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Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States Hardcover – July 16, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to food writer Coe, America's taste for Chinese tea goes back more than two centuries, and so does our confusion about the use of chopsticks. In this brief but ambitious volume, he chronicles the back-and-forth story of our relationship to the Middle Kingdom, its people and, above all, its food. Meals eaten by Americans in China in the early years of mercantilism and diplomacy (late 18th and early 19th century) were more European than Asian; the author dates the first record of an American eating indigenous Chinese food only to 1819. The gold rush and other expansionist projects brought thousands of Chinese to American soil along with their culture and their cuisine. Though xenophobia sometimes erupted as violent racism, public eating establishments in some cities began attracting the curious, and fads for such Westernized Chinese dishes as the eponymous stir-fry of the book's title swept urban populations. This short, dense history comes full circle with another American diplomatic mission: Nixon's historic 1972 banquet. Like its subject, the book is a little bit of a lot of different things at once—a solid and comprehensive sampling of a much larger topic. (July)
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Review


"A wide-ranging look at the interaction of Chinese food and American society and a fascinating mélange of gastronomic tidbits and historical nuggets."--Wall Street Journal


"An enlightening study of America's fascination with Chinese food, from our first epicurean envoys in 1748 to the plethora of Chinese restaurants of every caliber that dot the landscape today."--Barnes & Noble Review


"If my family's knowledge of real Chinese food was stunted-- and we weren't alone--Andrew Coe's engaging history tells why."--Seattle Times


"Coe's delightful book is a bit of 'odds and ends' itself, with pages on the use of pidgin, Chinese-kosher cuisine, the new look of San Francisco's Chinatown after the earthquake, the connection of Chinatowns with white slavery, and the Kon-Tiki craze for Cantonese food. The Chinese food we get is mostly a hybrid; Coe has documented a cuisine that may not always be authentic Chinese, but is a genuine American success story."--Columbus Dispatch


"According to food writer Coe, America's taste for Chinese tea goes back more than two centuries, and so does our confusion about the use of chopsticks. In this brief but ambitious volume, he chronicles the back-and-forth story of our relationship to the Middle Kingdom, its people and, above all, its food...Like its subject, the book is a little bit of a lot of different things at once--a solid and comprehensive sampling of a much larger topic."--Publishers Weekly


"Coe's ever-surprising history brims with plenty of enchanting anecdotes. "--Booklist


"Andrew Coe draws on the history, politics and cuisine of two hungry nations to tell one of the most fascinating stories in east-west cultural history: how Americans learned to stop worrying and love Chinese food."--Laura Shapiro, author of Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America


"This book will take an important place on a growing shelf of works that seriously tackles the conjunctions of food, migration, and ethnicity in America."--Hasia R. Diner, author, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration


"Chop Suey is a dish with crispy vegetables, crunchy noodles, and leftover meat or poultry which balances texture and flavor. It was created in the early 20th century with good reason-most Americans were not as sophisticated about food as they are today. In his immensely likable and detailed history, Andrew Coe tells us why early generations of Chinese restaurant owners like my mother and father-in-law served the food that they believed Americans liked instead of cooking the food that they themselves loved to eat."--Susanna Foo, two-time James Beard Award winner, and recipient of the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence


"I always wondered how it was that the rich variety, delicacy, and refinement of Chinese cuisines got translated into Chinese takeout from restaurants in every town in America. Coe tells riveting stories of the ups and downs of American-Chinese relations in both countries through our cross-cultural exchange of food. I couldn't put this marvelous book down, but now it's time to eat--Chinese, of course."--Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University


"His research among U.S. sources is solid, and his chronicle interesting and informative, especially regarding Nixon's trip to China."--Library Journal


"If you know what people eat, why they eat it, and how they eat it, you know a lot about the people. In Chop Suey, Andrew Coe's meticulous scholarship and engaging story telling combine for a page-turning, mouth-watering tale of two cultures and how they relate. I recommend it to all world leaders, diplomats, and everyone who loves Chinese food. No joke!"--Arthur Schwartz, author of Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited


"The story of America's love-hate relationship with Chinese food ... is told in this well-researched, lively and digestible book. Some of its tales of misconceptions of the Chinese and their food are hilarious, some are shocking."--Financial Times


