Friday, August 8, 2014

Chop Suey, USA

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Chop Suey, USA (Columbia University Press, 2014).

You know you're reading a book for academic types when this happens: the author, Yong Chen, who's an associate professor of history at the University of California - Irvine, makes a point that "the development of American Chinese food followed the trajectory of America's evolution as an empire." He then spends the next eight pages defining what the heck he means by "empire." Oh, settle in, readers, because sweet and sour chicken might be comfort food for some of you, but this won't be comfort reading for anybody.

Chop Suey, USA is a dry but fact-stuffed analysis of the socioeconomic rise of inexpensive food made for the masses, cooked with compromises for American tastes and shortcuts for ease of service. Food in Chinese restaurants was, in the days before McDonald's, the least expensive dining-out option, letting people in the early 20th Century have a taste of affordable cooking outside their homes on a regular basis.

So this is a denser read than something that would come with a Food Network logo on the front cover. It required me to reactivate long dormant parts of my brain, the ones that, once upon a time, wrote 65 dense, dense pages about Ezra Pound's embrace of fascism in Italy, to tackle any more than about seven pages of economic theory, class, history, and sociology without falling asleep. Those of you who are used to the academic need to explain and footnote absolutely everything for fear of some peer asking a question they had not already answered in meticulous detail - that's why academic texts are so damn dry, because the writers are anticipating scrutiny that the rest of us, particularly bloggers, don't suffer in quite the same way - will probably find this an interesting little jaunt over the last 150 years.

On the other hand, those of you who are interested in the history of Chinese-American cuisine in a slightly more offhand and anecdotal way will find this, frankly, a longwinded bore. See, for me, Chinese-American food was historically a reasonable compromise to enjoy with friends or family who liked it more than me. I knew that it was not "traditional" or "authentic," but never really knew what was until about the last eighteen months, when I started digging into the menus of some Chinese-owned restaurants along Buford Highway in northeast Atlanta that do not really advertise to Americans, or cater to them with sweet and sour sauce, orange goop, or MSG. I make a distinction between what I term suburban Golden-This-Happy-That joints and the more authentic ones, and I wondered whether that's really fair. This book leads me to think that I'm correct. Chapter 7 goes into this in great detail. Interestingly, chop suey itself has gradually fallen out of favor - I honestly don't think that I've ever had it - and kung pao chicken or shrimp is more frequently seen as the most popular Chinese-American takeout dish. Neither dish is generally known inside China.

Don't get me wrong - this is a good book and an enlightening one. The conclusion and the afterword, "Why Study Food?," are fascinating essays on their own, but I found myself craving a lighter touch, more anecdotes, and more studies of modern subcultures where authentic Chinese cooking may be available for locals to find, instead of pages and pages of old economic theories. Recommended, mildly, with a cup of coffee by your side.

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