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

Chop Suey

Chop Suey

A Cultural History of Chinese
Food in the United States


Andrew Coe




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The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Coe, Andrew.
Chop suey : a cultural history of Chinese food in the United States
/ Andrew Coe.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-19-533107-3
1. Cookery, Chinese. 2. Food habits—United States—History. I. Title.
TX724.5.C5C64 2009
641.5951–dc22 2008054664


9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper





List of Illustrations

1 Stags’ Pizzles and Birds’ Nests

2 Putrified Garlic on a Much-used Blanket

3 Coarse Rice and Water

4 Chinese Gardens on Gold Mountain

5 A Toothsome Stew

6 American Chop Suey

7 Devouring the Duck

Photo Credits





This journey into the less-charted realms of Chinese and United States history could not have been accomplished without the assistance of many individuals and institutions. During the seemingly endless research phase of this project, I depended on the collections, staff, and resources of the New York Public Library: the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, particularly its Asian and Middle Eastern Division, and the Chinese Heritage Collection at the Chatham Square Branch Library. I also consulted the Nixon Presidential Library, the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, and the magnificent Dr. Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese Cookbook Collection housed in the Special Collections and University Archives of the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library of the State University of New York, Stonybrook. I am indebted to a Linda D. Russo Grant from the Culinary Trust for allowing me to visit the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Chinese Historical Society of America. The exhibition “Have You Eaten Yet? The Chinese Restaurant in America” at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas was one of the inspirations for this book. During the writing phase of this project, I relied on the staff and workspaces of the New York Mercantile Library’s Writers’ Studio and the New York Society Library. For assistance during all phases of this project, I am grateful to Richard Snow, Magnus Bartlett, Andrew Smith, Anne
Mendelson, Harley Spiller, Jakob Klein, Anthony Chang, Charles Perry, H. Mark Lai, Madeline Y. Hsu, Harold Rolnick, Stella Dong, Paul Mooney, Eileen Mooney, Kenny of the Bronx’s Golden Gate restaurant, Jacqueline Newman and
Flavor & Fortune
, Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman, and, for technical support, my father, Michael D. Coe. Dwight Chapin, Charles Freeman, and Winston Lord generously granted me interviews on which I drew for the section on Nixon’s China trip. Joanna Waley-Cohen and John Eng-Wong were indefatigable readers who gave me greatly needed perspective. At Oxford University Press, my editors Benjamin Keene and Grace Labatt were painstaking and patient. And thanks to my sons Buster and Smacky for loving Chinese food and usually letting me work.


1.1. Samuel Shaw (1754–1794), supercargo of the
Empress of China
and a pioneer of Chinese-American trade


1.2. A western view of Chinese exotica: A toast at an aristocratic dinner party


1.3. Large flags proclaim the western presence in the “factory” compound on the outskirts of Guangzhou


1.4. An engraving from
The Chinese Traveller
depicts men catching water fowl


2.1. Caleb Cushing, the U.S. Commissioner to China from 1843 to 1845


2.2. Rice sellers at a military station, c. 1843


2.3. An American missionary with her Chinese converts in Fuzhou, c. 1902


3.1. Bronze cooking vessel from the Shang Dynasty, c. 1600–1046


3.2. Two kinds of steamed dumplings


3.3. A “movable chow shop” in Canton, c. 1919


4.1. A Chinese restaurant on Dupont Street, San Francisco, in 1869


4.2. A painter’s depiction of a Chinese fishmonger with his wares, late nineteenth century


4.3. A Chinese peddler sells fruits and vegetables to a San Francisco housewife


4.4. A lavish San Francisco banquet restaurant, c. 1905


5.1. This second floor Port Arthur restaurant attracted wealthy white “slummers” to Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown


5.2. Li Hongzhang’s 1896 visit to New York stimulated a craze for Chinese food


The Latest Craze of American Society, New Yorkers Dining in a Chinese Restaurant


5.4. A 1950s postcard advertises an upscale Chicago Chinese restaurant


6.1. Elsie Sigel’s unsolved 1909 murder, dubbed the “Chinatown Trunk Mystery” by the national media, reinforced misgivings about the exotic world of that neighborhood


