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Agents of Culinary and Cultural Change

‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’: Restaurants as Agents of
Culinary and Cultural Change
Samantha Barbas
For the past 150 years, restaurants have been a central part
of the American experience. More than mere eating establishments, they have been important regional landmarks, community meeting spots, and cultural institutions. In restaurants,
stories have been shared, romances sparked, plans hatched, and
ethnic, regional, and political ties established, strengthened, and
reaffirmed. Though many towns, particularly today, lack public
gathering places, there have always been local eating houses that
have served as thriving social centers.
Although restaurants have often had conservative social
functions, preserving established foodways and cultural boundaries, they have also been agents of innovation, and have
exposed Americans to a variety of tastes, communities, and
social groups they may otherwise never have encountered. In
particular, as I illustrate in this article, restaurants have encouraged, even in periods of social and political conservatism, the
crossing of formidable ethnic and cultural barriers. In search of
cheaper, quicker, and more interesting cuisine, Americans have
often suspended traditional racial prejudices and opened themselves to a range of diverse culinary and cultural experiences.
Between 1870 and 1930, a time of great political and social
hostility against Asian immigrants, Chinese restaurants drew a
thriving business from non-Chinese customers. Lured by the
possibility of experiencing ‘‘Oriental’’ sensuality or ‘‘exotic’’
foreign cuisine, thousands of white Americans patronized
restaurants owned and operated by immigrant Chinese. Though
their encounters with Chinese Americans may have done
relatively little to change deeply-held racial prejudices, they
did alter middle-class eating preferences. As a result of their
experiences in Chinese restaurants, white customers adopted
tastes that would eventually transform the American diet.
In this article I examine the history of this cross-cultural
interaction, its effects on racial attitudes and food preferences,
and ultimately, why restaurants were able to facilitate boundary
crossing in a way that other institutions could not. Though the
presence of Chinese Americans in nonethnic businesses or social
settings might have been threatening, their subservient role as
restaurant cooks and servers, I suggest, posed little danger to
middle-class white Americans. Moreover, Chinese food, like
most ethnic cuisines, lent itself easily to adaptation and
Westernization. Though authentic Chinese cuisine was shunned
by most whites, ‘‘hybrid’’ dishes like chop suey and chow mein
were able to penetrate, and significantly influence, the middleclass diet. In short, Chinese restaurants encouraged Americans
to maintain many social, ethnic, and geographic boundaries,
and at the same time, to breach others. In the late nineteenth
and early twentieth century, restaurants became the venue, and
food the medium, of the first hesitant steps toward culinary and
cultural exchange.
The First Boundary Crossers:
Workers, Epicures, Bohemians, ‘‘Tourists’’
In the 1870s, remembers journalist Idwal Jones, hungry
workers and travelers in San Francisco’s Chinatown found
sustenance and solace in a fragrant, gilded culinary palace called
the Balcony of Golden Joy and Delight. With a ‘‘monstrous and
shiny roast pig’’ hanging at the entrance, and the ‘‘enticing
aroma’’ of smoked meats permeating the air, the Balcony served
up to four hundred customers at a time, at prices lower than
cheap. If a visitor had little money, he was taken into ‘‘the
sanctum of Tsing TsingFa stout mandarin with a beard,
peacock’s feathers, a fan, and sheaths for finger-nailsFwho
gave a nod of approval. Then the wayfarer was taken to the
kitchen where, standing, he could dine ad libitum.’’ Having
gorged on the cuisine and atmosphere, diners stumbled onto the
Chinatown streets, ‘‘a realm of banners and scarlet balconies, as
colorful as Soochow and twice as odorous’’ (Jones 455-56).
A ‘‘quaint, mysterious, gorgeous, hideous . . . hillside, covered
with burrows . . . [and] yawning, subterranean passages and
chambers,’’ in the words of another author, Chinatown
harbored innumerable restaurants brimming with foods exotic,
enticing and wonderfully yet ‘‘strangely barbaric’’ (Kessler 445).
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The Chinese immigrants who established San Francisco’s
Chinatown in the 1850s had little idea that their restaurants and
neighborhood streets would attract such an enthusiasticFand
imaginativeFcrowd of white visitors. Built primarily for a
local clientele, the eating establishments in Chinese immigrant
communities served male workers who, due to legal restriction,
expense, and circumstance (many workers assumed their stay
would be temporary) had journeyed to America without wives.
In 1850, San Francisco’s Chinatown housed fifteen apothecaries, five herb shops, three boarding houses, five butcher stores,
and five restaurants. By the late 1860s, New York’s Chinatown
similarly boasted a small but growing array of shops, boardinghouses, and eating establishments. Though few non-Chinese
entered the tightly-knit communities during these initial years,
by the 1870s, crowds of white Americans could be seen on the
Chinatown streets in both cities. Cynical white journalists
had a name for themFthey were ‘‘gawkers,’’ ‘‘slummers,’’ and
‘‘curiosity seekers,’’ and by mainstream middle-class standards,
up to no good (Takaki 17).
