Chinese, anyone?

Food for thought (groan). Here is journalist Jennifer 8. Lee’s recent ( July 2008 ) TED talk, “Who was General Tso? …”

Chinese as the Linux of the culinary dining experience. Yeah.

Some nice discussions of this at WoC PhD, to whom I tip my hat. Transcript after the cut.

Transcript:

There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than Burger King, MacDonalds, KFC, and Wendy’s combined. 40,000, actually. Chinese restaurants have played an important role in American history, as a matter of fact. The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved in a restaurant called Yenching Palace in Washington, DC, which unfortunately is closed now and about to be turned into a Walgreens. And the house that John Wilkes Booth planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in is actually now also a Chinese restaurant called Wok n’ Roll on H St. in Washington. (laughter) And it’s not completely gratuitous, because “wok” and “roll”, Chinese food and Japanese food, so it kind of works out.

 

And Americans love their Chinese food so much they’ve actually brought it into space. NASA, for example, serves thermostabilized sweet and sour pork on the shuttle menu for its astronauts. So let me present the question to you. If the benchmark for American-ness is apple pie, you should ask yourself how often do you eat apple pie versus how much you eat Chinese food. Right? (laughter) And if you think about it, a lot of the food that you think of or we think of or Americans think of as Chinese food are barely recognizable to Chinese, for example beef with broccoli. Egg rolls. General Tso’s Chicken. Fortune cookies. Chop suey. The take-out boxes. For example, took a whole bunch of fortune cookies back to China, gave them to Chinese, to see how they would react…

 

Described Picture: A man in the video is looking at a fortune cookie and says “What is this?” Jennifer says “Try it!” A bunch of pictures showing different Chinese people eating fortune cookies. A woman says “What is this called?” Jennifer replies “Fortune cookie” as the woman eating the cookie is surprised by the fortune inside. Another man is shown saying, “There’s a piece of paper inside!” Another woman pulls the fortune out of her cookie and says, “What is this?” Another woman hands the fortune back to a man with the cookie and says “You’ve won a prize!” Another man holds the fortune in his left hand and asks, “What is this?” Jennifer replies. “It’s a fortune!” A man looks at the fortune curiously and then says about his cookie “Tasty!”

 

So, where are they from? The short answer is actually they’re from Japan. In Kyoto, outside, there are still small, family run bakeries, as they did over a hundred years ago, thirty years before fortune cookies were introduced in the United States. And you see them side by side, there’s yellow and brown. Theirs are actually flavored with miso and sesame paste, so they’re not as sweet as our version.

 

So how did they get to the United States? Well, the short answer is, the Japanese immigrants came over and a bunch of the bakers introduced them, including one, at least one in Los Angeles, and one here in San Francisco called Benkyo-Do, which is on the corner of Sudder and Buchanan. They back then actually made fortune cookies using a similar kind of iron we saw back in Kyoto.

 

The question is, how do you go from fortune cookies being something that is Japanese to something that is Chinese? Well, the short answer is, we locked up all the Japanese during World War II, including those that made fortune cookies. So that’s the time when the Chinese moved in, sort of saw a market and took over. (laughter)

 

So, fortune cookies, invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately consumed by Americans. They are more American than anything else. Another one of my favorite dishes, General Tso’s chicken. By the way, in the US Naval Academy it’s called Admiral Tso’s chicken. (laughter) I love this dish. The original name of my book was called “The Long March of General Tso” and he has marched very far indeed. Because he is sweet, he is fried, and he is chicken: all things that Americans love. (laughter) Chef Pem, the person who actually invented the dish doesn’t recognize it. He was kind of horrified.

 

Described Picture: Older man looking at a picture of General Tso’s chicken on a laptop, shaking his head.

 

(laughter)

 

He’s in Taiwan right now, plays a lot of Mahjong, so he, after this I showed him, he got up and said (something in Chinese) which means “This is all nonsense” and goes back to play his Mahjong game during the afternoon.

 

So, another dish, one of my favorites. Beef with broccoli. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable. In fact it is originally an Italian vegetable. It was introduced into the United States in the 1800s, but became popularized in the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the Chinese have their own version of broccoli, which is called Chinese broccoli, but right now, they’ve now discovered American broccoli and are importing it as a sort of exotic delicacy. I guarantee you, General Tso never saw a stock of broccoli in his life. And indeed that actually was a picture of General Tso, I went to his home town. This is a billboard that says, “Welcome to the birthplace of General Tso!” And I went looking for chicken… I finally found a cow. (laughter) And I did find chicken, believe it or not, these guys actually were crossing the road.

 

Picture of chickens in a road.

 

(laughter)

I actually found a whole bunch of General Tso’s relatives who are still in the little town. This guy is about five generations removed from the general. This guy is about seven. Showed them all pictures of the General Tso’s chicken I showed you and they’re like “We don’t know this dish” and then they’re like “Is this Chinese food?” because it doesn’t look like Chinese food to them. But they weren’t kind of surprised that I had traveled around the world to visit them because in their eyes, he is, after all, a Tai Ching Dynasty military hero. He played and important role in the Ping rebellion, which was a war started by a guy who thought he was a son of God and the baby brother of Jesus Christ. And caused a war that killed 20 million people-still the deadliest civil war in the world to this day.

