Thursday, November 6, 2014

Beyond the Takeout Carton

Beyond the Takeout Carton - A Review of Chop Suey, USA

 by TakingaDayOff


Chop Suey, USA is a personal and sometimes impassioned look at the conditions of Chinese immigrants in 19th and 20th century America, the conditions they faced from other Americans, and how Chinese food was enthusiastically accepted by all Americans. Author Yong Chen gre up in China and came to the States in the 1990s as a graduate student, intending to return to China when he had earned his doctorate in American History. Instead he made America his home and has been here ever since, first on the East Coast, and now on the West Coast.

The first half of the book documents the difficult times the immigrants and even their children and grandchildren had. Racism was the norm and it left the Chinese community with only a few career options –- domestic work as cook, or opening their own laundries or restaurants. When white and black Americans discovered that the food in the Chinese restaurants was plentiful, inexpensive, and tasty, they took to it enthusiastically. Professor Chen explores the rapid rise of Chinese restaurants through the country and compares it to the rapid acceptance of American fast food in China over the past few decades.

Later in the book we learn more about the evolution of the Chinese restaurant and Chinese cuisine in America. Chop Suey, USA covers a lot of ground, about race relations, social trends, assimilation, cookbooks, and social classes in America.

Although Chop Suey, USA has a similar title to another book from recent years on the topic, Chop Suey by Andrew Coe, it is a very different book. Coe's book is also well-researched and entertaining, but Chen's book is more personal and focuses more on the immigrants themselves. If you are expecting a book about why America likes chow mein or who invented the fortune cookie, look elsewhere –- this is a deeper, multi-layered look at the people behind the food.


(Thanks to NetGalley for a digital review copy.)

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