The ‘‘curiosity seekers’’ came in search of adventure and
pleasureFand more often than not, food. Though many white
working-class men were lured to Chinatown by its gambling and
prostitution houses, they were also attracted by the possibility
of finding cheap and filling meals. Accustomed to Chinese
cooks, who had worked with whites on mines and railroads,
many working-class men in the mid-nineteenth century began
patronizing the eating establishments that had been established
by Chinatown entrepreneurs for the growing white tourist trade.
Customers dined on American dishes, such as baked beans,
steak and eggs, or hash, or on such hybrid ‘‘Chinese American’’
concoctions as egg foo yung (dubbed ‘‘Hangtown Fry’’), rice
casseroles, and fried noodles. Often believing that the Chinese
ate rodents or dogs, white workers generally steered clear of
more authentic establishments where, according to an 1876 San
Francisco guidebook, ‘‘rare, but sometimes also disgusting
foods were consumed’’ (Gabaccia 103). In native Chinese
restaurants, reported one disgusted white observer, ‘‘pale cakes
with a waxen look, full of meats, are brought out. They are
sausages in disguise. Then giblets of you-never-know-what,
maybe gizzards, possibly livers, perhaps toes’’ (Mariani 77).
For epicures, upper-class thrill-seekers, and other nineteenth century culinary adventurers, however, the possibility of
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 671
eating rare foreign foods had definite appeal. Seeking a taste of
the exotic, wealthy urbanites occasionally ventured into ‘‘high
toned’’ Chinese restaurantsFelegant establishments appointed
with white tablecloths and gleaming silverware for the upperclass visitor trade. In 1865, Samuel Bowles, a newspaper editor
visiting San Francisco, reported attending a sumptuous banquet
in a Chinatown restaurant at which bird’s nest soup, reindeer
sinews, fried fungus, and dozens of other delicacies were served.
Claiming later that the ‘‘food was not very filling,’’ Bowles
dispatched to the nearest American restaurant, where he dined
hungrily on chops, squab, fried potatoes, and champagne
(Lovegren 87). A minister who in 1876 dined in a ‘‘respectable’’
Chinatown restaurant complete with ‘‘knives, forks, plates,
tablecloths, and napkins,’’ noted only two drawbacks to his
otherwise savory meal: that many of the dishes tasted of ‘‘strong
butter,’’ and ‘‘the inability of Americans to use chopsticks’’
(Gibson 71). ‘‘The best Chinese restaurants,’’ a writer for Living
Age magazine later recalled,
were constantly patronized by white people. Here national delicacies
. . . such as bird’s nest soup . . . and the meat of the abalone shell were
served to the guest in many strange and mysterious forms. The delicious
lichee nut was greatly esteemed by the Americans, as well as . . . various
sweetmeats. (Scheffaner 355)
For the upper and working class, traditionally associated with
sensual excess, forays into Chinatown restaurants, identified in
the popular press as ‘‘dens of iniquity’’ and ‘‘places where vice
dwells,’’ hardly compromised their social standing. Nor did they
threaten a band of young intellectuals called Bohemians, who
found that trips to Chinatown actually enhanced their rebellious
image. Dissatisfied with the rigid, morally conservative middleclass lifestyle, Bohemians saw in immigrant Chinese culture
great sensuality and freedom, and flocked to Chinatown in
droves. Rich with pungent smells and tastes, Chinese restaurants proved particularly fertile ground for the Bohemians’
exotic fantasies. ‘‘Though a narrow hall and up dirty stairs
brings one to the Chinese Delmonico’s restaurant,’’ wrote
an experienced New York ‘‘slummer’’ in an account for Once
A Week magazine in 1893. ‘‘A good dinner consists of
nine courses, served on bare wooden tables and eaten with
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chopsticks.’’ Even more enticing than the meal, he suggested,
was the gritty atmosphere:
As the dinner proceeds, some of the natives kick off their slippers, their
bare stockings peering through the rungs of their stools. The odor of
fuming cigarettes fills the air; an incessant babble prevails; every few
moments you will see a Chinese pick up a bone or a bit of refuse food
and deliberately send it flying under the table to the dirty floor!
To most Americans, it was ‘‘as unininviting as a pig-sty,’’ but
for the slummers, sheer delight. ‘‘The visitors to Chinatown love
it dearly,’’ concluded the author, ‘‘and laugh and chatter. Thus
today the ‘slummers’ eat, drink, and are merry in their
experience with strange new dishes’’ (qtd. in Bonner 97).
To many middle-class Americans, the Bohemians’ nightly
expeditions were evidence of ‘‘morbid curiosity’’ and ‘‘innate
depraved taste.’’ ‘‘One can easily imagine the effect of the
sights witnessed on the girls of tender years, unsophisticated and
practically ignorant of the world and its wicked ways,’’ wrote
one reader of the New York Times. No ‘‘decent’’ person should
be found among the immoral, ‘‘heathen’’ Chinese, he declared,
‘‘unless they are on an errand of mercy’’ (‘‘Seeing Chinatown’’).
