Chop Suey, American Comfort Food

Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. It’s a wonderful account of her journey across 42 states and 23 countries around the world as she uncovers secrets about Chinese food.

Unhealthy Delicious Poutine with French Fries

The main point of the book is that the foods we think of as Chinese—chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, fortune cookies—aren’t. Like Jenny herself, those foods look Chinese, but they’re actually American. Chop suey was invented here. General Tso’s was invented here. The white takeout boxes were invented here. Even fortune cookies, the absolute most iconic of most Chinese foods, originally originated from Japan before being popularized here in the United States. As Jenny puts it: “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often can you eat apple pie? How often can you eat Chinese food?” 

Really what Jenny says is that Chinese food is not just all-American, but has changed into a true American comfort food. There are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. Weary interstate truckers love Chinese restaurants because every town has one and the foodstuff is definitely the same. It’s become traditional for Jews to consume at Chinese restaurants on Christmas, that is how, as Jenny puts it, chow mein became the chosen food of the chosen people. Even Baghdad’s Green Zone has two improvised Chinese restaurants for homesick American journalists. “It’s a taste of home,” a foreign service officer deployed in Iraq explains to Jenny. “What could be more American than beer and take-out Chinese?”

This got me considering my own, personal comfort foods. There are always a few foods that always make me happy. Like Proust’s madeleine, or the vegetable stew that transports the critic back once again to his mother’s kitchen in Ratatouille, these are foods that whisk me back once again to my childhood everytime I taste them: Pepperoni pizza with Fresca, which my parents, brother, and I used to consume every Friday on the hearth by the fire; blueberry muffins, which I’d eat every week after swimming lessons, chewing the paper wrapper long after the past crumbs were gone; peanut butter on toast with orange juice, my father’s morning ritual; Cinnamon Life, a morning meal cereal that was unavailable in Canada and which I got to savor only once I visited my grandma in Minnesota; and mint chocolate chip ice cream, which I used to consume with my mom after dinner. I see only in retrospect that four from the five foods I’ve written have members of the family inextirpably connected with them.

Past associations with products can be cognitively connected with specific individuals (“My dad loved green bean casserole,” or “My college sweetheart always mixed M&Ms in with popcorn when we visited the flicks”), or specific events (“My Mom always gave me soup when
it had been cold out or when I was not feeling well”). In addition they come to be connected with specific feelings that certain loves to recall or desires to recapture (“We always got ice cream soon after we won baseball games as a kid,” or “I usually associate Slurpees with carefree summers as a child”). In some cases, these are vivid iconic instances one can flash on when thinking, tasting, or smelling the food. Yet in all instances, the overall feelings evoked—feelings of safety, love, homecoming, appreciation, control, victory, or empowerment—are what underlies the drive toward consumption. 

Foods

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