Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey joins the circle of books traversing the history of Chinese food in the United States, specifically the peculiar beast that is chop suey. Mendelson takes a historical journey into its origins, as a food consciously produced for a white audience during a time of Exclusion, and into the expansion of Chinese food in the United States beyond that. Her volume joins a growing bookshelf, including Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey, and Yong Chen’s Chop Suey, USA.
Mendelson’s is a bit more academic in bent. The first 100 pages, for good reason, are dedicated to a concise and thorough summary of Chinese American immigration history, with only the occasional reminders that this book is a bit more food-oriented than your average history.
The latter half takes you through the specific history of Chinese American food, which as she explains, is deeply related to the overall history of Exclusion (a term typically used to encompass various legislative acts that banned Chinese from immigrating and stipulated what fields they could work in). She takes particular interest in the idea of translation, namely the difficulties of translating Chinese food to an American palate both in terms of flavors, cooking styles, and then lastly, literally in cookbooks.
In one chapter, Chow Chop Suey looks at the origins of its title subject as a construct and its spread into American society.
That it [chop suey] also travestied a cuisine loved and honored by its creators was part of the price that they had to pay for making a living in Exclusion-era America.
In some of the more interesting sections, she looks in very detailed fashion at the first English-language Chinese cookbooks. Her intense focus on the linguistic aspects and the translation provide fascinating gems. But for those less inclined to think about how we got “stir-frying” instead of “toss-frying,” the details can be overwhelming.
Though perhaps not for the faint of heart, this is after all, an academic press book, Mendelson’s new volume is thorough and articulate in exploring Chinese American food as it transitioned from chop suey into the more varied and well understood palate that Americans are becoming more and more familiar with.