Ironically, and much to the dismay of social critics, the
outcry over the slummers only fueled greater public interest in
Chinatown. Intrigued by accounts of the slummers’ adventures,
as well as a growing fascination with non-Western cultures,
reflected in Orientalist art and literature of the period, an
increasing number of white middle-class Americans journeyed
into Chinese immigrant communities. Frequently accompanied
by paid white tour guides, who led their charges safely through
the streets, tourists visited ‘‘joss houses,’’ or temples, attended
Chinese plays, shopped in curio stores, and in the process,
turned Chinatowns into popular sightseeing destinations. For
the immigrant Chinese, struggling for economic survival, the
support of the local economy could not have come at a more
opportune time.
During the nineteenth century, as historian Ronald Takaki
has noted, Chinese laborers played a significant role in nearly
every sector of the American economyFagriculture, mining,
manufacturing, and transportation. Yet by the early twentieth
century, they had been forced out of the general labor market
by hostile labor unions, exclusionary legal policies, and racial
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 673
discrimination, and segregated into an ethnic labor niche.
The new work opportunities available to Chinese Americans
centered primarily around service occupations, such as laundry
and restaurant work, based in Chinatowns and catering to
largely Chinese customers. With opportunities for employment
outside Chinatown decreasingFeven the laundry business, due
to white competition and the increasing feasibility of washing
clothes at home, began to declineFthe Chinese American
community had a strong incentive to build the tourist trade
(Takaki 239-40). By 1900, the increasingly powerful Chinatown
merchant class initiated a campaign to ‘‘clean up Chinatown’’
by suppressing the local vice industry, and shop owners
and theater proprietors began renovating their facilities for a
white clientele. Restaurateurs refurbished their establishments
with gaudy lanterns, colorful wall decorations, and bright red
fac¸ades, to match stereotypical white fantasies of ‘‘Oriental’’
decor, and scrubbed their floors and kitchens meticulously, lest
rumors of poor sanitation arise. New dishes, too, were created
for the visitorsF‘‘pineapple chicken’’ and ‘‘stuffed chicken
wings,’’ among othersFbut even these, for many tourists,
still seemed too foreign. Seeking a less intimidating menu,
restaurant cooks began serving an ingenious concoction that
fused American tastes with a smattering of Asian ingredients.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, in many
Chinatown restaurants appeared a new dish called ‘‘chop suey,’’
a concoction typically involving bean sprouts, celery, onions,
water chestnuts, green peppers, soy sauce, and either pork or
chicken, chopped in small pieces. Though later derided for its
inauthenticityFit was ‘‘a culinary joke at the expense of the
foreigner,’’ in the words of one commentatorFto the first white
customers of the ‘‘chop suey’’ restaurants, it seemed genuine
enough (Crow 425).
The dish proved an instant success. In 1896, according to
one magazine writer, chop suey drew customers to Chinatown
in droves. Under the ‘‘magnetic influence’’ of the dish,
thousands of white Americans paraded like zombies to Chinese
restaurants. ‘‘An American who once falls under the spell of
chop suey may forget all about things Chinese for a while, and
suddenly a strange craving . . . arises [and] he finds that his feet
are carrying him to Mott Street’’ (Bonner 97). A few years
later, over one hundred chop suey restaurants operated in New
York, a fact that alarmed many observers. ‘‘A surprisingly large
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number of Chinese restaurants have made their appearance in
recent years,’’ reported a journalist for The New York Tribune
in 1902. ‘‘Nothing about them seems attractive,’’ he wrote, ‘‘and
yet these places thrive and their number increases with
astonishing rapidity. Twenty-five cents worth of some kinds of
chop suey, served with rice, will make a toothsome dish for two
people. Tea is served free of charge and the quantity is not
limited’’ (qtd. in Bonner 97). For the many Americans who had
become ‘‘chop suey addicts,’’ in the words of one writer, food
had become a powerful motivation for frequent Chinatown
In a period of great social and political conservatism, when
Chinese immigrants were the subject of racial violence and legal
discrimination, thousands of Americans were willing to briefly
suspend their hostilities and journey into Chinatown for an
evening’s entertainment. Due in large part to the efforts of
immigrant merchants and restaurateurs, who adapted their
menus and decor to suit white preferences, middle-class tourists
found in Chinatowns a temporary release from their daily
routines and the fulfillment of their colorful Orientalist
fantasies. During the first decades of the twentieth century,
Chinatowns saw even more fervent boundary crossing, as
thousands of Americans continued to seek in Chinese immigrant communities, novelty, relaxation, titillation, and excitement. Tourists brought with them dollars and dreams, and as
entrepreneurs hoped, took home souvenirs and memories. They
also exported something that the merchants never envisionedF
a passion for chop suey. Through the ‘‘hybrid’’ dish, Chinese
cooking, albeit in a watered down, highly distorted form, left its
Chinatown borders and crossed into mainstream American
culture. Though most tourists were still unwilling to embrace
racial diversity, Chinese food was another story.