 

So I realized when I was there, General Tso is kind of a lot like Colonel Sanders in America, in that he’s known for chicken and not war. But in China, this guy is actually known for war and not chicken.

 

But the grand-daddy of all American Chinese dishes is chop suey, which was introduced around the turn of the 20th century. And according to the New York Times in 1904, there was an “outbreak” of Chinese restaurants all over town. And the city has gone “chop suey mad”. So it took about 30 years before the Americans realized, “whoa, chop suey is actually not known in China” and as this article points out, the average native of any city in China knows nothing about chop suey. You know, back then it was a way to show you were sophisticated and worldly, if you were a guy and you wanted to impress a girl, you could take her out on a chop suey date. I like to say that chop suey is the biggest culinary joke that one culture has played on another because chop suey, if you translate it into Chinese, means (Chinese words), which if you translate it back means “odds and ends”. So these people are going around China asking for chop suey, which is kind of like a Japanese guy coming here and saying “I understand you have a very popular dish in your country called ‘leftovers'”. (laughter) Not only that, “this dish is particularly popular after that holiday you call ‘Thanksgiving’.”

 

So why and where did chop suey come from? It dates back to when the Chinese first immigrated to America in the 1800s. Now, back then the Americans were not clamoring to eat Chinese food. In fact, they saw these people who landed at their shores as alien. These people were eating dogs, and if they weren’t eating dogs, they were eating cats, and if they weren’t eating cats, they were eating rats. In fact, the New York Times, my esteemed employer, back in 1883 ran an article that asked “Do the Chinese eat rats?” And, not the most PC question to be asked today, but if you kind of look at the popular imagery of the day it was not too outlandish.

 

(Picture of a rat poison ad with a person with a hat and braid (presumably Chinese) popping a rat into his mouth.)

 

This is actually a real advertisement for rat poison from the late 18-hundreds. And if you see under the words “clears”, it’s very small, it says “They must go.” Which refers not only to the rats, but to the Chinese in their midst. Because the way that the food was perceived was that these people who ate food that was different from us must be different from us. Another way you saw this sort of antipathy toward the Chinese was through documents like this, this is actually in the Library of Congress. It is a pamphlet published by Samuel Gompers, hero of our American labor movement. And it’s called “Some Reason for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood against Asiatic Cooleism, Which Will Survive?” And it basically argued that Chinese men who “ate rice” would bring down the standard of living for American men who ate meat, and as a matter of fact, then, this is one of the reasons why we must exclude them from our country. So, with sentiments like these, the Chinese Exclusion Act was sort of passed. Between 1892 and 1902 the only time in American history when a specific group was excluded for it’s national origin or ethnicity. So, in a way because the Chinese were attacked, chop suey was created as a defense mechanism. Now, who came up with the idea of chop suey. There are a lot of different mysteries, a lot of different legends, but of the ones that I found that I thought was most interesting was this article from 1904. Chinese guy name Lem Sen shows up in China Town New York City and says “I want you guys all to stop making chop suey, because I’m the original creator and so proprietor of the dish known as chop suey.” And the way that he tells it there was a guy, there was a famous Chinese diplomat that showed up, and he was told to make a dish that looked very popular and could quote “pass as Chinese”. And as he said, we would never print this today, but basically the American man has become very rich, I would have been making all this money too, but I was looking for the  American man who stole my recipe. Now I’ve come and found him and I want my recipe back and I want everyone to stop making chop suey or pay me for the right to do the same.”

 

Described Picture: Jennifer is showing a newspaper clipping that has Lem Sen’s quote written as follows: “Mellikan man makee tlousand dollar now. Lem Sen, he makee too, but me allee time look for Mellican man who stole. Me come. Me find! Now me wantee papel back, an’ all stop makee choop soo or pay me for allowee do same.”

 

So it was an early exercise of intellectual property rights. So the thing is, this kind of idea of Chinese American food doesn’t exist only in America. In fact, if you think about it, Chinese food is the most pervasive food on the planet. Served on all seven continents, even Antarctica, because Monday night is Chinese food night at McMurdow Station, which is the main scientific station in Antarctica. So you see different varieties of Chinese food, for example, there is French Chinese food, where they serve salt and pepper frog legs. There is Italian Chinese food, where they don’t have fortune cookies, so they serve fried gelato. My downstairs neighbor, Alessandra, was completely shocked when I told her “Dude, fried gelato is not Chinese.” She’s like “it’s not? But they serve it in all the Chinese restaurants in Italy!” (laughter) And even the Brits have their own version, this is a dish called crispy shredded beef, which has a lot of crisp, a lot of shred, and not a lot of beef. There is West Indian Chinese food, there is Jamaican Chinese food, there is Middle Eastern Chinese food, there is Norwegian Chinese food. This is a dish called Magic Bowl, that I discovered. There’s Indian Chinese food, Korean Chinese food, Japanese Chinese food, they take the bow-the little buns-and they turn them into pizza versions. (laughter) And they like totally randomly, they’ll take Chinese noodle dishes and they’ll just ramenize them. This is something that in the Chinese version has no soup. So there’s Peruvian Chinese food, which cannot be mixed with Mexican Chinese food, where they basically take things and make it look like fajitas. They have risotto chop suey. My personal favorite was this one in Brazil called Kung Food.

