I got the opportunity to exchange a few emails with the writer of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Andrew Coe. We did a Q&A session in anticipation of his new book.
This book is for anyone who is interested in Chinese food and the migration of cuisine and foreign food into America. I thought it was interesting, especially considering the newer plights of food coming to this country presently such as Thai, Tibetan and the regions of Mexico and China that hitherto has been absent or hidden. The research in this book is incredible and it becomes interesting to put it in perspective of where we live now, where the old haunts of legendary Chinese food gone by used to reside and what it has become – notably in San Francisco and New York City.
In my first round of questioning, I focused on what it took to write, research and publish the book and also who Andrew Coe really is. (Insider info: I hadn’t read the book yet and was interested in writing my own, of course. Stay tuned for the questions after I completed the book.)
What was the process for creating and publishing the book?
The seed of the idea came to me one day on Mott Street. I’d recently seen a photo of Chinatown in the 1940s, when every building seemed to have a big neon sign on the side saying “CHOP SUEY.” They’re all gone now, so I asked myself, “What happened to them?” That snowballed into a history of chop suey, looking back to the 19th century. I sold it as an article to American Heritage (which never published it due to a change in ownership), and then expanded the idea into a book proposal on the history of the American experience of Chinese food.
Was it completed before finding the publisher? How much was completed? Did you find them or did they find you?
The proposal contained my chop suey article, the book’s first chapter and various other materials. For various reasons, I mostly concentrated on the big university presses that have published a lot of excellent food history over recent years. A friend steered me to his editor, Ben Keene, at Oxford University Press, and we made a deal.
What were some important or surprising resources for your book?
My main resource was the vast collection of the New York Public Library. I estimate that it owns about 80% of the books I needed–mostly histories, biographies, cookbooks, travel accounts and so on about Americans in China. A lot of the material I looked at, particularly old magazine article and newspapers, you now can access via on-line databases, like Proquest. They make finding this kind of material easier than five or ten years ago. I also used the Bancroft Library at U. Cal/Berkeley and the National Archives down in Washington D.C., as well as a few smaller library collections. The biggest surprise is how little I used interviews with Chinese chefs and restaurant owners. For most of those operating in the U.S., their work is just a job, to earn money, not a vocation. They feed American-style Chinese food to Americans. Why would any of them want to talk about that?
How long did it take you to write this book?
It took two years from contract signing to delivery of the final chapter–about a year longer than I should have!
Who helped you to write it?
I wrote it all myself, with the help of expert reader/advisors like John Eng-Wong of Brown University and Joanna Waley-Cohen at NYU.
What are some interesting places you discovered in your research for the book?
I’d always looked down my nose at chop suey, mainly due to the memory of vile versions of the dish served in school dining halls and at crummy restaurants while driving around the U.S. But I had to eat the dish while researching the book. I unearthed many of the (fast-disappearing) chop suey joints still open around the five boroughs and discovered that, in the hands of a competent chef, chop suey can be…okay. The best was Golden Gate up in the Bronx, but unfortunately Kenny, the owner, has sold out and the restaurant now specializes in “Asian fusion.” In Manhattan, Hop Kee at 21 Mott Street is probably the most reliable. About the others, well, rest in peace.
Are you touring with this book now? Where and what has touring brought you?
The touring will begin the fall. Right now, I have plans for a bunch of dates in Northern California and probably LA. Boston and Washington have yet to be organized.
How do you manage to order from Chinese-only menus? Do you have trouble with this? Is there anything you pay special attention to, etiquette-wise, when you are dining in a Chinese restaurant?
I do read a few Chinese words, but luckily almost all menus also have English. The only exceptions are the banquet menus and the specials often posted on the wall. For them, I ask the wait-staff. To make sure that I get the good food, i.e. prepared to Chinese, not American, taste, I ask for chopsticks and turn back the bowls of fried noodles and plum sauce and ask for salted peanuts and/or pickled cabbage. I also carefully scan the other tables to see what the Chinese customers are eating. I’ll have what they’re having.
Do you have any secrets from the American-Chinese menu that most of us don’t know? My “secret” is boneless chicken. It’s so good! that and substituting a egg rolls for the soda on the lunch menu.
Egg foo young can be pretty good. Otherwise I generally starve until I can get to Chinatown.
What would you like to know more about? Cuisine or otherwise…
I’d like to try more really top end Chinese banquet cuisine. (Wouldn’t we all?) And also the foods of the Chinese borderlands, from Yunnan to the north and east all the way to Siberia. You can get a sampling of that at the Dongbei (far northeastern China) style restaurants that are popping up. The best is Golden Palace on Cherry Avenue in Flushing, one of our regulars–everything is different, and delicious.
Where do you live in Brooklyn? How did you choose it? What are your favorite restaurants in the neighborhood?
We live in Brooklyn Heights, which we chose because it’s beautiful, convenient, and with great schools. But as far as food, eh. The only bright spots are two Italian restaurants, Noodle Pudding and Queen. The Chinese food is strictly to American tastes.
Do you feel that more restaurants today cook food they love instead of what they believe their customers will like? Where do you think the future of ethnic restaurants in the 5-boroughs is headed?
Chinese restaurateurs are in the business to support themselves and their families. By and large, they cook to cater to their customers’ tastes. If their customer base is largely Chinese, the food will reflect that. If it’s non-Chinese, then you’ll get the same old egg rolls, chicken with broccoli and a fortune cookie at the end. The future of ethnic restaurants in this country depends on immigration trends. If immigration dries up, due to the economy or new restrictions, then I think you’ll see ethnic restaurants dwindle and the variety of food choices available to us shrink. We’ll be culturally poorer. Of course, you have to remember that not all immigrant groups are interested in opening restaurants. How many Irish restaurants do you know?
Which neighborhoods excite you lately?
From Astoria to Flushing, Queens is the center of good ethnic food in the city, but Brooklyn has a lot of stuff going on, particularly in the Sunset Park and Bensonhurst areas.
What are the differences in the Chinatowns of NYC?
The heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown is traditionally oriented toward the old-time Cantonese population, with a Fujianese boom spreading toward the east, into the Lower East Side. Sunset Park is more diverse, which Fujianese, Cantonese, and others sharing the streets. In Flushing, you see a lot more Mandarin speakers, from Taiwan, Beijing, Sichuan and other parts of Chinese.
Look forward to Part 2 of the Interview with Andrew Coe soon!