Chen (History/Univ. of California, Irvine; Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community, 2000) shows how enterprising immigrants turned Chinese food, reviled by 19th-century Americans, into one of the country’s favorite ethnic meals.
Although there are a few recipes included, the book is more a socioeconomic/cultural study than a culinary one. The author, who grew up in China and came to America in the mid-1980s, shows how the intersection of Chinese immigration and America’s habits of consumption incubated a thriving restaurant culture. When Chinese men came without their families to seek their fortunes during the mid-19th-century gold rush, they faced racism and isolation. Driven out of mining and railroad jobs by hostile white workers, many became cooks and servants. Paradoxically, white middle-class families sought Chinese domestic workers for their work ethic, reliability and loyalty. Even low-income households could afford a Chinese servant, who learned to cook American fare, relieving the housewife of kitchen duties. Ostracized by white society, Chinese men lived in enclaves, forerunners of Chinatowns in large cities, and restaurants emerged to serve these communities and others on the margins of society. With cheap, plentiful, good food, these establishments “played a vital role in the democratization of consumption,” making eating out an affordable experience for all. In one of the most arresting sections of the book, Chen explains the unique social history connecting Chinese food and African-American and Jewish cultures. The author’s prose style is more slow cooking than spicy stir-fry, but his passion for the subject carries readers through the dry spots. Dipping into culinary concerns with chapters on “authentic” Chinese cuisine and cookbooks, he also delivers a perceptive view of an America built on abundance and consumption.
A well-researched study of Chinese-American food, the people who brought it to our neighborhoods and how Americans grew to love it.