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.