The Chop Suey Craze
Between 1900 and 1920, the Chinese restaurant industry
expanded tremendously. Attracted by the growing popularity of
chop suey and physical improvements in many ChinatownsF
following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Chinese American merchants refashioned their establishments to resemble
glittering pagodas and advertised the ‘‘new’’ Chinatown as
‘‘clean, healthfully and morally’’Fwhite Americans visited
Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants in increasing numbers
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 675
(‘‘Historic Chinatown’’ 10). Between 1870 and 1920, the number
of Chinese restaurant workers increased from 164 to 11,438,
even though the total number of Chinese employed had declined
during the period, and in many cities, the number of Chinese
restaurants doubled between 1900 and 1920 (Takaki 247). The
growing public interest in chop suey, chow mein, and other
Chinese-American dishes not only boosted the fortunes of
immigrant restaurateurs, but also, unexpectedly, the careers of
aspiring journalists, who turned Chinese restaurants into the
subject of fanciful stories in the popular press. After eating a
dinner in a Chinatown tea house, claimed a writer for Overland
magazine, she was possessed with terrifying nightmares. After
dreaming that she had been kidnaped by a sadistic Chinese
merchant, she vowed to stay away from the ‘‘Chang Foo dining
room’’ and instead eat ‘‘more sensible suppers’’ (The Stevensons
45). ‘‘Chop Suey,’’ declared one journalist, was ‘‘the Oriental
device which makes our poor old hash blush for its simplicity.’’
Made of ‘‘a few old shoes, brass-buttons, and a wornout pipe
. . . it swims about in a bedragoned bowl, and you eat it if you
can’’ (Harrison 529). Chop suey restaurants appeared in
popular films, and the dish was even celebrated in song:
‘‘Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone?,’’ it asked (Lovegren
89). By 1920 if not earlier, millions of Americans had become
familiar with chop suey, and more than a few had crossed into
to Chinatown to taste it.
In fact, as many ‘‘chop suey addicts’’ were discovering, trips
to Chinatown were becoming increasingly unnecessary. Many
first and second generation Chinese Americans, sensing the
popularity of Westernized Chinese dishes, had moved outside
the boundaries of Chinatown into ethnically mixed urban and
suburban neighborhoods, where they opened ‘‘chop suey
parlors’’ and ‘‘Chinese American’’ restaurants catering to white
customers. Carol Kennicott, the main character in Sinclair
Lewis’ novel Main Street, from 1920, dines in one such
restaurant in MinneapolisFa ‘‘Chinese restaurant that was
frequented by clerks and their sweethearts on paydays. They sat
at a teak and marble table eating Eggs Foo Yung, and listened
to a brassy automatic piano, and were altogether cosmopolitan’’
(Lewis 208). Other establishments, like the Culver City Chop
Suey Cafe´ near Los Angeles, served filling, inexpensive meals
without the pretentious decor. In addition to chop suey, several
restaurants featured such popular lunchroom standards as roast
676 Journal of Popular Culture
turkey, beef stew, and sandwichesFone Los Angeles restaurant
featured an ‘‘extra special merchant lunch’’ of soup, bread, and
potatoes in addition to its ‘‘Chinese chop suey,’’ ‘‘American
chop suey,’’ ‘‘Mushroom chop suey,’’ and ‘‘Li Hong Chong
chop suey’’ (‘‘Culver City Chop Suey Cafe´’’). Chop suey was
moving well beyond Chinatown, and winning the support and
loyalty of an increasing number of white customers. By 1920,
some were so devoted to the dish that they began requesting
chop suey in non-Chinese restaurants. ‘‘I operate a medium size
restaurant and recently I have received a number of calls for
chop suey,’’ wrote one proprietor to a restaurant industry trade
publication. ‘‘As neither myself nor my chef have any experience
in preparing the dish, we ask you to help us out and send us a
good recipe for chop suey.’’ ‘‘I am interested in Chop Suey,’’
wrote another, ‘‘and I would be very grateful if you could tell
me how to sprout beans’’ (Hancock 26). During the early 1920s,
the pages of National Restaurant News, The American Restaurant, and other food service journals filled with similar requests.
Restaurant customers across the nation were suddenly requesting chop suey, and bewildered cooks, not knowing how to
prepare the dish, went in frantic search of recipes. ‘‘Cut up a
pound of onions into slices. Then cut up ten pounds of beef . . .
(and) six or seven stalks of celery. Mix the concoction and cook
as a pot roast on top of the stove,’’ advised one magazine.
‘‘Brown the onions slightly, add the shredded peppers, pork,
mushrooms, and celery,’’ suggested another. ‘‘Serve with bran corn
flakes, pouring the chop suey over them’’ (‘‘Food Bureau’’ 18).