6.2. From 1938 to 1962, San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub featured performances by Asian-American musicians, dancers, strippers, and magicians


6.3. The 1916 menu for the Oriental Restaurant in New York’s Chinatown


6.4. Started in 1959, Bernstein-on-Essex on New York’s Lower East Side was the pioneer of Chinese-kosher cuisine


6.5. In 1900, Mott Street’s King Hong Lau served white patrons noodle soups and chop suey, with tea and sweets for dessert


7.1. Inexpensive “family dinners,” like these offerings at New Joy Young in Knoxville, Tennessee, were the mainstay of 1950s Chinese-American restaurants


7.2. President Richard Nixon shares a meal with Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972


7.3. Adroitly wielding her chopsticks, Mrs. Nixon enjoys some spicy eggplant on her visit to the kitchens of the Peking Hotel, February 1972


7.4. In 1972, the Hunam restaurant introduced diners to the “hot-hot-hot” cuisine of China’s Hunan province


7.5. Many storefront Chinese restaurants, like this one in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, are run by recent Fujianese immigrants


7.6. P.F. Chang’s offers upscale Americanized Chinese food in an exotic “Chinese village” setting


Chop Suey

Stags’ Pizzles and Birds’ Nests

On a frigid morning in February 1784, the
Empress of China
set sail from New York harbor. It was embarking on the most ambitious expedition yet attempted by a United States vessel. At the helm stood Captain John Green, a pugnacious six-foot-four-inch veteran of the Continental navy, with many passages to Europe and the Caribbean under his belt. For this trip, he couldn’t count on that experience. His only guide would be a British pilot’s manual that listed what little was known about the reefs and shoals, ports and trade winds his ship would encounter on the journey. If she survived, Captain Green estimated the voyage would take over a year, perhaps as much as two. The
Empress of China
was setting out on the first American trip to China, the era’s equivalent of the 1969 journey to the Moon.


As the ship emerged onto the open Atlantic, its timbers creaked and groaned under the weight of its cargo. Barrels in the hold carried almost $20,000 in Spanish silver and thirty tons of dried ginseng root from the mountains of
Pennsylvania and Virginia. The
’s owners, some of the young nation’s most powerful businessmen, hoped to trade the silver and the ginseng for the tea, silks, and porcelain of China. To sustain the ship’s forty-two-man crew, Captain Green had filled every remaining space both below and above deck with food and drink, enough provisions to last 14 months at sea. This included enough fresh water to last five months and 48 barrels’ worth of alcoholic beverages, mainly white Tenerife wine, strong Madeira wine, brandy, and “old Jamaica spirits” (rum). The wine and brandy were reserved for the officers; the thirsty crew had to make do with the throat-scorching rum.

The Americans on board the
Empress of China
carried their culinary traditions with them. On their journey to the other side of the globe, they ate the food of the pan–North Atlantic tradition, from the United States to the British Isles, adapted for the ocean voyage. Their staples were salt beef, salt pork, potatoes, and bread. The food eaten by the officers and the food eaten by the crew were of distinctly different quality. Coops filled with chickens and pens of sheep, pigs, and goats were lashed onto the decks. While this supply of livestock lasted, they provided fresh meat for the officers’ cabin. The bread for the officers was soft and baked fresh by the ship’s cook; the crew had to gnaw on rock-hard, worm-infested ship’s biscuit. Dinners at the officers’ table could include butter, pea soup flavored with bacon, roast meat, meat pies, boiled potatoes and cabbage, cheese, apples, condiments, and cake or pudding for dessert. As they embarked in the dead of winter, fresh vegetables were almost totally absent. For the sailors, meals were a monotonous round of salt meat, potatoes and biscuit, interspersed with peas or beans. All of this was washed down with weak beer that was brewed on board. Three times a week, the crew enjoyed their rations of rum, and on Saturdays they were given the treat
of a raisin and molasses-sweetened pudding. Both officers and crew were served a nautical specialty called lobscouse, a stew of salt beef, sea biscuit, and potatoes—though again, the sailors had to chew on the butt ends of the meat while the officers had the best cuts stewed with cabbage and carrots as well as potatoes. Everybody on board seasoned their food with vinegar to keep scurvy at bay.

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