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Why Chinese food in New York was horrible until recently


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Not About Food 45

Why Chinese food in New York was horrible until recently

Brian S | Dec 17, 2005 08:39 PM

I posted this on the Manhattan board about a certain restaurant in New York's Chinatown:

"I've never eaten there but I have looked in. It dates from the 1930s. At that time, the INS in its wisdom didn't let in any Chinese who could cook, so you'd have your choice between sweet and sour glop and gluey chop suey. I suspect it's that way today. It looks like the kind of place they'd film a 1940 film noir... you know, the kind where the narrator says, "I finally found Louie the Mutt in a greasy dive in Chinatown, the kind of joint where you could keel over from food poisoning and the waiters wouldn't notice." "

Someone asked me what the INS had to do with it. A lot. Here's the situation as I know it. If I have the history wrong, please correct me

Between 1850 and 1882, a large wave of Chinese immigrants broke upon our shores. Overwhelmingly male, they were poor laborers willing to do the most menial, difficult, demeaning work... and that's the work they were offered. None of them were trained chefs, few if any had ever eaten really good Chinese food. They were too poor. Then, in 1882, the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts were passed. These prohibited any Chinese not already here from entering the country. No Chinese people were allowed to become citizens.

And so, over the years, the Chinese population dwindled away, and Chinatown became an aging bachelors' club. They rarely ate out, except in coffehouses. (They did, funnily enough, develop a craving for canned creamed corn cooked with fish; that was their one culinary contribution.) Rich new immigrants, the kind who would demand high-quality Chinese food, couldn't enter. And if they had, they couldn't find a chef capable of cooking it, and they couldn't import one.

In the meantime, somewhere around the turn of the century, Americans began their love affair with Chinese food. (Before about 1890, it was thought disgusting and newspaper cartoons depicted Chinese eating rats.) But they couldn't get good authentic Chinese food (because the chefs could not be imported) and besides, they didn't want it. Some anonymous unsung hero invented a gloppy stew made from cornstarch and leftovers and called it "chop suey" and Americans couldn't get enough of it.

All this changed beginning in the late sixties. The immigration laws were finally liberalized, and Chinese immigrants once more poured in. Some were rich and wanted good food, and others were trained chefs who could cook it. And they weren't only Cantonese. Chefs and patrons from Taiwan, Shanghai, Fujian, even from Urumchi and Harbin came to spice up our lives.

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