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It was 1894 and young Dreiser, writing for the St. Louis Republic, reported that when he walked into a restaurant in Hop Alley, the owner told him, "Come a Sunday. Got glood dinner Sunday. Come a flive clock; bling flend."
Dreiser, in the formative years of a prolific career that would immortalize him as a novelist of social inequality, returned that Sunday as instructed. He was about to meet Chinese food itself, and his Western palate would be forever changed:
"The mysterious China dish completed the spread," Dreiser wrote in an article dated January 14, 1894. "This dish was wonderful, awe-inspiring, and yet toothsome.... The arrangement of the whole affair inspired visions of hot salad. Celery, giblets, onions, seaweed that looked like dulse, and some peculiar and totally foreign grains resembling barley, went to make up this steaming hot mass."
Dreiser might have been impressed with the food, but his editors were not. The illustration that accompanied the article shows a wide-mouthed Chinese peasant tucking into a bowl of stewed rats.
Hateful, yes. But the Republic was not alone in depicting the Chinese as a rat-eating race of heathens.
"There are textbooks that described the Chinese as rat-eating people," says Huping Ling, a historian at Truman State University and the author of Chinese St. Louis, a history of the city's Chinese population. "Dreiser described everything as very delicious, but somehow the food's exoticism was always exaggerated and the Chinese were shown as inferior rat-eaters."
By the time Dreiser enjoyed his "mysterious China dish," savvy Chinese restaurateurs were already catching on that if they skewed their menus slightly toward the Western palate, they could attract a growing number of adventurous Westerners.
"Chinatowns at that time we're talking the turn of the century were tourist hot spots," says Cynthia Lee, who along with UC-Irvine's Chen co-curated Have You Eaten Yet?: The Chinese Restaurant in America, a traveling exhibition that documents a century's worth of Chinese restaurant menus. "People would go slumming in the Chinese quarter. They could experience this little foreign land in America, and it worked out nicely that chop suey was affordable, different yet familiar."
The trend caught on. In 1903 the New York Times published an article estimating that New York was home to more than 100 chop suey restaurants, many of them located outside Chinatown.
"A lot of these restaurants served a midnight supper. It was a little bit like a diner; it was really this sort of late-night activity," Lee says. "It wasn't even really connected to Chinatown at that point. It became this culinary fad."
St. Louis was no exception. As Ling recounts in Chinese St. Louis, court records indicate that by 1903 a few chop suey shops had sprung up outside Hop Alley. Initially catering to the city's Chinese laundrymen, they soon broadened their base to include European- and African-Americans. The food was also beginning to make inroads into the American cultural consciousness. In 1922 entrepreneurs Wally Smith and Ilhan New (the latter a Korean), founded La Choy Food Products Company. In 1926 Louis Armstrong released the song "Cornet Chop Suey." Three years later painter Edward Hopper tackled the topic in Chop Suey, which features two elegant flappers dining at a chop suey house. Authors from Sinclair Lewis to Raymond Chandler mention the dish in their novels; the Chinese cook is a stock character in Merian C. Cooper's 1933 film King Kong.
Many restaurateurs embraced their role as domestic exotics, deliberately playing up their pidgin English and bend-and-scrape hospitality. One menu displayed in the Have You Eaten Yet? exhibition hails from a 1940s-era Hawaiian restaurant called House of P.Y. Chong: "Fliends sometams make appointmans but no keep. Me-P.Y. then must give nother peoples chance. You please excusee me. Please you no bling liquor my place no come drunk my place.... You come drunk, Me-P.Y. no can allow you come in. Too muchee tlouble. You please excusee me and thank you vely muchee."
Others pursued very narrow customer bases. Many Chinese restaurants catered exclusively to the nation's Jewish population.
"You hear stories all the time about the close relationship between the Jews and the Chinese," says Lee, adding that restaurants with names like China Glatt served dishes such as Glatt Wok Chicken. "When Jewish immigrants came to this country, a lot of them came from villages. Eating Chinese food was very cosmopolitan, and I think it was in some ways part of the formation or constructing of a new Jewish-American identity."
It may not have been the elegant cuisine of mainland China, but chop suey, egg foo young and crab Rangoon were ours and we loved them, imperfections and all. So much so that by mid-century, a Chinese restaurant in St. Louis likely featured a chop suey and egg foo young-dominated menu identical to that of its brethren in Miami or Boise.
All the while, the nation's strict Chinese exclusion laws ensured that only a handful of immigrants could enter the United States each year. Those who did quickly adapted their cooking styles to conform to the chop suey recipe for success.
"What is amazing is the fact that in the development of Chinese food, there has never been any big corporation involved, and yet you have this very standardized Chinese menu," marvels UC-Irvine researcher Yong Chen. "There are no Chinese food schools or universities to speak of, and there's never been a really dominant chain."