Who's Afraid of Chop Suey? Or, The Politics of Authenticity

 

I humbly report that I have a piece —  “Who’s Afraid of Chop Suey?” — in the most recent Education About Asia (Winter 2011). The journal has generously made it available online for free (click here).

Chop Suey offers a convenient way to talk about the fate of Chinese food and cooking in the US before recent times, when the level of care and appreciation rose tremendously. The piece also argues that it is a mistake to dismiss the dish for not being “authentic.”

It is fair to say that Chop Suey in most restaurants is very likely to be a gooey mess — too salty, too sweet, too mushy — but it is dangerous to say that it’s not authentic. “Authenticity” is  too often used to police the cultural borders against intruders, cosmopolitans, hybrids, and mongrels, and  assumes that “authentic” means pure and unspoiled, “true to itself.” Good enough. I”m all for it. But who gets to decide what’s authentic? The House Un-Authentic Activities Committee?

Years ago I got a lesson in the ironies of authenticity angst. I had just come back from Taiwan, where I had spent a lot of time in restaurants and street stalls which had cooks and customers who were trained in the old ways on the mainland. I thought I knew something about authentic Chinese food.

I searched up and down the streets of Boston Chinatown for the place with the dimmest lights and the most Chinese customers. I found just the spot and ordered  the Special Lunch or ke fan. This was a cup of soup and a mound of rice with your meat or veggies on top, served on a flat plate. I politely turned down the spoon they brought and demanded  chopsticks. Only after a few minutes of chasing the rice around the plate did I look around to see that all the old Chinese men, the ones whose authentic presence had drawn me in, were eating with spoons.

I had demanded chopsticks because I was worried about authenticity. What was I thinking? I was a six foot blue eyed blond. Did I think that if I used chopsticks nobody would notice that I wasn’t Chinese? The actual Chinese in that restaurant didn’t worry about authenticity: All they wanted to do was to get the food into their mouths. No matter what they did they were still “Chinese.”  They were sensible; I got rice all over my shirt.

By the same authenticity test, I would never have ordered Chop Suey. Somehow Chop Suey wasn’t “Chinese,” or at least not authentic Chinese. In the following years I came to realize that just as there are regional cuisines inside China, there are regional Chinese cuisines outside China. American Chinese cuisine is one of them, and it’s just as authentic as can be. I’ve had dreary Peking Duck in China and excellent sweet and sour pork in the US.

A few years ago, I came back to Chop Suey, or at least to the idea of it. For a book about how Americans thought about China, I wanted to write a biography of a food item that started in the 19th century and came down to the present.  The ups and downs of Chop Suey show a great deal about Americans, some of them of Chinese ancestry, many of them not.

Some recent good books beat me to the punch. Jennifer 8. Lee,  a New York Times reporter, got out into the field to talk to people about how the Chinese restaurant business actually works, and combined this with some pretty good library research. Her  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (New York, NY: Twelve, 2008) is lively and full of smart points. She argues that the close-knit world of Chinese restaurants set them up for the same type of  “cloud sourcing,” or “group entrepreneurship” that fueled the take off in Silicon Valley computer industry. She tells a lively story of creativity and constant innovation.

Andrew Coe’s  Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2009) also tells a good story based on delving into historical records. J. A. G. Roberts, China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (London: Reaktion, 2002) follows Western reactions to Chinese food over the last few centuries.

On a more theoretical but still accessible level, Daniel Little’s Understanding Society blog piece,  “Cultural Authenticity and the Market” (here) shows us how to use the idea of authenticity without spilling philosophical rice on our philosophical shirts.

Besides, everything is an authentic something or other. The touts on downtown Nathan Road in Hong Kong used to offer “genuine” ROLEX watches. Smart tourists wouldn’t bite when they noticed the RALEX or ROLOX logo, so a few years ago the touts began to ask “do you want to buy a fake Rolex?” People bought them so they could have a cute story to tell their friends.  These watches were “authentic,” that is, “authentic fakes.”

So let’s not get all authenticer than thou.

14 responses

  1. Fantastic article: I’m going to have to share it with my modern China students. I have Coe’s book here – grossly overdue, and they charge faculty for that now – but my first look at it was rather disappointing. I need to make a decision and get rid of it, but it looked more like institutional than cultural history at first glance.

    I have one question, though: how sure are you about General Tso’s chicken? At some point, I know I read a version of the history of that dish which credited it to Zuo Zongtang, self-strengthener and suppressor of the Hui uprisings. I’ve been citing it that way for a few years now; I’m going to hate going back to everyone I’ve told about it to correct myself.

  2. Thanks — it’s a fun topic. But as to General Tso (or General Bao or Gao), nobody has found a link between him and the dish, which appeared in Manhattan in the 1970s and is nothing like Hunan cooking in any case. The Wikipedia article General Tso’s Chicken is a pretty good summary, but wants to allow for the possibility that there was some connection with Zuo Zongtang. The articles says “it is said that he enjoyed it” even though there is no evidence for this statement. Wikipedia is just being wishy washy, so only go with the part that says it is associated with his name, not connected with the actual person. Changing your mind would not be so bad — everyone will respect you for your willingness to “seek truth from facts”!

  3. Most interesting article and post. (I have Coe’s book in my to-read pile at home, and have read Fortune Cookie Chronicles.) Here in Hawaii we have a vibrant regional Chinese cuisine, at many levels, but I still am amazed when I go to China…wow the food so good. (Except for the places designed for Western tourists…some of the best meals I had ever were in Shiyan, the auto/truck factory town. Auto workers know how to eat!) The big question we have about authenticity in Hawaii is…where to get authentic Mexican!

    I have a question: I remember reading somewhere years ago that the fortune cookie as we know it has some “authentic” precedent in China, having to do with oracles in pancakes, or pancake sellers delivering oracles. I suspect that is pure myth, but myth sometimes has a kernel of historicity. Have you heard of anything like this?

  4. You’re right — there is the widespread story that in the 13th century the plan for overthrowing the Yuan dynasty was spread through putting messages in mooncakes. I’m not sure that this is a precedent for the fortune cookie, though.

    As a separate thing, I’ve heard that in Hawaii “Chop Suey” is a general name for Chinese food. That is, that people will say “let’s go for Chop Suey” meaning just “let’s go for a Chinese dinner.”

  5. Great article on chop suey especially with reference to the often elitist criterion of “authenticity”…. I posted on my blog about two excellent discussions on the issue, one by Malindo Lo in her Master’s thesis, http://sweetsour.yolasite.com/chop-blog-uey/is-the-food-in-chinese-american-cookbooks-authentic– and in another one by a science fiction writer, Aliette de Bodard, http://sweetsour.yolasite.com/chop-blog-uey/-authenticity-applied-to-vietnamese-food

    Putting down the food that other people like as inauthentic is often a form of snobbism. de gustibus non disputandum est!

  6. Thanks for the kind comments, John, and even more thanks for the links to great postings on your blogs, which I hope everyone will visit. I envy you the Chinese restaurants in California where you can combine scientific research and good food!

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