Two for Moo Shu: Jennifer 8. Lee and Andrew Coe on American Chinese Food [Review]


As a child I was mystified by Chinese food. First of all, it contained a lot of vegetables, some of them unidentifiable, most of them green. Second, much of it was spicy and/or covered in strange sauces. Some of the dishes even had whole dried chilies in them! What was most troubling to me, however, was the process of ordering: how was one to know what constituted Dragon and Phoenix? Moo Goo Gai Pan? It never said on the menus. I was impressed when my parents ordered new dishes, bravely selecting descriptionless items seemingly at random. Who knew what they would find in those white cardboard containers?

As I grew older and braver, I too started trying new things on Chinese menus, with varying success. I realized that none of these items were all that scary, nor were they generally all that spicy. It turns out that this is by design; American Chinese restaurants produce food designed for the American palate, much of which would be nigh unrecognizable to a Chinese citizen. I read two books on the subject: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee (buy on Amazon), and Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States by Andrew Coe (buy on Amazon).

The two books deal with a similar subject matter in very different ways. In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Lee goes on a literal quest to discover the Chinese roots of Americanized Chinese food. Intrigued initially by the story of a lotto drawing which payed out several times the usual number of prizes, Lee's investigation led her to fortune cookies: the winners had all played the "lucky numbers" on the backs of fortune cookie slips. Traveling across America to the restaurants where the winners received their cookies, Lee becomes intrigued by many aspects of the American Chinese food phenomenon. Who invented the fortune cookie? (Possibly the Japanese?) Why are there so many kosher Chinese restaurants? Who is General Tso, anyway, and where exactly do the restaurant workers in rural Chinese restaurants come from? Lee doesn't always discover the answers to these questions, but the stories and people she encounters along the way more than make up for it.

Coe takes a different approach in Chop Suey: his book is a straightforward history of the culinary relationship between America and China. Coe offers a more in-depth look at Chinese food in China than Lee, which helps provide context for the Americanized versions. His examination of the relationship between class and the spread of Chinese food is compelling; check out the section on Sinclair Lewis and his use of Chinese food as a metaphor for sophisticated city life. Coe's writing is clear and strong, and while it lacks the personal, anecdotal voice at which Lee excells, it more than makes up for it in his thorough research and obvious passion for his topic.

Complementary narratives

Starting out, I thought both books would rehash the same concepts and that one would arise clearly victorious over the other. It turns out the two are actually nice complements to each other. Coe's book starts at the beginning, with the first American ship to pull into a Chinese harbor in 1784 and working forward through the culinary interactions between the countries until the mid-80s or so, when other Asian restaurants (Thai, Japanese) began to grow in popularity. Lee's book picks up in roughly the spot where Coe leaves off, with some jaunts a bit further back for context, and more focuses on specific dishes. Where Coe is academic, Lee is investigative; where Lee's voice is pop-culture first person, Coe's is reserved and steady. Lee tells stories, Coe presents history.

If I absolutely had to pick one over the other, I would pick Lee's energetic, personal, fast-paced book, but it's a close call. Instead I'd say that the true student of American Chinese food (and you're out there, aren't you?) should read both, together. Between the two, I emerged with a fairly thorough education in the history of Americanized Chinese food, and feeling significantly more confident in ordering mystery items off the take-out menu — which doesn't actually feel so mysterious anymore.

Paula Forbes

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