- Historic Sites
Lets Eat Chinese Tonight
Americans have been doing just that since the days of the California gold rush—and we’re still not full
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
Whatever the theory, Americans have embraced this region’s cuisine with particular fervor, even though most restaurants tone down the dishes for American consumption. A friend of mine, a Mexican-American who grew up on the fiery food of the Texas border country, often argues with waiters at Szechwan restaurants, trying to convince them that he really does want the dishes he has ordered to be authentically spicy. At least once the cooks came out of the kitchen to watch him as he joyfully ate their most ferocious offerings, tears streaming down his face.
As this brief tour suggests, the Chinese are a very adaptable people, particularly where food is concerned. When the first Chinese restaurants opened in America, they used local fish, meats, and vegetables, even incorporating sweet potatoes, squash, beans, and pumpkins into their diet.
Although Chinese gardeners and fishermen were able to furnish enough to the restaurants, one crucial ingredient was not available: rice. In 1874, as much as 34,586,287 pounds of it was imported to California; in 1915 more than 68,000,000 pounds came into the port of San Francisco alone. By the second decade of this century, large-scale rice farming had begun on the West Coast, and although an immense selection of canned, dried, pickled, and prepared ingredients is still imported, a wider variety of Chinese vegetables like Tientsin white cabbage is now being grown here.
Today there is a Chinese restaurant in nearly every town in the United States. Even the South, perhaps the last frontier for Chinese food in America, has its share. My wife, who was a teen-ager in Kentucky in the 1950s, never ate in a Chinese restaurant until she went on a trip to Ohio. Now her hometown of Louisville boasts at least eighteen of them, along with three Oriental groceries.
With the Chinese-American population nearing the one million mark, their contributions to our society are as great and as varied as those of any other ethnic group. But their most generous contribution, the one that touches us all the most warmly, is their food. After more than a century the Chinese restaurant has become as American as…chop suey.