Simple and inexpensive, chop suey was an ideal dish for
lunchrooms, cafeterias, and other quick-service restaurants.
Requiring little if any preparation, particularly if canned
vegetables were used, it could be cooked in bulk during the
morning, preserved in large vats, and reheated and served
throughout the day. The only difficulty, restaurateurs complained, was that many of the key ingredientsFin particular,
bean sprouts and soy sauce, commonly found only in Chinese
groceriesFwere hard to obtain from restaurant suppliers. In
1924, the newly-formed La Choy Food Products company,
started in 1920 by University of Michigan student Wally Smith
and his Korean-born partner, Ilhan New, solved the problem
with bottled and canned chop suey ingredients for restaurants,
hotels, and other food service institutions. Featuring canned
bean sprouts, soy sauce, ‘‘brown sauce,’’ and a vegetable mix
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 677
called La Choy Sub Kum, the new line was promoted at the
1924 National Restaurant Association convention, along with
chop suey recipes ‘‘which follow the traditions of centuries of
Oriental domestic cookery, and which have been tested and
approved by a score of famous Chinese chefs’’ (‘‘La Choy Food
Products Co.’’ 30). By the end of the decade, a competing
brand, marketed by the Fuji Trading Company of Chicago,
featured bean sprouts, ‘‘chop suey sauce,’’ and even canned
chop suey for speedy lunchroom and cafeteria preparations.
‘‘The Chinese restaurants have rendered a valuable service to
the American restaurateur by developing a great demand for
Oriental foods,’’ reported a restaurant industry journal.
‘‘Nothing remains for our chefs, now that they may obtain
the materials and master the simple technic [sic] of Chinese
cookery, but to add these very profitable dishes to their menus’’
(‘‘La Choy Food Products Co.’’ 30). And judging from reports
from restaurateurs across the nation, many in the 1920s did.
‘‘A number of Detroit restaurants are cashing in on the sale
of chop suey and chow mein,’’ announced National Restaurant
News in 1923. ‘‘The Ueata Lunch Company ran chop suey on
their bill of fare every day . . . and found it to be a good seller,
especially at night. The average sale was 100 gallons a day’’
(‘‘Chop Suey and Chow Mein Good Sellers’’ 46). Several
automobile manufacturers began using chop suey in their
factory cafeterias, and even restaurateurs in small towns in the
Midwest and South, where Chinese Americans were relatively
few, reported significant interest in the ‘‘smooth, tasty and
nourishing’’ dish that had become ‘‘so popular’’ in recent years
(‘‘Feeding 50,000 Men a Day’’ 29). The Walton’s Cafeteria
chain of Augusta, Georgia, reported Cafeteria Management
magazine, had achieved local acclaim for its ‘‘chop suey of all
varieties . . . prepared by an experienced cook’’; one Northwestern cafe´ owner, claimed another journal, successfully
garnered the after-theater crowd in his city with his ‘‘fresh
mushroom chop suey’’ and ‘‘eggs fou young’’ (Oliver 481). By
the end of the decade, chop suey, egg rolls, fortune cookies,
chow mein, and other hybrid Chinese-American foods had
become so popular among restaurant goers that white
entrepreneurs in major cities began opening their own
‘‘Chinese’’ restaurants. In 1929, two San Francisco businessmen
opened the Mandarin Cafe, the first ‘‘American-managed’’
Chinese restaurant in the country, according to Restaurant
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Management magazine. Featuring chicken chow mein, ‘‘Mandarin Chop Suey,’’ and the questionable ‘‘Chow Yuke’’F‘‘-
green Chinese vegetables with mushrooms and water
chestnuts’’Fthe restaurant served between four and five
hundred customers each day (‘‘This Chinese Cafe´’’ 381).
‘‘Delicious,’’ ‘‘novel,’’ and even ‘‘nutritious’’Fbean sprouts,
reported The American Restaurant, were high in vitamin
CFchop suey, like Chinese restaurants, had facilitated the
crossing of significant geographic, culinary, and cultural
boundaries (‘‘Interesting Facts’’ 106). ‘‘Tourists’’ continued to
travel to Chinatowns in search of Chinese restaurants, while
immigrant entrepreneurs gradually moved away from their
ethnic communities to capitalize on the growing interest in
Chinese American meals. By the late 1920s, white restaurant
goers had become so familiar with chop suey that they transported it over another cultural boundary, this one perhaps even
more formidable. Through chop suey, ‘‘Chinese’’ food found its
way into the ultimate bastion of culinary conservatismFthe
American middle-class home.
‘‘Be Your Own Chinese Chef’’
Throughout the early twentieth century, the recipes that
appeared in middle-class cookbooks could best be described in
three wordsFcreamy, meaty, and sweet. Dominated by home
economics or ‘‘domestic science,’’ a movement of cooks and
nutritionists with decidedly conservative food preferences, most
cooking literature of the era promoted the traditional New
England menuFsuch dishes as baked beans, brown bread,
boiled vegetables, and beef stew. Though a few ‘‘international’’
recipes, for spaghetti or macaroni and cheese, for example,
appeared occasionally in mainstream cookbooks, even such
timid forays into culinary diversity were few and far between.
