Gold Rush began to slow down to a Gold Trickle, these men were relegated to shitty work in service industries, including staffing hotels, saloons, laundries, and restaurants (this was before serving coffee was a respectable career, mind you).

Early Chinese restaurants operated on a prix fixe basis, offering unlimited food for one dollar – which was super cheap, even at the time, considering the ridiculous inflation on all services and supplies in California mining communities. Most early Chinese restaurant owners catered to Chinese and white workers, serving “English” as well as reinvented Cantonese peasant food. This reinvention was not due to a lack of authentic Chinese ingredients – Chinese restaurateurs had access to most traditional goodies via inventive Chinese farmers and plentiful imported goods – but was, rather, a creative and shrewd adaptation to the demands of the market and racial tensions of the time. Chinese cooks had to confront the commonly held notion – thanks to those pesky missionaries – that “authentic” Chinese cuisine included rats, puppies and kittens, so they came up with dishes that featured recognizable American ingredients, toned down the spice, and started using simpler cooking methods in order to stay in business and avoid igniting further racial tension. Out of this self-preservation the infamous “chop suey” was invented. Roughly translated as a “mix of diced odds and ends,” and usually containing bean sprouts, water chestnuts, bell peppers, celery, onions, soy sauce, and either pork or chicken, this thoroughly American dish was offered in every Chinese-owned restaurant that served white customers and would come to be considered the heart of Chinese cooking in America for decades.

ed: Tune in Wednesday for the next installment!