American Chinese food is different from Chinese Chinese food. This is a well-known fact. Coe tells the history of how Chinese food came to America and changed and adapted to the cuisine we know today. Along the way, some of the stories of Chinese immigrants to America and Chinese-Americans are told as well.
I love food, and I love history, so a book telling the history of a specific cuisine totally appealed to me. Unfortunately, this book missed the mark for what could have been an enticing history of American style Chinese food. Instead, it gets hung up in the early history of both Chinese food in China and Chinese food in America in the 1800s then hops, skips, and jumps over how it changed through the 1900s up to present. While this information is interesting, it is not the history of American Chinese food it is presented as.
The main issue with the book is it spends almost 1/4 of its time exploring the history of Chinese food in China. While I learned some interesting facts, such as that tofu was invented in the Han Dynasty (page 80), this information is not necessary to convey how Chinese food came to America and changed. A much briefer introduction to where Chinese food was at before coming to America would have sufficed. The best part of the book is when it discusses Chinese food in America in the 1800s and explores how US-born Americans’ embracing of Chinese food or not depended on many factors such as the current rates of xenophobia, job markets, and prices. Viewing the history of the American west coast through the perspective of Chinese immigration and Chinese restaurants was truly fascinating. One of the more fascinating things that I learned in this section was a detail of the history of the racist perception of Asian men as not masculine. In that time period, when Chinese immigrants were competing with white Americans and Irish immigrants for railroad and other jobs, the backlash was that since Chinese men “didn’t need” to eat meat to work long hours they could afford to take a lower rate of pay. Articles attacked the Chinese diet as a sign that Chinese men are less masculine since they “don’t need” meat the way white American and Irish-American men do. One article title from this time period cited in the book is “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?” by Samuel Gompers (page 141). As a vegetarian, I found it fascinating that the sexist perception of a less meat-centric diet (the Chinese did indeed eat meat, just less than American men), has both such a far-reaching history and was used to fuel xenophobia and racism against immigrant workers. It is clear to me after reading this that a large part of the work for vegetarians is to get rid of the faulty correlation between meat and masculinity. I could see fixing this having other positive outcomes as well, such as fighting against misperceptions of the masculinity of other cultures.
Unfortunately, the wonderful details found in the chapters on the 1800s gradually cease to exist as the book moves up through time. While the 1920s get some special attention, such as touching on the fact that Chinese restaurants survived Prohibition well because they had never served alcohol anyway (page 189), slowly these details fall away until we get nothing but the bare bones of how Chinese restaurants functioned and interacted with American history in the rest of the 20th century up to present. There is even one rather aggravating long aside exploring President Nixon’s visit to China. While his visit to China definitely gave a resurgence of interest in Chinese food in the US, it was again unnecessary to give such incredible details on Nixon’s visit. It could have been simply stated, instead, that Nixon visited China, bringing Chinese food to the forefront of American thought again and giving a resurgence of interest in Chinese cuisine. The book has a tendency to lollygag on topics that are not actually what the book is supposed to be about. While these topics can be interesting and Coe explores them well, they are not what the book supposedly is about. It would be better to present the book with a different title or edit the focus back to simply Chinese-American cuisine.
One other factor that made me enjoy the book less is that Coe shows a clear bias toward Chinese culture. There is nothing wrong with enjoying Chinese culture, but Coe says some things that if he had said them in reverse would be considered completely unacceptable to say. He frequently presents the Chinese people as more civilized, their way of doing things as more logical and simply better, and even scoffs at the level of advancement of European countries compared to China at one point (page 94). Lack of bias and simply presenting the facts is the strength of historical nonfiction works. It would have been nice to see that level of professionalism in this book, regardless of Coe’s personal views.
Overall then, while I learned some new facts about both Chinese-American cuisine and Chinese-American history, the book wanders significantly through Chinese history and Chinese cuisine as well. Interesting, but not what the title implies the book is about. Coe also shows some bias that should not be present in a history book. These are easily skimmed over, however, and thankfully do not come up very often. Recommended to those with an interest in both Chinese-American and Chinese history in addition to the history of American style Chinese cuisine, as all three are covered rather equally.
3 out of 5 stars