Heavy, starchy, and plain if not bland, most middle-class
American cooking followed a tradition hostile to excessive
spices, sharp flavors, and any ‘‘foreign’’Fnon-English or nonWestern EuropeanFingredients.
Thus the appearance of Chinese recipes in mainstream
cookbooks and women’s magazines of the 1920s marked a
significant departure from established culinary preferences and
patterns. Requiring no salt, bread, or dairy products, and
instead such rare and unfamiliar ingredients as bean sprouts,
ginger root, soy sauce, and water chestnuts, the new recipes for
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 679
‘‘Chinese Chop Suey’’ and chow mein must have seemed strange
if not daunting, but for those who had eaten in Chinese
American restaurants, perhaps slightly less challenging. In fact,
as many writers for Good Housekeeping and The Ladies’ Home
Journal confessed, the reason that ‘‘Chinese cookery’’ appeared
so commonly in women’s magazines of the 1920s was linked
directly to Chinese restaurantsFwomen who had tasted chop
suey and chow mein in Chinatown cafes, as well as non-Chinese
cafeterias and lunchrooms, had become so enamored with the
dish that they wanted to prepare it at home. ‘‘Have you ever
attempted to make Chop Suey at home and wondered why it
didn’t taste so good as it did in a Chinese restaurant?’’ asked a
writer for Good Housekeeping. The key to good chop suey lay in
two crucial ingredientsF‘‘Chinese sauce, or soy sauce, as we
Americans call it,’’ and ‘‘Sesamum-seed oil, a strong delicious
oil, a few drops of which will greatly improve a dish and give it a
real Chinese tang’’ (Evans 67). Both products, magazines
assured, were available in mainstream grocery stores. ‘‘Though
heretofore Chinese vegetables and sauces could be purchased
only in Chinese shops, today bamboo shoots, noodles, soy bean
sauce, brown sauce and kumquats . . . are all being packed in
tin cans and bottles and sold in our retail markets,’’ Good
Housekeeping explained. With a few bottles of soy sauce, some
canned bean sprouts, and simple instructions, any woman could
be her own ‘‘Chinese chef ’’ (Allen 72).
Judging from popular accounts of the period, many middleclass housewives of the 1920s were, in fact, using soy sauce, bean
sprouts, water chestnuts, and chow mein noodles to prepare
their own ‘‘Chinese’’ meals at home. In particular, chop suey
and chow mein were frequently the centerpiece of elaborate
luncheon parties and ‘‘theme dinners’’ thrown by ambitious
middle-class women of the 1920s for their titillatedFor in
some cases, bewilderedFguests. In Main Street, city-bred
Carol Kennicott shocks her small-town neighbors with a lavish
Chinese dinner party featuring ‘‘blue bowls of chow mein… and
ginger preserved in syrup’’ (Lewis 81). Other wives of the period
held ‘‘mah jongg parties’’ featuring, as mid-game refreshments,
egg foo yung, lichee nuts, and tea. Guests took in the meals with
‘‘agreeable doubt,’’ in Sinclair Lewis’s words, and ventured
bravely, with forks and chopsticks, into new culinary territory.
Some left dinner less than satisfied, but others with interest
in the ‘‘exotic’’ cuisine, which many Americans, even by the
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late 1920s, thought was truly foreign. In 1930, the Fuji Food
Company shocked many ‘‘chop suey addicts’’ by announcing
that ‘‘contrary to general understanding,’’ the dish was ‘‘purely
American and to procure it in China is practically an
impossibility’’ (‘‘Making Oriental Dishes’’ 28). Restaurants,
magazines, and cookbooks, however, continued to classify chop
suey as Chinese, and during the 1930s, many families who ate
chop suey for dinner seem to have genuinely believed that they
were ‘‘eating ethnic.’’
By the 1930s, chop suey, chow mein, and other Chinese
American foods had become popular dinnertime staples. During
the Depression and World War II, the inexpensive, filling
dishes were lauded by women’s magazines as an effective way
to stretch the family food budget. ‘‘Chop suey parlors’’
continued to flourish both in and out of Chinatown, attracting
an increasing number of middle-class patrons, and during the
1940s, thanks in part to the US Army, frozen and canned chop
suey and chow mein began appearing on mainstream grocers’
shelves. Italian American entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci, noticing
that returning veterans had developed a taste for chop suey,
which had been served in Army mess halls, started a line of
prepackaged ‘‘Chinese’’ dinners, marketed under the brand
name Chun King. With their trademark red labels and inventive
packaging (chow mein was sold in two separate cans, one for
vegetables and one for the crispy noodles), Chun King dinners
can still be found in grocery stores today. Due in large part to
the initial efforts of Chinese immigrant restaurateurs, flavors
and ingredients once considered exoticFsoy sauce, bean
sprouts, water chestnuts, ginger, among othersFhad become
an accepted part of the mainstream middle-class diet.
