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Monday, July 27, 2009

Sneakeasy, Part 1: Public Enemies and Wei Hong Bakery

Posted By on Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 5:22 PM

  • Fernando de Sousa, Wikimedia Commons
Show: Public Enemies, director Michael Mann's latest cinematic man-crush on tight-lipped inscrutability and sparklingly pretty violence played out against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

Food: Chinese food, courtesy of Wei Hong Bakery and Restaurant: crab rangoon, shrimp dumpling lo mein, sesame chicken, rice, coconut roll.

Difficulty: Above average. Like most Chinese restaurants, Wei Hong prepares portions designed for family-syle passing and sharing, not secretive, slumped, cinema slurping. It's just a lot of food to sneak, even if the restaurant did wrap it tightly in a paper bag for me.

Point no accusatory finger at me, naysayers! The selection of delicious Chinese food for this fedoras-and-tommy-guns picture was no caprice of my stomach or schedule. Rather, it was the result of painstaking research into popular American foods of the 1920s and 1930s.

Feature this: With the institution of Federal Prohibition in 1919, an entire avenue of conspicuous group consumption was suddenly closed tighter than Highway 40 at Kingshighway. While liquor, wine and beer were still available in a variety of ways, including the infamous speakeasies (the modern incarnation of which I'll be slinking into in next week's blog), they were illegal and expensive, two things that made them out of reach for the average American entertaining at home.

In response, people found new ways to show off (legally) the wealth of their post-WWI coffers and the marvels of modern shipping technology. Tropical fruit and seafood are two things that made bold appearances not only on the menus of fine restaurants at the time but in the pages of housekeeping magazines. Sodas and candy made major inroads as everyday fare rather than novelty or special-occasion treats, thanks in part to the low price of sugar. Coffee gained popularity (Hooray!), as did low-quality homemade wine (Ew!).

Chinese food, once denigrated as the worst possible offense to humans (and rodents, the oft-rumored secret ingredient), suddenly became popular with people who had not grown up eating it. Americans were looking for a way to showcase a sophisticated palate, and chop suey was about as exotic as they were willing to get.

What does the food of Prohibition have to do with a movie set in 1934, the year after it was repealed? Everything. Michael Mann's vision of John Dillinger's high-living bank-robbing world is, like a magnesium flash, over practically from the moment it begins. The nascent FBI and increasingly organized crime push Johnny Depp's Dillinger into a smaller and smaller area of influence, his takes from the banks he robs dwindling, seemingly, without his notice as he's distracted by love and fame.

The moment, brief as it is, owes its whole life to bootleggers and a culture that came to embrace not only the criminal acts that circumvented laws that had little relation to the way the majority of people lived, but also the criminals themselves. The culture that made Dillinger famous instead of another dead thug gouting his lifeblood out on the alley of the Biograph Theater is the same one. At heart, all bootleggers are sneaks.

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