"Andrew Coe is a very fine writer indeed ... [He] takes deeply researched historical information and presents them smoothly, telling stories that are packed with fascinating details to bring a subject we think we know into much clearer perspective."--WritersCast.com


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 16, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195331079
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195331073
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 1.2 x 5.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #597,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By E. A. Montgomery on October 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have often been told that if you have not traveled to China, then (as an American) you have never eaten Chinese food. I expected Chop Suey to be a foodie book about the evolution of the way food is prepared in China to the way it is served in our Chinese eateries. Chop Suey bills itself as "A Cultural History Of Chinese Food In The United States". It's really more of a history of how America has viewed the Chinese. It is not until a hundred pages or so in that the details of Chinese cuisine come into play. Prior to that, the book is a history of the China / American trade and a limited look at propaganda produced from those early voyages. There is a report here or there about the Americans being offered a meal they could not appreciate, but the primary focus is on the bigotry between the two.

From that point Chop Suey moves into the exploitation of early Chinese immigrants, the extreme racism they faced, and how they tried to hold on to their culture and cuisine in the face of it. Along the way many found jobs as cooks or opened fast food counters trying to prepare a food that met the expectations and tastes of their customers. Since those expectations were rooted in post colonial bias, the food that resulted bore little relation to what the Chinese ate at home. Moving into kosher Chinese food and eventually to Nixon's visit to China, Chop Suey continues to be a history of Chinese American relations with food as the tie and excuse for the journey. The murder of a young woman has little bearing on Chinese food as we know it, but such side trips relate to what seems to have been the author's real intention, exposing how racism kept our palates from a true cultural exchange.

There is a wealth of information in Chop Suey.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By oldtaku on July 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have to admit that from the cover I expected a fluffy but entertaining book in the style of _Eat My Globe_ but I actually got a lot more than that. This is a fact dense book, well researched.

The book opens with the new country of America sending its first ambassador (actually a merchant, which is very apropos on both sides) to China. It then diverges into a brief history of Chinese food in China - and Coe does a marvelous job of editing here, considering it's over 10,000 years of history and at least four major regions, each with their own sub-regions with their own culinary traditions.

Then back to the US, where Chinese restaurants arrived in the 1850s to feed all the Chinese people who'd come over looking for the mountains of gold. Americans never really developed a taste for the food till the 1900s, at which point it had become bland and homogenized enough to appeal to our whitebread tastes. Finally we go through the Jewish-Chinese food boom, the revitalization after WW2, Nixon's re-opening of China, and the state we're in today. The book ends with the happy yet sad state of affairs that you can get real Chinese food in the US if you know where to look, but most of it is still neutered to what we find acceptable - but we do that to all cuisines.

Unfortunately the history of Chinese people in the US is also the history of racism, so you will feel very uncomfortable about some of the quoted newspaper articles and accounts which are sprinkled with racial slurs and provincial attitudes - and not just about Chinese. Coe commendably reprints these without any squeamishness, as they're crucial to understanding American attitudes towards China.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Charles Nordlander VINE VOICE on November 15, 2012
Format: Hardcover
...its wise message would surely say, "Do not judge book by its cover. Or title. Or publisher's summary." And so forewarned, it might be easier to accept that "Chop Suey..." is much more a cultural history of Chinese people in the U.S. than Chinese food. (Of course the two are inextricably linked, but what I'm talking about is overall balance.) That doesn't make this a bad book, just a very different book from what its overall marketing would lead you to believe.

From its "Chop Suey" title to the cover photo of the iconic container that's synonymous with Chinese takeout, i was looking forward to an entertaining, light reading romp through the unexpected history of how "Chinese food" became the cuisine for the most popular and (ironically) uniquely American form of restaurant. As I've traveled around the U.S., I'm always amazed that towns everywhere--even ones too small to support a burger or chicken joint--will inevitably have at least one place for Chinese takeout.

But what you're getting with "Chop Suey..." is much heavier reading, in which the cultural history of the Chinese people in the U.S. is the true main course that the author is serving up, while Chinese food is more of a side dish. It is certainly well-written, interesting and informative, but I could never accept it for the book it actually is, and continuallly found myself wanting the book that I thought it would be. So for me, three stars, but if you're up for a deep dive into the main course that I've described, then it might rate more highly for you.

Thank you for taking the time to read my review and I hope you found it helpful.
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