Cuisine, Identity, and Culture
The story of chop suey and Chinese American dishes in the
first half of the twentieth century illustrates the way that
restaurants have been able to initiate, however slight, crosscultural interaction and culinary diversification. It also raises
important questions about why food and eating establishments have often been more successful in promoting exchange
between diverse cultural groups and traditions than other
social institutionsFwhy many Americans, during a time of
intense anti-immigrant sentiment and hostility toward Asian
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 681
Americans, seemed more than eager to adopt ‘‘Chinese’’ food
into their diets. There are a number of possible explanations for
this paradox, having largely to do with traditional attitudes
toward non-Western cultures and the longstanding image of
subordinate peoples as preparers and servers of food. As
anthropologist Lisa Heldke has suggested, eating foreign food
has long been a form of cultural and ‘‘culinary imperialism,’’ in
which colonizers confirm their dominance over a culture by
appropriating and subverting its cuisine (175-93). For white
Americans struck by the Orientalist craze of the 1920sFthe
same craze that gave rise to Rudolph Valentino, Fu Manchu,
and other popular ‘‘Oriental’’ images and icons of the eraF
eating chop suey became an inexpensive and safe way, quite
literally, to taste the Other. Moreover, the image of Chinese
Americans as restaurant servers or cooks posed little threat to
most AmericansFalthough they could not accept the presence
of Chinese Americans in mainstream social settings or businesses, they had little trouble envisioning them in subservient
roles. Chop suey became more popular, in fact, the further
it moved from Chinese American peopleFthough hybrid
dishes achieved their initial popularity in Chinatown restaurants, the real ‘‘chop suey craze’’ began when the dish entered
non-Chinese restaurants and homes. As culinary historian
Harvey Levenstein has noted, Chinese American food became
extraordinarily popular in the Midwest, a region where, not
coincidentally, Chinese immigrants were fewest (Levenstein
Indeed, Americans’ exposure to Chinese American food in
the early twentieth century seems to have done little to change
dominant attitudes toward Asian immigrants. Many white
restaurateurs who served chop suey often used popular racial
stereotypes as a means of attracting customers. Hoping to
stir up enthusiasm for his chop suey and chow mein lunches,
one cafeteria owner advertised that ‘‘the dishes are not made
by a Chinaman, which only means that the food is cleaner’’
(Oliver 481). Eating chop suey in Chinese-run, rather than whiteowned restaurants, joked The American Restaurant, was a sure
way to contract a diseaseFif not commit ‘‘chop-suey-cide’’
(‘‘Sad Indeed’’ 126). Food manufacturers in the 1920s perpetuated popular images of Chinese and Chinese Americans as
unclean, and cookbooks, as scholar Sherrie Inness has written,
often portrayed Chinese Americans as foreign, exotic, and
682 Journal of Popular Culture
‘‘inscrutable’’ (107). The growing acceptance Chinese American
food clearly did not extend to Chinese Americans.
By distancing foods of Chinese origin from people of
Chinese origin, and by reaffirming Chinese Americans’ subordinate status through the repeated invocation of racial
stereotypes, white Americans were able to adopt Chinese
American dishes into their diet in spite of their hostilities
toward Asian immigrants. Because it did not disrupt traditional
social relationships and often involved little contact with
Chinese immigrants, the cultural, geographic, and culinary
boundary-crossing initiated by Chinese food and restaurants
in the early twentieth century seemed, to many Americans,
acceptable and safe. It is important to note, however, that
not all Americans of the period were hostile toward Asian
immigrants, and that many embarked on their forays into
Chinatown, and into Chinese cooking, with legitimate desire for
cross-cultural exchange. Many housewives who prepared chop
suey and chow mein, like Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott,
found their interest in Chinese cooking a catalyst for further
explorations into Asian art and history. Similarly, many
women’s magazines printed tidbits of Chinese history and
culinary lore along with recipes for chop suey and chow mein,
and featured articles on Asian cooking written by Chinese
American women. Even more notable, and what perhaps may
be the most important result of the chop suey craze of the 1920s,
is that it lay the groundwork for more respectful and fruitful
culinary and cultural exchange in the latter part of the century.
