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Chop Suey: An Excerpt

Megan Branch, Intern

The only foods that I can think of as being as “American as apple pie” are recipes that have been lifted from other countries: pizza, sushi and, of course, Chinese food. College in New York has meant that I eat a lot of Chinese food. In his new book, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Andrew Coe chronicles Chinese food’s journey across the ocean and into the hearts of Americans everywhere. Below, I’ve excerpted a passage from Chop Suey in which Coe details the earliest written account of an American’s experience eating Chinese food for the first time almost 200 years ago.

Nevertheless, the first account we have of Americans eating Chinese food does not appear until 1819, thirty-five years after Shaw’s visit. It was written by Bryant Parrott Tilden, a young trader from Salem who acted as supercargo on a number of Asia voyages. In Guangzhou, he was befriended by Paunkeiqua, a leading merchant who cultivated good relations with many American firms. Just before Tilden’s ship was set to sail home, Paunkeiqua invited the American merchants to spend the day at this mansion on Honam island. Tilden’s account of that visit, which was capped by a magnificent feast, is not unlike the descriptions Shaw or even William Hickey wrote a half century earlier. First, he tours Paunkeiqua’s traditional Chinese garden and encounters some of the merchant’s children yelling “Fankwae! Fankwae!” (“Foreign devil! Foreign devil!”). Then Paunkeiqua shows him his library, including “some curious looking old Chinese maps of the world as these ‘celestials’ suppose it to be, with their Empire occupying three quarters of it, surrounded by ‘nameless islands & seas bounded only by the edges of the maps.” Finally, his host tells him: “Now my flinde, Tillen, you must go long my for catche chow chow tiffin.” In other words, dinner was served in a spacious dining hall, where the guests were seated at small tables.

“Soon after,” Tilden writes, “a train of servants came in bringing a most splendid service of fancy colored, painted and gilt large tureens & bowls, containing soups, among them the celebrated bird nest soup, as also a variety of stewed messes, and plenty of boiled rice, & same style of smaller bowls, but alas! No plates and knives and forks.” (By “messes,” Tilden probably meant prepared dishes, not unsavory jumbles.)

The Americans attempted to eat with chopsticks, with very poor results: “Monkies [sic] with knitting needles would not have looked more ludicrous than some of us did.” Finally, their host put an end to their discomfort by ordering western-style plates, knives, forks, and spoons. Then the main portion of the meal began:

Twenty separate courses were placed on the table during three hours in as many different services of elegant china ware, the messes consisting of soups, gelatinous food, a variety of stewed hashes, made up of all sorts of chopped meats, small birds cock’s-combs, a favorite dish, some fish & all sorts of vegetables, rice, and pickles, of which the Chinese are very fond. Ginger and pepper are used plentifully in most of their cookery. Not a joint of meat or a whole fowl or bird were placed on the table. Between the changing of the courses, we freely conversed and partook of Madeira & other European wines—and costly teas.”

After fruits, pastries, and more wine, the dinner finally came to an end. Tilden and his friends left glowing with happiness (and alcohol) at the honor Paunkeiqua had shown them with his lavish meal. Nowhere, however, does Tilden tell us whether the Americans actually enjoyed these “messes” and “hashes.”

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