 

So let’s take a step back and kind of understand what is to be appreciated in America. McDonald’s has sort of garnered a lot of attention, a lot of respect for basically standardizing the menu, décor, and dining experience in post-World War II America. But you know what? They actually did so through a centralized headquarters out of Illinois, right? Chinese restaurants have done largely the same thing I would argue, with the menu and the décor, even the restaurant name, but without a centralized headquarters. So this actually became very clear to me with the March 30, 2005 Powerball drawing, where they expected, based on the number of ticket sales, to have three or four second-place winners-these are the people who match five of six Powerball numbers. Instead they had 110 and they were completely shocked. They looked all across the country and discovered that it couldn’t necessarily be fraud because it happened in different states, across different computer systems, so whatever it was it caused people to act in a mass synchronized way. So they’re like, maybe it had to do with the patterns on the little pieces of paper, you know like it was a diamond or you know, diagonal. It wasn’t that. So they’re like, “ok, let’s look at television” so they looked at an episode of Lost. Now I don’t have TV, which makes me a freak, but very productive (laughter) and there’s an episode of Lost, I understand, where the overweight guys a lucky number not a lucky number how did we end up on the island, and they looked but the numbers did not match. They looked at The Young and the Restless. It wasn’t that either, so it wasn’t until the first guy shows up the next day and they ask him “Where did you get your number from?” and he says “oh, I got it from a fortune cookie.” This actually is the slip that one of the winners had, because the Tennessee lottery security officials were like, “oh this can’t be true.” But, it was true, and basically of those 110 people, about 104 of them or so had gotten their number from a fortune cookie. (laughter)

 

So I went and started looking, I went across the country looking for these restaurants where these people had gotten their fortune cookies from. There were a bunch of them, including Lee’s China in Omaha, which is actually run by Koreans, but that’s another point. And a bunch of them named China buffet. So what’s interesting is that their stories were similar but different, “it was lunch, it was take-out, it was sit-down, it was buffet, it was three weeks ago, it was three months ago,” but at some point all these people had a very similar experience that converged at a fortune cookie and at a Chinese restaurant. And all these Chinese restaurants were serving fortune cookies, which of course we know aren’t even Chinese to begin with. So it was kind of part of a phenomenon that I called “spontaneous self-organization”, right, where ants, like in ant colonies, where little decisions made on a micro-level actually have a big impact on a macro-level.

 

So a good sort of contrast is chicken McNuggets. McDonald’s actually spent years coming out with a “chicken-like” product. They did pot-pie, they did fried chicken, and they finally introduced chicken McNuggets. And the great innovation of chicken McNuggets was not “nuggifying” them because that’s kind of an easy concept. The trick behind chicken McNuggets was they were able to remove the chicken from the bone in a cost effective manor, which is why it took so long for other people to copy them. It took ten years and within a couple months it was such a hit they just introduced it and rolled it across the entire system of McDonald’s in the country. In contrast we have General Tso’s chicken, which actually started in New York City in the early 1970s, as I was also started in this universe in New York in the early 1970s (laughter). And this logo. So me, General Tso’s chicken, and this logo are all karmically related.

 

Described Picture: Jennifer is referring to the “I love NY” logo.

 

But that dish also took about ten years to spread across America, from a random restaurant in New York City. Someone’s like “oh God, it’s sweet, it’s fried, it’s chicken! Americans will love this!” So what I like to say, this being the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, is that we see McDonald’s as sort of the Microsoft of culinary dining experiences. We can think of Chinese restaurants perhaps as Linux, sort of an open-source thing, right? Where ideas from one person can be copied and propagated across the entire system. There can be specialized versions of Chinese food depending on the region. For example, in New Orleans, we have Cajun Chinese food, where they Schezhuan alligator and sesame crawfish. Right? And in Philadelphia, they have a cheese steak roll, which looks like an egg roll on the outside, but a cheese steak on the inside. I was really surprised to discover than not only in Philadelphia but also in Atlanta, because what had happened was a Chinese family had moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta and brought that with them.

 

So the thing is, our historical lore, because urban areas are full of vast characters: Howard Shultz, and Starbucks, and Ray Croft with McDonald’s and (?) with Coca Cola, but you know it’s very easy to overlook the smaller characters. For example like Lem Sen who introduced chop suey, Chef Pem who introduced General Tso’s chicken, and all the Japanese bakers who introduced fortune cookies. So the point of my presentation is to make you think twice that those whose names are forgotten in history can have often as much if not more influence on what we eat today. So, thank you very much.

 

(Applause)

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