During the 1940s and 50s, many Chinese restaurants expanded
their menus to encompass more authentic dishes and flavors;
cooking literature of the era also reflected greater openness
toward more traditional Chinese cooking styles. In 1945, Buwei
Yang Chao achieved significant attention for How to Cook and
Eat in Chinese, perhaps the first popular cookbook in English
devoted exclusively to Chinese cooking. Unlike the standard
‘‘chop suey and chow mein’’ repertoire in most cookbooks,
Chao’s book featured recipes for chicken with oyster sauce,
fried rice, pork in wine glaze, and stuffed cucumbersFrevolutionary for home cooks of that era. In the 1950s, Chinese
American women offered Chinese cooking courses at YWCAs
and community centers throughout the nation, and by the
1970s, a wide range of dishes from a variety of Chinese regions
appeared in cookbooks, restaurants, and even mainstream
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 683
grocery stores. Political, cultural, and demographic factorsF
growing tolerance for ethnic diversity, greater foreign travel,
and increasing numbers of Asian immigrants, among othersF
have played a significant role in the recent popularity of Asian
foods, but the influence of Chinese restaurants and their
‘‘hybrid’’ dishes must also be taken into account. By introducing
Americans to new ingredients and flavorsFand most important, to the very idea of eating outside their own cultural
traditionFdishes like chop suey and chow mein helped transform America into a nation of multicultural diners.
What this case study of Chinese restaurants and Chinese
American food may suggest is that culinary preferences do not
always correlate with racial and social attitudesFthat cultural
minorities, for example, may seem far less threatening to
dominant social groups when placed in the context of food and
dining. For that reason, restaurants, particularly ethnic restaurants, may be more interesting and lively sites of cross-cultural
exchange and interaction than scholars have traditionally
assumed. Notably, Harvey Levenstein has written that Italian
American restaurateurs initiated boundary-crossing in the 1920s
and 30sFItalian restaurants were largely responsible for the
popularity of pasta and pizza among mainstream American
consumersFand historian Donna Gabaccia, in We Are What
We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans, has suggested that Jewish and Mexican American restaurants may have
sparked similar patterns of culinary transmission and exchange.
What is needed in the fields of American studies and American
culinary history are more case studies and explorations into the
ways that particular foods and restaurants have facilitated
cultural and dietary diversification, transforming how we cook,
what we eat, and ultimately, who we are.
Works Cited
Allen, Roberta. ‘‘Be Your Own Chinese Chef.’’ Good Housekeeping Jan.
1928: 72.
Bonner, Arthur. Alas! What Brought Thee Hither. Madison: Fairleigh
Dickinson UP, 1997.
‘‘Chop Suey and Chow Mein Good Sellers.’’ National Restaurant News
June 1923: 46.
Crow, Carl. ‘‘Sharks Fins and Ancient Eggs.’’ Harper’s Sept. 1937:
684 Journal of Popular Culture
‘‘Culver City Chop Suey Cafe´.’’ Menu Collection, Los Angeles Public
Library (http://www.lapl.org/elec_neigh/index.html).
Evans, Jean Carol. ‘‘As the Chinese Cook.’’ Good Housekeeping March
1923: 67.
‘‘Feeding 50,000 Men a Day!’’ Cafeteria Management June 1927: 29.
‘‘Food Bureau.’’ Cafeteria Management Jan. 1928: 18.
Gabaccia, Donna. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making
of Americans. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.
Gibson, O. The Chinese in America. Cincinnati: Hitchcock and Walden,
Hancock, Emory. ‘‘Making the Small Town Restaurant Pay.’’ National
Restaurant News Jan. 1925: 26.
Harrison, Alice. ‘‘Chinese Food and Restaurants.’’ Overland Monthly
June 1917: 527-32.
Heldke, Lisa. ‘‘Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism’’ in Pilaf,
Pozole and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food. Ed.
Sherrie Inness. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2000.
‘‘Historic Chinatown.’’ The San Francisco Chronicle 24 Dec. 1917: 10.
Inness, Sherrie. Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture.
Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000.
‘‘Interesting Facts about Vitamin C.’’ The American Restaurant Nov.
1927: 106.
Jones, Idwal. ‘‘Cathay on the Coast.’’ The American Mercury Aug.
1926: 453-60.
Kessler, D. E. ‘‘An Evening in Chinatown.’’ Overland Monthly May
1907: 445-49.
Lovegren, Sylvia. Fashionable Food. New York: Macmillan, 1995.
‘‘Making Oriental Dishes Popular in American Restaurants.’’ The
American Restaurant July 1930: 28.
Mariani, John. America Eats Out. New York: William Morrow, 1991.
Oliver, John. ‘‘Business Building Ideas.’’ The American Restaurant Aug.
‘‘Sad Indeed.’’ The American Restaurant Sept. 1927: 126.
Scheffaner, Herman. ‘‘The Old Chinese Quarter.’’ Living Age Aug.
1910: 359-66.
‘‘Seeing Chinatown.’’ New York Times 28 Aug. 1905: 10.
The Stevensons. ‘‘Chinatown, My Land of Dreams.’’ Overland Monthly
Jan. 1919: 42-45.
‘‘This Chinese Cafe´ Is Run by Two Americans.’’ Restaurant Management June 1929: 381.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian
Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.
‘‘I’ll Take Chop Suey’’ 685
Samantha Barbas is assistant professor of history at Chapman
University in Orange, California. A specialist in American cultural
history, she is the author of Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars and the Cult of
Celebrity (Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press, 2001).
686 Journal of Popular Culture

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