Q&A with Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States – Part 2.
This set of questions was created as a review to the book and what piqued my interest. Chop Suey awoke many thoughts and as I went through the book, I wrote down some questions. Coe told of many situations of culture clashing and assimilation. What interested me the most were the huge banquets of the Chinese past and the new migrations of Asians into NYC – as evidenced in my questions.
JO: Reading this book makes me feel lucky to be living in the present. While the cultures might be watered down, we have incredible access to all these varieties of culture. You documented many eras of experiences with chinese food mostly from the American’s perspective. Was there an era of chinese food that appealed to you the most?
AC: We hope that we’re now living in a golden age of Chinese food in America, but I suspect that may not be true. I would love to have tried the big banquet-style restaurants of 1860s San Francisco. That was before anti-Chinese sentiment really took hold, and the restaurants had a customer base of wealthy Chinese merchants that could support really top-flight Cantonese cuisine. From the décor to the foodstuffs to the chefs, nearly everything was imported by China, and the ingredients were supplemented by absolutely fresh California seafood and Chinese vegetables grown locally. They would serve banquets with literally hundreds of dishes, each more rarified than the next, accompanied by fine tea, liquors, music, and even opium pipes. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can compete.
JO: Which moment that you wrote about would you have loved to be one of the guests of honor?
AC: Food is central to Chinese culture, so its history is filled with food-related events to which I would have loved to be invited. However, the Chinese food tradition that I find most intriguing is the now-disappeared Beijing imperial palace cuisine. The Chinese emperor’s kitchens were vast, employing thousands, both on the palace grounds and in the outlying imperial farms. The imperial cookbooks run to dozens of volumes that give menus for every occasion and rank from emperor on down. Food also had an important ritual function, as offerings, so the palace kitchens also prepared dishes that were meant for the gods. I would like to have been invited to dine at an imperial banquet. Unfortunately, as an untutored barbarian, that was highly unlikely even if I had been alive at the time.
JO: I’d imagine there are challenges with writing pre-gold rush with very little information and writing about the last 150 years with much more of it. Did you find either more frustrating: trying to find the rare information or narrowing down the plethora?
AC: Writing this book was certainly a research challenge. The biggest frustration was the lack of books written on the history of Chinese food in China. These certainly exist in Chinese, but none have been translated. (Due to the language problem, there’s still a huge cultural gap between China and the United States.) The other problem was having to deal with just too much information. Americans have always been fascinated with China, so there’s a vast array of books with relevant information. Having too little information about certain eras led me to ask an interesting question: Why didn’t Americans in say, late 19th century China or 1860s San Francisco, not write about Chinese food? I found that it was usually because they were prejudiced against the Chinese and refused to eat their food.
JO: What is the future of Chinese food? New sections coming in?
AC:The future of Chinese food is tied to immigration. If we continue to allow Chinese immigrants with culinary skills to settle in the United States, we’ll continue enjoying the incredible diverse array of Chinese restaurants that we see in the Chinatowns of New York and Los Angeles, among other places. If we close the door, Chinese restaurants will stagnate, as happened to the Cantonese-American eateries after World War II. I support the open door.
JO: It seems like the Chinese were the Asian pioneers in American food culture. Do you find other Asian cultures are following in the footsteps of Chinese food?
AC: The Chinese were certainly the Asian pioneers in the United States and helped open our palates to Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indian, and many other cuisines. (In the first half of the 20th century, sukiyaki was hailed as the Japanese counterpart to chop suey.) For better or worse, they also provided a role model for Asian immigrant restaurateurs seeking to open businesses that would attract both their countrymen and non-Asians.
JO: How would you compare newly emerging Asian culture in the US today to the plight of the Chinese in the last 100 years?
AC: In the 19th century, Chinese immigrants were vilified, spat upon, beaten, and occasionally killed by racists in the American West. They were also systematically denied basic rights, including to own property and become citizens. Somehow, they persevered, building vibrant communities that are now the entry places for thousands of Chinese immigrants. Today, Asians face discrimination and other problems, but they are, luckily, nothing compared to what their ancestors suffered.
Thanks, Andrew Coe, for your insight and time you took to answer my questions. And to you, reader, for more about the book and purchasing information, see the links below: