Food History

Erika Lee

A menu from the New Deal Chow Mein Inn, the Chinese restaurant that my grandparents owned and operated from 1934 to 1979 in Brooklyn, NY, hangs on the wall of my kitchen. The New Deal, (which, in our household, always meant the restaurant, not FDR’s economic and public works program,) was a family business. My grandfather managed the business side. My grandmother greeted customers. My mother and her sisters made egg rolls after school. My cousin ran the register from time to time. It was also a community institution. The chefs and waitstaff were Chinese American; an unsurprising fact given the reality that racial discrimination barred most Chinese Americans from other jobs. But it was also a community institution for the mostly Jewish clientele in Brighton Beach that frequented the restaurant. 

As Heather Lee’s fascinating article in this issue makes clear, the New Deal—and the “merchant” status that restaurant ownership accorded my grandparents—was also the legal mechanism that enabled their immigration to and residence in the United States during the Chinese exclusion era. Chinese restaurants, she shows, were not just sites of culinary innovation. They were sites of immigrant power during an era of intense and legalized anti-Asian racism. “Chinese immigrants’ commercial activities,” she writes, “were inseparable from their efforts to circumnavigate Chinese Exclusion.” Lee’s research, and especially her innovative creation of the Chinese Restaurant Database, helps to confirm the importance of our restaurant to my family’s immigration history and to the larger history of race, food, and migration in the U.S. 

In my own research, I am also finding that the New Deal was a place where my grandparents forged new ways of being Chinese in America and becoming American. They also used their position as restaurant owners to positively impact the place of Chinese Americans in the U.S. and the role of U.S.-China relations. My grandfather served as president of the Chinese Restaurant Association (CARA) of New York in the 1950s. This was an important leadership role at a crucial time in postwar America. The Chinese exclusion laws had just been repealed and Chinese Americans had only recently been granted the right to become naturalized citizens. U.S.-China relations were at an all-time low following the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution and the FBI routinely targeted Chinese communities in America and searched for alleged Communist spies. My grandfather tried to steer the CARA through this tumultuous time. The annual yearbook published during his terms in 1958 and 1959 not only includes the typical listings of Chinese-owned restaurants, laundries, and other businesses but also official greetings from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, New York Governor Averell Harriman, New York City Mayor Richard F. Wagner, and President Chiang Kai-Shek and Vice President Chen Cheng of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Having grown up hearing stories about the New Deal Chow Mein Inn, I have always appreciated the importance of the restaurant in our family’s lives, and in the lives of so many immigrant families. We still use many of the restaurant’s plates and cups and try to recreate the egg roll recipe to the best of our ability. As a historian, I have learned much from scholars in my own fields of immigration history and Asian American Studies about the methodologies and theories of food history and food studies. Immigration historians Hasia Diner and Donna Gabaccia have reminded us that “we are what we eat.” Ethnic food has helped to redefine American culture, cuisine, and identity. Immigrant businesses have played a crucial role in the development of the American food industry.[1] Asian American Studies scholars have pointed out the irony behind contemporary America’s appreciation with “authentic” Asian cuisine with the history of Asian exclusion and anti-Asian racism in the U.S. that – not too long ago – “circumscribed Asians materially and symbolically in the alimentary realm.” Asian-born chefs and restaurant workers were forced into indentured and agricultural work and food service and processing industries.[2] The Journal of American History’s roundtable on food history also offers additional insights.[3]

There is much more to food history and food studies to be unpacked in and out of the classroom. This is one of the reasons why I am particularly excited about this issue of The American Historian. In addition to Heather Lee’s article “In Pursuit of Merchant Status,” historians Tracey Deutsch, Stephen Vider, and Jessica Ordaz offer us innovative methodologies, frameworks, and analyses of the important of food and foodways in American history. In “Follow the Food,” Deutsch and Vider lay out the significance of food during the Cold War through multiple scales of historical analysis. In everyday life, “homemade meals emerged as an important tool for expanding social worlds and for reshaping gender and sexual expression,” they explain. On a national and global scale, they continue, studying Americans’ relationship to food provides a lens through which to study the connections between “the personal politics of home and family” and global politics. By focusing on the careers of Julia Child, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) and Lou Rand Hogan, author of The Gay Cookbook (1965), Deutsch and Vider tease out both the differences (assimilation vs differentiation) and similarities (drivers of new practices of gender, sexuality, and family and engagement in global cosmopolitanisms) defining straight and queer foodways. 

In “Latinx Veganisms,” Jessica Ordaz continues to show us how food history illuminates societal ideologies about identify, class, and culture and argues that veganism is “something to be practiced as much as theorized.” Using oral histories, a “personal food inventory,” and social media, Ordaz can collect and analyze the experiences of Latinx vegans and uses an intersectional, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-carceral framework to write a history of Latinx veganism. “Food is political,” Ordaz succinctly argues, a framing that Lee, Deutsch, and Vider would agree with as well. 

Altogether these articles have made me reconsider what is on my plate, in my refrigerator, on my bookshelves, and in my family history. As an Asian American vegetarian, Ordaz’s insights into the working-class and racial politics behind jokes about Latinx vegans hit close to home. I have searched Lee’s database for records related to our New Deal restaurant and have learned to read my family’s immigration records in new ways. And having inherited three Betty Crocker cookbooks from my grandmother and mother – Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (1956,) Betty Crocker’s Guide to Easy Entertaining: How to Have Guests and Enjoy Them (1959), and Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book (1963,) I’ll think more about Deutsch and Vider’s insights about maternal domesticity during the Cold War every time I pick them up.   

As has become my custom in writing for The American Historian, here are a few recommendations for related digital and archival resources:

Author

Erika Lee is Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and President of the Organization of American Historians. She is the author of four award-winning books including America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in America and The Making of Asian America.

Notes

[1]Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (2001); Donna R. Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (1998.)

[2]Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan IV, and Anita Mannur, Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (2013), 1.

[3]Matt Garcia, “Setting the Table: Historians, Popular Writers, and Food History,” Journal of American History, 103 (Dec. 2016), 656–78.