Lets Eat Chinese Tonight

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Even those who were not particularly anti-Chinese found Chinese restaurants and the food served there to be disturbingly different from their usual fare. Benjamin Taylor, in his 1878 book Between the Gates, described a meal that cost him “four bits” in San Francisco’s Chinatown: “Pale cakes with a waxen look, full of meats, are brought out. They are sausages in disguise. Then more cakes full of seeds as a fig. Then giblets of you-never-know-what, maybe gizzards, possibly livers, perhaps toes.…” Four decades later Alice A. Harrison was even more critical: “The man of timorous spirit or sensitive stomach who survives the ordeal of a Chinese dinner should be awarded a chopstick badge for courage…. It may be water chestnut Chop Suey, as the bill of fare declares it is. Then again it may be, as the taste swears it is, a few old shoes, brass buttons and a wornout pipe. At any rate it swims about in a bedragoned bowl, and you eat it if you can.”

But it was not the ingredients of the dish that determined the fate of Chinese restaurants; it was the status of the Chinese themselves. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Chinese and their Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York, and other American cities were considered strange, exotic, and vaguely threatening. American popular literature abounded with tales of hatchet men and tong wars, opium dens and gambling parlors, and until the 1906 earthquake and fire revealed otherwise, many San Franciscans actually believed in a sinister underground city hidden far beneath the streets of Chinatown. Respectable people might venture into Chinatown on a tour, but the restaurants there found their regular non-Chinese customers, according to an overheated 1898 guidebook by Louis J. Beck, among the “laboring classes and outlaws”; out of every five hundred dollars taken in by the restaurants, Beck said, two hundred came from whites, two hundred from Chinese, and twenty-five “from negroes, who seem to delight in frequent-ins the lower class places.”

“Through a narrow hall and up a dirty stairs,” wrote John Hubert Greusel of an 1893 meal in Manhattan’s Chinatown, “brings one to the Chinese Delmonico restaurant. A good dinner consists of nine courses, served on bare wooden tables and eaten with chop sticks. The meal begins with sweets, half a dozen bits of sugared ginger heaped on a small eggshell compote; the ginger is dyed a brilliant scarlet…. tea is offered in cups no bigger than a thimble; a tin teapot is at hand, from which the diner replenishes his diminutive cup as often as need be. Some of the patrons have before them huge bowls of steaming rice, which they eat by bringing the dish to their lips, and then literally shoveling the food into the open mouth…. The odor of fuming cigarettes fills the air; an incessant babble prevails; every few moments you will see a Chinese pick up a bone or a bit of refuse food and deliberately send it flying under the table to the dirty floor! A greedy cat munches away under one of the tables. Were it not for the red banners on the walls, the eating-house would be as bare as a barn; and, assuredly, it is as uninviting as a pig-sty. Yet the visitors to Chinatown love it dearly, and laugh and chatter there in a corner; the ladies, especially, on their first visit, cannot prevent themselves going into ecstacies over the tiny teacups.”

But while many writers took a similar tone and some liked to hint that Chinese dishes included such unwelcome exotica as dogs, cats, and rats, at least a few others differed. Not only was the food good, they said, but the kitchens were clean. One visitor, writing in 1898, described them as being “kept with scrupulous cleanness,” while a review of Chinese restaurants published in the New York Daily News in the 1920s said that “the kitchens, without exception among those investigated were found immaculate. The utensils were shining, the metal work shone and the tables were scrubbed. Even the scraps looked clean.”

And as early as 1903 the journalist Harriet Quimby said: “The American who enters one of these restaurants for the first time may be surprised at finding that the way to the tables leads through the kitchen…. The idea is to give the patron evidence that everything is done in a cleanly manner.…In Chinatown good cooking is a part of religion—the cook is a priest.”

Yet what attracted non-Chinese diners to Chinese restaurants most of all was a dish that never saw the coast of China. There are several stories about how it was introduced to Americans, although no one is absolutely sure. One version takes it back to goldrush San Francisco. Closed for the night because it had run out of food, a Chinese restaurant was nonetheless invaded by a group of hungry miners who refused to be put off. Deciding that it was the better part of valor to feed them, the cook stir-fried whatever scraps of meat and vegetables were left in his larder. The miners hailed the result as delicious, and the relieved proprietor, seizing on the Chinese word for “a miscellany,” dubbed it “chop suey.”